Perched on the banks of the River Inagh in northwest County Clare, the pretty little market town of Ennistymon has long charmed all lucky enough to stumble upon it. And yet where most tourists are concerned, it remains one of western Ireland’s great undiscovered gems, which is particularly odd when you consider its neighbours: the Burren – the spectacular karst landscape that sprawls, lunar-like, for 200 square miles – and the Cliffs of Moher, both major tourist draws along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Venture beyond this well-trodden route, however, and you will find a delightful town of postcard-pretty shop fronts and colourful Georgian townhouses set against a backdrop of cascading river falls. It has remained largely impervious to visitors, retaining a gloriously rural feel (its name comes from the Irish inis diamain, which loosely translates to “river meadow”) mixed with a bohemian vibe and buzzing atmosphere.
The Good Life 2.0
Ennistymon is something of a dichotomy, managing to feel bucolic and untouched, yet vibrant and progressive at the same time. It couples the traditional with originality: it was, for example, chosen as the location of Ireland’s first Steiner school. In many ways, it is similar to West Cork in the early days, when it became the destination of choice for a profusion of simpatico souls looking for somewhere unique and off the beaten track to put down roots.
Today, Ennistymon has garnered a reputation for being a hub for like-minded visionaries, newcomers yearning to live The Good Life 2.0, who rub harmoniously along with the free spirits who have called the town home for generations.
It is this blend of old and new, traditional and unconventional, that makes Ennistymon so perfect for a weekend break on the Emerald Isle. Just a 45-minute drive from Shannon Airport, it is easily reached, and though it naturally makes an excellent base from which to explore the county’s other attractions, you will be spoiled for invigorating and unusual things to do in the town itself, too.
For starters, there are rows of quaint independent shops lining the streets, among them bookshops, bakers, butchers, boutiques, vintage clothing shops and even a little hardware store, each filled with fascinating products hiding behind brightly coloured – and wildly creative – facades.
There is also a lovely circular walk around the town (officially known as the Ennistymon Historic Town Walk; you can find a detailed map of the route at burren.ie), which is an ideal way to get your bearings and takes in a nice variety of local sights, including historical churches and houses, graveyards and bridges, as well as An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger monument, a poignant memorial to the victims of the Irish potato famine. The three-mile walk ends beside the river cascades, locally known as the Falls. You can catch your breath with a glass of wine in the charming back garden of Byrne’s Ennistymon restaurant, which overlooks the rushing waters.
A world of workshops
Ennistymon’s progressive nature has also fostered an entrepreneurial spirit among its residents, with sustainability a common theme. You might, for example, visit bladesmith Sam Gleeson (thisiswhatido.ie), who settled in Ennistymon eight years ago after moving from the UK (via stints in Ghana and Dublin) and falling for County Clare’s charm and excellent surfing. Today he can be found at his workshop creating hand-made culinary knives to order. He has plans to set up a knife school with accommodation and perhaps a cookery school in the near future.
Alternatively, pop along to Common Knowledge (ourcommonknowledge.org), a non-profit social enterprise that offers a huge variety of courses and workshops intended to teach the skills for a more sustainable life. Among those on offer are one-day or weekend workshops on home composting, organic growing, textile dyeing and even bricklaying – all intended for beginners. It would be a great way to meet people and inject your trip with a dose of the quirky – and as an added bonus, lunch is provided by renowned local chef Niamh Fox.
Cheese lovers and little ones, meanwhile, should make a beeline for St Tola Goat Farm, owned by Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith, the local legend behind the award-winning St Tola (st-tola.ie), a delicious local goats cheese that comes in multiple flavour combinations, including cranberry, chilli and garlic, ash log and Greek style.
Ni Ghairbhith runs farm tours perfect for those with even a passing interest in learning about the cheesemaking process and the everyday workings of a farm, while little visitors (and bigger ones) can spend an afternoon petting the resident goats. A cheesemaking demonstration concludes the day, followed by a tasting of various St Tola gourmet cheeses.
Of course, you will need proper meals as well and, happily, Ennistymon is not short of gastronomic options. Unglert’s Bakery (facebook.com/unglertsbakery) is owned by Stefan Unglert, who is originally from Germany, and his Ennistymon-born wife Ann, and has been the go-to for a vast range of bread, cakes and local produce in the town for nearly 40 years. It is the perfect place to stop off for a few pastries to start the day, or pick up picnic supplies for an afternoon by the water’s edge overlooking those famous falls.
If you have not yet had your fill of dairy goodness, pay a visit to the Cheese Press (cheesepressennistymon.ie), a speciality grocery, organic café and food gift shop where owner Sinead places as much value on the social connections made in the store as the sales or produce. And oh, what produce it is – it’s no surprise her cheese toasties were named the best in Ireland by The Irish Times.
Supper clubs, bingo and dancing
For a more substantial sit-down meal, a trip to casual dining spot This Is It (thisisitennistymon.com) is always a safe bet for breakfast, lunch, pop-up supper clubs and natural wines. The award-winning pub and restaurant Pot Duggans (potduggans.com), meanwhile, hosts regular quizzes and bingo nights, along with excellent Middle Eastern-inspired food courtesy of former Ottolenghi chef Ashley Gribben.
And finally, be sure to finish your days at Marrinan’s Bar (facebook.com/marrinansbar), a hub of lively chatter and traditional Irish music, or meander over to Vaughan’s Pub (vaughans pub.ie) in nearby Kilfenora for the weekly set dancing session, where every ability is welcome. The music is provided by the Four Courts Ceili Band, who have been doing the honours here for more than 30 years, and there is a nine-room inn next door for if you want to stay over.
When to visit
While Irish weather is notoriously unreliable, September is an excellent choice when it comes to visiting Ennistymon: what tourists there are have mostly dissipated, and there is still a good chance of warm days on which see the sights. September also marks the beginning of surfing season in Ireland, with the nearby seaside resort of Lahinch being one of the most highly rated surf spots in the world – just don’t forget your wetsuit, as the water can be frigid.
Food wise, Pot Duggan will host Sunday Sessions in its two interconnected 19th-century barns on selected dates throughout the month; one-off events in which chefs from around Ireland cook and host a convivial three-course feast featuring local food producers.
How to get there
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to Shannon from £26 return. From Shannon it is a 45-minute drive to Ennistymon.
Alternatively, Irish Ferries (irishferries.com) sails up to six times daily between Holyhead and Dublin (taking between 2hrs 15 mins and 3hrs 25 mins) with fares from £238 return. Ennistymon is a three-hour drive from Dublin.
Where to stay
In the centre of the town, The Falls Hotel & Spa in the centre of town is an imposing Georgian house with a turbulent history dating back to 1764. Today, it houses 140 bedrooms, two restaurants, a bar and the aptly named River Spa with views over the River Inagh (double rooms from £115 per night; 00 353 065 7 07 1004; fallshotel.ie). For more amazing places to stay see our guide to the best hotels in Ireland.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.