Stephen Lucius Gwynn
Stephen Lucius Gwynn

Author: Gwynn, Stephen Lucius, 1864-1950
Munster (Ireland) — Description and travel


Described by Stephen Gwynn
Pictured by Alexander Williams


Beautiful Ireland


Uniform with this Series
Beautiful England

  • Oxford
  • The English Lakes
  • Canterbury
  • Shakespeare-Land
  • The Thames
  • Windsor Castle
  • Cambridge
  • Norwich and the Broads
  • The Heart of Wessex
  • The Peak District
  • The Cornish Riviera
  • Dickens-Land
  • Winchester
  • The Isle of Wight
  • Chester and the Dee
  • York


The Old Clock Tower, Youghal Frontispiece
The Blackwater at Dromana 8
Blarney Castle 16
Ferrybank, Waterford 20
Shandon Steeple from the River Lee 26
Entrance to Cork Harbour 32
Kenmare Bay from Templenoe 38
Macgillicuddy’s Reeks 42
The Gap of Dunloe, Killarney 46
Muckross Lake, Killarney 50
Brickeen Bridge, Lower Lake, Killarney 54
Holy Island, Lough Derg 58



The best way to get to Munster nowadays is undoubtedly by the new route from Fishguard to Rosslare, in which the Great Western Railway has reopened what was for ancient times the natural and easy way from England to Ireland. The Normans, as everyone knows, came across here, an advance party landing on the coast of Wexford; but the main force under Strongbow sailed straight up the river to Waterford. Many another invader before the Normans took the same route: and there is little doubt but that the peaceful invasion of Christianity had begun in this region, or that south-eastern Ireland was already baptized, before Patrick set out on his mission. Earlier again, the Milesians (according to modern theory) came from Britain, a race of warriors trained to fight on foot in the Roman fashion with sword and javelin, and drove before them the chariot-fighting people who then held the wide plain watered by the three great rivers which meet in Waterford harbour.
For a good sailor, undoubtedly the long passage to Cork, ending with a sail up the beautiful haven and the “pleasant waters of the river Lee”, is to be preferred beyond all other routes. But the mass of mankind, and more specially of womankind, like the short sea and quick rail, and their choice is Fishguard to Rosslare. You enter the southern province of Ireland by a viaduct which leads from the flat lands of Wexford, through which you will have travelled for nearly an hour, on to the steep left bank of the river Suir facing Waterford city. The great bridge crosses the united Barrow and Nore; half a mile lower down is the junction with the Suir, and from the train you have a glorious view of the wide pool made at the confluence—a noble entrance into this province of lovely waters.
The run along the river is beautiful, too. Citizens of Waterford have built them prosperous villas and mansions facing you along the south bank, and a mile below the city on an island there is seen a castle of the Fitz-Geralds—rebuilt recently, but comprising in it the walls of an ancient place of strength which has never ceased to be a dwelling of this strong Norman-Irish clan. It was the household, too, from which issued a notable man in latter times, Edward Fitz-Gerald, the translator of Omar Khayyam. His portrait, by Laurence, hangs there, picturing him as a chubby, good-humoured boy.
The city itself may show to you only a line of lights, very picturesque along its great length of quay: but by daylight you can distinguish the low round castle which still keeps the name of Strongbow’s tower. Fragments of the old walls remain, and there are buildings of much antiquarian interest—the restored cathedral, the ruined Franciscan abbey. But, on the whole, you are not likely to stop in Waterford, with Kerry and West Cork before you.
Yet let me tell a little of the things which the ordinary tourist visiting Munster passes by in his haste. The route from Rosslare to Killarney strikes across from the valley of the Suir into the valley of the Blackwater, rounding the Comeragh mountains: and I do not suppose it can be disputed that the Blackwater is the most beautiful of Irish rivers. I have seen it at Mallow, at Fermoy, at Lismore, and at Cappoquin, and everywhere it is the same yet different; a chain of long wide pools, but always with a swift flow to keep the water living and sparkling, and they are strung together with great sweeping rapids, deep enough for salmon to lie in, the anglers’ joy: while on each shore are hill slopes receding, richly wooded, from the stream and the meadows beside the stream. The palm of beauty belongs of right to Lismore, where the Duke of Devonshire has his great castle overhanging a famous pool: and below it from the bridge one looks down the stream and the valley to a far-off blue vista between the hills. Yonder, where the river meets the sea at Youghal is one of the quaintest and most charming towns of Ireland. I saw it first by the light of a long procession of tall torches which lit up delightfully the old houses with their scrolled fronts of timber, and the pretty faces of girls and women looking out of the first-floor windows: but it was no little surprise to me in that march to find myself under an archway, over which rose a tall slated tower, fully equipped with loopholes, and from whose top (if I had only known it) arrangements had been made to bombard me and my friends that night. In daylight I saw, though with a hasty glance, the very beautiful fifteenth-century church still intact (for a miracle) and still used for worship: the still greater attraction of Sir Walter Raleigh’s old house I never visited, but I hope you may. It has a mulberry tree said to be of his planting, and a chimney piece against which he almost certainly reclined his shoulders while in act to toast his travelled calves.


Travelling by this line of rail you will have on your right the Comeragh and the Knockmealdown mountains which divide the valley of the Blackwater from the valley of the Suir. But it may possibly be your pleasure, as it will certainly be your profit, to explore also the Suir valley, which divides the Comeraghs from the outlying mass of Slievenamon, and, farther west, curves northward from the base of the tall Galtee ranges.
I came last into Munster by motor car, driving from Kilkenny to Clonmel over the southern shoulder of Slievenamon (Sliabh na m-Ban, the Witches’ Mountains), and a finer journey could not be taken. We struck out through rich pasture and tillage, keeping this shadowy dome which rose from the plain as our objective, till the pass began to define itself. But it was when we had crossed or were crossing the pass that the real beauty began. Slievenamon was on our right, well wooded; facing us, as we ran south, were the Comeraghs, and a low foot ridge thrown out from them, between which and us ran the Suir. The valley is wider than that of the Blackwater, with less of what may be called fancy wooding; but it can fairly hold its own; and the quay at Clonmel by the shining, swirling river is as pretty as heart could desire.
From Clonmel to Lismore a road carries you over the top of Knockmealdown (that is, Maeldune’s Hill), and those of my companions who took that drive crowed over me for the rest of the journey; describing in glowing phrases all the glories I had missed, the wonderful panorama from the top, then the gradual descent down a long wild wooded glen into the tranquil and cultivated beauty of Lismore.
Yet if I had a motor car at Clonmel and only one day’s excursion to make, it is not south I would go. I would go north into the heart of Tipperary, through the Golden Vale which lies overshadowed and half-circled by the Galtee range, until I came to the thing best worth seeing in all Ireland, Cashel of the Kings.
Nothing is, I repeat, better worth seeing, nothing less often seen by the tourist; for it lies off the track. The Rock of Cashel is a lone steep hillock, sharply scarped, and rising out of the plain which stretches from Slievenamon to Slieve Phelim, and comprises in fact the rich land drained by the Suir. Such a spot was inevitably seized on for a stronghold, and from its earliest days Milesian rule centred here. To Cashel it was that St. Patrick came to convert the king of Munster, for Cashel was to the southern half of Ireland what Tara was to the northern. It was the heart of Munster, whence principalities radiated out. Thomond, North Munster, ran west from it into Clare, across the Shannon; Ormond, Oir Mumhan, East Munster, lay away from it towards Kilkenny and Eastern Tipperary; Desmond, Deas Mumhan, the great kingdom of South Munster, comprising Cork and Kerry, came to its walls, for theoretically the High Kingship of southern Ireland alternated between Thomond and Desmond. And away south-east, through the gap between Slievenamon and the Comeragh Mountains, you can see into Waterford, which in Irish was called the Deisi, falling into Desmond as a separate lordship.
This rock is crowned with buildings that speak of war and peace, but of peace rather than war. There stands intact Cormac’s Chapel, finest example of Irish building in the pre-Norman style; round-arched, solid, barrel-roofed, decorated with string-courses of dogtooth moulding. Beside it is the great cathedral built by the O’Brien lord of Thomond, cathedral and fortress in one; unroofed now, dismantled, and ruinous, yet hardly beyond reach of repair, since the choir was used as a cathedral till the latter part of the eighteenth century. Then an archbishop got an Act of Parliament authorizing him to unroof it and providing a regiment of soldiers to execute the work. Archbishop Price’s reason for such an enterprise may not seem wholly conclusive; he liked—good easy man—to drive in comfortable state to his cathedral door, and no coach and horses could conveniently ascend the winding path up the Rock.
Beside the cathedral is the tall Round Tower, and on the north side of the Rock, many remains of choir schools and other monastic buildings. On the level plain and in the town are other monasteries ruined yet not wholly shorn of their splendour; and within a few miles, Holycross Abbey and Athassel speak of the wealth and culture which were destroyed in this rich land of the Golden Vale.
But the Rock itself, standing up there, crowned with such a group of buildings as no other of Ireland’s high places can parallel, is the true object of pilgrimage; and the view from it over the Golden Vale, to the noble Galtee peaks and pinnacles due south of you, and the long waving line of Comeragh Mountains which runs continuously east from them along the valley of the Suir, is a prospect worth long journeying. Nor is that all. Slievenamon rises dome-shaped from the eastern plain, a gap between it and the outlying spurs of Comeragh showing where the Suir, headed off its southward course by Galteemore, finds a way eastward to the sea: and to the north beyond the plain is the far-off range of Slievebloom, dividing Leinster from the Shannon; and nearer towards Athlone and the Shannon are the low hills with the Devil’s Bit nipped out of the top of them.


If I had to see Munster by motor car, my disposition would be to start from Waterford, follow the valley of the Suir up to Clonmel, then strike north to Cashel and see it. All the monuments can be seen in a few hours, and no ruin or building that I ever visited has so intelligent a custodian. From Cashel I would go to Holycross, that exquisite remnant of monastic splendour, rich in historic memories, and thence push out across Tipperary to the north-west, steering for the gap between Keeper Mountain and the Silver Mines. This would bring me out of the Golden Vale, which is in truth the valley of the Suir, and into the basin of a still greater and more famous river, at its most famous point. For from this gap the route would descend to the Shannon, at the narrow gorge below Lough Derg where all its vast volume of water is contracted to the ford and pass at Killaloe. Here, if you will, is beauty: long peaceful levels above the weir where lake passes imperceptibly into broad river; below it huge swirling rapids, interspersed with wide, smooth, yet swift running salmon pools, all down the twelve miles of river to the head of the tideway at Limerick. And here, too, are historic memories more glorious than can be matched elsewhere in Ireland. It was here at the outflow of the lake, where is an unsuspected ford, that Sarsfield crossed (led by the rapparee, Galloping Hogan), on the raid when he stole out of Limerick along the Clare shore and so to this ford, on his way to lie in wait on the slopes of Keeper for William’s expected battering train. On your road from Cashel you will have passed near Ballyneety, where he and his troopers surprised the sleeping convoy and blew the heavy guns into scattered shreds—a splendid foray, splendidly preluding Limerick’s heroic and successful resistance to the great Dutchman.
But here at Killaloe, and specially at this ford above it, where great earthworks mark the ancient fort of Beul Boroimhe, are memories more honoured than hang about even Sarsfield’s name. Here it was that in the tenth century Brian Boru, Brian of the Tribute, built up with his Dalcassians of Clare the power that learnt how to resist the Danes, whose plundering forays threatened to blot out civilization altogether from northern Europe. The first defeat of moment inflicted on them was at Sollohed in the Golden Vale, near Limerick Junction, where the forces of Thomond were led by Brian’s brother, King Mahon. But it was Brian who as a mere youth refused to join Mahon in submission (by any pact, however veiled) to the invaders: it was Brian who had fought them in desperate guerrilla warfare through the hills of Clare, and along the banks of the Shannon, till he was brought down to fifteen men, and Mahon asked him in the council chamber, “Where hast thou left thy followers?” And Brian answered, as the Irish poem tells:

“I have left them with the foreigners
After being cut down, O Mahon!
In hardship they followed me on every field,
Not like as thy people.”

It was Brian who in that council caused appeal to be made to the Clan Dalcais whether they would have peace or war, and “War”, they answered, “and this was the voice of hundreds as the voice of one man”.
The work that was begun at Kincora was finished sixty years later outside Dublin when the Danish menace was finally broken and dispelled on the shore by Clontarf: and in that fight the old lord of Kincora, Brian of the Tribute, High King by then of all Ireland, fell gloriously in the hour of a victory almost too dearly won.
You can see in Killaloe the little old church, built somewhere in the eighth or ninth century, with its high-pitched roof of stone slabs, under which Brian worshipped more than ten centuries ago. Beside it is the cathedral built by his descendants, and adorned with noble archways in the rich Romanesque style of native Irish architecture.
It is probable—certain, indeed, to my thinking—that Brian’s rath and strong place of abode was where the market-place of Killaloe still is, on the top of the high ground to which the streets climb from the river and the churches. The fort at the ford is called in Irish Beul Boroimhe, that is the “Mouth of the Tribute”: and one can easily see how it came by its name, for here was the strategic position which commanded all the traffic from the long navigable reaches of the upper Shannon and its lakes to the tideway at Limerick. Here portage must be made, here toll could be taken; and not only on the river traffic but on all the cattle that came down from Clare into Tipperary by this the one really practicable ford.


From Killaloe to Limerick the road is pleasant, along the ever-widening valley which is blocked by Keeper to the north, but trends opening and widening towards West Clare and the sea. Yet to understand the beauty and the charm of that characteristic piece of Irish landscape, you should be taken down the stream in the characteristic boat of those waters, the long pole-driven cot. Shooting the rapids in these craft is a wonderful sensation, and even on a chill day in February the tumult of lashing water sends warmth into the blood. So you can follow the stream till at last below Athlunkard bridge you reach the long Lax Weir, which keeps the memory of Scandinavian settlers in its name (lax is Norse for salmon, to-day as then), and the memory of early Norman settlement in the odd little tower built in the middle of the weir to command the passage, as long ago as the days of King John.
In Limerick itself King John’s Castle with its great rounded towers frowns over the Bridge of the Broken Treaty, where Sarsfield and his men covenanted with William for protection to the property and the religious freedom of Irish Catholics, and then took ship for France—first of the Wild Geese, founders of the Irish Brigade—leaving no guardians but honour and justice to enforce the sanction of the treaty, guardians that were of no avail. Much has been written of the siege of Derry and in praise of its heroic defenders: but too little is known of Limerick’s resistance, when the French officer, whom James II had left in charge, declared that the walls could be battered down with roasted apples, and Sarsfield answered that defended they should and must be. You can see the mark of William’s cannon balls on the old wall near the convent hospital east of the town: single marks on the dark limestone here and there, but at the angle of the wall, where the Black Battery stood, and where a breach was made, there is clear trace still of the desperate assault—from which William’s best troops, after they had effected a lodgment, were finally driven back pell-mell.
From Limerick the West Clare Railway (whose vagaries have been made more famous than I ever knew them to deserve) will carry you through Ennis, passing near Bunratty Castle, Quin Abbey, and many another place of fame, to the coast where Lahinch offers one of the most popular golf links in Ireland. It is a wild wind-swept coast, a wild surf beats on the strand that divides Lahinch from Liscannor, and north of it are the great cliffs of Moher. Lisdoonvarna is near by, a spa much frequented by Irishmen, more specially by the Irish clergy. But the favourite place of all who visit this part of Munster is Kilkee, a little watering-place set above steep cliffs on which the Atlantic swings in with all its we

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