Like the many towns and villages in Ireland that begin with ‘Kil’, the origins of the name ‘Kilrush’ refer to a church. It is believed that this refers specifically to the remains of a church to be found in the church yard of the former Church of Ireland church at Grace Street, where the mausoleum of the Vandeleurs, the landlord family in the area up to the 1900s, is situated. The ‘rush’ may come from the Irish word, ‘ross’, usually taken to mean wood, so Kilrush, or Cill Rois in Irish, may mean ‘church of the woods’.
The settlement that formed along the river that flows into Kilrush Creek was linked with the monastery on neighbouring Scattery Island, which was the head of a diocese that covered West Clare, North Kerry and North-West Limerick. Like the monks of Scattery, the inhabitants of the town, or village as it was in its early existence, were able to take advantage of the Shannon Estuary for fishing and transport purposes. To this day Kilrush Creek, now the location for Kilrush Marina, is an exceptionally well-sheltered area for boats.
The Scattery settlement long predates Kilrush in the records. Founded in the sixth century by St Senan, it survived successive Viking raids between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and was plundered by the Normans before becoming a defensive outpost in Elizabethan times.
Kilrush is not mentioned in official records until the late 1500s when a number of ships from the scattered Spanish Armada entered the Shannon Estuary and anchored. According to Frost’s History of Clare (1893), “they despatched a boat to Kilrush with offers to exchange a cask of wine for every cask of water they might take away. The townspeople dared not supply their wants, for the sheriff of the county had received positive orders from Sir Richard Bingham [the Governor of Connacht] to refuse supplies of every kind, and he was to put to death all Spaniards who might come on shore.”
Of Dutch descent, the Vandeleurs, a family of landed gentry, were a feature of life in Kilrush from the late 17th century through to 1897, the year the family’s home, Kilrush House, was accidentally burnt down.
Today, the town’s streets carry the names of various members of the Vandeleur family and, of course, the Walled Garden and stables, which were attached to the ancestral home, have been refurbished and are now a popular local attraction.
The Vandeleurs were landlords during the 200 years that they dominated the area and while they are credited with building much of the town’s infrastructure, planning the streets, funding building projects and providing local employment, their name is also associated with a dark chapter in the area’s history, the mass evictions that began in the 1840s during the Famine period and culminated in the 1880s, when the protest movement of the Land War finally forced a compromise to be reached and tenants were reinstated on their properties.
The Vandeleurs originally purchased lands around Kilrush from the Earl of Thomond in 1687. Reverend John Vandeleur became the first Protestant rector of the town in the early 1700s and the first of the landlords in the area, succeeded by John, in 1727, Crofton in 1754 and John Ormsby in 1795.
John Ormsby Vandeleur built Kilrush House on the 400-acre family demesne in 1808 when the family had control of some 3,400 acres of land around Kilrush. Lewis’s Topographical Directory of Ireland (1837) describes the house as “a handsome and spacious mansion immediately adjoining the town, and commanding an extensive view of the Shannon, and the Clare and Kerry shores”. John Ormsby is also credited with planning the town layout as it is today. The square and its Market House (the Town Hall), and Ireland’s second widest street - Frances St - leading to the marina, Moore St and John St were completed by the early 1800s while at Merchants Quay - site of the marina - the quays and a Customs House were built, making the town an official port for exports.
Henry St, Vandeleur St and the other streets followed. Other key buildings constructed in this period were the Protestant Church (1813), now Teach Cheoil, a centre for Comhaltas Ceolteori Eireann; the Bridewell, which now houses SuperValu; a Methodist Church at Burton St, since demolished, and a Quaker Chapel, at the back of Moore St and Stewart St, also demolished. St Senan’s Catholic Church was completed in 1839 on a site donated by Crofton Moore Vandeleur and in 1842 Kilrush Workhouse was built.
Lewis’s Topographical Directory notes the presence of two banks in a town of more than 700 houses in the early 19th century, and describes the trade: “The manufactures of the town and neighbourhood chiefly for home consumption are friezes, flannels, stockings, strong sheetings and a seviceable kind of narrow linen called bandle cloth. There are works for refining rock salt for domestic use, a tanyard, a soap manufactory, and a manufactory for nails. The chief trade is in corn, butter, cattle, pigs, and agricultural produce; and a considerable number of hides are sold in the market.
“About 20 small hookers belonging to the port are engaged in fishing and dredging for oysters off the coast, in which about 200 persons are employed. The port is free of dues, except a small charge for keeping the pier [Cappa Pier] in repair. The pier, which is of very solid constructions, is protected by a sea-wall of great strength and is very commodious both for commercial and agricultural uses; it affords great facility for landing passengers from the steam-vessels which regularly ply between this place and Limerick. During the bathing season at Kilkee these vessels ply daily, and at other times only on alternate days; public cars are always in attendance at the pier to convey passengers to Kilkee.”
The Vandeleur Evictions
As in the rest of Ireland, the Great Famine of 1847 had a disastrous effect on the local population, resulting in the deaths of thousands and huge emigration. The mass evictions which began in that time also turned much of the town’s population against its landlords, marking the beginning of the end of this family dynasty's rule in the area. Around 1,000 people were evicted from the Vandeleur estate in the late 1840s, a policy continued by Crofton Moore’s son, Hector Stewart Vandeleur, who took over the estate in 1881, just as the Land War was beginning.
His exploits were perhaps worse because he was an absentee landlord whose actions were being carried out by an agent. But by the 1880s the measures were attracting huge resistance and media attention, with word even reaching as far as the US. In July 1888, during the height of the Land War, The New York Times reported that 500 dragoons and infantry had been brought in to oversee the evicting of 114 families.
“All the houses are barricaded, but the police are provided with battering rams. Parish priests are actively at work counselling submission, and it is hoped that there will be no blood shed. The arrears of rent amount to £80,000.”
The local population mounted a campaign of obstruction during that summer, shutting shops, cutting bridges, and ringing warning bells. By the following year, 1889, a compromise was agreed on the rent arrears and the tenants were reinstated. However, the long association of the Vandeleurs with Kilrush was soon to end. Eight years later, in 1897, the ancestral home was gutted after fire broke out in the servants quarters and the Vandeleurs moved to a property they owned in nearby Kildysert, Cahercon House. Around the same period, the newly-formed Land Commission was setting about its work of radically changing land ownership in Ireland, making its former tenants outright owners of their holdings.
The remains of Kilrush House, the Vandeleur ancestral home for nearly two centuries, continued to be a landmark for much of the 20th century, but were deemed unsafe in 1975 and were demolished. The car park in Kilrush Woods today is on the site of the house.
The early 20th century
As in previous centuries, the town had a mixed history in the 1900s, with the first two decades encompassing the First World War and the rise of the Irish independence movement.
It did start the century well, however, after the Cappa Pier and Kilrush extensions to the West Clare Railway in 1892 connected the town to Ennis by rail. There were also by that stage some well-established firms who continued to trade through the 20th century. Families like the Glynns, whose Co Clare Flour and Meal Mills, survived well into the century, A Ryan & Sons, O’Doherty & Sons [timber mills], the Moodys and the Brews were augmented by other family businesses, many of which continue to operate today.
An expansion in education provision was marked by the Sisters of Mercy coming to the town in 1855 and the Christian Brothers in 1874.
The Great War of 1914-18 took its toll on some of the town’s young men. It is believed that more than 400 men took the opportunity for adventure and employment that signing up offered. An estimated 36 Kilrush men lost their lives fighting with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, with others losing their lives in other regiments, while those in the Royal Navy had the best chance of surviving unscathed. Others, who had emigrated, may have found themselves serving in the U.S. army or Canadian, Australian or New Zealand forces in that war.
That era was also one of growing nationalistic unrest, marked by opposition to the war and agitation for independence. Nationalistic fervour erupted in the wave of revulsion at the executions of the 1916 Rising leaders. A Sinn Féin branch was formed in the town but with troops permanently garrisoned in Kilrush, local IRA activists were few in number. However, during the War of Independence, RIC Detective Constable John O’ Hanlon was assassinated by a member of the West Clare Brigade, William Haugh, at Moore St in August 1920.
The following year the West Clare and East Clare brigades joined forces to do a raid on soldiers garrisoned in the town, with one fatality recorded, RIC Sergeant John McFadden, and 20 soldiers listed wounded. By way of reprisal, the Market House was burnt and the Maid of Erin statue was pulled down.
In the subsequent Civil War between Free State troops and irregulars Kilrush appears to have escaped lightly. By that war’s end, newspapers reported that Free State troops were applauded as they entered both Kilrush and Kilkee on August 1, 1922.
The modern era
From the twenties onwards, the town entered a peaceful era, marked by new phases of building and improvements in infrastructure and amenities. Sadly, in common with most other rural towns and villages, many of the town’s young population saw no employment prospects locally and emigration remained a fact of life until the 1990s.
In 1922, the town saw the introduction of electricity after local business people (Dan Ryan, Thomas Mahony, John Saunders, Patrick Tubridy, George Brew) set up a private company, later taken over by the ESB.
In the thirties the town’s sewage and public water supply was established. The public water supply continues to be piped from Knockerra Lake. Some of the town’s early housing schemes also date from this period, such as the houses on O’Dea’s Road, Fahey’s Road, St Joseph’s Terrace, Nagle’s Terrace, St Patrick’s Terrace, Grace Street and Pella Road, replacing cramped and often unsanitary thatched housing in many cases. The Market House, renamed the Town Hall, was rebuilt in the thirties and the Maid of Erin monument was restored to its plinth.
The Palace Theatre, the town’s first cinema was built in 1920 in John St. The 1942/’43 Irish Tourist Association (ITA) Topographical and General Survey of the town also listed the Town Hall and the Hibernian in Frances St as dance halls and there was one hotel, Williams’ Hotel, also on Frances Street, and later known as the Inis Cathaigh Hotel.
In 1951 the Palace Theatre transferred to Frances St and became the Mars Cinema. This was also the home for the renowned productions of the Kilrush Operatic Society from 1951 through to 1966, as well as dances, auctions and other public events over the years. But in the new era of videos and multichannel TV, the cinema finally closed its doors in 1991.
Other once-permanent features came and went: A seaweed processing and a ceramics factory operated for many decades as did the West Clare Central Creamery. Milling also ceased as a local enterprise. But a new awareness of the value of its built heritage has meant Kilrush has begun combining modern architectural methods with older ones, refurbishing its historic mills and other stone buildings in recent years to create apartments and offices.
Today, the biggest local employer is the ESB, after it started building a coal-burning generating station at Moneypoint, a place once renowned for its flagstones, in 1979 and commissioned it in 1986.
Of the features that passed away, perhaps most missed was the West Clare Railway, which ran its last train in 1961. However, a section of narrow gauge track with an original steam locomotive, the Slieve Callan, is now open as a visitor attraction at nearby Moyasta.
Meanwhile a new transport link, the Killimer-Tarbert car ferry opened up a faster route to Co Kerry in 1968 and continues today as a successful enterprise while Kilrush’s long association with the sea was consolidated with the opening of a marina on the site of its old port in 1991.
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