IRELAND’S’ LOOP HEAD PENINSULA
IRELAND’S’ LOOP HEAD PENINSULA
Loop Head is a slender finger of land pointing out to sea from the most westerly point of County Clare, on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Cinched between the ocean on one side and the Shannon Estuary on the other, this tiny peninsula would be an island but for a meager mile of land connecting it to the rest of Clare. But despite its isolation, its people are far from insular, having spent hundreds of years welcoming strangers by water. In 2010, Loop Head became a European Destination of Excellence in aquatic tourism. It’s also right in the middle of the Wild Atlantic Way, 2,500 kilometers of the finest coastal scenery in Ireland.
In 2015 Loop Head was awarded gold in the ‘Culture and Heritage’ category of the 12th annual World Responsible Tourism Awards, announced in November at World Travel Market in London.
Loop Head epitomizes what the Wild Atlantic Way is about: panoramic cliff views, abundant local seafood, your choice of aquatic activities, and plenty of quiet beauty spots where you can pause and wonder at this unforgettable part of the world.
Loop Head Tourism is committed to three pillars of responsible tourism– environmental integrity, social justice and economic development. In responsible tourism, individuals, organizations and businesses are asked to take responsibility for their actions and the impacts of their actions. To read further on how we are achieving this on the Loop Head Peninsula click here.
LIFE ON LOOP HEAD
One of the first things you’ll notice as you tour Loop Head is the vast numbers of cattle populating the fields – and, from time to time, the roads. Until about 200 years ago, much of the land on the peninsula was unenclosed and held in common by the resident farmers. And while tillage once formed an integral part of the farm economy, nowadays the local farms are mainly dedicated to dairying and livestock rearing.
Get used to the cows because, apart from a few months in winter, they’ll be casually impeding your progress twice a day as they make their way to and from milking…
Unlike many other areas in the west of Ireland, much of Loop Head’s built heritage of vernacular houses has survived intact into the 21st century.
Little more than two generations ago, most dwelling houses and outbuildings were thatched with oat straw. The thatch was held in place with ropes to prevent the high winds that buffet the peninsula from lifting the thatch.
You’ll notice that most of the traditional cottages on the peninsula have their backs turned to the prevailing winds. Many did not even have windows on their west-facing walls. Warmth and comfort were the main priorities, even at the expense of a view…
Many of the inhabitants of Loop Head traditionally combined seasonal fishing with farming, as a way of shoring up their often-meager livelihoods. They fished with one or two partners from the traditional currach or canoe.
Until the early 20th century, most families on the peninsula, especially around Kilbaha, depended almost wholly on fishing for an income, fishing all year round with nets and fishing lines.
Fishing is still a thriving local industry, as well as being a pleasurable pastime for residents and visitors alike. And even those who don’t like fishing can still enjoy tucking into the day’s catch on a plate…
MYTHS & LEGENDS
‘Loop Head’ is a mistranslation of Ceann Léime (Leap Head). Sources differ as to the origins of the name. Some cite the legend of Cúchulainn, who is said to have jumped from the headland onto the adjacent seastack to escape the attentions of a cailleach, or witch.
Others claim that the lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne, in their flight from Fionn Mac Cumhaill, leapt onto the seastack, known as Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Rock.
Another legend tells of a hidden city south of the Loop called Cill Stuifín, which was submerged in an earthquake in the fifth century. They say it can be glimpsed every seven years, but the sight of it brings bad luck…
Within the tiny triangle of land that is Loop Head lies the entire range of coastal ecosystems found on Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. To the south is the Shannon Estuary – shipping channel, fishing ground and dolphin habitat. To the north, the violent Atlantic batters the coastline. To the west lie the distant Americas.
Loop Head enjoys the advantage of mountain views – Kerry’s Brandon Mountains – without having peaks of its own. The land rolls between soft, grassy fields and sheer cliffs, testaments to 300 million years of geology. The peninsula is almost treeless but grows gaudy with wildflowers in spring and summer. The skies are vast overhead and the ubiquitous briny wind leaves a lingering taste of salt on your lips…
LOOP HEAD FOR FOODIES
The people of Loop Head have been blessed, in some ways, when it comes to providing food for their families. Traditionally, fishermen caught whitefish and mackerel in the waters off the north and west of the peninsula. And when weather conditions were inclement, they had the sheltered Shannon to turn to.
The estuary is a haven for shellfish including oysters, lobsters, crab and crayfish. Poulnasherry Bay, on the eastern end of the peninsula, is named after its traditional harvest – Poll na nOisrí, Pool of the Oysters. Along the shoreline, the locals picked mussels and winkles, together with seaweeds such as dillisk, and slúcán, or slack, a local delicacy. You’re not likely to find slúcán on any Loop Head menus, though, as it’s something of an acquired taste… Meanwhile, the grassy flat land has long supported beef and dairy cattle. Tillage is a thing of the past, but organic vegetable growing is making a comeback.
With the aim of offering the best possible experience of the food of Loop Head to both visitors and locals alike, the restaurants, food producers, cafés and B&Bs of the peninsula have all come together recently to establish a Loop Head Food Circle.
The Food Circle charter is a strong commitment to safeguarding food standards and ensuring sustainability. Members must pledge to uphold a high quality of customer service, ambience, and the freshest local produce on the plate. Food Circle members must also commit themselves to sourcing as many of their ingredients as possible from their immediate locality, and they have to include at least two ‘signature’ dishes, or house specialties, on their menus. Look out for the lighthouse symbol in local restaurants, B&Bs and suppliers – it indicates Food Circle membership, and is your guarantee of quality, freshness and the utmost care – and do be sure to treat yourself to a signature dish wherever you go.
The first thing you’ll notice about a Loop Head restaurant is the superbly-cooked, locally-sourced food. The second thing you’ll notice is undoubtedly the friendliness of the staff, whether you’re ordering a simple coffee and a scone or a four-course dinner. Most restaurants are family-run businesses, and you’ll generally find the owner on the premises.
Signature dishes to look out for in Loop Head include seafood chowder, steamed mussels, crab claws, locally-caught fish, and steaks, as well as home-made breads and desserts. Restaurants carrying these signature dishes will feature the Loop Head Food Circle logo – a lighthouse symbol. If you’re planning a day out hiking, biking, boating or fishing, most restaurants and hotels will put together a picnic hamper or packed lunch for you to take along with you. And for anglers keen to finish what they started, as it were, some of the restaurants will also ‘cook your catch’ of an evening for a small fee.
FOOD SUPPLIERS & PRODUCERS
The food producers of Loop Head are mainly small, sustainable, family-run businesses. And because they’re supplying to the locality, eco-conscious gourmands can be confident there are few food miles involved. In fact, several new business have been set up on Loop Head in recent years in response to the growth of the slow food movement.
We’re surrounded by water on three sides, so naturally the main focus is on seafood. The fish you’ll eat on Loop Head are all caught in local waters, and fishermen and diners alike will tell you that shellfish simply tastes better here. Organic vegetables and herbs are also grown, there’s an abundance of free-range eggs, and a local butcher supplies home-produced meat and sausages. Meanwhile, the fine Loop Head tradition of bread-baking and jam-making still flourishes. Locally-produced treats are sold and served in shops, delis and B&Bs all over the peninsula, and many restaurants sell in-house specialties over the counter.
LOOPHEAD TOWNS & VILLAGES
Kilkee, Loop Head’s main town, is built around a horseshoe bay with a kilometer of golden, blue flag beach. Because of the Duggan Reef (locally known as the Pollock Holes) stretching across its mouth, the bay is naturally sheltered from the Atlantic, and Kilkee beach is the safest in Clare.
Kilkee has been a famous resort for almost 200 years. When a passenger steamer service began plying the river between Limerick and Kilrush in 1816, visitors started arriving in droves to take the waters in Kilkee. Soon it became a favorite bathing place of the Victorian aristocracy, and its popularity was enhanced by the opening of the West Clare Railway in the late 1800s.
Charlotte Bronte, Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray were among the most illustrious visitors to Kilkee, while entertainers such as Percy French regularly packed its concert halls. In more recent times, visitors have included Che Guevara, Richard Harris and Russell Crowe.
Kilkee retains much of its Victorian character, and the 19th century part of the town has been designated an Architectural Conservation Area.
Kilbaha, the very last village on the Loop Head peninsula, is tucked into a small, sheltered bay at the western edge of the Shannon Estuary. Looking south across the river, the village enjoys arresting views of Kerry Head and the Brandon Mountains.
Kilbaha’s small, picturesque pier was built in the early 19th century to cater for the large numbers of people making their living from fishing, seaweed gathering and piloting the large ships going up the Shannon to Limerick docks. It was also used by cargo vessels bringing supplies to Loop Head lighthouse, four miles west of the village. Around the headland from the pier, and visible as you approach the village from the east, is a castellated turret, built by the Keane family for the Victorian ladies to enjoy the view. The ruins of the Keane home stand nearby on the top of the hill. Kilbaha is the home of the Little Ark.
Carrigaholt, (translation: ‘Rock of the Fleet’) is a picturesque fishing village on the southern side of Loop Head, about 10 kilometers southwest of Kilkee.
Set within an important ecological environment, the village lies at the mouth of the Moyarta River, which flows into the Mouth of the Shannon about 15 kilometers from the westernmost extremity of the peninsula.
Carrigaholt is centered between two harbors, and although both are used, only the one to the south of the village (known as the ‘new’ pier) is fully operational on a commercial basis. The pier serves local fishing boats, delivering their catch to the local processing company, sea angling tours, and award-winning dolphin watching tours at the Mouth of the Shannon, home of the largest group of resident Bottlenose Dolphins in Europe.
The village has an attractive center, with distinctive streetscapes and quaint local character, and several pubs and restaurants. The Harbour, the church (built 1882-1883) and, most important, the ruins of Carrigaholt Castle (see History & Heritage) are the most distinctive local landmarks.
Carrigaholt also boasts a safe, sandy beach for swimming and water sports), which you can visit at the Star of the Sea Church in the village.
Moyasta and Querrin are two small, upriver communities nestled close to the wildlife haven that is Poulnasherry (Poll na nOisrí – Pool of the Oysters) Bay. Moyasta village, gateway to the Loop Head peninsula, is the home of the West Clare Railway (see History & Heritage) and of the celebrated Nell Galvin Traditional Music Weekend (see Culture & Education). It is also a draw for bird-watchers because of the many significant species – including Greenland White-Fronted Geese, Whooper Swans and Brent Geese – that overwinter there.
Querrin, on the southern coast of the peninsula about six kilometers from Kilkee, is the homeport of the Sally O’Keeffe (see History & Heritage). Querrin has a pier and a creek, which fills at high tide, protected by what is known locally as the Island. Querrin Creek is a well-known bird-watching spot and is listed as a Special Protected Area (SPA).
There is good fishing from Querrin pier, and it’s perfect for swimming. The handball alley in the village is a center of activity in the summer months.