An Clochán or Clifden (meaning bee hive cell), founded by John D’Arcy (1785-1839) was one of the last towns to be built in Ireland. D’Arcy’s vision was to create a thriving commercial centre in a resource-rich, but poverty stricken region. He hoped that the town would raise the living standards throughout the area by exploiting the rich fishing, wool and marble resources in the locality. Its superb siting overlooking the Atlantic, with easy access to a sheltered harbour, power from the Owenglen river, relatively fertile surroundings and its position at the junction of Connemara’s lowlands and highlands augured well for its long term prospects.
The first house was built by the Coneys family in 1809 on the site of the Smugglers Lodge Hotel, and by the 1820s the town was growing rapidly. It follows the classic nineteenth century layout: oval in plan, with three principal streets – Market Street, Main Street and Bridge Street, a Market Square, a fine bridewell or gaol, courthouse and harbour. Clifden quickly superseded the older villages of Ballinaboy and Streamstown which rapidly faded in importance. D’Arcy’s own house, Clifden Castle, now in ruins, is located just beyond the Boat Club on the Sky Road.
The town retains almost all of the nineteenth century streetscapes and fabrics. There are a number of buildings and features worth visiting. The town is dominated by two fine 19th century churches. St Joseph’s RC Church was built in 1879 with emigrant’s money flowing into the region in post famine times. The woodland opposite hides the now disused graveyard and original church, built in 1824. Christ Church, (Church of Ireland) was built in 1853 on a small drumlin and commands a wonderful view of the town. An early 19th century cross-inscribed slab just opposite the entrance probably relates to the earlier church built in 1810. Hyacinth D’Arcy, son of John D’Arcy, was the first minister here. The first school in Clifden, built in 1824 and closed in 1956, is now a private residence on Church Hill. One of the few Georgian buildings in the town, built in the 1850s, housed the Methodist Chapel, Schoolroom and Minister’s residence located at the beginning of the Beach Road. The Methodist community had virtually disappeared by the 1920s and this building is now run as a B&B.
The Mercy Nuns from Galway opened a convent in 1858, and they ran an industrial school, an orphanage and later an old folks home. A second orphanage opened four years earlier in 1854 was run by Rev. Alexandra Dallas, and was housed in Glenowen House, originally built by John D’Arcy in 1832 and rebuilt as the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. Rev. Dallas was among a number of protestant missionaries who came to Connemara during and after the famine opening up soup-kitchens and orphanages.
Work commenced on Clifden quay in 1822 and completed in 1831. John D’Arcy received a government grant for relief work to build the quay following the famine of 1822. It was designed by the famous engineer, Alexander Nimmo. The Galway-to-Clifden railway was also built as relief work. The route way was through the central plain of Connemara, with stations at Moycullen, Oughterard, Maam Cross, Recess and Ballinahinch. Opened in 1895, it was never profitable and closed in 1935, but it succeeded in opening up Connemara to the outside world and gave Clifden an economic lift, as the sea fisheries developed. The ruined station house still survives, adjacent to the famous Connemara Woollen Mills, run by the Millar family. Overlooking the town to the west is a monument to the memory of John D’Arcy, recently completed by our local historical society.
The town is entered from the south over two fine bridges, between which is a magnificent waterfall and narrow gorge running to the sea. The larger three-eye bridge leading to Dooneen and the bogs beyond was built in 1819. This bridge was name famous by John Ford in his classic film ‘The Quiet Man’.The ruined complex beside the second bridge is the remains of a hydroelectric station, which provided Clifden with electricity in the 1930s and 1940s, years before other towns. On the hillside south of the waterfall, Daniel O’Connell held one of his famous monster meetings in 1843 as part of his campaign to repeal the Act of Union. Dominating the southern end of the town are the stark remains of Clifden Gaol, built in 1830 and closed at the foundation of the state.
The Clifden district was devastated by the great famine of the 1840s, and thousands died needlessly due to inaction on the part of the government. The much feared Clifden Workhouse built to relieve distress, was overwhelmed and bankrupted by the famine. Both the Workhouse and the Fever Hospital have been demolished and a successful modern factory, GMT Ireland, employing forty, now occupies the site.
At the Beach Road junction, is the memorial to local man Thomas Whelan who was executed in Dublin in March 1921. He was a member of the Dublin Volunteers and was accused of killing a British officer. Two days later two RIC constables were shot in Clifden by the local IRA. The Black and Tans retaliated on March 17, 1921 (St Patrick’s Day) by burning fourteen houses, killing one and wounding another civilian: their actions devastated the town.