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Discover Kilrush and Scattery Island car-free
Enjoy a car-free day in Kilrush and Scattery Island.
Nicola BradyNicola Brady is a travel writer based in Dublin. She writes regularly for the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and Condé Nast Traveller, and has contributed to books on Dublin and Ireland for DK Eyewitness.
Want to spend a day exploring a wild, historic island, pottering around a market town then wandering through a walled garden? Well, you can do it all on a day trip to Kilrush. On the southern coastline of County Clare, Kilrush is the gateway to the Shannon Estuary, Scattery Island and Vandeleur Walled Gardens, and it’s all an easy bus ride from Ennis.

Here’s how to do it all in a day, without using a car.

Head to Kilrush

The Bus Éireann 336 service (6 a day, 47 minutes) goes from Ennis bus station out to Kilrush, passing by thatched cottages, pretty countryside and lakes – sit on the left of the bus for a great view of Knockalough. The first departure is at 9am, which gives you enough time to stop into Sourdo'Farrell Bakery before you get the bus. It’s just around the corner from the station and they have an excellent selection of pastries, like maple pecan Danishes, cinnamon and cardamom knots and massive pain au chocolate. They also make sandwiches with their freshly baked sourdough, which is handy if you want to pick up a picnic for Scattery Island.  

Paun au chocolat from Sourdo'Farrell Bakery in Kilrush, Co Clare

Photo credit: @sourdo_farrell

Kick start your day with a pain au chocolat from Sourdo'Farrell Bakery.

The bus drops you at the market square in Kilrush, and once you’re there it’s a 10-minute walk down to the Marina, where you’ll catch the boat with Scattery Island Tours (May to September). The departure times change every day depending on the tide, so you’ll need to arrange your morning accordingly. Bear in mind there is nowhere to get food or drink on the island, so bring a packed lunch with you. 

Home to a 6th century monastic settlement, rare birdlife and lush fauna, Scattery Island is one of the best-preserved historical sites in Ireland. It isn’t too far from the mainland, so once your boat exits the lock at the marina, it takes around 15 minutes to cross the Shannon Estuary and dock by the old, whitewashed cottages that line the curved bay.  

A grave yard on Scattery Island in County Clare
Roam the monastic settlement on Scattery Island.

When you land, OPW guides will lead you on a tour of the most important sites before you have free time to explore on your own. As you walk, you’ll discover the island’s history: how it was once home to 141 people but has been uninhabited since 1978, when the last islanders left for the mainland. In fact, Scattery Island Tours is run by Irene Hamilton, whose father was one of the last children born on the island.    

You’ll walk through the remains of old churches, then over thousands of daisies and buttercups to the old round tower, one of only two in Ireland with a door at ground level. It’s also one of the best preserved in the country, despite being struck by lightning 100 years ago – look for the slight bulge at the top where the bolt hit. The tower was historically used to call monks to prayer, but now it’s home to a murder of ravens and hooded crows.   

The round tower on Scattery Island in Co Clare
Spot the remnants of the lightning bolt that hit the island's round tower.

But they’re not the only birdlife on the island. A group of endangered hen harriers call Scattery Island home, nesting and breeding on the thick tangles of bushes behind the old stone cottages. If you’re lucky, the wildlife warden responsible for the harriers will be on the island and can tell you all about the birds and their habits. Keep an eye out for the pellets they drop around the island – when feeding, the birds swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate the bones and fur on the ground. Look upwards, too – when they feed, the males (who are a light grey colour to blend in with the sky) drop their prey into the mouths of the females, who fly beneath them and upside down to execute the perfect catch, called the “sky dance.”   

The official tour lasts around an hour, leaving you 90 minutes to explore on your own before catching the boat back (longer if you book the Great Island Experience, which includes a guided tour of the lighthouse and battery).  

The lighthouse on Scattery Island in Co Clare
Get a guided tour of the island's lighthouse.

Use this time to walk up to the lighthouse, which takes around 20 minutes. The grass pathway leads you behind the cottages and along the edge of the wetlands, with a great view of the round tower and church in the background. You can continue this way or walk over the pebble beach that curves around to the lighthouse itself, which is solar powered. This is a great picnic spot, where you can sit on the old stone wall and look out over the water.  

Keep an eye on the time, to make sure you get back to the dock in time for the return boat, which whizzes you over the waves and back to Kilrush Marina. Occasionally, you may spot one of the native Shannon dolphins on the crossing, but for a better chance at seeing them you can book onto a tour with Dolphin Discovery Kilrush, operated by the same company.  

Dolphins in Kilrush, Co Clare
Say hello to the Shannon's native dolphins.

Where to eat in Kilrush

Visit Beag in the morning, and you’ll see trays of warm pastries emerging from the kitchen, dripping in melted chocolate or cinnamon icing. They also make excellent toasties stuffed with smoked Gubbeen, cheddar and scallions, and they start serving them early, so it’s ideal if you want to eat before your boat trip. A few doors down, Potters Hand Café is an old school spot where you can get soup and soda bread or a toasted panini.  

A toastie sandwich from Beag in Kilrush, Co Clare
Savour a hot toastie from Beag.

Down near the marina, Jellyfish Marketplace is a light and breezy café that’s open for breakfast and lunch. In the morning, expect dishes like raspberry and coconut granola or sourdough toast topped with peanut butter, blueberries and banana. At lunchtime, you can refuel on bacon and cabbage toasties or an aubergine hot pot.  

Head to the gardens

Just a short walk from Kilrush, the Vandeleur Walled Gardens are a treasure trove of unusual botanicals. Dating back to 1808, the gardens feature plants that thrive in this specific West Clare micro-climate, growing in a plot designed to capture the maximum amount of sun. It’s the ideal spot for a stroll on a sunny day.  

There are two ways to walk there from Kilrush. The quickest (10 minutes) is on the Kilrush Town Trail that you enter at Turret Lodge, which takes you through the woodland and right into the walled garden by the café. Just walk down Moore Street, turn right at the Turret and follow the path through the old stone archway. If you fancy a longer walk (30 minutes), make your way along Stewart Street and follow the road signs for the gardens. You’ll pass by a miniature stone replica of Scattery Island’s Cathedral Church and Round Tower, and you’ll also get to walk through a section of Kilrush Forest.    

People walking in Kilrush Forest in Co Clare
Saunter the trails in Kilrush Forest.

Once you arrive, head straight to the walled gardens. Turn right when you enter and you’ll see the arboretum, with acacia, oak and monkey puzzle trees. Right next to that is the maze, a tightly packed tangle of beech trees that’ll put your sense of direction to the test. To the other side is a triangular stone labyrinth, which points towards the summer house, a great spot to sit and watch the world go by.  

When you continue, you’ll pass daisy beds, a rose garden and the glasshouse, with an edible garden growing just outside the doors. There are sculptures of woodland animals dotted around the gardens, so keep an eye out for the rabbits and owls as you walk around.  

Aerial view of the Vandeleur Walled Gardens in Kilrush, County Clare
Explore the various flora at Vandeleur.

Woodlands Bistro is just outside of the gardens but within the original stone walls, so you can get a cup of coffee and a scone and enjoy them out on the terrace, where there are also plants for sale. It’s worth keeping an eye on the Vandeleur event calendar, as they often run sound bath meditations and workshops, as well as the Vandeleur Festival Kilrush, held at the end of June.  

When you’re ready to go, the Kilrush Town Trail exit is in the corner of the courtyard by the café, so you can walk out this way and back into town, where the bus to Ennis departs from Market Square.  

Where to eat dinner in Ennis

It’s a popular spot for a trad session, but people also flock to Brogan’s Bar & Restaurant for spicy chicken wings, West Clare mussels or a rack of sticky BBQ ribs. There’s more of a cocktail bar vibe at Monks Society, with vintage radios in the window, pink armchairs and glossy leather chesterfields. The menu is tapas-based, with dishes like salmon kebabs and fried chicken sliders, and they also do a popular brunch with bottomless Prosecco.  

Henry's Bistro & Wine Bar has classic Irish plates like braised lamb shank and colcannon or a thick rib eye steak with rocket and parmesan salad. Their wine list is top notch, too. In the Old Ground Hotel, the Town Hall Bistro is a beautiful space with a menu of creative dishes like seabass with pineapple and coriander salsa or duck with wild forest fruit glaze. 

A dish of from the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, Co Clare

Photo credit: @oldgroundhotel

Treat yourself to a beautiful meal in the Town Hall Bistro.

If you fancy a glass of wine and a light snack, head to Ennis Gourmet Store, a fancy food shop with tables inside and out for a European style wine bar vibe.  

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