History of Ennis
The name Ennis comes from the word "Inis", meaning an island. The island was formed between two streams of the River Fergus. Inis Laoi (Calf Island), also known as Cluain Ramh Fhada (Long Rowing Meadow), lay in the River Fergus opposite Clonroad Fort, built in 1210 by the O’Brien kings of Thomond.
Foundation of Ennis
The O’Brien’s were originally from Limerick, but in the twelfth century left there to settle in Clonroad, where they built the royal fort. The Franciscan monks who arrived later were befriended by the O’Brien King of Thomond. In 1240 King Donnchadh O'Brien began building a church which he later entrusted to the newly arrived Franciscans. The foundations of the Franciscan Friary were laid here in 1240, the ruins of which still stand in the centre of the town which grew up around it, developing into a busy market town.
The Friary was developed over the next four-hundred years to become a major religious centre and theological college, surrounded by cloisters, dormitories and workshops for up to 300 friars and 600 seminarians a year. Although officially closed by King Henry VIII’s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Friary continued to operate in a small way until around 1690. Today you can still see in the church and limestone cloisters medieval carvings, including the image of St. Francis with stigmata on the nave. The east window is also superb, as light pours into the chancel full of aristocract tombs.
Administrative capital of County Clare
When Clare became a county under the English Queen Elizabeth I in 1586, Ennis was chosen as its administrative capital by reason of its central position and its being well within the influence of the Earls of Thomond. Ennis received a grant to hold fairs and markets from King James I in 1610 and in 1613 received a Charter for a Corporation with a Provost, Free Burgesses, Commonalty and a Town Clerk. This lead to the building of a large County Gaol, where many were hanged.
Ennis, which never had town walls, continued to expand in slowly and steadily, attracting Roman Catholic merchants who were forbidden by the Penal Laws to live in walled towns such as Limerick. Initially a market town, by the early nineteenth century, local factories in Ennis were producing clothing and blankets, with the flour mills absorbing a large quota of corn for milling, all of which was grown locally. Commodities were shipped downriver to Clarecastle for delivery abroad. There was a brewery in Abbey Street (now a car park), and a distillery and malt house sited near Knox's Bridge.
Daniel O’Connell famously campaigned for Catholic emancipation through electoral reform and the admission of Catholics to Parliament, reform of the Church of Ireland, tenants' rights, and economic development. In 1828, O’Connell was returned to parliament in the Clare Elections, an historic event which led to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829.
Although the 1832 cholera epidemic seriously affected Ennis, it was the Great Famine of 1845-49 and its aftershock that reduced the population most considerably, with many sponsored by the local absentee landlord George Wyndham to emigrate to Canada. The population of Ennis fell from 9,318 in 1841 to 7,041 in 1861 because of famine, fever and emigration.
Charles Stewart Parnell and the Land League advocated the policy of boycott in September 1880 in a speech delivered in Ennis, the scene of major Land League. Named after English land agent Charles Cunningham Boycott the policy was to ignore and ostracise English land owners so that they would be forced to leave the country.
In 1917 Éamon de Valera was selected by Sinn Féin to contest the East Clare by-election and so began his long association with the town and county. De Valera went on to start and lose the Civil War, found the Fianna Fail party, serve three times as Taoiseach before finally become President of Ireland. This mean that Ennis saw a lot of Republican activity during the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Yet many Ennis men fought with the British and French armies during WWI, hoping that their involvement would bring independence to Ireland.
Celtic Tiger years
The second half of the twentieth century saw much building in Ennis of industries as well as housing. Between the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, Ireland’s economy boomed as it welcomed foreign investment and Ennis was one of Ireland’s fastest growing towns. This period became known as the Celtic Tiger years, which ended with the global recession in 2008, but Ennis has coped well. In 2016, Ennis had a population of 25,276, making it the largest town in Clare and the twelfth largest in Ireland.