Ireland’s Wild Atlantic coast: Spectacular clifftops, dramatic castles and world-class golf

The coast of Ireland near Shannon and Limerick is unbearably beautiful and dramatic, whether you pack your golf clubs or not. Toby Keel paid a visit.

It’s late morning in springtime on Ireland’s west coast. The view from top of the dunes is stunning. The sun is beating down so hard that I’m forced to peel off layers of clothing. There’s not a cloud in the sky and only the lightest tickle of wind.

Ten minutes ago the sky was grubby charcoal, horizontal hail was blowing in so hard that it stung my legs even through a pair of cords, and I couldn’t see a thing as I’d pulled a woolly hat over my face for protection against the elements. They call this part of the world the Wild Atlantic coast; they’re really not joking.

The venue for this humbling demonstration of the capriciousness of Irish weather is Lahinch Golf Club, a wonderfully traditional old links course that sits in the dunes on the coast north west of Limerick and Shannon. It’s a part of the world that offers incredible natural splendour and, out on the cliffs, the feeling that you’re clinging to the edge of the world. It’s not hard to feel some sympathy for the ancient sailors who refused to sail towards the setting sun from these shores.

Lahinch Golf Club

In more modern times, this part of the world benefited from its edge-of-Europe. The airport at Shannon — where the terrain is wide, flat and open, ideal for a long runway — was for many years a stopping-off point for transatlantic flights refuelling here for the jump across the ocean.

That history left its mark in all sorts of ways, not least at Shannon Golf Club, which sits between the runway and the river estuary. The clubhouse walls are adorned with pictures of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and the other greats who squeezed in a game on their way to or from The Open. More may join them before too long: Lahinch is hosting the Irish Open this week, and a few miles away Adare Manor is hopeful of hosting the Ryder Cup before too long.

While the golf here is one of the big draws, there is plenty for less-sporty types to enjoy. The city of Limerick has one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Ireland and a highly-rated university that gives the place a cosmopolitan feel.

It’s also blessed with a lively nightlife and dozens of pubs, many of which seemed to feature impromptu live music breaking out with little or no warning. You’ll also find walking tours of Frank McCourt’s classic memoir Angela’s Ashes, most of which was set in the city; what you won’t find, however, is a monument to the inventor of the limerick verse. Nobody has a clue how these catchy five-line ditties came to be named after this city.

Rainbow over King John's castle, Limerick.

Rainbow over King John’s castle, Limerick.

Dotting up and down this coast you’ll find cliffs, beaches and other natural wonders, but don’t miss the Cliffs of Moher. These sheer faces of rock stand 700ft tall out of the Atlantic at their highest point, as dramatic a landscape as you’ll ever see; Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about this part of County Clare, in which he discussed how ‘the wind and the light are working off each other’ so that the ocean ‘is wild with foam and glitter’, while the buffeting wind will ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’. As recommendations go, it’s hard to do better than that.

Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher at sunrise.

Golf

The game of golf is in rude healthy in Ireland, and no wonder. There are 400 traditional links tracks dotted around the coast, and many more courses inland besides. This year The Open Championship returns to the island of Ireland for the first time since 1951 when the world’s best tee up at Royal Portrush, but there are dozens more world class spots — and one of them, Lahinch, is a quick drive from Shannon.

To call Lahinch Golf Club old-fashioned is a grand compliment. This is a course from the days when the shape of the course was determined solely by the natural contours of the land. Old Tom Morris laid the course out over 125 years ago, while Alister Mackenzie – the architect of Augusta National, among many other great courses — lent his touch in 1927.

Lahinch Golf Club

Lahinch Golf Club is as fine as they come.

It’s an astonishing place, full of swales, hollows, sweeping views, towering dunes, cavernous sand traps and even, in the short 5th hole, a par-3 played to a green hidden from view. As mentioned above, the weather was appalling, then superb, then appalling and then superb again throughout our visit; frankly, it only added to the joy of the experience.
Green fees €230 (€180 in April October), course closed through the winter — www.lahinchgolf.com

About as far to the south of Shannon and Limerick as Lahinch is to the north is another classic links course in Ballybunion. Tom Watson used to come and practice here ahead of the Open during his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, a lifelong link that saw him serve as captain in 2000. Like Lahinch, this is links golf at its best and the stretch of holes along the cliffs are akin to what you’ll find at Pebble Beach or Turnberry.
Green fees €230 — www.ballybuniongolfclub.com

Adare Manor is a totally different experience. A veritable army of greenkeepers (over 50 of them, and more are being recruited) have been brought in to pamper, smooth and preen this rolling parkland course to a state of perfection, with one ambition in mind: to create the Augusta National of Ireland.
Green fees €340 — www.adaremanor.com 

Adare Manor. Photo: LC Lambrecht.

Adare Manor. Photo: LC Lambrecht.

If you’ve time only for a quick game on your way in or way out, then Shannon Golf Club is both incredibly convenient and wonderfully friendly.
Green fees €40www.shannongolfclub.ie

Shannon Golf Club

Where to stay

Limerick’s reputation has come on enormously, and in The Savoy it has a fine hotel right in the centre. The rooms and the communal areas are swish without being overly grand, and the location is perfect. The hotel’s restaurant, in a cosy basement space, is also worth a visit: we were served beautiful food that came in quite amazing portions.
Rooms from €159 for a double on a B&B basis — www.savoylimerick.com

Savoy Hotel Limerick

Savoy Hotel Limerick

If you’d rather stay out in the lush countryside (and have a great golf course on your doorstep) then Adare Manor is a quite incredible spot to choose. Billionaire businessman J. P. McManus — a local lad — has made this his labour of love, pouring umpteen millions into turning the existing manor house into a hotel-slash-castle that is an unabashed slice of neo-Gothic luxury.
Rooms start from around £300 — adaremanor.com.

Adare Manor