Friday 18 August 2017

Kilkee (Ireland): another stop on the Irish honeymoon trail of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls - Part I

As becomes tradition on our annual holidays to Ireland , Paul and I do “something Brontë”.
This year our holidays allowed for a two night stay in the area of Kilkee. We stayed in Hilltop B&B,  close to the town of Kilkee.

Kilkee (Irish: Cill Chaoi, meaning "Church of Chaoineadh Ita - lamentation for Ita") is a small town located on the South West coast of Ireland, in county Clare, on the Wild Atlantic Way.
It was in this town in July 1854, that Charlotte and Arthur stayed for about 10 days on their Irish honeymoon.

At that time, Kilkee, situated at the Loop Head peninsula - with its unique climate, natural amenities and bathing areas, beautiful sandy beach and spectacular Atlantic shore and cliff scenery - had become a very popular tourist destination for the Victorians. In July 1854 Kilkee was then little more than a village of about 419 houses and a total population of about 1869 people.

Why then would Charlotte and Arthur pick this particular place as a stop on their honeymoon? One suggestion, mentioned in an article by Thomas Byrne in the Old Limerick Journal,  is that Arthur’s aunt Harriet Lucinda Bell would have recommended Kilkee and the West End hotel where she had been only 8 years before (in August 1846). Her name can be found in a list of visitors together with her son’s name.

This suggestion seems very plausible to me. When Charlotte and Arthur visited Arthur’s family in Banagher, Charlotte was suffering from a bad cold and Aunt Harriet nursed her back to health. So, it is not very unlikely that Aunt Harriet, remembering her time spent in Kilkee, recommended this place so that Charlotte could further recover. Charlotte also wrote from Banagher in a letter addressed to Miss Margaret Wooler (dated 10 July 1854) that “we go in a few days to Kilkee a watering place on the South-West Coast. The letters may be addressed, Mrs. Arthur Nicholls, Post-Office, Kilkee, County Clare, Ireland.”. So Kilkee was certainly the next  intended destination after  Banagher! Kilkee’s post office was also annexed to the hotel where they were staying.

Charlotte and Arthur travelled from Banagher to Limerick (probably by  a mixture of carriage and train), then continued their journey by boat to Cappa pier (near Kilrush). They probably sailed on a paddle-steamer – there were paddle-steamer services organized by the City of Dublin Steam-packet Co. with two steam-packet boats: PS Garryowen and PS Erin-go-bragh (later replaced by Kingston) ensuring daily communication up and down the Shannon river estuary. The trip from Limerick to Kilrush would have taken them  approx. four hours. They would probably have used this same service to continue their honeymoon after their stay in Kilkee because these steamers stopped also at Tarbert on the other side of the estuary, from where they could continue their journey to Tralee and Killarney. From Kilrush they would have continued their journey by a horse-drawn carriage to Kilkee. The railways were not yet connected to Kilrush and Kilkee at that time.

The honeymoon couple stayed in the West End Hotel, Kilkee, run by Mrs Shannon, probably from 12 till 22 July 1854. This hotel was advertised as “ a Hotel in very superior style “ commanding “a magnificent view of the Cliffs, Bay and surrounding scenery”. Having been there and seen the view, I can safely say that the second part of this description is quite correct. However, Charlotte was not really impressed with the service provided in the hotel as she wrote very light-heartedly in her letter to Catherine Wooler dated 18th July 1854:
' Your kind letter reached me in a wild and remote spot - a little watering-place on the South West Coast of Ireland. … I had heard a great deal about Irish negligence &c.  and I own that till I came to Kilkee - I saw little of it. Here at our Inn - splendidly designated 'the West End Hotel' - there was a good deal to carp at if one were in a carping humour - but we laugh instead of grumbling -for out of doors there is much indeed to compensate for any indoor short-comings, so magnificent an ocean - so bold and grand a coast - I never yet saw. My husband calls me”.
When we arrived in Kilkee, the first thing to do was to locate “the old West End Hotel”. This was not very difficult as I had found many descriptions and old photos of the place. There is now a plaque on the house indicating that Charlotte stayed there on her honeymoon. The house is now in private hands and no longer a hotel.

From the house one has indeed a wonderful view over the horseshoe bay and sandy beach. The town is modernised but still retains some of its 19th century Victorian features.

A little further down the road, turning the corner, the Kilkee Cliff Walk starts. I can easily imagine Arthur and Charlotte walking here enjoying the views. The walk officially starts from the car park overlooking Duggerna Reef  and  the world famous Pollock Holes at the west end of the town, a view that I’m sure our honeymoon couple will have seen and enjoyed. Duggerna reef is the rock barrier that flanks one side of the bay and protects it from Atlantic ocean weather. But it is much more than a barrier, it also contains “the Pollock Holes” which  are three large, natural rock pools that offer safe and sheltered swimming during low tide.

Marina Saegerman
15 August 2017

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