From Shannon Airport to Ennis
The 24km (15-mile) road from Shannon Airport to Ennis, a well-signposted section of the main Limerick-Galway road (N18), is a much-traveled route with the feel of a proper highway -- something that you didn't encounter previously much in these shores, but which is becoming more and more ubiquitous. On the whole, though, the Irish countryside is still a land of boreens (country single-lane roads), so don't get too comfortable.
To reach the village of Bunratty, with its 15th-century medieval castle (which is inevitably besieged by tour groups in the summer), turn right on the N18 and proceed for 8km (5 miles). Or you could turn left, heading toward Ennis, and pass through the charming river town of Newmarket-on-Fergus, with its grand Dromoland Castle.
The county town of Clare, Ennis (pop. 19,000) is a busy market town, and one of the largest towns in this part of the country. Unfortunately, it not only sits on the banks of a river -- the River Fergus -- but on the busy N18, meaning that the traffic congestion is appalling and the exhaust fumes a perpetual menace. Ennis is a sprawling place, with lots of unspectacular suburbs, but its center is easily explored on foot, especially if you stop by the tourist office and pick up a walking tour and map before you set out. You can still see the town's medieval layout -- its winding narrow lanes date back centuries, as does its 13th-century friary. The statue in the town center is of Daniel O'Connell, a beloved Irish politician whose overwhelming election to the British Parliament in 1828 forced Britain to end its ban of Catholic parliamentarians. The statue near the courthouse is of Eamon de Valera, who represented Clare in the Irish Parliament and later became president of Ireland.
The Lough Derg Drive
In the southern section of the county where Clare, Limerick, and Tipperary meet, Lough Derg creates a stunning waterscape. Often called an inland sea, Lough Derg is the Shannon River's largest lake and widest point: 40km (25 miles) long and almost 16km (10 miles) wide. It is a popular place for the Irish to spend summer weekends.
The road that circles the lake for 153km (95 miles), the Lough Derg Drive, is one continuous photo opportunity, where panoramas of hilly farmlands, gentle mountains, and glistening waters are unspoiled by commercialization. The drive is a collage of colorful shoreline towns, starting with Killaloe, County Clare, and Ballina, County Tipperary. They're so close that they are essentially one community -- only a splendid 13-arch bridge over the Shannon separates them. In the summer, its pubs and bars are filled with weekend sailors.
Kincora, on the highest ground at Killaloe, was the royal settlement of Brian Boru and the other O'Brien kings, although no trace of any of their buildings survive. Killaloe is a picturesque town with lakeside views at almost every turn and restaurants and pubs perched on the shore, but don't overlook Ballina's legendary nightlife.
Eight kilometers (5 miles) inland from Lough Derg's lower southeast shores is Nenagh, the chief town of north Tipperary. It lies in a fertile valley between the Silvermine and Arra mountains.
On the north shore of the lake in County Galway, Portumna is worth a visit for its lovely forest park and castle.
Memorable little towns and harborside villages like Mountshannon and Dromineer dot the rest of the Lough Derg Drive. Some towns, like Terryglass and Woodford, are known for atmospheric old pubs where spontaneous sessions of traditional Irish music are likely to break out. Others, like Puckane and Ballinderry, offer unique crafts.
The best way to get to Lough Derg is by car or boat. Although there is limited public transportation in the area, you will need a car to get around the lake. Major roads that lead to Lough Derg are the main Limerick-Dublin road (N7) from points east and south, N6 and N65 from Galway and the west, and N52 from the north. The Lough Derg Drive, which is well signposted, is a combination of R352 on the west bank of the lake and R493, R494, and R495 on the east bank.