The sea wall and embankment around the bay was begun on the west side as part of famine relief work in 1846 and completed in the 1860’s. The seawall built at Kilkee was a direct result of two major factors ,the Famine from 1845 to 1849 and the growth of the town of Kilkee.
The development of Kilkee as a holiday resort was a phenomenon as in 1800 there was only two houses in Kilkee, one in the West End called Kilkee House and was lived in by the MacDonnell family ,one of the local landlords.
The second house in Kilkee in 1800 was Atlantic House in the East End and was owned by the Studdert family who acquired the lease for the area from another landlord the Marquis of Conynghim and the Studderts went on to create the town of Kilkee.
The area between the West and East end ,the Seawall site ,was at this time just an area of sand dunes. By 1840 it had turned into a town and everything had changed in the short period of 40 years.
Kilkee was now described in the Limerick Chronicle as
“a watering place of considerable importance, having been of late years greatly resorted to by the citizens of Limerick, as also by the gentry of the adjoining country.”
Many small houses had been built in a haphazard fashion, there was an inn and many lodging houses. There was three Spas in the town. Horse-drawn cars ran daily between Kilkee and Kilrush to connect to the Limerick steamers.As can be seen by the map of 1840 the houses had multiplied and a town was born to service the visitors.
The Famine started in September 1845 and occurred mainly due to the reliance of the local population on potatoes as their stable diet and the blight that occurred at this time. It led quickly to the new town turning into a disaster area when the local population came to town looking for food.
During the summer of 1845 life went on very much as usual in Kilfearagh parish. There was quite a good number of visitors to the town of Kilkee and in the countryside the prospects for a plentiful harvest was expected. The problems soon started and in September 1845 when the potatoes rotted and purified and the people had no food. The situation quickly got out of hand with protests and death.
A Limerick Reporter in late February 1846 stated :
‘ I am sorry to inform you that Kilkee, I fear, will soon be a second Skibbereen, the starving poor day after day falling off the works, and dying. A poor man named Blood was found prostrate on the road, having thrown up a large quantity of blood, and, in a short time after he expired.This untimely end the poor man declared to be the effects of starvation. Many others, it is to be apprehended, will meet the sane fate in this locality. God only knows when and where it will stop.’
Special Sessions were called to devise work and employment. The main projects being suggested were the building of a new road from the West End to Look Out Cliff and thence to Dunlickey Castle and beyond, and the building and levelling of the hills on the KiIrush – Kilkee road. It was hoped that by means of the latter project passenger cars would be enabled to make the journey from Kilkee to Kiirush in an hour instead of an hour and a half.
Other possibilities for works were also being proposed and agreement was reached that a coast road between Kilkee and Doonbeg by Chimney Bay and Baltard Castle should start. The embankment of the cliff on the west side of Kilkee,which had long been in a dangerous condition, was also suggested.
In March 1846 the tenants on the Marquis of Conyngham’s estate sent a memorial to their landlord asking him to contribute, along with the Bord of Works, towards making a carriageway or embankment round the bay. In late April a promise of a contribution of £100 was received — if the Board of Works undertook the project.
The sea wall and embankment around the bay was begun on the west side as part of famine relief work on 25th March 1846. The embankment of the fast decaying cliff below Mrs Shannon’s Hotel was where the work started.
Limerick Reporter 25th September 1846 ,Friday edition :
‘ At the late Kilrush Sessions ,amongst the works recommended by the Kilkee Relief Committee ,£300 were granted to complete the protecting wall at the west side and £600 for a road around bay in front of lodges.This most useful and ornamental road will extend by the cliffs to Farrihy Bay and Baltard Tower. The above sum of £4,910 with a proportion of £5,000 also granted for the Barony of Moyarta will in some measure arrest the impending disaster. But unless the Government keeps down the price of Indian Meal as before ,all is useless ,as there is little more than a months provision in this Barony. ‘
By November 1846 ,750 men were working on the public works at Kilkee and the main objective at this stage was to have a road and footpath made taking the circuit of the bay. By May of 1846 ,10,870 men were employed in Clare by the Board of Works in famine relief work and the total reached 23,899 by November of 1846. Pay was 10d a day for men and strong boys got 8d and small boys 4d.
Limerick Chronicle 24th March 1847 ,Wednesday edition :
‘The new carriage drive and promenade all around the Bay of Kilkee reflect great credit on the engineers of the Board of Works ,for the beautiful and permanent manner in which the work is executed – a rough stone wall facing to the embankment extends the whole way,this and the new line of roads by the cliffs will crown the triumph of Kilkee’
By the 15th August 1847 the work had stopped. A letter was sent from The Memorial of the Clergy, Gentry and the inhabitants of Kilkee in the County of Clare to His Excellency Lord Viscount Clarendon ,Lord -Lieutenant-General and Governor General of Ireland complaining about the work stopping without been finished.
It goes on to say
‘ your memorialises earnestly entreat your Excellency’s attention to the very inconvenient and dangerous state the works are left in ,the walls half finished ,and heaps of materials lying about,unsightly, cumbersome,and exposed to plunder,the roadway half cut and most dangerous to the public traffic. That from the unfinished state of the wall and other works are left in, there is a certainty of the whole thing been swept away by sea and storm unless completed or secured before the coming winter.The entire of the very large outlay becoming valueless to the public and a great number of valuable buildings been exposed to destruction and the money invested in them been lost to the proprietors ‘.
The works restarted soon after and a new bridge was begun in February 1848 by the removal of the old and dangerous bridge leading to the west end and gullets made under the new and beautiful embankment to carry off the stream.
Limerick Chronicle 11th April 1848 , Saturday edition :
‘There are 250 labourers employed on the new road from the West End side of Kilkee Bay to Moveen by the cliffs thus developing the sublime scenery on the coast and the picturesque rural view of the interior. On the road from Kilkee to Kilrush every hill is been cut and levelled so that any passenger car may travel the 8 miles distance with perfect ease in one hour ,with used to occupy an hour and a half’.
Those not employed or to weak had to rely on the soup kitchens and soon the people had to turn to the workhouse for their salvation when even these stopped. More of the people of Kilfearagh parish becomes centred more and more on Kilrush Workhouse. Under the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 it was possible now to grant outdoor relief i.e., the workhouses could give food to people who were not inmates.
But normally this relief would be given only to the destitute who were aged or infirm, widows or children. The ablebodied would receive relief only within the workhouse — as otherwise it was feared that the scheme would be unworkable.
The Board of Works after 1848 now only did work that was deemed necessary and in October 1855 a protecting wall was started on the west side of the bay on the new embankment from the bridge to the baths.
The stone built seawall was built of local thin bedded sandstone.Walls were constructed from roughly coursed cut sandstone blocks. A now blocked arched opening at the northern end of the wall displays cut-stone voussoirs and there is a section of rock faced cut-sandstone walls near the slipway with a flight of inset cut-sandstone steps nearby (just below Wellington Square). The wall to the road was added later than the sea wall and is constructed from rubble stone with large sandstone blocks laid as coping.
In the latter part of the construction a contractor named McNamara from Lehinch had two gangs of labourers who were employed at between 4p and 8p a day at both sides of the bay and that to encourage the workers to get thme work completed quickly a barrel of Porter was supplied to the gang of workers who had most work done in the weeks end.
Tally Sticks were used by labourers to keep track of their days working on the embankment and one is on display at the Museum of County Life in Castlebar.
During the 20th century much of the central section of the seawall was added to forming a promenade and green spaces. This later section also displays rubble stone walls with a base batter.
The Stone Slipway was built c.1900, leading steeply from roadside down to beach. Constructed from local thin- bedded sandstone with sidewalls of coursed rock-faced sandstone blocks with kerb-stones comprised of long narrow upright sections also rock-faced. Cobbling still intact to surface consists of narrow lengths of worn sandstone. Some later concrete pointing visible in places. A modern aluminum railing is fitted on one side of the slipway. The slipway is flanked on either side by the sea wall, which also displays rock-facing..
The freestanding octagonal Bandstand was built c.1940 had a felted octagonal roof capped with a cast-iron spike. This former bandstand is of architectural and technical merit. It was the scene of many social and cultural events.
In December 1951 a tidal wave hit the wall and caused great destruction and flooding. The large granite blocks were strewn across the road around the Bay and it was impassable. All the houses along the front were flooded and windows broken.Ther was thankfully no loss of life and interestedly the road and houses were full of dead fish.
The Embankment on the east end was also badly damaged in storm 2014 –and repaired in 2016/17 at a cost of many millions of pounds.
So the Strand-line Wall has had a chequered history with stories of men falling off the wall and dying from starvation as they were building it. The fact that it took 20 years to build and may never have happened unless the Famine started with 750 famine victims working on it at one stage. It is a major piece of architecture and as we walk on it daily we should remember those who had lived and died building it.