The town was founded at the start of the 19th century by John D'Arcy (1785–1839) who lived in Clifden Castle (built around 1818, now a ruin) west of Clifden. He had inherited the estate in 1804, when it was mostly inhabited by fishermen and farmers. The idea of establishing a town on the coast was first voiced by him in 1812. Bad communications and a lack of private capital prevented fast progress until the 1820s, when the potato crop failed in 1821-22 and D'Arcy petitioned the government in Dublin for assistance. The engineer Alexander Nimmo was sent to the area in 1822. He constructed a quay at Clifden (finished in 1831), and started a road to Galway. With these improvements to its infrastructure, the town began to grow.
It prospered until, in 1839, John D'Arcy died. By that time, Clifden had grown from virtually nothing to a town of 185 dwellings, most of them three-floored, two churches, two hotels, three schools, a police barracks, courthouse, a gaol, a distillery and 23 pubs. The population had grown to 1,100 and the town already sported the (as yet unpaved) triangle of streets still visible today. Products that were shipped out from Clifden Harbour included marble, corn, fish and kelp. However, John's son and heir, Hyacinth, lacked his father's abilities and confrontations with his tenants became commonplace. In 1843, Daniel O'Connell held a 'Monster Meeting' at Clifden, attended by a crowd reportedly numbering 100,000, at which he spoke on repeal of the Act of Union.
The town's surging growth and prosperity came to an end when the famine started in 1845. Large numbers of people died, as government help proved insufficient to deal with starvation, scurvy and other diseases. By 1848 90% of the population were on relief (receiving government money). Landlords went bankrupt as rents dried up. Many people emigrated to America. On 18 November 1850, Hyacinth D'Arcy put up his estates for sale and most of them were purchased by Charles and Thomas Eyre of Somerset. Hyacinth pursued a church career and became Rector of Omey and Clifden. Charles Eyre sold his share to his brother, who gave the estates to his nephew (Charles' son) John Joseph in 1864.
In 1855, Sisters of Mercy from Galway came to Clifden and established St. Joseph's Convent, followed by an orphanage and St. Joseph's Industrial School in 1858.
Beginning 1 July 1895, Clifden railway station was the western terminus of the Midland Great Western Railway.
Clifden gained prominence after 1905 when Guglielmo Marconi decided to build his first high power transatlantic long wave wireless telegraphy station four miles (6 km) south of the town to minimize the distance to its sister station in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. The first point-to-point fixed wireless service connecting Europe with North America opened for public service with the transmission of 10,000 words on 17 October 1907. At peak times, up to 200 people were employed by the Clifden wireless station, among them Jack Phillips, who later perished as Chief Radio Operator on the Titanic.
On 15 June 1919 the first transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown crashlanded in Derrygimlagh bog, close to Marconi's transatlantic wireless station. When Captain Alcock spotted the green bog he thought it was a meadow where he could safely land his Vickers Vimy biplane. The plane's landing gear sank into the soft bog and was destroyed. Alcock and Brown had to walk into town with minor injuries. When they returned the locals had helped themselves to parts of the plane as souvenirs.
Events that would lead up to the "Burning of Clifden" began on 21 November 1920, Bloody Sunday. On that day, IRA members in Dublin attacked British officers and civilians believed to work for intelligence, killing eleven and wounding four. Later that day, British paramilitary auxiliary forces opened fire at Croke Park, killing twelve and injuring sixty. Thomas Whelan, born in 1899 in Clifden, was arrested and charged with the 21 November murder of Captain G.T. Bagelly. Although he maintained his innocence, Whelan was found guilty and executed on 14 March 1921. Following its Two for one policy that required the killing of two RIC members for every Republican executed, on 16 March 1921 members of the IRA shot and killed Constable Charles Reynolds and Constable Thomas Sweeney at Eddie King's Corner in Clifden. The RIC requested assistance. In response, in the early hours of St Patrick's Day, 17 March 1921, a trainload of Black and Tans arrived in town from Galway. They then proceeded to "burn, plunder and murder". Terrorizing the town, they killed one civilian, seriously injured another, burned 14 houses and damaged several others.
When the Civil War started in June 1922, Connemara was controlled by the Republicans. In Clifden, the population tolerated the Republicans but did not support them. The Republicans occupied several buildings. In addition, all petrol was confiscated, roads barricaded and made impassable, railway bridges were blown up and telegraph lines cut. Newspapers were forbidden.
The Republicans burned the buildings they evacuated. In Clifden, the workhouse was burned in July. In addition, on 25 July, the Republicans set fire to the Marconi Station and fired shots at it because they considered the station "a British concern", and because the station had been used by the RIC in their March 1921 call for reinforcements. Transatlantic wireless service was transferred from Clifden to the more modern Marconi wireless station near Waunfawr, Wales. By one reckoning, the station's closure caused an estimated 1,000 people to lose their livelihood.
The National Army sent 150 men, and in the night of 14/15 August the National Army marched to town. However, the Republicans retreated and there was only minimal fighting. The National troops were warmly welcomed by the people of Clifden. The Republicans still controlled the mountains and waged a guerrilla war against the National Army. The Irregulars attacked Army posts and patrols, mainly by sniping, and attacked motor cars. On 13 October, Republicans burned down the Recess Hotel and nearby Glendalough House to prevent the National troops from using them as billets.
On 29 October, the Republicans recaptured Clifden from the around 100 National troops stationed there. The attacking force consisted of around 350 men. They also had with them an "armoured car", called The Queen of the West. This was used to advance towards a defended barracks building. Eventually, the National troops surrendered. However, the Republicans did not occupy the town, which had sustained some damage during the fighting. Communications were once again severed, and the Irregulars took up positions around the town.
Finally, on 16 December, the National Army returned to Clifden and the Republicans once again slipped away before its arrival. The townspeople again welcomed the Army and soon repairs started on bridges and the railway line. Soon the first train in seven months arrived in Clifden.
On 29 April 1935, the Midland Great Western Railway was closed, due to the advent of the motor car, and Clifden railway station fell into disuse.
The N59 road from Galway (77 km away) to Westport, County Mayo (64 km) passes through the town.
Regular coach services are provided by Bus Éireann and Citylink, connecting Clifden with Galway city. Some bus services operate through Oughterard, to the south of Lough Corrib, while others operate via Clonbur / Headford to the north of Lough Corrib.
In 1989, a group of Clifden businessmen issued shares for a company and applied for planning permission for a 1,200 metre runway and associated buildings at Ardagh. A group of locals began to campaign against this proposal, later calling themselves "Save Roundstone Bog". Galway County Council refused planning permission for the airport due to feared damage to the natural beauty of the area, and because it was designated an 'Area of International Scientific Importance' (ASI). The 'Clifden Airport Co.' appealed and as a consequence of the legal proceedings, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, ASI designations were found to be unconstitutional. The company later proposed to exchange the site at Ardagh for part of the Marconi site at Derrygimlagh. However, this also failed due to local and nationwide opposition. Eventually, a smaller 600 metre runway was suggested at Cloon near Cleggan. This runway was built in 2008 and the airfield was supposed to be used for flights to Inishbofin. It has been assigned the airport code EICD but by 2012 it had not been opened for traffic.
Clifden is the main town in Connemara; therefore it is home to a range of services. The HQ for the Connemara Garda service is in Clifden and the main fire station for Connemara is in Clifden.
Part of the services on offer is a public library. It offers material relating to the history of the area. The library hosts an ongoing programme of exhibitions, readings and other cultural events.
Clifden is a popular tourist destination for people exploring Connemara. Places of interest in and around Clifden include:Twelve Bens
Connemara National Park
Sky Road: an 11 km drive along Clifden Bay and Streamstown Bay rising more than 150 m above sea level at Slyne Head, with views of the Atlantic, Clifden Castle, coast-guard station, the islands of Inishturk and Turbot and the town.
Derrygimlagh Bog: a natural wilderness of blanket bog 6 km south of Clifden and the site of the Alcock and Brown crash-landing and the Marconi transatlantic wireless station.
Slyne Head Lighthouse
The Station House includes a hotel, shops, museum, and flats. The Station House was Clifden's railway station from 1 July 1895 to 29 April 1935.
The Connemara Pony Show, organised by the Connemara Pony Breeders' Society and held on the third Thursday in August since 1924. Since 1947 the show has been held in Clifden.
Community Arts Week in late September offers poetry reading, lectures, recitals and traditional music. The festival was first started by teachers in Clifden Community School in 1979 to bring creative arts into the classroom.
Omey Island Races: horse racing on the beach.
In honour of Jon Riley, on 12 September the town of Clifden flies the Mexican flag.
Clifden lies within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tuam and the Church of Ireland Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, and its Omey Union Parish. Clifden has two churches: St. Joseph's (Roman Catholic), completed in 1879, and Christ Church (Church of Ireland), built in 1853, replacing an earlier structure dating to 1810.
Clifden is also home to the Connemara Blacks, which is the rugby team that is prominent in Connemara.
James Mylet's debut novel Lex is set in Clifden. The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reviewed the novel as being set in "the fictional town of Clifden on Ireland's west coast", leading to at least one letter pointing out the inaccuracy of this statement.Clifden native John O'Reilly formed and led the Saint Patrick's Battalion, a unit of almost 200 immigrants and expatriates who defected from the US army and fought with Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.
Clifden is the birthplace of John Bamlet Smallman, Irish-Canadian businessman (1849–1916).
Coyoacan, Mexico (2012)