Of all the different and interesting ways there are for getting from one place to another, my least favorite is by massive-unwieldy-overly-air-conditioned-environmentally-challenged-hundred-plus-passenger tour bus. The Welsh would call that an muaaoacechpppptbb…and they’d be able to pronounce it, too. But that seems to be our only option in the shoulder season, so we layer on sweaters and board our coach in Galway for the beautiful drive across County Galway and into County Clare to the Cliffs of Moher.
We pass beautiful Galway Bay on our way out, a little piece of the Emerald Isle that seems to have the power to move some people to song. If you search the internet you’ll find no less than a dozen musical references to Galway Bay, including John Lennon’s The Luck of the Irish and a song sung by Sean Connery for the movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People. To be sure, I felt like breaking into song myself on such a beautiful morning. But our tour operator, experienced in these matters, seemed less optimistic about the day and hurried us along toward the Cliffs of Moher as a weather front apparently loitered just offshore.
Thatched roofs are not nearly as common as they once were. Thatching isn’t considered a strong career choice. The fewer thatchers there are, the fewer thatched homes there are so it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. It’s a dying art. We passed this group of thatched summer cottage rentals and then came across a fellow doing his own re-thatching. How hard could it be, really? The blue tint to this photo is a result of the darkly tinted windows on our tour bus – another reason for me to spurn this mode of transportation.
Our lunch stop was in the teensy village of Doolin – population 500. There are four pubs. Do the math. From what I could tell, this ratio is pretty typical of the whole country. Most of the residents were outside on this gorgeous day, sitting on rickety chairs along the sidewalk in front of the shops soaking up what would probably be the last rays of sun for awhile on this notoriously wet coast. I browsed a couple of little shops and was surprised to be asked the same question in both, “Do you have people here?” I guess folks routinely come here seeking a connection with ancestors and I truly wished I could have beamed expansively and declared myself an O’Connor or an O’Brien or even a Fitzpatrick. But alas, O’Johnson is not a clan familiar to these parts.
There are over two thousand of these tower houses in Ireland, often mistakenly called castles. Most were built in the fifteen hundreds, typically in less inhabited areas as both residences and defenses. There are some two hundred and thirty of these tower houses in County Clare and we passed several of them.
Scrape away the meagre mantle of soil in this part of the country and you will find The Burren, or great rock – one of the largest karst landscapes in Europe. We travelled up and across this spectacular moonscape on our way to the western edge of County Clare. Miles and miles of limestone mountains were formed some 350 million years ago as sedimentary layers in a tropical sea. One Edmund Ludlow, a geurilla fighter in The Burren in the mid-sixteen hundreds described it as “…a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
Much of The Burren is privately owned, having been passed down in ancient families through many generations. There being no shortage of building material, properties were staked out with stacked rock walls that in some cases stretch all the way up and over the solid rock slopes. It seems that once these folks started stacking rocks they just kept going. If you look closely at the third photo here you can see one of these remarkable rock walls snaking up and over the crest of the solid rock hills in the distance.
Our guide has hurried us along, rushing us through lunch and cutting short the stops of interest along the way so we can reach the Cliffs of Moher ahead of the weather. And we arrive all of a sudden on the very edge of Ireland, with the dark clouds piling up behind us. “Run!” hollers our driver, “Get those photos while you can!” And we ran. But we stopped short at our first sight of this….
The fields directly above the Cliffs of Moher are given over to cattle grazing, so the million or so tourists who visit the cliffs every year do so by way of narrow dirt paths squeezed between the sheer seven hundred foot drop on one side and the electrified cattle fence on the other.
Yes, these are my hard-to-miss running shoes. I could not resist the temptation to see just how close to the edge I could get before being lured to an ungraceful death by vertigo.
I was not the most impetuous person on the cliffs this day, as some brave or foolhardy souls crept out onto the jagged edges of these cliffs and lay on their stomachs peering over. This spot gets my vote for the most likely to be the next fragments to break off and fall into the sea. I wasn’t going there. It happens.
The O’Brien’s are one of the ancient families of The Burren. Cornelius O’Brien built this tower in 1834 to impress visitors with breath-taking views of the Cliffs of Moher and of the Arran Islands to the northwest. The Arrans are perhaps best known for the sweaters knitted by the wives of it’s fishermen – the pattern in each sweater unique to the family, so when a sweater washed up on shore the family might learn of a son or a husband lost to the sea.
Our guide had it right. As I turned to make my way back from the far end of the cliffs the skies opened up and the wind came in with enthusiasm. I spent much of the inbound trek thinking about whether I would prefer to be blown over the cliffs or impaled on the electric fence. Happily neither. I made it to the visitors center a little damp but just in time for tea. The grazing cows seemed unconcerned about either the weather or the tourist hordes, contentedly unaware that they are foraging one of the great wonders of the world.
The weather didn’t get any better as we made our way back to Galway so this stop along the coastline south of Galway Bay was a brief but close encounter with the phenomena of karst topography.
It’s decision time. This is an impromptu itinerary. Aside from the first week in London, we have not made any advanced bookings for this trip, preferring to keep our options open and have the flexibility to stay longer anywhere along the way. So tonight we will decide which direction to take when we leave Galway tomorrow. Will it be Cork? Killarney? Limerick or Tralee? Stay tuned!