The road south from Sligo took us across the edge of County Mayo, past the pilgrimage site of Knock, which I am afraid we had no inclination to visit, past the edge of Galway and into County Clare. Here the land rises towards
the limestone pavement area of the Burren, one of the most fascinating landscapes of Ireland. The roads gradually became narrower and twistier, and although the road surface was well maintained it was not particularly flat, so there was a lot of bouncing
around. Our target campsite at Doolin was right on the sea, where the limestone plateau meets the wild Atlantic. As we approached we thought we were coming to the end of the world, then, below us, we saw the tiny port of Doolin, the campsite, and
the Aran Islands sitting at the mouth of Galway Bay.
The campsite of Nagles, Doolin, must be in one of the most idyllic positions in Europe. The site itself is a carefully mown meadow, with smooth tarmac access roads and tarmac/concrete hard standings, ensuring that each caravan is level and dry. The facilities block is comparatively new, clean, and offering all one would need. The view down to the sea is unimpeded, and in the other direction are fields with quietly grazing cows amongst the rocks. A short walk takes you to the little port, where three rival families operate ferry boats to the Aran Islands and trips along the coast to the great cliffs of Moher. There were a number of people in wet suits in the harbour, swimming or just standing around and we soon saw why. There was a dolphin swimming round with them, playing games with them just like a puppy would. It was lovely to see. It was the sort of place where one could happily spend a week or so just relaxing, taking in the fresh air and sitting in the sunshine. By evening the clouds had disappeared so we walked down across the limestone pavement to watch the sun set over Galway Bay. It was very peaceful.
Next morning dawned a bit misty so we drove into Lisdoonvarna, the nearest "town", to get some supplies. It is a quaint little town with very little in the way of shops, just a small Spa and a small Mace, so choice was limited. We did however buy an excellent rhubarb pie in the Mace and some really good home made sausages in the butcher's over the road. We had a walk round the town, which has an above average number of small hotels. The reason for this is that every September there is a matchmaking festival, lasting the whole month, rather like a huge slow motion speed dating event. A group of statues in the town square commemorates this. There is music and dancing all day long and the services of Ireland’s leading matchmaker, Willie Daly, are available. Traditionally farmers and shepherds from the whole of County Clare would attend, looking for a wife, but these days I think most go for the music and the craic. This year, 2013, the festival is for the first time going pink, with a special gay weekend to open the festivities.
Just off the main street we found Lisdoonvarna’s other claim to fame, far more up our street, the Burren Smokehouse, where for several generations the Curtin family have been smoking locally caught Atlantic salmon. Of course we could not resist buying some for our lunch that day. Delicious.
That afternoon we drove into the Burren proper, heading for the Burren Visitor Centre at Kilfenora to get our bearings. Here was a good video presentation showing how the Burren was formed, then realistic displays of the Burren through history. And, of course, a very nice little café with excellent cake. It’s no wonder we put on so much weight while we travel! Next door to the visitor centre were the ruins of the Cathedral of St Fachtna, built on the site of a monastery founded by the said Fachtna in the 6th Century and destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since. Its most notable relics are a number of old Celtic crosses.
Kilfenora, meaning “the church of the fertile hillside”, is a small town that not many have heard of, but that millions have seen on television as the centre for the filming of “Father Ted”, one of the funniest sit-coms for many years. Sure enough as we headed deeper into the Burren we came across Glanquin House, the setting for “Parochial House, Craggy Island”. It is possible to pre-book afternoon tea here, with the McCormack family. Previous visitors include Stephen Spielberg, so who knows, it might be seen on screen again. It was a shame that it is not actually on an island, but it is certainly isolated and the views across the Burren are wonderful.
The limestone pavement of the Burren is a really fascinating landscape. The pavement is made up of “clints” (flat slabs) and “grikes” (deep clefts). In the grikes, sheltered from the prevailing winds, grow all manner of wild flowers which would not normally be found this far north and in such bleak windswept countryside. At this time of year we saw primroses, common enough, but also orchids, anemones, cowslips, hartstongue fern and best of all, gentians. The pavement rises in places to form the mountains of Gortaclare and Moneen, with their bare limestone cliffs looking very inhospitable.
Next we came across the prehistoric dolmen of Poulnabrone . This giant burial site must be one of the largest free standing dolmens we have seen. It collapsed in 1985 following a crack in one of the portal stones and was re-assembled, so it is not all genuine. The 12ft capstone is the original, and during excavations they found the remains of nearly 30 people buried there 4,000 years ago. The body of a newborn baby buried in 1700BC was also found, indicating that the site was of significance for several thousand years. The dolmen stands proudly on a large stretch of limestone pavement full of clints and grikes, making access a little tricky, but the abundance of wild flowers made it all the more rewarding.
On the way from Kilfenora to Father Teds house we passed the ruins of Leamaneh castle. We could find out nothing about its history, but it looked impressive.
Next day was cliffs day. We had been told by
the ferry families that the best time to see the Cliffs of Moher from the sea was mid afternoon, so we decided to see them from the land side in the morning. The weather was perfect, warm sun, clear views and blue seas, what could be better. The
cliffs are where a five mile stretch of the high Burren meets the sea, and the drop is an amazing 700feet straight down to the roiling Atlantic below. They are home to a huge seabird colony, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars in the
cliffs and puffins in the small grassy slopes between them. A pair of choughs are regular visitors, although we did not spot them. There is a superb visitor centre, built into the hillside and blending in with the scenery. It’s a pity they
couldn’t have done the same with the huge car park! At the top of the highest cliff is O’Brien’s Tower, built in 1835 as a tourist attraction and viewpoint. From here on a clear day the views go from Loop Head at the mouth of
the Shannon, with Kerry beyond in the south, and to the Maum Turk mountains of Connemara in the north, five counties in all. Quite breathtaking.
Then in the afternoon we booked ourselves on the 3pm boat trip, but the wind got up and the sun disappeared. Boy was it ever rough. Lesley, filled with Stugeron travel sick pills and some French homeopathic pills, just managed to hold onto her lunch as we were thrown from one wave to the next. We were upstairs, in the open, for fresh air and better views. Every time we had a good view we all stood up to take pictures, then all fell over on top of each other as the boat crashed through the next wave. Downstairs the open area was awash, with the deck occasionally going completely underwater. We felt safe though as we were escorted most of the way by two dolphins, ready to toss us back in if we were swept overboard. We have seen pictures and films of such dolphin escorts before, but this was our first live experience and it was wonderful.
It was a good half hour of this bouncing to reach the cliffs, but once there the boat was able to steer into some more sheltered water so we could see the thousands of birds nesting and the amazing geology of the cliff face. It was strange looking up to the tiny shape of O’Brien’s tower so far above us, surrounded by little tourist ants. Then it was another half hour to get back to Doolin Port and stagger back to the caravan.
We could very happily have stayed at Doolin and explored the Burren for a lot longer, but time was marching on and Galway City was calling.