Two weeks spent in Ireland this Summer confirmed several things for me. Firstly, the Greeks and Romans, who surely saw the outer Atlantic island as a dark and wintry place and called it names like Scotia and Hibernia, were right. There’s no doubt about it, if you come from the Mediterranean, Ireland – even in Summer – can seem a dark and wintry place. And secondly, when Jim Morrison said “the West is the best”..he was right too! (I don’t believe for a second that Jim was referring to California..).
After a few days visiting family in the East we headed West..to the Atlantic coast where i was born. More family visits but also getting closer to Nature. We first hit the coast in Cill Chaoi (Kilkee) in SouthWest Clare, where we walked along the cliffs just North of this small seaside town.
It was an afternoon of bright sunshine, but the fresh wind blowing in from the sea meant that jackets stayed mostly on and zipped up. Even my sister and her daughter – who live locally – found it cool.
This beautiful, rugged, western coast of Ireland has recently been marketed as the Wild Atlantic Way, and this part of the Clare coast certainly still retains something of wild.
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The following day the weather remained good and we got out on the sea, thanks to an old friend of mine who took us on his boat for a sail across the Shannon estuary, setting out from Cill Rois (Kilrush) and crossing towards the Kerry coast.
On the way back, we stopped off at a small island known as Inis Cathaigh (Scattery) where you can visit an ancient round tower and the ruins of an early Christian monastery founded in the sixth century by Senán, one of the first fathers of the Irish church.
The island is now uninhabited and despite being very close to the coast is rarely overrun by tourists – overrun by rabbits more like – so a visit to Inis Cathaigh can be a very tranquil experience, offering the opportunity to connect to the deep Christian past..when Christianity still meant something spiritual.
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A couple of rainy days later, we headed to North Clare to visit one of Ireland’s biggest natural attractions, the Cliffs of Moher (Aillte an Mhothair). There are cliffs along many parts of the West Clare coast, and indeed all along the western coast of Ireland, but none as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher.
My wife and i had done this same walk of about 15km along the top of the cliffs exactly fifteen years ago..so we thought we knew what to expect. Back then, while we were not exactly alone, there were few people walking along the cliffs – hill-walkers, the odd adventurous tourist – outside the central area near the high point of the cliffs where the Visitor Center is located. Even in the middle section, in the Summer of 1999, there were not more than a few hundred tourists. Late August 2014, it was almost like Grafton Street in Dublin, hoards of tourists, literally thousands of people..at least in the paved central stretch of 2km around O’Brien’s Tower. Evidence of the growth of tourism, i guess..so much for the Wild Atlantic Way.
In truth, you really only have to avoid those central two kilometers – or the central part of the day – to have a different experience of the cliffs. More solitary, quieter, wilder. And certainly no less beautiful than the middle part. You can be alone with the wild flowers, the vertiginous drops, the Atlantic breakers..and you can even say ‘hello’ to the people you meet.
As the kilometers pass, the cliffs begin to lose height and you drop down closer to the ocean. The elemental power of the sea is always present, even from 200m above, but as you get nearer to the great waves breaking on the rocks, it becomes really palpable.
However the sea was not the only ‘powerful element’ around that afternoon..if you looked back along the cliffs towards the South – where we were coming from – the view was bucolic and relatively tranquil..
..but if you looked forward, northwards, where we were heading, the picture was not so pretty (well, the picture understood literally as an aesthetic entity might even be considered relatively pretty..but the “picture” understood figuratively as our immediate situation was at least a little threatening!)..
We had suffered a couple of light showers earlier in the afternoon, but what we could see up ahead was no light shower. So we quickened our pace as much we were able to..but having a five-year-old in your group means that there are limitations on how fast you can go.
Still we did very well, making good time towards our destination, the small North Clare village of Dúlainn (Doolin), and the clouds appeared to be lightening up as we got nearer. When we arrived in town it even seemed that the storm had passed..
..but within five minutes it began to rain, softly at first but soon it was lashing down. We were glad to be inside!
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The next day was a bit grey and gloomy weatherwise, but at least it wasn’t raining and the forecast promised a more or less dry day. So we took the ferry from Doolin out to Inis Óir (Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran Islands and the nearest to the Clare coast. Again, out on the water on a choppy day, even on a relatively large boat carrying upwards of one hundred people, you really feel the power of the sea. The crossing only takes about 45 minutes but some people were feeling the worse for it. I am always filled with admiration for the spirit of those who took to the sea in small rowboats thousands of years ago in these same waters. Even today the local people still occasionally use the traditional boat, the currach, to cross from the mainland to the islands with nothing more than the power of their arms to propel them. And the classical image is that of a boat with just two or three men, at most four, at the oars. Tough guys!
We were fortunate enough to see a dolphin playing about the boat as we pulled in to Inis Óir. On the island we spent quite a bit of time in a large playground near the beach, before making the short trek up the hill to the top of the island where there is an ancient ringfort with a small late medieval castle built inside of it.
This still left us time to do a slightly longer trek along the eastern coast of the island, before taking the boat back to the mainland, in order to visit a rather unusual – not to say unnatural – tourist attraction. Twenty minutes walking brought us to the wreck of the Plassy, a cargo ship which ran aground on the rocky shore of the island fifty years ago..and remains there today.
But maybe more on that another day..!
Coming soon: Ireland, Part 2: The East ain’t so bad either.
PS – if this inspires you to visit the West of Ireland and in particular the Atlantic coast of Clare, be sure to drop in to my sister’s pub – Walsh’s – in the small village of Cree (also Creegh, or An Chríoch), quite close to Kilkee.