The Wild Atlantic Way – Part 4
A series of articles about locations along this 2500km marked tourist route, which runs from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south
The Burren world of Galway and Clare
by Ian Middleton
The sheer vertical cliff dropped off at a frightening steep angle, even tapering inwards as it fell away to the rough sea pounding the foot of the cliff 300 feet below. When I first looked over the edge I could see only the ocean far below, and my legs turned to jelly; even though I was actually lying down. It hadn’t helped that I’d needed to cycle up a long path to get here from sea level. The wind howled across the plateau on which I was standing, almost warning me not to get too brave. The three 20-foot thick walls of an ancient ring fort, where I had entered, encircled me all around. There was no other way in or out, besides this cliff. I was in the magnificent, impenetrable fortress of Dun Aonghasa on the island of Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands.
Dun Aonghasa was one of the last strongholds of the Fir Bolg, an ancient race that fled to various parts of the country after being defeated by the Tuatha de Danann. The fort possibly takes its name from Oenghus the God of Love. Aonghus was also a leader of the Fir Bolg. Inishmór is believed to have been the last outpost of the Fir Bolg, and this was most likely their fort.
Inishmore (Inis Mór) is the largest of the three Aran Island, with Inishmaan and Inisheer following closely behind. The Aran Islands are an extension of the large limestone sheet that covers much of the region of County Clare, known as the Burren. It stretches out to sea and rises dramatically out of the water to form these three beautiful islands.
While Inishmore is the largest and most visited, the others are also well worth a visit. Aran Island Ferries run regularly from Rossaveal in County Galway and Doolin Ferries from Doolin in County Clare. You can also take a short flight from Connemara airport to Inishmore with Aer Arann, which takes about 8 minutes.
Hire a bike
The best and most popular way to see Inishmore is to hire a bicycle. The island is just 9 miles wide and 2.5 at its widest point. Naturally the road network isn’t that extensive, but there are two roads to the next major village of Kilmurvey. From Kilronan the road climbs up the hill out of town and then you have the choice of continuing along the high road, or taking the coast road. I took the coast road.
For such a small place the island is littered with ancient monuments. If you hire a bike, they will also give you a great little map of the island. St Ciarán came here and studied under St Enda before going off to establish his monastery at Clonmacnois. Just outside of Kilronan, which was the first site I came across, are the remains of a small church dedicated to him.
It’s here in the island where he dreamed of a tree in the middle of Ireland. This dream was interpreted by St Enda, who said that it represented his life’s work (I’d like to think that my life’s work would culminate to more than just a tree). The church sits on a hill with a lovely view of the coast. It’s a nice, grassy spot and perfect to rest for a while and soak up the peaceful, rhythmic sounds of the sea.
Like Tory Island, the Aran Islands are also Gaeltacht areas, thus all signs are in Irish. There are schools here where people come not only from all across Ireland, but the world, to study the language.
There are two other spectacular forts on the island to visit. Dun Dubhchathair (the black fort), and Dun Eoghanachta, a fort established by the Eóghanacht clan from Munster.
Don’t forget Inisheer
If you can, I highly recommend a visit to the smallest of the three islands: Inisheer. This was where I first experienced a true awakening when it came to the Irish people’s passion for music. Danny, who worked at the hostel in Doolin, had come over for the night and was playing his guitar and singing songs in the pub, and his payment was simply beer for the evening. The pubs there stay open for as long as they want because there are no police on the island. In fact, a newspaper article framed on the wall was testament to this. A few years before, the police had sent over an officer from the mainland disguised as a backpacker, who noted the closing time of the pub and promptly fined them for serving out of hours. The newspaper headline had read: The Landlord that Time Forgot.
Next to this newspaper clipping was a framed illustration depicting a country pub with images of people partying inside, and drunks stumbling about and slumped against the wall outside. Crawling along the roof and watching furtively from behind walls were figures wearing backpacks. The caption read:
Everyone knows there are no police on Inisheer.
It was three o’clock in the morning and I was just about to light a cigarette when I suddenly became aware that not a sound could be heard. It was so quiet that you could have heard an ant fart from across the room. I then became aware of a female voice singing, and wandered towards the rear of the pub to find it was a local girl, singing without music. For the next hour I sat and listened intently as each of the locals took it in turn to sing a favourite song of theirs. The songs came from the heart. They weren’t singing for money, or for fame. They were singing because they simply loved the songs, and loved to sing them. And I liked that.
Back on the mainland
Signs will tell you for miles that you have entered the Burren region, but for a while you might think that it looks no different from elsewhere in Ireland; until you reach the coast. Suddenly the landscape changes dramatically from green with a sparse scattering of grey limestone rocks, to a vast, cracked limestone table stretching out to the sea.
The R477 coast road north of Doolin is the most spectacular part of the Burren. Stark grey limestone hills and coastline cover the landscape. Giant slabs of smooth limestone carpet the region, all with deep cracks spreading out like a cracked sheet of glass. Limestone mountains dot the horizon, and it almost feels like you’ve landed on another planet.
The best place to stay here is in the village of Doolin. Not only is there a ton of accommodation there, but it also has a well-deserved reputation for being one the best places to hear live Irish music. Almost every pub will have people playing, but not only the Irish, but people from around the world come here to play with the locals, creating an eclectic mix unique to the area.
The coastal road runs right around past Black Head to Ballyvaughan. Here I turned inland along the R480 and drove into the heart of the Burren. There are over seventy identified Neolithic tombs in the Burren region, but I was looking for Poulnabrone, the most photographed dolmen in Ireland.
The dolmen stands on a low cairn about 30 feet in diameter. The capstone looks like a solid stone table sitting on four upright stones. The backstone has collapsed. The capstone slopes towards the back, and this gives it the dramatic look that has attracted so many photographers.
The grave was excavated in 1968 and found to contain the remains of 22 adults and six children, one a newborn baby. Radiocarbon dating suggests that they were buried around 3800BC.
What helps makes this monument so dramatic is the landscape surrounding it. The cairn sits amid cracked limestone sheets with scattered rocks all around and the Aillwee Mountain sitting on the horizon.
Just over a mile up the road towards Ballyvaughan is the Gleninsheen Wedge Grave. You can spot it more easily if coming from Ballyvaughan, as it sits about the height of the nearby wall, but there is no sign.
This is a magnificent wedge grave. Its capstone is supported by one long stone either side, and it almost looks like a little house. The front is open, and bushes obscure the back, yet the rest of it remains completely visible. A solid gold collar was found here, and is now in the National Museum of Ireland. There is also another wedge grave nearby, but this had been badly displaced and only one stone remains standing.
The Cliffs of Moher
Lying to the south of the Burren, stretching 8 kilometres up the coast and soaring to a height of over 200 metres, the Cliff of Moher have earned a place among the most famous landmarks of Ireland. To this end, they are also one of the most popular. So being able to experience this without the crowds is next to impossible.
Just like Dun Aonghasa, these cliffs drop off at sheer ninety degrees angles. There is a solid concrete ledge where you can lay down flat on your stomach and crawl to the edge to look over. You can hear the waves crashing against sharp rocky outcrops far below and see just how it has eaten into the base of the cliffs, forming craggy recesses and caves.
The birds seem like tiny dots flying around and nesting on the cliffs below you. The high cliffs protruding from the sea look like small rocks from here. It’s a truly amazing way to view this spectacular landscape; though the sign in the car park and the fact you have to climb over a wall to get here is testament to the potential risk you take. The cliffs comprise of soft shale and sandstone, and large sections quite often fall away. But it doesn’t seem to stop the crowds.
Portals to the Land of Eternal Youth
Another fascinating phenomenon exists in the Burren called Turloughs. These are seasonal lakes that appear and disappear. There are two theories as to why:
The geological theory is that they appear after periods of heavy rain and drain away during the dryer periods because the limestone is porous. The lakes usually dry up are identified by a white residue.
According to folklore though, they are magical portals to the Tir na Nog, the mythical Land of Eternal Youth where the Celts believe the Tuatha de Danann retreated after their defeat.
Personally, I prefer to believe the latter theory.