A visit to the County Clare...
The annual Epping Forest Outdoor Group visit to Ireland this year was to County Clare, leaving home on Saturday 17th June and arriving back on Sunday 25th June.
By way of three cars and the ferry between Holyhead and Dublin, we all travelled to Liscannor, a village on the west coast. The twelve occupants of the three cars met up at Bangor for a meal on Saturday evening and then crossed the Menai Straits to drive across Anglesey to Holyhead. We had pre-booked an overnight stay in a hotel near the port and caught a Sunday morning ferry across to Dublin. There was still a 270-mile or so drive across Ireland to complete before we reached Liscannor in the evening.
Our rented house had been well-chosen by Eileen, situated on a quiet road and with the garden stretching down towards low cliffs and a bay which separated Liscannor from the town of Lahinch. From the lounge we could sit and gaze at lovely views across the bay, with – just a short way away – the fragile-looking remains of the fortress tower from which the village gets its name: the fort of Connor - Lios Ceannúir.
Our first expedition, on Monday, was to the attractive and colourful village of Doolin, some 16km to the north. From there we set out to walk the 8 miles back to where we'd left one of the cars not too far from Liscannor. It was an exhilarating walk, always within sight of the sea, and looking out towards the Aran Islands and beyond to the Galway Coast. Beyond that is nought but America.
The walk is along the the heights of the Cliffs of Moher – grand cliffs rising up to 700ft and reputably Ireland's biggest tourist attraction. For all that, although we met other walkers and maybe some passed us, the only place where it got crowded (really crowded!) was at the visitor centre, about half-way along our walk. The weather was phenomenal. Has 27C. ever been known in Ireland before!
On Tuesday we returned to Doolin, but this time went down to the harbour. We'd booked passage on a ferry to the Aran Islands, so on Tuesday we returned, parked our cars in the village and walked down to the harbour. The Arans consist of three islands off the coasts of Clare and Galway, and are perhaps best known for the production of Aran sweaters. We'd chosen to go to the largest of the three, appropriately named Inishmore, or the Big Island. The others are Inishmaan and Inisheer. Being the largest of the islands, Inishmore is also the busiest, with a bustling harbour bringing lots of visitors in the season. Hence, as well as the shops, pubs and cafes, there are bike-hire facilities, and mini-buses and pony-and-traps waiting to pounce. We chose a mini-bus for a general tour of the island and particularly to visit Dun Aengus.
Dun Aengus (Dún Aonghasa) is a cliff-edge fort, thought to have been built during the Bronze and Iron Ages. One 19th-century description was "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe." We duly paid our entry fee at the visitor centre and trekked up the access path over the karst limestone rocks that comprise the islands. Despite the heat, and considering the numbers of other visitors – some not so young and some obviously not so fit – well worth the effort.
On Wednesday the three cars carried their occupants on different journeys, depending on what had attracted individuals through looking at the guide books and leaflets. With Brian our driver, Kathy and Lynne, we journeyed to Craggaunowen (Creagán Eoghain). This has a 16th-century castle, which has been renovated from a ruin and is accessible up to the top ramparts, and a reconstruction of an iron-age village, including a crannog, which is a fortified settlement built on a man-made island. The whole is set in lovely woodland surroundings with a number-indicated pathway winding through with examples of constructions from stone, bronze and iron ages. An excited group of piglets came running up to us, squealing down the rocky woodland hillside, but behind a fence. Obviously they were after food, but mum came along and asked them to leave us alone – which all but three did – and then dad came too, and the whole family wandered off into the trees. They were bronze-age-style pigs – in other words, wild boar. At Craggaunowen too is the 'Brendan Boat', the hide boat in which Tim Severin sailed from Ireland to the United States, re-enacting the voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator, who in the 6th century is said to have made that voyage to High Brasil – the promised land out to the west across the Atlantic – and thus discovered the Americas. It may well have been the indigenous people had discovered it before, though.
Wednesday was the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year – and I would have loved to have gone out to the cliffs of Moher – only a few miles from Liscannor – to watch the sun go down oe'r Galway Bay, as well as the Aran Islands. The idea wasn't well received generally with one comment being “You can watch the Sun go down from here”. Well, you can watch the Sun go down from anywhere, it's true – but not always o'er Galway Bay, and not always over the sea – which you couldn't from Liscannor. And also not always on the Solstice. The only saving aspect of my not being able to go to the cliffs of Moher (which was too far to walk) was that it was cloudy. The sunset took place, as it usually does, but I wouldn't have seen it anyway.
Our second long walk was on Thursday, beginning again with a drive to and through Doolin, parking by the sea and a 9 mile walk with a lot of uphill slog onto the edge of the Burren and back down along a long, quiet, country road to the car park. It was a nice walk, and the heat wasn't as great as before, mostly warm, but sometimes with a cool breeze.
The Burren is one of the wonders of Ireland, and unique in the country. It – like the similar Aran Islands – is a landscape of karst limestone pavement, as can be found in parts of the Pennines, for example. However, the Burren is huge, and because of the mild climate combined with a northerly position and sometimes harsh weather, there is a strange and unique mix of plants to be found there – some Mediterranean, some Alpine and some in-between. Many exist in the deep grikes between great slabs of limestone – a bit like paving stones. However, walking a distance in a day doesn't really give opportunity to look closely at the wildlife, so I found myself passing things I'd never seen before and had only read about, and hoping that I'd come back sometime to enjoy the area in closer detail.
On Friday again we set out for different places in different cars. This time Brian, Kathy, Fred and I went to Doolin Cave. Doolin again. It is advertised as a truly wild cave, though a modern visitor centre and cafe is a prelude to an impressive 120-step metal staircase down an 80ft. lined shaft into the cave. There are just-about head-height man-enlarged tunnels to negotiate, and the hard-hats were a necessity judging from the number of times that they could be heard to hit the ceiling as we processed through. It is by no means the most attractive limestone cave system that I have visited; it doesn't even have the traditional organ-pipes, elephant's head and Madonna and child that most do. Nor is it extremely colourful as some are (although I have suspected trick-lighting in some of those). But, the great stalactite is a wonder. It hangs almost alone but for a few much lesser stalactites, in a great cavern. And the cavern needs to be great because this is the second longest stalactite known, the longest being – we were told – in the Lebanon. A look on Google didn't quite dispute this, though longest and largest is of course different, and Mexico comes into it somewhere. The Doolin stalactite, notwithstanding (or notwithhanging, maybe?) is something like 24 feet long, and is truly awe-inspiring (well, at least to me it was). I had a bit of a job getting someone to translate the Irish name (Poll an Eidhneáin) of the cave for me, but eventually got 'Cave of the ivy cliff'.
From the cave we went to Kilfenora, an attractive small town with – amongst other attractions – an old church and some even older stone crosses in the grounds. It was raining a bit there, so we didn't stay long, but proceeded along smaller roads towards Father Ted's house, set way into the countryside and not on Craggy Island. The small roads took us onto the edge of the Burren landscape proper, with limestone walls and patches of the the brilliant Bloody Cranesbill flowers at the roadsides. In the distance we could see Mullaghmore mountain, around which is now an area of outstanding natural beauty and recognised as one of the most distinctive landscapes in Europe. We had a nice tea-shop-stop in Corofin, and wandered down to the River Fergus before returning to Liscannor. That evening we drove to Lahinch for our evening meal, and I seemed the only one disappointed. My choice was a looked-forward-to fish and chips, but this proved to be the most bland fish I have ever eaten. Apart from one experience at Ramsgate – where I am not sure the “cod” was even a fish – I have never had such a poor fish and chip meal. The others apparently enjoyed theirs, though, so perhaps I got a poor one or it was “just me”. The walk back to the cars was enlivened by some of the group drawing faces in the sand of the extensive beach at Lahinch.
Saturday was the day of our departure, and the lady came along at about 9.30 to see what damage we'd done. She seemed pleased that we hadn't wrecked the place, and we said to farewell to her, to the house and to Liscannor, and again chose different routes for our day-long journey back to Dublin in time for the late-night ferry.
Brian, Kathy, Lynne and I travelled at first on relatively smaller roads, and thus encountered some nice scenery, including more of the wonderful Burren landscape. We stopped briefly at Lough Bunny – the name of which for some reason amused me – and experienced the shallow waters changing colours from blues to light green as the light varied, all with a backdrop of distant Mullaghmore mountain. Unexpectedly - because none of us had researched the route- we found Kilmacduagh Monastery, a ruined abbey near the town of Gort in Co. Galway. We might have passed it by had it not been for the round tower, around which is a collection of old monastic buildings, a church and a graveyard which is still in use.
We'd arranged for all cars to meet up at the Ireland's National Stud in the Curragh of Kildare at 3pm., but first we stopped for a nice lunch at Portumna on the way. The town wasn't quaint or anything, just pleasant and with the nice little cafe that we chose.
As planned, we arrived at the National Stud and paid our entrance fee to walk around a Japanese garden, and then some of the rest of the grounds. This is where they have bred and breed some of the most renowned race-horse. We saw Arkell, but he looked a lot underfed to me, little more than bones. It was a nice interlude, meeting up with the others before the final haul on motorways to Dublin.
The crossing was a late one, so we arrived at Holyhead towards 1am on Sunday morning. We'd pre-booked our original rooms at the TL.hotel, so quickly settled down to a short-night's sleep before a quick breakfast in a local fast-food restaurant with a Scottish-sounding name and then the drive across Anglesey and the Menai Straits into an increasingly wet and busy-roaded mainland Wales. We stopped off at Chester for lunch and a cathedral visit, then Brian continued the long drive home through England.
My thanks to Eileen for organising and planning the holiday so well, as she always does, and to Brian for driving all that way up through England, along the coast of north Wales, right across Anglesey and Holy Island, and right across Ireland – and back. And thanks, Brian, for picking me up at the door, and dropping me right back there. That was a weight off my shoulders, and my arms! Thanks too to the others on the holiday who helped make it so enjoyable.
Paul Ferris, 29th June 2017