North Clare and its Burren landscape is a barren, yet breath taking part of the country, writes Mimi Murray.
There are many diverse and exceptional places to visit along the Wild Atlantic Way, but north Co Clare, with its glaciated karst limestone landscape, known as the Burren, stands out.
Locals believe this barren but breathtaking part of the country, which is designated a UNESCO Global Geopark, formed part of JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for Lord of the Rings.
That’s up in the air, but it certainly inspired poetry by the likes of WB Yeats, Seamus Heaney, and Emily Lawless.
Recently, we did a whistle-stop tour of the region with two small kids, arriving in Ballyvaughan following a three-hour car journey from Dublin.
A hearty lunch at Haydns, a local hotel serving great seafood, put us right after the trip, and soon it was on to Kilfenora (famed for its Céilí band, founded in 1909) and Burren glamping, where we laid our heads that first night.
This is a variation on posh camping- a one-off horse box, renovated to the highest standard — and I’m just thinking to myself how George Clarke would be impressed with this ‘Amazing Space’, when the kids leap from the decking and run to a donkey grazing in a nearby field.
Situated on a free-range pork farm, the owners are only too happy to show visitors around and we were lucky enough to become acquainted with a litter of rare breed saddleback piglets that roam freely through the fields.
The space sleeps four to five comfortably, with two double beds set like steps of stairs and an investment in extremely good mattresses meant a quality night sleep for all of us.
The next morning, we set off for the Poulnabrone Dolmen, one of Ireland’s most iconic archaeological monuments and the oldest dated megalithic tomb in the country.
There are plenty of walking tours with guides available, although with two small kids, we decided to give this one a miss.
Instead we opted for the Caherconnell Fort, where two sheepdog demonstrations run daily.
As fans of Babe, both the kids and I were enamoured with the skills of the Border collie and farmer, as they put the sheep through their paces.
Close by is the Fort, built in the 10th century AD, it remains one of the best preserved stone forts in Ireland.
A quick google search tells us we’re not far from Fr Ted’s house, or rather, the place where most of the outdoors scenes for the iconic TV series were filmed.
After a short debate on whether or not we should spend 45 minutes trying to find an isolated house in the middle of nowhere, the diehard fan wins out and as a result we spend some time driving through some exceptional, otherworldly landscape. T
he house looks far more salubrious in real life but it is a private residence, so you can’t enter the grounds, except by prior appointment, for afternoon tea.
Later someone asks if we took the ‘Kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse’ money shot. We kick ourselves for not thinking of that, but pat ourselves on the back for having deviated from the itinerary.
It was worth it.
A short drive north took us to Flaggy Shore for the Shuck Off Oyster Experience.
Father and daughter duo, Gerry and Ciara O’Halloran are there to greet us for what turns out to be a highlight of the trip.
Flaggy shore has some of the best oysters in the country, and I spied a couple of boxes about to be dispatched to several top restaurants in Dublin.
Gerry, who looks every inch the archetypal seafarer, gave a group of eight of us a brief history of the area, and explained how tides provide the ideal water for these molluscs.
An aquarium is home to several sea creatures, and Zac, my 7-year-old, was trepidatious to begin with, but soon made friends with live star fish, sea cucumbers and mini crabs, lugging them out of the tank before gently putting them back in. W
e also learned how to shuck, which takes a while to get the hang of but soon enough we were prising open the shells and feasting on the contents, washing it down with some very nice Portuguese Rueda.
Gregan’s Castle, another favourite of Tolkien’s, and there is photographic evidence to prove it this time, is a gorgeous 18th century property that has been open to guests since the 1940s and whilst it’s probably a better setting for couples, they made the children feel extremely welcome on our second night in Clare.
You’ll experience some of the best views of the Burren, stretching across to Galway Bay, from the house.
Croquet on the manicured lawn kept the kids amused for a little while and there are lots of board games provided in the gorgeous little bar or if it’s just adults, there is plenty of craic to be had, as guests get to know each other over a brandy or a pint, after a delicious tasting menu in the hotel’s restaurant.
Ailwee Caves was on the itinerary of my second-year school tour. Back then I got about 10 steps in, turned on my heel and fled.
Claustrophobia gets the better of about five people a day, the guide reassured me when we visited the next day, but this time, in the name of research, I was determined to finish.
The cave was discovered in 1944 by farmer Jack McCann, who followed his dog down a rabbit hole.
He kept his revelation a secret for nearly 30 years but in 1973, cavers began exploration of over a kilometre of passages, some of them very narrow and oppressive, but opens up to a more expansive space in the belly of the cave.
An internal waterfall deviates between a trickle and a torrent, often soaking tourists after heavy rainfall.
Somewhere in between on the day we visited, we passed by unbaptised, somewhat to our disappointment.
Back outside, the birds of prey centre educates and entertains visitors with flying displays from hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls, but their mission is to conserve and care for these majestic creatures.
Younger (and some older) kids let the birds perch on their arm, all under the watchful eye of an experienced guide, of course.
On our way back to Lisdoonvarna, the vastness of Fanore strand opened up before us, and we stopped for an impromptu dip in the ocean, before dropping off our bags to our final lodgings, Ballinsheen House, an award-winning modern B&B on the outskirts of the village, famed for its exceptional breakfasts.
A calm evening promised excellent sailing conditions, and we took off for the Cliffs of Moher from Doolin (doolin2aranferries.com).
Steadily we made our way out to sea, and with next stop Greenland, we felt plenty of the Atlantic’s might and strength, as the boat rocked and swayed.
We reached An Branán Mór sea stack, which stands 60m above sea level, and the boat is guided closer to the rocks. Puffins, razorbills and guillemots flew overhead and there was an eerie almost Hitchcockian feel to the experience, but one not to be missed.
Back on dry land and with rumbling bellies, the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna provided hearty sustenance and some live ceili music kept the influx of tourists happy.
The proprietors of the Tavern also own The Burren Smokehouse, just a few doors down and we dropped in the next morning.
It’s possible to see the organic salmon being smoked and to sample some of what is on offer.
Soon after we packed up the car and bribed the children into their seats with something sweet from Linalla Ice Cream — it’s on the Burren food trail and the cream used comes straight from the owner’s farm.
As we started our journey home, we passed several tour buses, making their way to the cliffs from some five-star hotel in Dublin. Often they come and go in a day, I’m told, but that’s a shame.
There are many parts of this area that remain largely untouched, but it offers so much to those who do decide to stay a while.
For details of all places visited see: burren.ie