From the Burren to the Cliffs of Moher, Tony Clayton-Lea is stone mad for the charms of Co Clare.
CO CLARE isn’t what you’d call short of Irish character or Irish history.
It does, it’s fair to say, have a wealth of the kind of essential Irishness that natives are perhaps blasé about, and that visitors view as profound (or odd, or just plain awesome).
The truth is, it’s all there: the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, matchmaking festivals, traditional music, hurling.
It is known throughout Ireland as the Banner County, so named after the local tradition of unfurling banners to celebrate political victories — a ritual, of sorts, that stretches all the way back to Daniel O’Connell.
Let’s start with the Burren, a National Park. It is said — quite justifiably, that if you want to get to the soul of the landscape here then you have to walk on it.
The limestone that covers the 100 square miles of the Burren (the Gaelic translation is “place of stone”) formed from the shells of sea creatures at the bottom of shallow seas over 300 million years ago.
Then, we are informed, Ireland occupied a place on the globe at the latitude of where Egypt is today. Rivers? Most run underground in the porous Burren; only one (the Caher) runs overland, reaching the sea at Fanore.
The place has a unique mixture of alpine plants and flowers, and it is this diversity in plant life that is a legacy from a retreating glacier that deposited seeds and other debris in its wake during the last Ice Age.
The high light density in the area, along with the natural heat that comes from the limestone and the influence of the Gulf Stream, commingle to create a climate where the flora is never out of bloom.
Of the 1,400-plus species of plant is Ireland, the Burren is home to over 1,100 of them; some are rare, all are beautiful, and it is no surprise whatsoever that botanists from all over the world arrive here to gaze in wonder before getting down to work.
In Kilfenora, the Buren Centre focuses on the rich display of flora and fauna of the region, as well as the history of humans within the context of the landscape.
The Centre is well worth your time, as, crucially, it serves as a starting point for those not used to the importance of conservation.
The primary lesson to learn is: do NOT pick the flowers! You can’t look at the trees, either, because there aren’t any —and all the bushes lean to the east under the firm and not always friendly influence of the westerly winds.
So, yes, the Burren is a not-to-be-missed beautiful riot of colour and plant life, but in fairness to General Edmund Ludlow, an officer in Cromwell’s army, he was right when he dismissively declared the Burren as having not enough “water to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”
After the Burren, we have to mention the Cliffs of Moher. Located at the south-western edge of the Burren, the cliffs rise almost 400ft above the Atlantic at Hag’s Head (the southernmost point of the cliffs), and reach their maximum height of over 700ft just north of O’Brien’s Tower, which is about three miles to the north.
A tourist magnet, the cliffs receive more than a million visitors each year. The views are spectacular, and from various vantage points, you can see the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, the 12 Pins and Maumturks mountain ranges to the north in Co Galway, and Loop Head to the south.
The cliffs take their name from the old Irish word ‘Mothar’; since 2011, they have formed a part of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark, which is one of a family of geo-tourism destinations throughout Europe.
There is also a brilliant Visitor Centre (or, as they call it, Visitor Experience; cliffsofmoher.ie), which is built into a hillside as you approach the cliffs. Facility exhibits include interactive media displays that focus on the history, geology, and plant life of the cliffs.
Indeed, it’s fair to say that most of the visitors here aren’t necessarily aware of how high in esteem the cliffs are held by geological and wildlife experts.
Consisting primarily of beds of ancient shale and sandstone, it is possible to see 300 million-year-old river channels coursing their way through. The area is also deemed an important habitat for the conservation of the populations of birds.
Difficult as it might be to believe it, there are an estimated 30,000 birds living on the cliffs. (You can get a better idea of the amount — and better views — from the sea. There are separate ferry trips for this, by the way.)
Some people say that visiting the cliffs is akin to experiencing a Zen state of mind. We’re not so sure about that, as the birds can create something of a racket. The waves below, too, can crash, bang and wallop, although there’s something truly exhilarating about it.
There’s a strong spiritual pull here, though, and it’s not all surprising to discover that, after her death in 1999, the ashes of singer Dusty Springfield (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien to Irish parents from Co Kerry) were scattered at the cliffs.
Speaking of music, throughout all of this you should never forget that traditional music seeps through everything. From Doolin, Kilfenora and Kilrush to Tulla, Feakle, Miltown Malbay and Ennis, music is all pervasive.
It pulses, it throbs, it hums and it swoops and sweeps its way from the top of the county to the bottom, and all points east to west.
Some music experiences are as traditional as you can get. Some veer towards the bohemian. All are typically Co Clare: essential, profound, and just plain wonderful.
WHERE TO EAT
There is quirky (Afternoon Tea at Father Ted’s House, Glanquinn, Kilnaboy – appointment only, phone 087-9214694); there is educational (Aillwee Cave Tea Room, Aillwee Cave, Ballyvaughan; aillweecave.ie); and there is award-winning gourmet (Gregan’s Castle Restaurant, Ballyvaughan; www.gregans.ie ).
WHERE TO SLEEP
Located in one of the most visually inspiring locations in Ireland, the 4-star Armada Hotel, Spanish Point ( www.armadahotel.com ), has 86 stylish, contemporary rooms, a bar and a restaurant that each boast becalming views of Clare’s gorgeous coastline.
If you’re after a mix of wildlife and luxury, then 5-star Dromoland Castle Hotel, Newmarket-on-Fergus ( www.dromoland.ie ), is the place — it has all of the features you can expect from such a property.
The Feakle International Traditional Music Festival ( www.feaklefestival.ie ) runs from August 6-11. Each day will be filled with music, song, dance concerts, ceilis, workshops, music sessions, recitals, poetry readings, children’s storytelling, nature walks and cultural talks.
The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival ( www.matchmakerireland.com ), August 28-October 4, attracts up to 60,000 people, who come for the music, the dancing and the ‘matchmaking’. Matchmakers are on hand to introduce singletons.
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