ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #15 – West Clare Loop

September 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

May/June 2016

ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #15 – West Clare Loop

Map of route for Day 15

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St. Brigid’s Well

In the 19th century a survey was taken and found that Ireland had over 3,000 holy wells, and at least 15 of them were named after St. Brigid (or St. Bridget).  This is the one between Liscannor and the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.  We stopped here for a half hour or so to check it out. 

The story goes that Brigid, born in 500 AD, and her sisters - also named Brigid which must have been quite confusing - was a triple Goddess (higher ground, higher learning, and higher consciousness).  When the Christian Church came along and forced folks to convert they had a devil of a time getting rid of Brigid as she was so popular with the Celts so instead of trying to remove her from the consciousness of the locals they just renamed her to “Mary of the Gaels” or “Bridget (Brigid)”.  They  made her the ‘Patron Saint of Fallen and to add a dash of flavor also let her become the foster mother of Jesus.  Not a bad promotion for a Druid.  To capitalize on her popularity, they placed statues of her in dedicated spaces and canonized her in the 5th century, making her a saint.  Her symbolic cross is seen throughout the world. 

St. Brigid’s Cross

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This site has a statue of St. Brigid in a glass case, some nice grounds suitable for internal reflection and a cave (grotto as they call it) where water trickles in through the back wall.  The custom is to leave personal mementos, rosaries, prayers, pieces of clothing and to light votive candles in the grotto to assure that your prayer is answered.  As so many people do this the grotto gets quite full and artifacts spill out onto the walkways leading to cemetery. After looking at several web sites with photos of this grotto vs the photos I took it is apparent that from time to time they remove many of the offerings in order to make room for more.  As this is such a popular tradition for locals, the well is open all night.  Traditionally, the water of this well should be sipped at the end of a visit to this shrine.

St. Brigid’s Well, Entrance to Grotto

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St. Brigid’s Well Grotto

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St. Brigid’s Well Grotto

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Cliffs of Moher

After being blessed by the Saint of Fallen Women, we visited the famous Cliffs of Moher - from the land side.  When we visited here in 1981 it was quite different.  Well, the cliffs were the same but the whole visitor experience was quite different.  A Dirt patch by the side of the road was the parking lot, no visitor center, no paving on walkways, not much in the way of stone walls to keep you from falling over the edge, two porta-potties, very few people and as I recall only one sign by the road side saying “Cliffs of Moher” with an arrow pointing across a field. 

Now there is a large asphalt parking lot, modern visitor center, restrooms with running water, paved walkways, and hordes of people - nearly 1 million a year – which makes it one of the most visited sites in all of Ireland.  For comparison, Yosemite & Yellowstone get a bit under 4 million so for a small country with only a fraction of the tourists each year, a million or so visitors a year is pretty impressive – but did they all have to be there the same day we were?  Just kidding, it really wasn’t that crowded but in good weather I presume it is.

The cliffs are named after old Fort Moher which had been on Hag's Head at the southernmost end of the cliffs.  The fort was torn down in 1808 in order to provide material for a new telegraph tower – see, recycling even in the early 1800’s.  A lookout tower was built on the site of the old fort during the Napoleonic wars and it is still there.  As we only had about 90 minutes here and being an hour and a quarter walk along the cliff edge trail to the lookout tower we didn’t go out there.

The Cliffs themselves are at the southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare.  They are 390 ft. (120 meters) tall at Hag's Head – where the fort was - and reach their maximum height of 702 ft. (214 meters) just north of the visitor center which is also where O’brien’s tower is located.  From this high point, on a clear day the view can extend as far as Loop Head at the southern tip of Clare and beyond to the mountains of Kerry. Looking north on a clear day you can see the Twelve Bens in Connemara (also known as the Twelve Pins), and typically you can see the Aran Islands to the west.  We did not have a clear day so from this list we only saw the Aran Islands

The visitor center was built in the 1990’s as part of a project called “The Moher Visitor Experience which explains why we didn’t see it in 1981.  The design of the area included the visitor center and other facility improvements like parking, real restrooms, signage, and paving of the dirt trails.  It was intended to deal with the high number of tourists flocking to the site but do it such that it didn’t mar the natural state of the cliffs.  In other words they wanted visitors to experience the cliffs without intrusive man-made amenities getting in the way. To do this the parking lots and visitor center are built several hundred yards back from the cliffs with the visitor center and commercial shops being burrowed inside a hill. The center is environmentally sensitive in its use of renewable energy including geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels, and grey water recycling.  Yeah, way different than the 2 porta-potties in 1981.  They did a pretty good job.  Other than being able to walk on paved pathways instead of muddy dirt trails, and having a stone wall to keep people from toppling over the edge it looks pretty natural.  It took them €32 million and 17-years to complete and was officially opened in February 2007. Exhibits include interactive media displays. A large multimedia screen displays a bird's-eye view from the cliffs, as well as video from the underwater caves below the cliffs.

At the North end of this developed section of the cliffs is O’Brien’s tower .  It consists of 2 round towers of different heights overlapping each other like a Venn diagram.  It was built by Sir Comelius O’Brien in 1835.  Mr. O’brien built it as an observation tower and shelter for the hundreds of Victorian visitors who came to the cliffs each year.  Of course, being Ireland, for every historical account there seems to be an alternate historical account.  In this case another version says that O'Brien built the tower in order to impress women he was courting.  Either way, legend has it that he was a man ahead of his time, believing that the development of tourism would benefit the local economy and bring people out of poverty. O'Brien also developed several other projects nearby and it is said that he built everything in the area except the cliffs themselves. He died in 1857 and his remains lie in the O'Brien vault in the graveyard adjoining St Brigid’s Well.

Our visit was accompanied by a deep overcast with brisk winds and rain squalls from time to time which is very typical of the area.  When you arrive, the visitor center is near the parking lot but several hundred yards away from the cliffs.  You then walk to the cliffs and turn either left or right where you can walk up to higher viewing points.  All the walkways are wide and paved all the way to the high points (about a quarter mile either way) but if you want to go farther you’ll be on narrow muddy dirt paths.  To the left are observation platforms but no historical buildings (unless you go beyond the paved areas).  To the right you ascend up to O’Brien’s tower which is also where the paved portion ends.

Looking South Along the Cliffs of Moher toward Hags Head

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Looking North along the Cliffs of Moher toward the O’Brien Tower

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Sea Cave in Cliffs of Moher

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Fog and Rain shroud the Cliffs of Moher, looking North

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The Burren

The Burren region of County Clare is a vast rolling hill landscape of nearly 100 sq. miles (250 sq, km) covered with limestone slabs. As much of the area is quite rocky to begin with, figuring out exactly where the Burren starts and ends is not real clear.  In fact, I’m not sure there is an actual ‘border’ defined for the area.  The exposed limestone pavement surface has crisscrossing cracks known as "grikes" and sometimes isolated boulders called "clints".

This all started 350 million years ago when the area was a tropical sea.  Over time an accumulation of used shells dead corals and other debris piled up on the sea floor which over time compressed into limestone.  Today one can still find fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites.  This sea floor eventually wound up above sea level and evolved dirt and soil.  However several ice ages came along and the glaciers scraped off all the dirt and soil all the way back down to the limestone bedrock.  Once the ice retreated, water seeped into microscopic cracks and over time eroded them into skinny crevices.  This is what is called a “karst’ landscape.  The result is that the Burren is one of the finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape in the world.

The effects of the last glacial period are most in evidence as it pretty much erased the evidence of earlier karstification periods. So any surface karstification now seen dates from approximately 10,000 years ago making the Burren Karst quite recent geologically speaking.  As mentioned erosion processes have widened and deepened the cracks in the limestone slabs which along with prior lines of weakness in the rock contribute to the formation of extensive fissures separated by flat pavement like slabs. The rock karstification facilitates the formation of subterranean drainage leaving little or no surface water available for use.  Over the years these cracks widened and are now several inches wide and have filled with soil blown in from other areas.  These cracks are the only places where plants can grow.  The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side due to the unusual environment.

Of course this makes farming here pretty much impossible unless you are happy growing things in 6 inch wide strips of land.  However, these narrow strips of soil host a wide range of wild flowers and grasses.  In some places there are larger patches of soil and near the edges of the Burren, enterprising farmers have created farm fields by covering the limestone with seaweed and manure to make their own soil.  These man made fields can be used for grazing or for potatoes.  As they say, ‘potatoes will grow almost anywhere.’

In 1651-52, Edmund Ludlow stated, "Burren is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.".  Even so, the area is rich with historical and archaeological sites. There are more than 90 megalithic tombs in the area, portal dolmens (including Poulnabrone dolmen), a Celtic high cross in the village of Kilfenora, and a number of ring forts - among them the triple ring fort Cahercommaun on the edge of an inland cliff, and the exceptionally well-preserved Caherconnell Stone Fort. Corcomroe Abbey is one of the area's main scenic attractions – which we didn’t go see.

The landscape of The Burren

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While farming in The Burren of Ireland is not practical, grazing can be accomplished

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Cracked and Weathered Limestone of the Burren

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Wild flowers make a home in the soil filled cracks of Limestone

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Grasses and other plants take root in the cracks

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Ballyvaughn

Ballyvaughan is a small harbor town in the northwest corner of The Burren. Its position on the coast road and its close proximity to many of the area's sights has turned the village into a local center of tourism. At the time of the 2006 Census Ballyvaughan had a population of 224.

The site was originally occupied by Ballyvaughan Castle, which stood right at the edge of the harbor. It was owned and occupied by the O'Loghlen family, except for a period in the 16th century when the O'Brian family held it. In 1540, a stolen cow was found at the castle, and heavy fines were levied on the O'Loghlens including loss of cattle, goats, sheep and the town of Ballyvaughan itself. In 1569 the castle was attacked by Sir Henry Sidney but the O'Loghlens held on to the property. By 1840, the castle was in ruins. Only the foundation remain today.

The present village grew around the harbor in the 19th century and the town has variously relied on herring fishing, import of turf, and export of grain, bacon and vegetables to and from Galway.  But now it is a picturesque Irish seaside village relying heavily on the tourist industry, including the rental of thatched roofed cottages.

Main Street Ballyvaughn

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Ballyvaughn thatched roof house

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Ballyvaughn house

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Ballyvaughn breakwater and boat mooring

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Yep,  a tourist town

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Poulnabrone Portal Tomb

Poulnabrone is a classic example of a portal tomb with two tall portal stones flanking the entrance to a rectangular stone-lined chamber which is covered by a single large capstone.  A low oval mound (cairn) of loose stone, which helped stabilize the chamber, surrounds the tomb.  This cairn would originally have been no higher than it is today, suggesting that the tomb structure was designed to be the main visual focus. 

Archaeological excavations were carried out here between 1986 and 1988 when the fractured eastern portal stone needed to be replaced (the original portal stone can be seen lying just outside the tomb).  The excavations found at least 33 individuals buried in the chamber – infants, children and adults, both male and female.  It is likely that the bones, which were highly fragmented, were initially buried or allowed to decompose elsewhere before being transferred to the tomb sometime around 3000 BC.  Personal possessions buried with the dead included a polished stone axe, a decorated bone pendant, stone beads, quartz crystals, chert and flint weapons and implements and fragments of pottery. 

The people buried in the chamber died between 4200 and 2900 BC, right in the midst of the Neolithic or New Stone Age.  Over a thousand years later (1767 – 1413 BC) during the Bronze Age, a newborn baby was buried in the portico, just outside the entrance to the chamber.  In addition to being a cemetery so to speak, this tomb must also have been used for various rituals and ceremonies. 

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb

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Poulnabrone Portal Tomb

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Poulnabrone Portal Tomb

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- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This brings us to the end of our 15th day (8th day on formal tour).

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Episode 16 will take us to the Aran Islands and Doolin.

I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.  

- Images of this trip will be published on my website in the near future (I’ll let you know when they’re posted), but photos from other adventures are there now.

www.danhartfordphoto.com

 

This Blog can be found online here:  http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2016/9/escape-to-ireland-15

 

Thanks for reading – Dan 


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