Posts Tagged With: Burren

The Cliffs of Moher Cycle Challenge. Never Refuse an Invitation

No I haven’t joined the lycra brigade.  Let me explain.

Never refuse an invitation has been one of the mantras that I have followed since I started living in Ireland and I know I have written before about some of the surprising encounters that have resulted.  This was demonstrated yet again one wet Saturday in early April.

A couple of days previously I had received an email from a friend telling me that the organisers of the Cliffs of Moher Cycle Challenge were looking for musicians to entertain the riders during their lunch stop in the very north of Clare at Ballyvaughan.  Without knowing anything about the event of course I agreed.

The instructions were simple.  “Be at the Hall at 11.30”.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Spanish Point and as I headed north of course, sun turned to rain.

This event, hosted by the Riverside Cycling Club Ennistymon, is in its 6th year. It has built up to become an important part of the Clare cycling calendar with 630 participants this year.  The Burren and the Atlantic coast of Clare hosts some very popular cycle events such as the Tour de Burren, Ring of Clare, SRAC Atlantic Challenge and a ladies only ride Turas na mBan.

It’s not surprising really as the route is rated as one of the finest in Europe.  There were a number of shorter journeys of 40 and 80 km  but The full loop started and finished in Ennistymon and takes in the Cliffs of Moher (of course) and other iconic Clare sites such as Doolin, Fanore and Black Head on the spectacular Burren coast road, Ballyvaughan, Carran, the hairpin bends of Corkscrew Hill and spa-town Lisdoonvarna.

So I arrived in Ballyvaughan with the rain just in time to see the first riders arrive.

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The first riders enter Ballyvaughan

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Not far behind was this colour coordinated group

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Riders make their way through the town

Some kept going, not bothering to take a break but most were diverted to the National School Hall for an inviting spread of sandwiches, fruit and warm tea.

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Decision time.  Most chose lunch.

And who could resist the local smoked salmon on soda bread and the piles of home made sandwiches.  It was also time to exchange stories, meet new friends and check progress.

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Time to show off the new bike.

I joined a small group of musicians belting out jigs and reels with a mighty Kilfenora rhythm. How could it not be so with Anne Rynne (a member of the Kilfenora Ceili Band) and her family leading.  It was so much fun to be part of.  The riders seemed to enjoy it though I am not sure they  realised that despite the youth of  a number of the players , the music was world class.

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It is a surprisingly small country Ireland, and the music world which I am part of has strong links across other activities. I think of it this way.  Traditional music  is like a strong thread in a patchwork quilt that seems to stitch everything together. From farming to football. To illustrate, there in the crowd was my friend Thierry, a keen cyclist and fiddler, who, still clad in riding gear, helmet and gloves,  just couldn’t resist the temptation to borrow my fiddle and play a few tunes. Best of both worlds.

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A great cross section from all over Ireland turned up.  Even the Mayor of Clare was there, wearing not his official garb, but riding colours.  This was a charitable event and a community event.  There were no winners and everyone was a winner.  Oh God.  Did I write that!

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A Mayor from Clare

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Everyone wanted to be in the picture

I headed back home, but not after a little bit of drama leaving my fiddle behind in the hall.  Retrieved it eventually.

I ran into the cyclists again on my way back (figuratively speaking that is) as the sun dramatically re appeared occasionally.  I stopped at the beautiful Carran Church on the roof of the Burren to watch them ride past. You have to admire cyclists’ dedication.  Still plugging away, only 40 km to go, I wonder how many were in the frame of mind to take a look at the stunning scenery or was their mind focused on the formidable Corkscrew Hill just a few kilometers ahead.

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Ruins of Carran Church

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View towards Mt Callan.

I finally ended up back in Ennistymon around 4pm as the last riders were triumphantly ending their 125 kilometer journey.   6 hours and 12 minutes is a long time to be peddling a bicycle.

These events take quite a lot of organising.  Route marking,  food and drink stops, publicity, traffic management and a host of volunteers contribute in all kinds of ways.

A very pleased Committee posed for me outside the Community Hall.

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I hope the cyclists had as good a time as I did. Like I say, never refuse an invitation.

 

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Freeze. March 2018. My Story.

What an extraordinary event.

Gotta say I’m not used to snow.  Not used to the feeling of flakes on your face or the biting wind or the stunning beauty when the sun comes out.  Or the slushy wetness that soaks through your boots and trousers and gets tramped through the house.  Or digging the snow from your front door. Or being stuck in your house. Or the vicissitudes of stupidly taking a remote boreen just as a snow shower starts.  I’ll come back to that last one later.

The snow came from that annoyingly named freak weather condition known as ‘The Beast from the East’ which blasted frigid air across continental Europe and over Ireland. It arrived in West Clare on a Wednesday, the last day of February 2018. But it turned out that that was just an entree to a full three course meal which came Thursday and Friday and continued to Sunday.

But first this ‘Beast’. Where did it come from? And why was it so devastating? As a geologist I make a pretty poor meteorologist but those that do know about these things said the whole thing was triggered by a periodic event called “sudden stratospheric warming”. This involved a huge rise in air temperature of around 50ºC in an area about 30 km above the Arctic (the stratosphere).  The origin of this actually goes back to severe cyclones in January in the Pacific disturbing global weather patterns. A true ripple effect. Anyway, this warming weakened the jet stream and forced cold air from western Russia towards Ireland.  Temperatures on the ground in the Arctic were 20ºC above normal, while Europe experienced lows of -15ºC in many places.  And then to complicate it there was Storm Emma which headed north from Portugal.  When it hit the cold air, blizzards, gales and snow were the result.

Where I could, I tried to record the event with my camera and words. Here is a personal account of how it all unfolded around my little part of West Clare.

Wednesday 28th February 2018

We knew it was coming. Temperatures had been way below normal for days and the web was alive with warnings.  Yet I had no idea exactly what was in store. Just two weeks earlier I was chasing all over Ireland to Louth and Armagh and Kerry and Wicklow and Connemara because of snowfalls there. Now it was here in my front yard.  It was snowing when I awoke and it continued to snow.  I was excited enough to venture out around 9am.  The snow wasn’t heavy; just a few centimetres so I figured there would be no real problems except that is that the weather accompanying this snow was truly living up to the appellation that is the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.  I headed to Spanish Point Beach, braving snow showers and bitter wind.  I’ve seen this beach battered with giant waves, covered in froth and foam and perfectly still with nary a ripple. Never though with white snow meeting the yellow sand. It was not comfortable as mini blizzards would sweep in between the sunshine. Nevertheless I was totally entranced and happy.  The showers faded during the day and though the temperature hardly went above zero, the snow melted by the late afternoon and the streets of Miltown Malbay returned to relative normality. This turned out to be a temporary reprieve.

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Snowstorm on Spanish Point Beach. Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Spanish Point Beach, Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Bell Bridge House Hotel.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Mouth of the Anagh River.  Looking across to Caherush.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Bridge over the Anagh River.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Spanish Point Beach. The sun shone briefly.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Spanish Point Beach.  Looking from the Armada Hotel.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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The Clogher Road.  Looking towards my cottage.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Caherush.  Low tide. Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Mutton Island.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Caherush looking towards Quilty.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Miltown Malbay  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Miltown Malbay.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

Thursday 1st March 2018

I woke up reluctantly poking my head above the sheets with the temperature hovering at -4ºC.  A quick look out the window showed a complete white-out. It was a stunning sight. I love how you don’t know it’s happened during the night. So quiet unlike a rain storm pelting on the slate roof and rattling the windows.

The rocks and cliffs of the bay at Caherush were covered with a thick white carpet and it was still snowing with some vigour.  Around 9am it brightened and it stopped snowing.  I rugged up and took a walk up the Clogher Road.  I was joined by the neighbour’s dog, Valdo.  Briefly. This was much too exciting;  he had better things to do and left me to my meandering. The sun broke through the clouds and its rays made the hills gleam.  My neighbour Michael Talty, stopped his car for a chat. He was heading to Kilrush for some tractor parts. A farmer doesn’t stop for a bit of snow.  So of course I didn’t refuse the invitation to join him. I think he quickly regretted it as I had him stop at Quilty where the snow, the water and the sand united to create a magic world. Mutton Island sat like an iceberg off the coast. I had to photograph them.

As we left Quilty and headed south, there was only a light dusting over the fields. This part of West Clare had escaped the heavy falls that we had experienced. Business done, followed by an hearty breakfast in Kilrush we headed back north to Caherush.

We were passing O’Looney’s lovely pub just a few kilometres from Quilty at Molosky. Stop! I exclaimed as I caught a sight, out of the corner of my eye, of the falls at the Annageerah River. They were frozen! Michael waited patiently as I clambered over a gate and headed across a slushy snowy field to photograph the incredible sight of ice sheets draping the rocks and icicles clinging to wherever they could; where normally water flows. So lucky to see it.

Back home to the Clogher Road which by now was starting to thaw.  It was 2 pm and still -1ºC. The temperature never got to zero during the whole day

Encouraged by the condition of the roads on our journey, I cleared the snow from the car and headed north through Spanish Point along the coast towards Lahinch. The air was clean and crisp and the sun was making a good fist of doing its daily job but the thick cloud resisted. Nevertheless the bucolic landscape had become a patchwork of white fields and the coastline was now the White Cliffs of Clare. The views coming into Lahinch were unfamiliar but truly jaw-droppng. Though thick here across Liscannor Bay the fields were green. The snowfalls were obviously quite patchy.

I continued to Ennistymon. I wanted to see the Falls here.  Would they be frozen?  Well no they weren’t and they were quite subdued, as we hadn’t had a lot of rain for a week or so but they were framed with snow on every exposed rock with icicles hanging from branches and protected crags. The Falls Hotel looked like an alpine resort

A few flurries of snow were appearing now. I love that word ‘flurries’. Not one you get to use very often. Time to head home. Why didn’t I just stick to the main road? It had been treated with salt and grit and was perfectly clear. I was lulled I think into a false sense of safety. So with the help of Google, I took a back route to Miltown Malbay, it wasn’t long before I got into serious trouble. It was only a small hill. A narrow single lane boreen. With a hedge on the left and a ditch on the right. I knew I had to use a high gear and travel at a decent clip but I lost traction very quickly and found myself half way up the hill and going nowhere. Under the snow was a layer of ice. With wheels spinning I couldn’t go forward. With no brakes, reversing was pretty scary. I honestly don’t know how I got out of that. Reversing back down the hill and using the gears to slow down, the wheels went wherever they wanted.  One minute I slid into the hedge. Straightening up then I would head towards the ditch. It was probably only 200m of reversing first down the hill then back up another but it took forever until I came to a farm gate. The drama still wasn’t over as it took many goes slipping and sliding all over before I edged the nose of the car into that refuge and was able to turn around and drive home. To my warm fire and a few relieving tunes and a glass of the small.

That was some day but the wires (as we used to call it before the wireless world took over) were full of dire warnings of another storm. Emma was arriving and would collide with the Beast and batter us with wind and massive snowfalls. Code Red all over the country.  Bread and milk had disappeared from the shops. This really was serious.

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Panoramic view of Caherush bay.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Caherush Bay at low tide in the snow.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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My cottage on the shore. Thursday 1 March 2018

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More snow.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Caherush Bay Thursday 1 March 2018

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Mutton Island.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Sugar Island and Quilty. Thursday 1 March 2018

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The sun breaks through. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Joined on my walk by Valdo.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Joy.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Looking down the Clogher Road.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Driving into Quilty.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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The Quilty Shore I.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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The Quilty Shore II.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Quilty Shore III.  With Mutton Island in the distance.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Breakfast at Kilrush.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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The snow falls again at Annagreenagh Falls, near Quilty.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Annageeragh Falls.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Annageerah Falls.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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View towards Cliffs of Moher from Spanish Point.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Near Spanish Point.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Near Lahinch.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Moy House.  Lahinch, Thursday 1 March 2018

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Cliffs south of Lahinch.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Fenceline and cliffs.  Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

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The Falls at Ennistymon. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Falls at Ennistymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Looking towards the Falls Hotel on the Inagh River at Ennstymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles I .  Ennistymon.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles II.  Ennistymon.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles III.  Ennistymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles IV.  Ennistymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles V.  Ready to drop.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Frozen grass on the menu today. Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

Friday.  2nd March 2018

It would reek havoc they said.  And they were right about that! Friday morning saw a thick cover of snow over everything with drifts up to a metre. We, in Clare though,  seemed to get off rather lightly. The east and the south of the country were lashed with ferocious snowstorms. Back here in Clare, snow piled up against my door, just like in those movies set in countries where they have real winters.  It was obvious I was going nowhere today, so I settled in with a warm fire to wait it out. Even if I wanted drive anywhere the Clogher Road was not going to cooperate. It continued to snow all day. I ventured out in the late afternoon as the snow eased. The tide had come in and the ocean was tranquil with the bay in front of my house looking surreal with its brilliant white ‘beach’ all the way down to the high tide mark. The car remained in a drift and I went nowhere. No thoughts of a session and in any case most pubs were shut. Marooned. Like millions of others across the Once Green Isle.  Who knows how much fell? I heard a figure of 40cm but I would say much more in some places.  At least it had stopped.

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My cottage.  Marooned.  Friday 2 March 2018

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Going nowhere.  Friday 2 March 2018

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The Clogher Road.  Friday 2 March 2018

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Caherush Bay at high tide.  A surreal calmness.  Friday 2 March 2018

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My front patio.  Friday 2 March 2018

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The ‘beach’ at Caherush.  At my front door.  Low Tide.Friday 2 March 2018

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Caherush. Friday 2 March 2018

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The ‘beach’ at Caherush.  At my front door.  High Tide. Friday 2 March 2018

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The Clogher Road.  Friday 2 March 2018

Saturday. 3rd March 2018

More snow overnight but by the morning all was quiet. Temperatures were up now with a maximum of 2ºC for the day. A veritable heat wave. I was still going nowhere. The predicted rain didn’t arrive but by the afternoon I decided the snow on the roads had started to melt sufficiently to venture out again. Roads had a lot of snow in massive drifts, sometimes two metres high, and in many places were down to one lane. Those roads that were treated were passable but venture off the main roads at your peril. I’d learnt my lesson.  Most residents who live up narrow lanes were were still stuck.  My route again took me to Lahinch and Ennistymon.  The snow was still thick and extensive but the melt had started.  Lahinch golf course was more whites than greens and it was easy to become blaze about the stunning beauty all around.  Snow was still everywhere in Ennistymon, Lahinch and Miltown but the ploughs had been through and it was now more of a hazard to pedestrians.  Businesses were starting to reopen.  Life goes on.

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The Clogher Road is now passable. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Welcome to Quilty Holiday Cottages.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The Bell Bridge Hotel and beyond.  Spanish Point.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Caherush.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Behind the Strand.  Clogher Road.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Panoramic view of Surf City Lahinch.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Ennistymon. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Blake’s Corner. Ennistymon.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The Inagh River and Ennistymon.   Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The old Railway Bridge over the Inagh River,  Ennistymon.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Lahinch. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Snow dunes, Lahinch.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Lahinch Castle.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The Golf Course at Lahinch..  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Lahinch  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Another view of the Castle.  Lahinch.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The estuary at Lahinch. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Snowy hills above Lahinch Golf Course.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Miltown Malbay.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

Sunday.  4th March 2018

No snow last night and finally the real thaw started. It still only got to 2ºC maximum all day but the lure of a music session at lunch time in Ennis was too much for me to resist. The Clogher Road was mostly clear now. Mikey Talty was, like many, shoveling snow off the road in front of his house. I stopped for a chat.  Mikey had been living here for over 80 years. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” I asked. “Aah yes” he said. “When I lived in the States”. 

Grinning I went on my way. Ireland does get heavy snow every few years. But not so often in these low lying coastal areas such as West Clare. The road to Ennis goes over Slieve Callan and the snow was thick in the hills and again there were drifts, metres high, meaning it was a slow trip. The music at Cruises Pub in Ennis was fantastic, with a huge crowd, desperate for a circuit breaker from the travails of the last few days. I returned about 5pm and it was still felt more like a journey through the alps rather than rural Ireland. I wasn’t ready to go home and called in at Hillery’s, for the regular Sunday evening session.  Life goes on.

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Mikey Talty, resident on the Clogher Road for 82 years clears away snow.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Snow drifts on the road to Inagh.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Heavy cover of snow remains.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Even the windmills stopped turning.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Lonely cottage at the food to Slieve Callan.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Switzerland? or Ireland?  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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The boreens were starting to clear.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Looking forward, looking back.  Mt Callan.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Enjoying the craic at Cruises Pub in Ennis.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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The snow melts in the fields on the Clogher Road.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Caherush.  The rocky bay is returning to normal  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Almost gone.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

Monday, 5th March 2018.  

It wasn’t quite over yet. Still the predicted rain never arrived and most of the snow on the lower ground had retreated but I knew it was still lying in the uplands.  Maybe the Burren would be worth a visit.  I wanted to see it.   Temperature was still around 2ºC in the morning as I set out but by the end of the day it had risen to 5ºC.  So I drove to Poulnabroun and then to Ballyvaughan and back through Carran.   It took all day.  It was cloudy and misty so not ideal but walking in the stillness of a snowy Burren was something truly special.  So quiet with hardly a soul on the road and those that were seemed to be heading somewhere else. A privilege to see it like this. I encountered a few busloads of tourists and they like me were the lucky ones.   The dolmen at Poulnabourn was looking resplendent and I viewed the wonderful stone walls literally in a different light as they stood out framed by the whiteness of the snow and the sky.  See if you agree with me.  The hills actually had a lot more snow than was apparent from a distance with the clints and grykes retaining the snow where it had melted elsewhere.  The Turlough at Carran, a wondrous geological feature  had plenty of water, though much of it appeared to be covered with ice. I imagine a couple of day earlier you might have been able to walk across it. By the way turlough, along with drumlin and esker are the only three words of Irish origin that I know that are  used worldwide as geological terms.  Thick snow was still on some of the Lanes but the snow ploughs were out and about so I imagined most would be passable.

The event that had dominated Irish lives, closed schools, airports highways and even pubs, isolated people for days and created timeless memories was over.

And that seems a good place to end this story.

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Plenty of snow on the way to the Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.  

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Poulnabroun Dolmen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Poulnabroun Dolmen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Near Poulnabroun Dolmen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren scene.     Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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The tourists still come.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren. Monday, 5th March 2018.

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On the way to Carron. Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Still heavy snowdrifts.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Carran Turlough.Monday, 5th March 2018.

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The Turlough. Much of it is still frozen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

Here are some pictures of those wonderful stone walls:

Tuesday 6th March 2018

I thought I had finished this blog but it was much brighter this morning and by the afternoon the sun was returning.  The temperature soared up to 7ºC.  Out my kitchen window the paddocks were pretty much free of snow.  Not Mt Callan.  It looked glorious (despite those windmills) with patches of sun glistening off it.  I had to go up and take a closer look.  There was plenty of snow so, sorry, a few more pictures.

Almost a week.  A week I won’t forget.

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Mt Callan.  The view from my kitchen window. Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Ruined cottage.  Road to Mt Callan.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Behind Miltown Malbay.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Mt Callan. Tuesday 6th March 2018

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The Summit.  As close as I could get.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Abandoned barn.  Mt Callan. Tuesday 6th March 2018

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The roof of the world.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Situation normal.  The gulls have returned to Caherush.

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A bird’s eye view.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

Categories: Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Clare Kitchen Sessions. Radio with pictures.

There is a widespread view that the Pub is the natural home of Irish Music.  And don’t get me wrong, many a wonderful musical moment can be had there. But indeed Irish music can be comfortably at home in the Home.  There’s a long tradition of the ‘kitchen session’ where the dining table is pushed to one side, local musicians gather and the flagstones clatter to the insistent battering of hard shoes.  A story might be told.  There will certainly be some songs, generally of a local flavour and there will be endless cups of tea and sandwiches.  There will be folk of all ages jammed in or listening from outside the door. This is how the tunes were handed down after all.  And if instruments were in short supply a lilter might be called on.  Nothing will stop the dancers.

Now, Irish cottages are not large so one can well imagine that not that many could be crammed in to experience this.

My how times change. As the chill of winter strengthened its grip, late November saw me at a kitchen session in my good friend Oliver O’Connell’s house in the heart of the Burren in County Clare. There were about 60 people there for the evening along with the virtual presence of many thousands of others.  It was broadcast live into homes all over the world through the organisers, ClareFM, and it was streamed live via Facebook.  So everyone could truly be part of this monumental night.  You could make comments in real time from Boston, Berlin or Belfast and hundreds did. Some were even read out on air during the show. Everything that makes this aspect of Irish Culture so unique was there, in a brilliant programme of music, song and dance provided by a gathering of Oliver’s friends from the Tubber-Gort-Crusheen-Kilfenora-Corofin areas of East and North Clare. There were so many wonderful surprises. Three pipers, Blackie (Oliver’s son), Tara Howley, taking time from her commitments with Riverdance and Eugene Lamb, a piping legend. There were recitations from Oliver and an emotional moment as father and son combined for a tune. There were spirited half sets with Oliver in the thick of it as you would expect and cameos from a host of Clare greats – old and young. Names like Richie Dwyer, Des Mulkere, Tony O’Loughlin and up-and-comers like the Clancy family from Tubber. Especially inspiring were two lilters maybe sixty years apart in age showing that core traditions, that are hardly known about outside rural Ireland, are being maintained.

This is radio with Heart from the heartland of Irish music. So well co-ordinated by Paula Carroll on air and Joan Hanrahan marshalling everyone behind the scenes. But it was live radio and yes there were glitches and it was so much better for that. This wasn’t a concert, and it wasn’t in the studio, so the music was energetic, spontaneous, entirely natural and completely in context.

After it was all over some didn’t want to leave. And those who remained watched in awe as four accordions,  Oliver, Clive Earley, Martin Ford, and Tony O’Loughlin joined Des Mulkere on banjo for a rare opportunity to play together.

I will be posting some video, so keep an eye on my You Tube channel. But here are a few photos I managed to sneak in which will give you some flavour of the night.

There will be more of these I am told. In fact ClareFM is promising one every week right through the Winter. I am hopeful of being able to be there for a few to document the occasion.  These will be special events. A different kitchen each week with each person opening their home and sharing their music with world.  Each will be in a different musical context and each will have the personality of the host stamped on it. They will be chalk and cheese but I expect the full depth of musical expression and the soul of Clare will be on display. You can’t apply a formula to Irish Music especially in this county and I am sure these Kitchen Sessions will demonstrate this over the coming weeks. Where ever you are on Sundays – 6pm Irish time, you should be listening to Clare FM.

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Flaggy Shore and Aughinish. Make the time.

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Just a short distance off the N67 which tracks the northern coast of Clare as part of the Wild Atlantic Way is the Flaggy Shore. This is the perfect spot to see the Burren meet the Bay, in this case Galway Bay.  A sweeping stony shoreline with a backdrop of the bare purple hills and the lush green fields beneath.

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Look north across the bay, now calm and peaceful and you see the villages of Galway clinging to the coast and beyond this the misty silhouette of Connemara and the Twelve Pins.

 

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Cliffs of Aughinish in the foreground and the Twelve Pins on the horizon

 

The place has a permanent spot in Ireland’s psyche thanks to one of Seamus Heaney’s most celebrated poems, Postscript.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other ……

Heaney in describing how the poem came to him said:   “I had this quick sidelong glimpse of something flying past; before I knew where I was, I went after it”.

He has said it beautifully of course so I won’t try and improve on those words.  All I can do is attempt to give that feeling in pictures…

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There is no beach, as such, at Flaggy Shore. Just boulders, pebbles and rocky outcrops. But a walk on the strand will well reward. You can stroll along the roadway or explore the limestone platform in the littoral zone.

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This is the best place in the whole of Clare to observe the coral fossils that make up such a large part of the 350 million year old layers. Huge colonies of branching corals (fasciculate lithostrotionids) are sliced at various angles revealing themselves from all perspectives.  Their true branching form can be seen often in section on the rock face. Sometimes the colonies seem completely intact and measure over a metre across. If you have been to the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland it is easy to imagine the warm shallow sea that was once home to these corals and the teeming life that surrounded them.

 

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Planar sectional view through a coral colony

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Large fossil coral colonies on the rock platform

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Excellent view of coral colony showing branching and dendritic form. About a metre across.

 

If you look hard you will see long straight grooves etched into the rock. These are called striations and are caused by the movement of a glacier which smoothed this landscape around 10,000 years ago. Rocks trapped in the ice were dragged along the bottom scouring these cracks. We are able to measure the direction of movement of the ice sheet using this evidence.

 

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Glacial striations on the rock platform at Flaggy Shore

 

If you like watching sea birds, you are in the right place.  As well as gulls, this time of the year starlings gather in flocks and search for food on the sea shore. These murmurations can number thousands of birds and when performing their acrobatic gyrations they make one of the truly spectacular sights in nature. They swoop and soar and flit and glide in perfect concert. It’s only when you freeze this motion with the camera that you see how perfectly aligned is the movement of each individual bird. I could watch them for hours.

 

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Starlings I

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Starlings II

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Eyes left

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Eyes right

 

Aughinish Island, just a few hundred metres across the calm water, is comprised of glacial deposits left behind by the retreating ice as the continent warmed. The Island was originally part of the mainland but a devastating tsunami caused by an earthquake in Portugal in 1755 separated it. The British built a causeway in 1811 to service the troops manning the Martello Tower (built to protect Ireland from Napoleon). It is still the only access to the Island.  The one lane causeway actually connects Aughinsh to County Galway which paradoxically means the fifty residents on the island and the occasional vistor who stumbles on this place must travel through Galway to get access to this part of Clare.

 

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The causeway built to access Auginish

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Peace I

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Peace II

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Peace III

 

For the ‘tourist’ looking for a quick fix there is not much to take you to Aughinish.  But it is a place to walk and breathe.  Where the quiet ambience is tangible.  It has a feeling of calm so unusual for the Atlantic Coast.  You will be unlikely to meet anyone except a farmer attending to his boggy field or another collecting seaweed blown in by Hurricane Ophelia.  But you will get stunning views across the inlet and if you are lucky enough to see the sun disappear behind Black Head you may not want to leave.

 

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Looking across the inlet from Aughinish to the village of Ballyvelaghan

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A Martello Tower built in 1811 to defend the Irish coast from the French.

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Lengthening shadows

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Evening serenity I

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Evening serenity II

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The shoreline on Aughinish.  The softest most comfortable grass you will ever find.

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Vivid red growth on the tidal flats

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The high tide mark left by Hurricane Ophelia which exploded the previous day. 

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Collecting seaweed

 

 

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Life on Aughinish

 

As usual I will let my camera have the last word.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Stone Walls of Aran. A Triumph of Adaptability.

 

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The Aran Islands are one of the harshest environments in Ireland. Hardly a tree, little natural soil, plenty of rock, no surface water.   But it does have, for Ireland, a relatively benign climate and its greatest resource – a resilient and enterprising people.  It once supported 3,500 people in the 1840s but how has around 1,300.

The islands (Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, Inis Oírr)  are stunningly beautiful but the feature of the landscape that strikes you most when you visit the islands. are the walls and the limestone pavements so typical of the Burren. The two go hand in hand.  There are over 2,000 km of stone walls on the Aran Islands. This is mind boggling considering the total area of the islands is only 46 square kilometres.  I doubt that there is such a concentration of stone walls anywhere else in the world.

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A typical Aran scene.  Narrow walled roads and houses on a treeless landscape.  

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Lush paddocks surrounded by Aran walls.

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In fact at ground level staring out over the paddocks often all you can see is stone walls forming a continuous covering of the landscape.

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Walls form a continuous blanket over the landscape

 

Most of the walls were probably built in modern times (since the 1820s). They are made of limestone gathered from the adjacent fields, Of course in our mindset we tend to think of these walls as boundaries of land holdings. Most are not.

 

But first. The oldest surviving walls on the Aran Islands are those associated with the famous ring forts. At Dún Aonghasa,  one of the most impressive forts in Europe,  the earliest of the walls appear to date from 1100 to 1000 BC, that is Late Bronze age though considerable additions and modifications were made in medieval times (c800AD). Extensive further additions and repairs were made in the nineteenth century in the name of conservation. Clear differences in the masonry or these three periods are apparent. Especially obvious are the buttresses which were controversially added in the 1800s to ensure stability of the earlier walls. The stone for the walls here was quarried nearby, as revealed by the regular shapes. The quality of the stonework is amazing, especially the oldest parts of the wall,  and much of it has been in place for 3,000 years.

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Dun Aonghasa.  Ancient wall from 1000BC

 

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But back to the other stone walls.  Up until the 1840s there was a system of shared common land ownership in the west of Ireland, known as the Rundale System. So there was no great need for farm boundaries. However following the abandonment of this system, stone wall, ditches and hedges were used to define land boundaries.

 

However the farm walls on Aran, as I have already aluded to, are largely not the boundaries to land holdings. The paddocks are too small and irregular. They appear to be a method of handling waste rock gathered from the fields to improve the quality of the pasture and to enable soil improvement by the use of seaweed and to allow the growing of potatos. They define manageable parcels of land and protect the soil from being blown away by the wind. Quite brilliant really.

 

They are always built without mortar – the ‘dry stone’ technique and require constant maintenance. A number of styles are apparent and these may be a response to the availability of source rock, the type or shape of the source rock, the needs of the site or the skills of the craftsmen.

 

For me the most striking and beautiful are the Lace Walls. They are essentially see-through and come with lot of variations presumably at the whim of the builder. Some have large gaps and some are tight.  All are so called single walls unlike the double walls more characteristic of other parts of Ireland.   By the way, there have never been professional stone masons on the islands.  The walls are all built by residents who acquire the skills as a normal part of their farming tool kit.

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Open lace wall using regular vertical ‘mother’ stones

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Open Lace wall in very slabby terrain.

 

 

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Closer packed lace wall with some larger and more regular stones

 

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Tight lace wall with even sized stones.  

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Tight lace wall.  Very few gaps.

 

Feiden Walls (from the Irish for ‘family’) are characteristic of Aran and the west of Ireland. They are built with a ‘family’ of stacked stones. Often there will be vertical slabs (mother stones) which act as a frame within which smaller stones (children) are stacked.  There are countless variations.

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Feiden wall

 

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Two stage wall with Feiden wall at base and tight lace wall at top.

 

Between the fields are narrow roads know as róidín but access is usually across fields rather than around them. This seems strange as there are very few gates. This didn’t really hit me at first but most fields appear to have no access. A closer look however reveals “phantom gates”. A ‘gap’ roughly filled with stone. These are called bearna, or “Aran gaps”.   Many are filled with rounded stones as they are easier to dismantle and roll away. There are many variations and again, they appear to be unique to the west of Ireland.

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Note the narrow walled roads between the fields.

 

 

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A bearna.  Stones in ‘gate’ were removed to gain access and then replaced after.

 

Each time you visit these islands you see more.  It’s like reading a book over and over and seeing something different each time. Initially the sheer scale and quantity of the walls is a little overwhelming. But they are a aesthetic and functional marvel and a wonderful example of man’s ingenuity in adapting to his/her environment.

Stone, earth, land, climate, food; all intricately woven together, driven by remoteness, resilience and the need for self sufficiency has created something truly unique.

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A Musical Week in Clare, Ireland

I have lived for the past 2½ years on the coast near Spanish Point in County Clare. There has been a constant stream of visitors during this time. Some were family, some good friends but some were strangers. Some stayed for a night, some for more than a week. All leave as life long friends.  I have hosted 76 guests, many more than once.

They are all people I meet through music, or the music session, or during my travels in Ireland. They have come from Ireland, Australia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, United States, UK, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Denmark and Czech Republic and each has a story. Every single one of them has enriched my time here and it has been a joy to have met, enjoyed their company and shared a shared passion for things Irish.

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French Windows

 

Just last week I hosted three wonderful friends, Julie, Romain and Anna from Carcassone in the south of France. Of course we played tunes, that’s what they came for, but we cooked, imbibed, sampled cheese (sorry, fromage!), and exchanged stories.

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The sun came out on the last day.  Lunch on the porch.

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Cheese, wine and bread from Carcassone.  View from Caherush. 

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It didn’t matter that it rained. I am grateful that we were able to experience an ideal slice of Clare music and musicians in the week they were here. This is what is so special about this place. So many memorable moments, but come next week and it will be the same, but completely different.

So many highlights. Sunday. A pub session in Miltown Malbay at Hillery’s with Conor Keane and Jackie Daly firing on all cylinders, Julie and Romain brought some elegance to the proceedings as they danced a mazurka, French style. Monday.  Fitz’s Bar in Doolin, Tuesday. The cosy Cooley’s House in Ennistymon. On Wednesday a trip to Ennis – a chilled out session at Brogans did little to prepare my guests for the madness of Moroney’s in Ennis where the victorious young Clare hurling team were in full voice and there was some fiery sean nos style dancing from Canada, US and Ireland. A visit to the Burren Thursday and sharing some tunes stories, songs and poems in the kitchen of the irrepressible Oliver O’Connell . And they joined in on my regular Thursday house session with some local West Clare musician friends. The craic went until 4am.  Situation normal.  Oh and what a way to finish! A phalanx of pipers led by Blackie at the Friday Piping Heaven Piping Hell session in Ennis.

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Sunday.  Jackie Daly, Conor Keane and Dave Harper at Hillery’s Bar in Miltown Malbay.

 

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Sunday. A French mazurka in an Irish pub.

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Monday.  Tunes in Fitz’s Doolin.  Photo Anna. 

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Monday.  Fitz’s

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Tuesday.  Cooley’s House.  Ennistymon.  Photo.  Anna.

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Wednesday.  Eoin O’Neill, Brid O’Gorman, Jon O’Connell.  Brogan’s Ennis

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Wednesday.  Anne Marie McCormack, Marcus Moloney and a member of the young Clare hurling team.  Moroney’s Ennis.

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Thursday.  Joining Oliver O’Connell in his kitchen.  Photo Anna.

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Thursday.  House session at Caherush.  With John Joe Tuttle, Ciaran McCabe and J-B Samazan. 

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Friday.  Piping session, Blackie O’Connell, Tom Delaney and friends.  O’Connell’s Bar, Ennis,

 

For me these musical experiences are enhanced immeasurably when I am joined by those who approach the music with the same ardor as me. It is my privilege indeed to host such people.

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New friends.

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Blue and green. 

 

Categories: My Journey, Sessions | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Oliver O’Connell, Man of the Burren and the Track of Tears.

Ireland is a very popular destination with visitors. And for good reasons. I have met so many who have come here for a week and have rushed around to tick Dublin, Dingle, Cliffs of Moher and Galway off their list and happily report back home that they “did Ireland”. Don’t get me wrong most people genuinely enjoy Ireland, in fact love it. What’s not to love? There is of course wonderful scenery, friendly people, ruined castles, trad music, Guinness, bacon and cabbage, sheep on the road. Everything that brings people here. But very few of those short-term visitors would have tapped into the ‘real’ Ireland.  Ireland’s real treasure is its people. It’s through the people of Ireland you discover the Hidden Ireland.

I spent a day recently with one of these people. Oliver O’Connell may be known to some of you. Perhaps if I say he is Blackie O’Connell’s dad that may twig a few responses or the guy who started a session on an Aer Lingis flight last year, the video of which went viral; but really he should be better known as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Maurice O’Connell ‘The Transplanted’. I’ll come back to that.

Oliver lives in an extraordinary spot in the middle of the Burren which is the beating heart of County Clare. Ten kilometres  from Corofin. You look out his kitchen window towards Mullaghmore , across a barren, stark tortured, limestone plain and you cannot see a single house. And at night the only light is the faint reflected glow from Galway City way to the north.

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View across the Burren National Park

Oliver is as much part of the Burren as the megalithic tombs and glacial erratics that dot the landscape. He took me for a little walk to show me a favourite spot of his; the so-called Famine Road. A little used part of the Burren Way walking trail.

Now I thought I knew what a ‘Famine Road’ was.  The walking tours of The Burren will take you to one and tell you these roadways were built as an assistance scheme to keep people out of the Workhouse.  This may indeed be the case but this one is different as Oliver tells it.  This road was here way before the Famine.  Indeed the 1842 map of Clare shows the route as a road in use and on the exact same line as the satellite image.  So it certainly well predated the Famine.

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Satellite image of Famine Road.  Shown with red arrow.

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1842 Map showing same area as satellite image above.  Famine Road is clearly marked.

Oliver explained that it is called the ‘Famine Road’ for a very different reason.  The route was used by a number of families attempting to escape the deprivations of those terrible years but many did not survive. They are buried somewhere along the route in unmarked graves. It struck me as unusual that the road fell into disuse even though it would shorten the trip considerable from Corofin to Kinvara.  Oliver thinks the road has been there for perhaps a thousand years.  If this is true then it is a tribute to the engineering capabilities of the early residents.  It is roughly cobbled and raised in places, the summer grasses partly hide it now but its unique stone walls bounding it still stand proud today. They have regularly spaced jagged vertical stones. The road is straight as a die in places  and it traverses the country peacefully and silently.

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The start of the Famine Road near Aughrim.  Part of the Burren Way.

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View to the north along the Famine Road

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Cobbles forming the road base

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Detail of cobbling

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Detailed satellite view of portion of the Famine Road

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Jagged rocks standing upright form part of a wall along both edges of the road

So why was it no longer used?

Oliver is a poet. One whose poetry is raw, and highly descriptive.  It is personal and it is heartfelt.  It comes to him quickly almost as a stream of consciousness. He doesn’t massage it and as a result it doesn’t sound the least bit contrived.  In a poem he wrote about this road he describes what he calls the Track of Tears, thus:

Here in this place “bothar na muinne, ait ciunas gan uaigness”.

Where silence screams at you but the spirits of our people radiate a comforting presence as they lie here in peace in their final resting place.

You tread on their footsteps and on their tombstones as you weave your way through sacred structures and vertical stone walls in this land of myth and magic.

(‘bothar na muinne, ait ciunas gan uaigness’ translates to a ‘place of silence without loneliness’)

The silence screams. It quite literally does. Not a bird, no wind, no animals Just the sound of our footsteps and our breathing. It’s as if the Gods with quiet reflectance continue to mourn those who didn’t make it. And it is surrounded with a landscape of harsh but tranquil beauty described so well in Oliver’s poem.

It is perfectly fitting that the road is no longer used and it is tempting to think that this was by design as a memorial to those lost.

I was moved by the story of the road and this window into a distant Ireland.  Distant struggles, yes, but it recalls the many battles endured before and since by the Irish people.

But Oliver has a bigger story to tell.

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Oliver with the O’Connell Family Tree

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Detail of portion of the Family Tree

He has spent fifteen years trying to unravel it and his journey has as many twists and turns as a good detective yarn.

Oliver’s forebears have been in Clare since 1653. He has been able to trace them back continuously to Maurice O’Connell (The Transported) who led 59 members of his family from their home in Kerry, from where they were expelled by Cromwell. Those who survived resettled near Inagh and Liscannor. Clare was then part of Connacht and the expression To Hell or Connaught comes from that time and relates to this exodus. The barren plains of the Burren was the equivalent of being sent to Hell. But survive they did and Blackie’s children represent the fourteenth generation of O’Connell’s to live in Clare. But it’s even more interesting than that.

Oliver has managed to trace Maurice O’Connell’s antecedents back to 1340 when they were a well connected and important family in Kerry and Limerick and even earlier to Connaill Gabhra, “Connaill of the Swift Horses”, King of Munster, in the 1100s. What a fabulous heritage. Nearly a thousand years!

What is unique about this story is that documentation exists continuously since the 1300s. As Oliver explained most Irish families can only go back to the 1820s. Prior to that records were kept by the British only for Protestants and Military. The O’Connell’s have a long hsitory of military service so the story is still there for those with the patience and energy to root it out.

Oliver as well as being a poet and raconteur is a musician and has links to a generation of musicians sadly disappearing fast. He is full of stories all told with zest and enthusiasm, such as how Blackie started on the pipes, but I will leave that for Oliver to tell sometime as he surely will.

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How else would you end a day such as this but with some tunes, So I sat on a chair in the kitchen, a chair that I’m sure that Oliver’s old friend Finbar Furey would have sat on and it just seemed so perfectly logical that the fiddle and the box together would shatter that Burren silence.

Oliver has invited me back to see this place in a different mood. When the frosts arrive.

Keep me away.

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The Cliff Walk. Cliffs of Moher

On two separate days in March and April 2015 I completed the Moher Cliff Walk. There and back was too much for one day so I did the southern half (Liscannor to the Visitor’s Centre and back) (12km) on 22nd March and the northern half  one way from the Visitor’s Centre to Doolin (8km) on 16th April. On both days we were blessed with glorious sunshine. Considering how many people visit the Cliffs – it was surprisingly quiet and you could go for kilometres without seeing anyone once you were away from the Visitors Centre.

They scare a lot of people away I think with descriptions on their web site such as “a remote, challenging and demanding trail with no barriers, handrails or seaward fencing”; “exposed cliff top path, steep ascents and descents and narrow and/or steep flagstone steps” and “The trail is suitable only for experienced walkers with a reasonable fitness level”

Hell. It really wasn’t that bad as I managed it easily, though I was totally exhausted at the end of both days.

There is not really much to say as it has to be experienced. It is breathtaking. If you can’t get there soon I have taken some photos to whet the appetite.

By the way if you walk it you should hang around until the sun sets. The cliffs change colour from the dull grey/purple of daytime to fiery reds and oranges to match the sky.

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Man of Aran

What is it about islands? Why do they have such appeal to us? All around the world they are treasured as special. Sometimes the residents are fiercely protective. In Australia we have many that hold a singular place and I was lucky enough to live on one such of these – Magnetic Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There are others though; Rottnest Island, where you can’t live but it is still very dear to the heart of Perth people, or Kangaroo Island off South Australia, or the beautiful Lord Howe Island among them. Ireland has a few too, such as Tory, Achill, Skellig and of course the Aran Islands.

Mention the Aran Islands and you immediately have my attention. The place has a mysterious lure. Despite knowing little about it (except that it is where the Clancy Brothers got their jumpers from and one of the most omnipresent tunes in sessions around the world is named after one of the Islands) it was a place I felt I must visit. I have been on two separate occasions. First, on a freezing summer’s day in July 2014, to Inisheer for an overnight stay; and more recently over three glorious sunny, warm days in April 2015. That’s Irish weather for you – freezing in Summer and hot in Spring!

The Islands are accessed either from Galway or Doolin, in my case for both trips I took the boat from Doolin, half an hour from my home in Caherush. My first visit was a spontaneous decision based on the fact there was blue sky in the morning. Of course by the time the boat left the weather had turned and the squally rain and howling wind off the Atlantic made for a very rough half hour crossing which took over an hour as we were buffeted by giant waves. At one point we stopped in the middle of the ocean in a futile attempt to retrieve a feral buoy. This was in contrast to my trip to Inis Mór when the sea was mirror calm with not a ripple. So I saw the islands in its various moods.

Ferry to Inisheer.  Rough seas with Cliffs of Moher in the background Arriving Inis Mor

Inisheer SunriseHarbour at Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Inisheer Inisheer.  Early morning sky

Technically the islands are part of Galway, but geographically, geologically and culturally they belong to Clare as the three Aran Islands are an extension of the Burren.  They all have that wild inspiring landscape that I found so enriching in north Clare and that I have blogged about before. https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/the-burren/

https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-burren-again/

All the features of the Burren are there. Sometimes better exposed than on the mainland: clints, grykes, rillenkarren, dolines, kamenitzas, glacial erratics, fossil shells and corals, limestone pavements, but with the ever present Atlantic around almost every corner.

So back to my first question. With the Aran Islands, is it that inconvenience mixed with expectation that getting there involves that makes it attractive to visitors? Or that feeling that once there you are completely cut off (well maybe not now with smartphones).   Or the slower pace? How would it be to actually live there?

Of course many do and Melissa and Johnny Gillan and their five children are among them.  Melissa is from Maine and married an Irishman from Aran who after their second child convinced her to leave the States and start a new life on Inis Mór. Melissa tells the story way better than I could on her blog (which is how we met) http://thearanartisan.com/2014/11/08/i-live-in-aran/.  I have never seen anyone happier. She now has five kids and an enviable lifestyle where she has created a paradise – a garden that sustains her family within this harsh environment and is moving towards her dream of starting a business based on this. The whole family is involved, with the kids nurturing the garden and animals with a sense of pride. Her philosophy is captured by the layout of the garden beds which spell the word LOVE and which was revealed with delight by her kids after an enthusiastic guided tour. I was invited to dinner there one night, which comprised razor clams gathered on the shore, a tuna steak from a fish caught by Johnny’s brother off the coast, potatoes, carrots, kale, rhubarb crumble and a parsnip cake. All from the garden and made with skill and affection. The kids embrace the lifestyle. I was reminded a little of the zest for living my own kids had on Magnetic Island for the three years we lived there. Melissa and Johnny may not be your typical Aran family, I don’t know, but I also met Cóil and Grainne, both young islanders who gave up their day to show me around their island with an obvious pride. I was greeted with nothing but warmth and hospitality.

Melissa Gillan's grarden Inis MorThe Gillan family.  Inis Mor

Both the Islands I visited seem to have somewhat different characters. Inis Mór (the Big Island) has sweeping landscapes with hardly a tree; massive limestone pavements and steep cliffs. It doesn’t seem heavily populated but there are about 900 people spread across the entire island. Inis Oírr is smaller with about a third of that but the houses are more concentrated around the main settlement of Inveragh and the fields as defined by the stone walls seem smaller. Both have the same sparse pasture, lush in places barren in others.  Inis Mór has more tourists and a lot more bicycles but it is easy to avoid the day trippers by starting early. The evenings everywhere are gloriously empty of people except for the inevitable craic behind the walls of Ti Whatty or Rory’s.

Inisheer.  Stone fields

Inisheer. Stone walls and fields

Inisheer

Inisheer. Drystone walls and one room cottage

Inisheer

Inisheer in the morning light

Inisheer

Inisheer

Inisheer

Inisheer.  Off to fiddle lesson?

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor.

Inis Mor.

Inis MOr

Inis Mor.

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Inis Mor

There is plenty for the tourist. On Inis Mór, bike hire is popular and the circuit to the Dún Aonghasa fort is a well-worn trail. But off the beaten track are some amazing sites such as the Black Fort, the Seven Churches and Teampull Bheanáin, reputedly the smallest church in the world measuring around 3m x 2m.  This unusual church can be seen from all around the island and was the best location I found for viewing the unique Burren flora.  Then there is the spectacular Worm Hole or Poll na bPeist. It is a hole in the rock platform that looks like it has been sliced out by the hand of Fin McCool himself. There is a more prosaic explanation that relates to erosion along mutually orthogonal jointing but let’s stick with Fin McCool, I think! Connected with this is a blow hole where the back pressure from the hole causes the sea to shoot up periodically  higher than the cliff.  This is an awe-inspiring place that has been put on the tourist map by the Red Bull people who have filmed one of their diving videos here.

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

The Islands, and in particular Inis Mór is well known for the excellent preservation of their megalithic circle forts. Dún Aonghasa gets the most attention, but others such as Black Fort are just as interesting and much quieter. These forts are fascinating and here on Aran occupy a coastal positon where the cliffs are used as one line of defence and a semicircular stone rampart as the other enclosing a headland within which was a settlement. There were also a number of outer walls in some cases and unique and spectacularly well preserved examples of chevaux de frise. These are fields of sharp limestone lugged into place and designed to make cavalry or foot progress difficult and retreat impossible. They were placed about 30m away from the wall as this was the range of hand thrown projectiles of the time. The original structures at Dún Aonghasa appear to date from around 1000 BC which places them near the end of the Bronze Age. The famous portal tomb at Poulnabrone on the mainland is much older (3,800BC) as are other tombs on Aran which date to 1850 BC.  This first period of settlement at Dún Aonghasa ended about 700BC but then the site was added to and inhabited during medieval times and later. I spent hours at these forts mesmerised by the ambience and the anicientness (if that is a word!)

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor.  Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

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Inis Mor. Inside the inner wall Dun Aengas

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort, showing remarkable stone work

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Stone was quarried from the steep face near the wall.  Note the crack!

Inis Mor.  Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor. Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor.  Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor. Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor.  Black Fort

Inis Mor. Black Fort from inside the enclosure

Inis Mor.  Black Fort and cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Black Fort and cheval de fries

The landscape helps make this a unique world. I have talked here and elsewhere about the typical Burren landforms, but I should mention the widespread glacial erratics, dropped by melting glaciers. Well that is the scientific explanation. Local legend has it that they were left by giants who were throwing stones at each other (Fin McCool again!) Doesn’t this make sense? How else could boulders of granite from Connemara get onto the Aran Islands? The Burren is known world wide for its flora with its rare combination of alpine and Mediterranean plants.  Spring is the best time to see it and in the three days I was on Inis Mor I witnessed an explosion of life with the spring gentians and orchids bursting into flower. The wildlife does not disappoint either with seals, water birds, birds of prey and dolphins all on show at various times.

Inis Mor.  Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Limeston Pavement Inis Mor

Limestone Pavement Inis Mor

Inis Mor.  Burren landscape

Inis Mor. Burren landscape

Inis Mor

Inis Mor. Typical Burren stone wall. How does it stay up?

Inis Mor.  Near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Near Black Fort. Crumbling coastline

Beach near Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Beach near Kilronan. Inis Mor

Inis Mor Inis Mor. View from Black Fort Inis Mor. Burren landscape.

Inisheer.  The Burren limestone Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Wild duck's nest Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin.  Spring gentian Inis Mor.  Spring in the Burren

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On each of my visits to Aran I was resigned to having nights without music but on each occasion I discovered the craic. On Inis Oírr I met Mícheál O’hÁlmháin, the leading musical identity on the Island and members of his family and we played in the hotel until the small hours and on Inis Mór I met three French guys, Alex, Mathieu and Victor who turned out to be amazing guitarists and with Michelle, Lea and Rom from Switzerland we had two nights of Celtic meets Gypsy Jazz meets 70s rock meets Europop!  On Inis Oírr I also stumbled onto an Irish language summer camp. It was held in the hall and I was drawn by the distinctive sound of irish dancing. The front door was open but what I saw was not what I expected. It was full with teenagers maybe 150 of them having the time of their lives. They were playing a game of musical statues to the recorded music of a ceili band. I stayed and watched as they threw themselves into a succession of musical and dance numbers including a country and western song about Connemara in Irish, some updated versions of set dances, line dancing and some pop songs. I was impressed that here was a camp dedicated to preserving the Irish language and culture but prepared to do it in a modern way that was relevant to today’s youth but still respectful of the heritage.  And then to top all that while on Inis Mór  and thanks to an invitation from Melissa I played with the local Island kids at the regular Comhaltas gathering with Galway Bay as a backdrop.

Inis Mor.  For the craic.IMG_7588

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Inis Mor.  A regular gathering of the local Comhaltas group.

There is a lot more I could say about these Islands but by now I think I have probably lost all my readers (If you have read this far please let me know – it would be nice to know if anyone reads beyond the first paragraph!), so I will let the pictures talk from here.  Just a few more images that give a taste of these islands that I am sure I will return to regularly.

Inisheer.  Fisherman returns escorted by dolphin

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Inisheer Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Abandoned house InisheerInis Mor.  Atlantic on a calm day Rusted bikes, Inisheer Inisheer Inisheer.  Fining pots Inisheer.  Limestone outcrops glowing in the morning sun Inisheer.  Curragh and ruins Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Abandoned house

Inis Mor.  Site where Curragh was re-tarred

Inis Mor.  Stairway to Heaven?

Inis Mor. Stairway to Heaven?

Categories: Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Burren, Again.

The Burren in the north of Clare has an indefinable pull.  I can’t stay away.

When Geraldine, schoolteacher friend, asked me if I wanted to accompany her and the kids from her school at Doora near Quin on a hike through the Burren, I was a bit unsure. Didn’t sound all that exciting but I have made it a rule not to say no to anything since I’ve been here. So I agreed. I’m really glad I did.

The day did not start out too promising. I met Geraldine after a couple of false starts at 11:00am and four carloads of kids from 5th and 6th class with a handful of parents and teachers met at Crag Road, the start of our linear hike. We had hoped to use the National Park free bus service but times did not work so some cars were dropped over to Coolorta Cross, the end of the hike. By 11:45am we were on our way!

The weather was overcast but dry though rain was predicted (of course). The plan was to head up to Mullaghmore and then across to the next mountain (well they are technically hills) knows as Sliabh Rua. Wasting no time the kids headed out along the trail leaving me and a couple of stragglers in their wake. We caught up eventually (well I think they waited for me) and with barely time to catch my breath I found myself giving a talk on the unique geology that is the Burren.  After a month in Clare I was an expert on the Burren geology. Well the kids thought so. Some of them were surprisingly up to speed while others hadn’t even stepped foot on the Burren before.

We continued the climb along the ridge beneath the first cliff and I kept stopping to look at the amazing fossils and rock formations and to take photographs so of course we got further behind. By this time I was left with just one boy who delayed me further as I stopped to answer the non stop stream of questions and comments about what he was seeing. It was great to see this unbridled curiosity and his eyes opening to what was around him. Eventually we rejoined the group.

As we were on a deadline and I was slowing them down, we agreed they would go ahead and I proceeded at my own pace. I was in awe of the scenery at the top. Limestone bands twisted into gentle folds ran in sinuous waves across the barren treeless landscape. With the dull light it had a mysterious mystical quality reinforced by the clarity of the eerie silence. Truly a breathtaking place. In the distance I could see the group had reached the top of Sliabh Rua and were now proceeding down so I followed the contours around the mountain and attempted to re-join them. Distances are deceptive up here. It was a fairly treacherous descent over boulders and scree formed from jagged limestone. Every foot had to be carefully placed so there was no rushing. I would stop often to breathe in the view. A new vista around every corner. I never did catch them and I arrived at the cars about half an hour after the rest. We were lucky. The rain had held off.

I was mightily impressed with the whole day. The kids behaved impeccably and were a credit to their school.

Once they had left, Geraldine wanted to show me more of the Burren, a place she clearly loves, so we headed along another track to a Holy Well. I had never seen one before. This was a natural spring coming out of the base of a moss covered rock. Nestled in a dark cool glade which felt as ancient as it probably was. It would not have surprised to see fairies darting about!  There were cups hanging from a string inviting you to partake and there were ribbons hanging from nearby branches, perhaps some sort of offering.   An elliptical walled area a few metres across was apparently an ancient bath which was used for ritual bathing. It takes a while to get one’s head around the fact that this place may have been used by our predecessors up to 5,000 years ago.

The magic of the place was having an effect. We walked back along the track to see a car driving up the lane. I did not recognise the occupants but Geraldine did. There was P.J. Curtis (the eminent writer/record producer/broadcaster/historian) and Maurice Lennon (fiddling legend from Stockton’s Wing). I was introduced to them and they couldn’t have been nicer. We ended up back in P.J.’s house in Kilnaboy (built in 1770, the year Cook landed in Australia) listening to Maurice play tunes from ‘Light in the Western Sky’ (one of my favourite albums) and then some gorgeous airs including one of his own on his Viola. I had to keep pinching myself. P.J. gave us a tour of his Forge which was full of original equipment. It was the conclusion to a wonderful day.

If you go with the flow in this extraordinary country then extraordinary things happen.

 

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Burren Limestone with fossil coral

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Some of the wildlife in the Burren

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Geometric patterns etched in the cliff face. The Burren

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A large fossil coral colony. The Burren

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On the way up to Mullaghmore

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Pausing for a breather.

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the view from the top

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Heading across to Sliabh Rua

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Spectacular landforms that make up the Burren

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Twists and contortions in the limestone layers on Mullaghmore

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One last cliff on the ascent of Sliabh Rua

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Looking back from Mulalghmore

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Gentle folds in limestone, Mullaghmore

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Cairn, Mullaghmore, the Burren

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The descent from Mullaghmore

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Native orchard, the Burren

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Limestone plain at the foot of Mullaghmore

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Returned safely

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Holy Well, the Burren

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Moss covered walls of an ancient bath, Holy Well, the Burren

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Glacial erratics, dumped at the end of the last ice age. The Burren

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Meeting Maurice Lennon in the middle of nowhere

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Mullaghmore. A distant view

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PJ Curtis outside the Old Forge at Kilnaboy

 

Categories: Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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