At the Western Edge of Europe (3): We skirt the “vast cracked pavement” of the Burren hills

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Emerald green and grey, the colours of the Irish countryside along the Burren Way, here exemplified in shamrocks…

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…and rough-cut stone walls.

On the morning of July 24th Emmy and I walked out of Doolin heading for the seaside hamlet of Fanore, twenty kilometres to the north. It was a quiet day of unremarkable walking, just what we needed after the small stresses of the previous two days. Our path took us inland through pastureland, along deserted village roads between hedgerows of tangled blackberry and endless low walls of rough-cut stone. The temperature was a cool seventeen degrees. The sky hung over us low and grey, sending us two short sharp showers of misty rain. From the high slopes above the coast we could look out over the Atlantic Ocean and see the blurred spectres of the Aran Islands stretched along the horizon.

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The view out to the Aran Islands from the Irish mainland between Doolin and Fanore in County Clare.

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The walking was quiet and easy, between kilometres of stone walls through treeless pasture.

The sea wind muscled in through the open front door of our B&B in Fanore, rattling doors and filling the big house with a subdued howling and groaning. We dined on the deservedly famous fish and chips at O’Donohoe’s pub, and (with the front door of the B&B shut and the house silent) we slept soundly. The following day dawned dark. A glance from our bedroom window revealed rain sparkling on sheets of water along the coast road. Today we would not be walking over miles of slippery flat stones in the treeless expanse of the Burren hills, aptly described as “a landscape of bedrock incorporating a vast cracked pavement of glacial-era limestone”. Around midday, huddled against bullying showers, we stood opposite O’Donohoe’s pub and flagged down a local bus for the twenty kilometre trip to our next stop, the neat little town of Ballyvaughan on the southern shores of Galway Bay.

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The rocky Burren hills. Not for us… at least not on a day of misty rain. (Photo by Fish Cop, Wikimedia public domain)

Our B&B – the Ballyvaughan Lodge – was one of the most welcoming, most comfortable and best run we have stayed in during our many years of multi-day walking. Our host, Gerry, was more than welcoming. He took the trouble to immediately learn the names of all his guests and always addressed them by name. He served a very special breakfast on tables with starched tablecloths and serviettes embroidered with the house initials. The tea even came in porcelain teapots kitted out in woolen cozies. The breakfast omelette “with the lot” – prepared by Gerry’s wife Pauline – was the best omelette I have ever tasted, far surpassing that served in the five-star Dublin hotel where we stayed the following week. Emmy ordered “soldiers” (without really knowing what they were). The soldiers turned out to be fingers of toast that came with a soft-boiled egg served in its own little woolen beanie. When the top of the egg was sliced off, the bars of toast were dipped into the soft yolk and lifted in your fingers to be eaten. Emmy found this dish so unbelievable that she ordered it again the following morning just to reassure herself it was not a kitchen accident, or a figment of her imagination.

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Breakfast at the Ballyvaughan Lodge, and this was just for starters!

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Toasted “soldiers” with a soft-boiled egg under the beanie to the right.

So it took a special effort for us to lace up our boots, fill our water bottles, shoulder our backpacks, and head out for the final day’s walk on the Burren Way itinerary. It was a loop walk that snaked ten kilometres through woodland and deserted backroads past the vast “cracked pavement” of the Burren hills, returning us four hours later to our beginning point in Ballyvaughan. The walk turned out to be a little more demanding than we expected. It was well way-marked, and we had a good map and instructions, but we had to keep our wits about us. The problem was the lush growth of summer grass that concealed the track in several places, plus the week’s non-stop showers that, here and there, had erased the track under runnels of mud. Several times I consulted our GPS phone app to check our position and get back on track after straying off the route.

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Our map of the Ballyvaughan Wood Loop. The left side of the heart-shaped loop was mostly woods and pasture, tangled and wet on the day we walked it. The right side was quiet farm roads. The halfway point of the walk was the Aillwee Caves (bottom centre) where we stopped for lunch. Ignore the 2:30 hours estimated duration of the walk in the top line. It took us more than four hours, although this did include a light lunch at the Aillwee Caves.

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Here be leprechauns, banshees and fairies. Note the way-markers on the right.

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An unexpected danger. Apparently the chickens of Ireland are particularly vicious.

But it was a very satisfying final outing. That evening, as we dined on juicy lamb shanks in Ballyvaughan’s Wild Atlantic restaurant, we were able to look each other in the eye and say “we did it!” We walked for a month through Germany, France and Ireland. A few times we took short-cuts or traveled a segment of our route by bus or taxi, but altogether we had walked about 160 kilometres. We had toughened up, we had enjoyed extraordinary hospitality, we had seen beautiful sights and eaten good food (and some truly terrible food too) and met many warm personalities. We had also been mentally challenged (travel and hiking are always a bit unpredictable), we had been invigorated by the sweetness of solitude and each other’s company, and we had lost weight (though not a lot). Now it was time to head home to the chill of Canberra’s winter.

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Mission accomplished. We’re on our way home, but we’ll be coming back.

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With Denis, on a detour to show us the views over Galway Bay. For the instant required to take this photo, Denis stopped talking. In the space of one hour with him, we learned everything about Ireland, from superannuation to immigration, to foreign policy, to the impact of Brexit, to divorce and the Catholic church. It was a pleasure to be his customer.

As we lifted off from Dublin Airport I saw before me a gallery of the Irish people we had met since touching down at Shannon. Declan who drove us from Shannon to Liscannor and insisted on wrangling our two heavy suitcases, one by one, from the boot of his taxi twenty-five metres through light rain into the reception desk in the Cliffs of Moher Hotel; the effusively warm Kimberley at the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, originally from California but now more Irish than the Irish; PJ at the Seacoast Lodge in Fanore who told me that, with the name “Quinn”, I was more Irish than he was (I barely understood his heavy Irish accent); Gerry and Pauline, hosts extraordinaire at the Ballyvaughan Lodge and custodians of the world’s best breakfast; and the garrulous Denis who drove us from Ballyvaughan to Galway railway station, taking a lengthy detour at no extra cost to show us scenic panoramas we would never otherwise have seen. Plus the nameless young woman who jumped from her car when she saw us consulting our map at an intersection outside Doolin. She had auburn hair with ginger highlights, bright hazel-green eyes and a pasty-white complexion studded with freckles. In short, an epitome of Irish beauty. She had even painted her fingernails shamrock green. She quickly set us on the right path, recommending the fish and chips in Fanore as she sped off.

Emmy looked wistfully out the airplane window. “Let’s come back,” she said. It was the very first time she had ever said this at the conclusion of a walk.

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I reconnect with my heritage in the main street of Ballyvaughan.

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At the Western Edge of Europe (2): The Aran Islands

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At the top of the photograph, Inishoirr (also often spelled Inisheer), the nearest and smallest of the Aran Islands, as we saw it from a high point on the Irish mainland…

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…and our first glimpse of the island’s austere skyline as we came ashore from the ferry.

It beats me how the Aran Islands can be such a huge tourist attraction. They lie like three low, grey-green mounds in the sea, shorn clean of trees by the Atlantic’s incessant gales. A few grim ruins decorate the crests of the islands. There are one or two pubs plus some small shops. And that’s about it… at least for all except specialist historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. The big attraction of the islands – their wind-swept isolation – has disappeared under a tsunami of tourists, at least in summer. I blame the wildly popular, satirical sitcom Father Ted. Its kick-arse Catholic mayhem happens on a fictional island in the Bay of Galway. We know where that “fictional” island is… the opening credits were filmed on the Aran Islands (type “Father Ted” into YouTube’s search box.)

Our walking itinerary (see Macs Adventure: https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-2183/best-of-the-burren-way ) mandated an eight-kilometre circuit through part of the biggest island, Inishmore. On the morning of July 23rd we walked from our comfortable B&B accommodation in Doolin to Doolin Pier one kilometre away along a narrow road already choking on tourist buses. We had tickets for a ferry ride to the islands, but chaos was in charge at the pier and I couldn’t identify our boat. No signs, no announcements, just big groups of people disintegrating, regrouping and disintegrating again. I saw an official-looking lady in a hi-viz red jacket pointing left and right.

“Good morning,” I said politely. “How are you this morning?”

“Sure I’m livin’ the dream,” she said, laying on the irony like a thick blob of cream on an Irish scone.

I flashed my ticket and raised my eyebrows.

“Your boat’s the Galway Girl. There she is, down there at the jetty.”

And indeed the Galway Girl was heaving and rocking and making ominous splintering noises against the jetty. Its gangway sloped down to the concrete of the jetty where it slid out and back as the boat rocked on the heaving sea. A grizzled old salt – complete with woolen beanie and thick beard – straight out of a winter advertisement for cough drops, was helping passengers get a foothold on the constantly moving bottom steps of the gangway.

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The Galway Girl, the ferry that took us from the mainland to Inishoirr. (Photo: Shipspotting)

It was a rough forty-minute crossing to Inishoirr, the nearest and smallest of the three islands. White-capped waves banged against the hull as the boat sawed through them. They wrenched and yanked at the boat, heaving it up and slamming it down into the rock-hard water. As we crept up to the jetty on Inishoirr Emmy and I were feeling queasy.

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The scattered houses of the main settlement on Inishoirr.

“Passengers for Inishmore, please transfer to the neighbouring ferry,” said the PA announcement. The onward trip would take another hour, to be followed by an eight-kilometre walk on Inishmore and one-and-a-half hours back to the mainland on rough seas.

Well… to be honest, this didn’t appeal, so we got off and headed up a concrete ramp into the sole small village on Inishoirr. A hundred or more people had the same idea. They surged into ranks of horse-drawn traps, buggies and bicycles. With genteel brutality a hand-to-hand battle for customers broke out.

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Pony traps are a popular way for visitors to see the island, and a good source of income for islanders during the summer tourist season. (Photo: Nadia Prigoga-Lee, Flickr)

We decided to walk around the scattered houses of the village. At the edge of the village (it wasn’t far) we came across the half-exhumed ruins of a 10th-century church, the burial place of Saint Kevin, the island’s patron saint. Near it stood the island’s modern church, a simple, white, far-from-historic building. For us, it was a welcome capsule of quiet a world away from the confusion of bikes, horses, buggies and people around the jetty. All its signs and devotional materials were in Irish. In several corners, devotional candles burned with subdued brilliance, seeming to symbolise the modest but steady faith of the islanders.

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Inishoirr’s modest Catholic church.

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The quiet, (almost) tourist-free, interior of the church.

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Emmy lights a candle (25 cents each) but refuses to say who, or what, the candle is for.

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The July 2019 edition of the Aran parish newsletter. The Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht, a string of Gaelic-speaking communities located mostly in isolated parts of the west coast.

Refreshed, we walked on to a modest cottage in a narrow lane. One half was a tiny café, just four tables jammed one against the other. We inserted ourselves into chairs under a table and ordered scones and tea from the blackboard menu.

“Sorry, we only have one scone left. Plus a strawberry cheesecake pie.”

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The tiny cafe and crafts shop where we had a scone and a cheesecake pie for lunch (behind the window on the left). I bought a handmade woolen sweater in the small shop on the right. The sign in Irish reads “The Craft Shop”.

That was our lunch. We ate slowly, enjoying the exotic resonance of the Irish language as the young waitress and waiter struggled to prepare a pot of tea and locate some butter and jam to serve with the scone. They told us, with great pride, that Irish was their everyday language, as it was for most of the fewer than 2,000 permanent inhabitants of the Aran Islands. In the neighbouring room, an array of Aran knitwear was on sale. Sweaters, cardigans, scarves, beanies, throw-rugs all beautifully handmade from soft, thick, locally spun tweed wool. It was a warm day, but I couldn’t resist buying a winter sweater. (I’m wearing it right now as I type these notes, snug and well-insulated in the frigid ambience of Canberra’s Aran-like winter.)

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My beautiful, locally hand-knitted sweater with a hand-written label.

Our visit to the Aran Islands lasted just four hours, but it was long enough for us to peep for an instant behind the billboard of tourist hype that hangs over the islands and see a unique way of life centred on the Catholic church, the Irish language, and flourishing home craft industries.

At the Western Edge of Europe (1): The Cliffs of Moher

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Between Shannon Airport and the village of Liscannor, a roadside sign points to a trace of my Irish ancestry in the village of Quin.

It was my first visit to Ireland. Emmy and I went by taxi from Shannon Airport to the township Liscannor on the Atlantic coast about one hour away. We passed roadside signs pointing to the village of Quin. A strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t deja vue exactly, but rather a vague feeling of familiarity. Perhaps this is where my ancestors came from. I don’t know much about them except that they fled Ireland around 1870, initially settling in the lowlands of Scotland, then migrating to Canada and later to New Zealand where I was born. Quinn – with its variants Quin, O’Quinn, O’Coinn, Cuain, Cuinche and others – is a common Irish name found right across the island. It is especially common in County Clare where we saw it on several signs as we walked the Burren Way up the west coast. Unexpectedly, I found myself walking on what might have been my family’s ancient home ground.

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Quin Abbey in County Clare. This tumbledown ruin and me… we have a lot in common. (Google Earth image)

On the morning of July 22nd, with a blustery wind slapping at us from the chopped-up waters of the Atlantic Ocean, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out of Liscannor towards the southern end of the famous Cliffs of Moher. We were on a track called The Burren Way. Our destination for the day was the hamlet of Doolin, about twenty kilometres to the north. We walked into green pasturelands, criss-crossed by rough stone walls, that sloped down to a grey sea. Isolated white cottages crouched in the grass with beige-coated cows dotted around them. There were no trees, the roads were empty, and the homesteads too seemed deserted. We walked alone.

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The famous, windswept Cliffs of Moher.

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Emmy braces herself against the Atlantic wind with O’Brien’s Tower in the background.

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Rough slate walls helped protect us at the edge of the cliff.

Our walking poles came out early. We levered our way up a long, gravelly asphalt road towards a ruined stone tower – O’Brien’s Tower – standing high above the sea. From there, looking north we saw a series of steep dark headlands diving almost vertically into the sea. The path narrowed and veered towards the edge of the cliff. Far below, the white breakers of the Atlantic boiled against the rocky teeth of the cliff base. In some places big slabs of slate had been placed like a low wall between the path and the edge of the cliff. We had to wobble over at least half-a-dozen stone stiles.

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Stone stiles… my technique was to sprint up to the stile, leap high into the air, and clear it in one youthful bound (as illustrated in this photo).

We met a few walkers coming south, and as we crept north more and more of them appeared. About twelve kilometres from our start-point in Liscannor – a bit over halfway through our walk to Doolin – the crowds thickened. Again and again we had to press ourselves against the side of the path to let them past. The path widened to accommodate a horde of day-trippers: howling toddlers in pushchairs, fat Americans wheezing and dipping into bags of potato crisps, teenagers daring one another to take selfies at the cliff’s edge, clusters of Spanish tourists talking among themselves earnestly, intently, rapidly and non-stop as they walked, indifferent to the natural spectacle around them.

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Teenage day-trippers dare one another on the cliff’s edge.

Then, in the distance, we saw where they were coming from: the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre (called, I’m sorry to report, “The Visitor Experience”). To keep it unobtrusive, the Irish authorities have hidden it under the flanks of a grassy hill. But the parking area cannot be hidden. Its hundreds of cars and buses glisten like a bright, ugly, constantly mutating melanoma on the green skin of the landscape.

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Like a melanoma on the skin of the landscape: the jam-packed parking area at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre. Note the crowds of day-trippers walking the edge of the cliff.

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. They bring in a clutter of mobile phones, baseball caps, over-sized sunglasses, and headphones whispering to the outside world the deafening thumps of music that fill the heads of their users. The cliffs are an interesting natural phenomenon, even spectacular in places, but most visitors scan them quickly, and with a curious indifference, before recording some photos and heading back to the Visitor Centre. The cliffs are a “celebrity location”, famous, above all, for being famous. You go there in order to say “I have been there.”

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. But modern mass tourism seems to do the opposite. It actually narrows the mind. It reduces, and tries to monopolise, options, flexibility and contact with local people. Travellers are whisked from site to site in buses or cars, given pre-digested “information” about each site, allowed photo-ops, then delivered to gift shops. This kind of travel is just another form of consumerism… you collect destinations and take them home in your mobile phone like selfies with sports stars and the autographs of media personalities.

What’s worse, because of tourism’s indifference to the celebrity locations it promotes, it ruthlessly exploits, and ultimately destroys, them. Mass tourism means getting close to the fame of a place – however fleetingly – without bothering yourself with the origins or meaning or authenticity of that fame. Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Jerusalem’s Old City, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Louvre – hundreds more – have become unbearable ant-hills of people, offering little more than glimpses of history, or greatness, or beauty amid a relentless crush of people, and a litter of souvenir shops and fast food outlets. Tragically, this is what many tourists expect, even what they want.

If you like hiking – long distance walking – it is probably because you enjoy solitude. How can the travel industry sell solitude to a mass market? It can’t, of course, except by redefining solitude to mean lots of people, but fewer than at the Cliffs of Moher. So real solitude is deleted from the mind-broadening options offered by the travel industry, even as simultaneously they broadcast (or imply) the slogan “travel broadens the mind”.

But back to the Burren Way. At the end of a long day’s walking – a bit stressed by the necessity to walk some segments along narrow roads between thick blackberry hedges, mixing it with long lines of cars and tourist buses that filled the whole width of the road – we trudged into the tiny hamlet of Doolin, famous for the traditional Irish music of its pubs. And yes, that night, as we tucked into a rack of lamb in O’Connors Pub, we listened to a harp and bauzouki duo in one corner of the dining room playing a selection of gentle traditional melodies. My stress and annoyance at the Cliffs of Moher’s “visitor experience” melted away. The mashed potatoes tasted especially good with a pinch of salt and a knob of rich Irish butter on them.

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The tiny hamlet of Doolin, justly famous for the traditional Irish music played in its pubs. Our B&B accommodation was just past the left end of this strip of shops and pubs.