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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.