June 3, 2017:
Today had us journeying from Killarney, in County Kerry, up to County Mayo via the west coast in County Clare to take in the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, on our way to Ashford Castle. We rose to a gray drizzly day, but hope the weather will clear by the time we reach the Cliffs.
Our first stop is in the small town of Adare, located in County Limerick, which bills itself as the prettiest village in Ireland. I’m not sure it deserves this credit, but it does feature a few worthy sights to see, most notably, the classic Irish country-style cottages with thatched roofs. It was still raining by the time we got here, but we braved the weather to snap a few pictures of the cottages and the Trinitarian Abbey which anchors the town. the Abbey, which is now the town’s Catholic church, has a cool stone dove cote at the back. Right outside of town is Desmond Castle, ancestral home to the earls of Dunraven.
We continued our drive through the countryside, passing more abbeys, castles and Norman manor houses than I could count (or remember). Sadly, I didn’t ask Dermott to help me label those flyby pictures! I think these pictures were of Bunratty Castle (but I’m not 100% certain). UPDATE: Dermott weighed in and provided the missing names of these structures. Thanks, again, Dermott!
We also passed by Dromoland, which was a great estate, now a hotel,once frequented by George Bush.
Our next brief stop was at the Monument to the Great Hunger, a memorial dedicated to the nearly 1 million Irish people who died from starvation in the Great Famine from 1845-1852. Most Irish people feel that the famine deaths were greatly elevated due to English landlords throwing Irish tenant farmers off their lands when their crops failed in the potato blight, and during which time, the English government continued to import wheat and the other grains raised by the Irish to England. From 1840 to 1922 when Ireland gained its independence from England, the population of Ireland was cut in half by both the Great Hunger and the mass emigration caused by the potato blight. Today, the Irish population still has not achieved its numbers before the potato blight, and more people of Irish descent live in the U.S. than in Ireland.
Fortunately, as we drove on, the weather gods smiled on us again, and the day cleared. As we drove, we noticed the growing prevalence of stone walls in the fields, that seem to be laid out with no rhyme or reason. Dermott tells us that the use of dry-set stone walls has been in use in this part of Ireland for over 6,000 years. They sure make for charming scenery, with all the new lambs frolicking in their pastures.
Then we came to the Cliffs of Moher, and it was ever bit as awe-inspiring as advertised. Although it is a huge tourist attraction, the entire site is so large, it didn’t really feel crowded. From the car park, you hike up to the headlands, from where you can see the rugged coastline fall away below you nearly 700 feet straight to the ocean. We watched the sea birds reeling around the cliffs and then hiked up a bit further to O’Brien’s Tower, from where you have the best views of the coastline. The Cliffs stretch for about 5 miles along the coast and are made mostly of black shale, which made me really glad this morning’s rains had stopped so we didn’t have a slippery walk. Hopefully, these photos show you why it’s worth the trek to see the Cliffs!
After leaving the Cliffs of Moher, we drove through a unique area called the Burren, which is home to a very bio-diverse ecosystem, which largely lives in the fissured limestone surfaces and shallow pools called turloughs. Sadly, we had no time to stop here, but this would be a top destination on a return visit. Reputedly, not only is the flora and fauna really interesting, but there are also some amazing rock formations, including a great cave called Doolin Cave, and a stone dolmen (tomb) called Poulnabrone which dates back to 2500-2000 B.C.
On the way, we passed through the quixotic town of Lisdoonvarna, which is known as the Matchmakers’ Town. In olden days in Ireland, towns which stood at the crossroads became centers for courting, and dances were held in the town squares of those crossroads to meet prospective mates. Apparently, this was somewhat threatening to the Catholic Church (with its goal of controlling most aspects of Irish life), so they prevailed upon the government to pass a law banning these dances. Instead, the town of Lisdoonvarna sought to establish itself as a tourist destination by hosting a yearly “Matchmakers’ Festival”. As you can see from the sign, this year the festival will last for a “full six weeks” during the month of September. Obviously, someone else has paid a visit to Blarney Castle!
Our next stop was in the seaport city of Galway, which looked lovely. There were even swans floating on the river Corrib, which leads to the sea from Lough Corrib. Just months before his assassination, John F. Kennedy visited Galway, and was pronounced a Free Citizen of Galway by its residents who were much taken with our American President, despite the fact that the Kennedy family hailed from the town of Dunbrodie in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland. We stopped long enough to visit Eyre Square , where there is a monument to President Kennedy. Amazing, there is even a pub nearby which changed its name to “Kennedy’s” for his visit, and then never changed it back. I also walked around the corner for a quick visit to Shop Street in the heart of old Galway, and then it was off for our final destination: Ashford Castle.
All is can say is Wow! Wow! Wow! The Castle sits in the middle of a woodland park with its own golf course and forest, right next to the small town of Cong, which was the setting for the movie, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. You even approach the Castle by passing over a river and through a turreted stone gatehouse.
The Castle was originally built in 1228 as a Norman castle, and was owned for decades By the Guinness family. In 1939, it passed to the Irish state, but was again returned to private ownership in the 1950s and turned into a hotel. Today it is part of the Red Carnation hospitality company and is part of the Leading Hotels of the World group. As Jim and I were shown to our room, we could see a bride out on the great lawn being photographed before her wedding. I take this as an auspicious sign of our visit!
Tomorrow, we plan to hang out at this glorious resort and check out the town of Cong. I’m kind of looking forward to a day without any bus travel involved!