Hag’s Head & the Cliffs of Moher
Hag’s Head is a large rock formation above a sea arch, said to resemble a seated sphinx-like woman. Some say the name comes from the witch Mal, who supposedly perished here. The headland is topped by a signal tower built in 1806, during the Napoleonic wars, which replaced a ruined promontory fort called Mothar.
The Cliffs of Moher attract approximately a million tourists each year. Until recently, provision for visitors was totally inadequate. Since 2004, a controversial but architecturally impressive interpretative centre has provided sophisticated facilities, including a fascinating virtual reality tour of the cliffs from a seabird’s point of view.
O’Brien’s Tower commands spectacular views of Loop Head to the south and the Aran Islands, the mouth of Galway Bay, the Twelve Pins and the Maum Turk mountains in Connemara. The tower was erected in 1853 by Cornelius O’Brien, who was also the first to furnish the visitors’ area with pathways etc., and even arranged for regular live bagpipe music performances; unfortunately, the piper fell off the cliffs while drunk.
Quite a few people have plunged to their deaths fom the crumbling cliff edge; some were suicides, but others fell through no fault of their own. The barriers now in place may be slightly obtrusive, but almost certainly save lives.
The Cliifs of Moher are home to Ireland’s largest seabird colony, with about 30,000 specimens at any one time. Many tend to congregate noisily on An Bhreannán Mór, the tallest (70m) of several stacks rising vertically from the waves, and on Goat Island, just under the first viewing point. This is one of the top two sites in Ireland for Kittiwakes, and is considered of international importance for razorbills. The most famous birds here are probably the migrant colony of Atlantic puffins. Boats regularly leave Doolin to observe the many species that live here.
The Cliifs of Moher have appeared in several films, notably the The Guns of Navarone (1961).
Doolin (Co. Clare / Northwest)
Doolin (Dúlainn – “Black church”) (pop. 500) is not so much a village as an eccentric scattering of houses across part of the southwestern slopes of the Burren, where the Aille River runs from the hills down to meet the Atlantic at the South Sound of Galway Bay. This coastline, with dramatic breaking waves and thundering surf set against the stark and dramatic sheer cliff line, has delighted photographers and artists for generations, but has also proved fatal to incautious bathers.
Doolin Harbour lies isolated at the end of the shore road. Ferry operators offer regular services to the Aran Islands, weather permitting, and some crossings also include a brief trip to the Cliffs of Moher. The harbour is reputed to have a friendly resident dolphin, but swimmers have also reported actively hostile porpoise behaviour in the vicinity of nearby Crab Island, where the ruin of an RIC outpost still stands.
Fisher Street, a colourful row of riverside houses a little way inland, centres on Gus O’Connor’s Pub (1832), widely considered one of the best hostelries in Ireland. There are also shops selling all kinds of traditional Irish produce, craftwork and clothing, restaurants, a hostel, and several B&Bs.
Roadford, the higher part of Doolin, has two pubs, McDermott’s (1867) and McGann’s (1976), a restaurant, a café, a few hostels, B&Bs and a campsite.
Known as the “Traditional Music Capital of Ireland”, Doolin is a very popular tourist destination, with thousands of visitors coming to enjoy – or participate in – seshiuns at its three most famous pubs, where live music can be heard day and night. The district has greatly benefited from a massive revival of enthusiasm for traditional music in recent years, and now has two new hotels and a fourth pub. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of unsightly caravan and camping sites.
Seamus Delargy collected a vast volume of North Clare folklore here in the late 1920s and early 1930s, now held in the National Archives in Dublin.
Doolin House was the summer residence of the MacNamara family, the local landlords in the C19th, virtually hereditary Liberal MPs for Ennis and High Sheriffs of Clare.
Francis MacNamara (1884 – 1946) an eccentric minor poet, spent an idyllic youth here, and returned from London to raise the four children he had with his first wife Yvonne Majolier on Rousseau-esque libertarian principles. Regular visitors included George Bernard Shaw, JM Synge, Oliver St John Gogarty and the arch-bohemian painter Augustus John, who replaced him after he abandoned his paternal duties. One daughter, Nicolette Devas, described her unusual childhood in Two Flamboyant Fathers (1966), a fascinating memoir full of anecdotes about celebrated figures such as WB Yeats and TE Lawrence. Another daughter, Caitlín, became a dancer and married the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, with whom she had a fiery alcohol-fuelled relationship.
The house was burned down in 1920. Some allege it was torched by British forces in retaliation for the shotgun injuries inflicted in an ambush on Henry Valentine “Vee” McNamara at Leamaneh Castle the previous year, but this makes no sense at all; the perpetrators were undoubtedly Republicans of some stripe.
The ruin still stands on the right hand site of the road about half a mile west of Doolin Cross, roughly opposite the remains of the old RIC barracks.
Cnoc na Crochaire (Gallows Hill) was where the High Sheriff of County Clare, Sir Boetius MacClancy, hanged as many as 170 survivors of Spanish Armada shipwrecks in 1588; they were buried in a nearby barrow.
Doonagore Castle, on a hill overlooking Doolin Point, was originally founded by Teigue MacTurlough MacCon O’Connor during the C14th. The name can be translated as either “the fort of the rounded hills” or the “fort of the goats”. (Photo by Postdif)
Rebuilt at least once, the round C16th Tower House was granted to Sir Turlough O’Brien of Ennistymon in 1582.
By the middle of the C19th the edifice had fallen into disrepair, and lay derelict for many years until magnificently restored in the 1970s by an American named O’Gorman, whose family currently maintain it as a private holiday home, inaccessible to the public.
Doonmacfelim Castle, a former O’Brien stronghold, is now an atmospheric ruin to the rear of Doonmacfelim House, a friendly, reasonably-priced modern B&B run by Frank and Majella Moloney.
There are numerous archaeological sites near Doolin, many dating to the Iron Age and earlier. The area is well signposted and marked with country walks that include old paths and disused country roads and allow the walker or hiker unique access to the coastline. Special walking maps are available.
Doolin is a popular base for both rock climbers and potholers, the former often skimpily dressed and intent on “bouldering” or “addressing the technical rock”, the latter wearing wetsuits as they burrow underground to explore the vast network of passages and caverns honeycombing the Burren.
Doolin Cave / Pol-an-Ionian was discovered by English potholers in 1962. Until recently visits involved numerous strenuous crawls and a river, and were not only uncomfortable but actually dangerous. The cave was opened by the Browne family to tourists in 2006, and nowadays visitors are taken by professional guides via an alternative access point down an 80m shaft.
The cave is a magnificent domed hall containing the 6.54m long Great Stalactite, an extraordinarily fragile and beautiful speleothem suspended by a section of calcite less than 0.3m² in size. Once thought to be the longest stalactite on Earth, it may be “one of the largest free hanging stalactites in the world” but is in fact only the longest stalactite in Ireland.
Some say that the cave’s development was a serious case of vandalism, and that the restriction of visitor numbers is not an environmentally protective measure but an attempt to make the phenomenon more interesting than it really is, but this smacks of begrudgery, for there can be no doubt that the star attraction is a true natural wonder.
In the PlayStation 3 game Folklore, the only place where the Netherworld realm of the dead can be accessed is the seaside village of Doolin.
A local rumour has it that JRR Tolkien got his inspiration for The Lord Of The Rings in Doolin; alas, there is no evidence that the Oxford academic was ever here.
Doolin is on the edge of The Burren and close toLisdoonvarna on ByRoute 12.
Ballinalacken Castle & House
Ballinalacken Castle is believed to have originally been built around 1390 by the O’Connor clan, whose power declined in the C14th due to internal family feuding as to (inter alia) who should become Lord of Corcomroe (present day Burren area). (Photo by Bogman)
In 1564, the O’Connors relinquished control to Teighue MacMurrough O’Brien, who restored and improved the castle before his death in 1577. The O’Briens were by this time in high favour with Queen Elizabeth 1 and therefore one of the most powerful families in the area. The castle appears to have been ransacked around 1645.
Ballinalacken House was built by Lord O’Brien in 1840 as his family home. The entire property was purchased in 1939 by the father of current owner Denis O’Callaghan.
Ballylacken Castle Country House Hotel now offers luxurious accommodation and a first class restaurant. The grounds command spectacular views of the Aran Islands.
Fanore (Co. Clare / Northwest)
Fanore is a sparsely inhabited district with a surprisingly good selection of pubs and eateries.
Fanore Beach was until not too long ago a remote and almost untouched expanse of sand dunes along a long narrow strand. With Carnsefin Mountain in the Burren as a spectacular backdrop, the strand is still a great place for shore fishing, beachcombing and solitary walks out of season, but is now marred by a caravan park and tends to get crowded with bathers and surfers in summer.
Ailladie / the Blind Man’s Cliff , an 800m limestone seacliff, is popular with climbers.
The Caher River (the only entirely above-ground river in the Burren), probably named for the number of ancient Ringforts along its length, reaches the Atlantic here. The archaeologically fascinating river valley is also a scenic place to cycle or walk.
Caher Bridge Garden is an interconnecting series of delightful gardens with unusual varieties of plants, set in sheltered areas carved out by environmentalist Carl Wright from the hazel and blackthorn scrub around his restored stone cottage in the Caher River valley.
St Patrick’s church (RC), standing in rather splendid isolation at the entrance to the valley, dates from 1870.
Black Head (647 ft) is the extreme point of land on the north coast of Co. Clare. From here the Aran Islands appear very close, and places on the northern shore of Galway Bay such as Salthill and Galway City itself are also visible, while the vastness of the Atlantic is truly brought home. Seem from the summit of Carnsefin, the panorama is even more impressive.