FROM Drogheda, I returned to Dublin and caught a train west to Galway, the third-largest city in Ireland
Galway sits at the head of Galway Bay, guarded by the Aran Islands, where the recent film The Banshees of Inisherin was filmed. To its south is County Clare, which contains the two great attractions of the Burren National Park and the Cliffs of Moher.
It’s a romantic area, and I’ve been there before, but not for a long time. So, I was keen to get back and see if anything had changed.
In one of my books, A Maverick Pilgrim Way, I talk about that earlier trip at length, with collages of photos for illustration. I’ve decided to use some of what I said in the book here, in a slightly updated and condensed form.
I will use pictures from my latest trip to illustrate the text here, plus a few of the older collages. Also, I won’t bother putting the text from the book in quotes.
As such, read on!
Galway is the third most populous city in Ireland. It is nicknamed ‘The City of Tribes’ after the fourteen merchant families who dominated it for centuries. It sits within a county strewn with mediaeval Irish heritage and historical sites, and the climate here is just as changeable as your clothes!
Galway was a vivid experience for me — truly eye-opening. It is a quaint coastal city with lush meadows bordered by low-lying stone walls, thick forests, and castle ruins. I loved the pops of colour on the buildings and the signs written in a traditional Gaelic style!
Galway has many famous heritage buildings and structures including old- time city walls dating back to the 1200s and the Spanish Arch, created in those walls in the 1500s. The Spanish Arch was damaged by a tsunami that raced up the western shores of Europe as a result of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, and then rebuilt.
A lot of the buildings have really rough and rustic stone walls, obviously dating back centuries. And as you can see in the photo above, many of the narrower streets in the old part of town are completely pedestrianised.
Here’s another fine old building, one of the many. It seems to have been built in Victorian times, which would make it quite new by Galway standards.
I spent some time wandering along the harbour’s edge, breathing in the salty air of the Atlantic Ocean. It was here, when I first visited, years ago, that I heard of the nearby Aran Islands and knew that I just had to go there.
The Aran Islands hold a special place in the hearts of the Irish. Aran was once a place where people travelled to bury their loved ones in unique Irish cultural rituals.
On the Aran Islands, you can spot ancient wedge tombs, as they are called.
I don’t know what persuaded me to visit the Aran Islands on that trip, but I’m glad I did. I had heard other travellers talk about them and they seemed to be a popular holiday destination for tourists.
One thing I did learn while I was booking my tickets for the ferry was that ‘ara’ in Irish means kidney — so it literally means ‘kidney-shaped islands’. Nothing intriguing about that name really…
There are three main Aran Islands, or in Irish, Oileáin Árann. The first people to the islands arrived 6,000 years ago, with the population growing steadily during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-17th century. The ancient Gaelic language, traditions, and culture are still widely used here.
Aran’s historical and spiritual importance lies, additionally, in the many ruins around the islands, including monasteries and churches, in addition to the prehistoric wedge tombs. The islands form a significant node on Ireland’s network of ancient religious pilgrim trails.
The Aran Islands are very rugged, with high cliffs on the western side where the Atlantic pounds them. And the western mainland typically ends in cliffs as well, wherever there are no islands to guard it.
On the mainland, the most famous cliffs in the area are the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. These stunning jagged cliffs stretch eight kilometres along a coast that drops vertically into the Atlantic Ocean.
The highest point is in the vicinity of O’Brien’s Tower, built for the tourists in 1835 by a local landowner. At this point, the cliffs are 214 metres high, more than 700 feet. There is a sea stack at the base of the cliffs here, as well.
Here’s another photo, with some tiny human figures you can barely spot.
If you ever go to Galway or Clare, the Cliffs of Moher are a must-see. There is a walk that you can do along the top, linking the villages of Liscannor and Doolin.
At the southern end of the cliffs, there’s a headland called Hag’s Head. I thought it curious to find so many references to ‘hags’ in Ireland. At first, I imagined all these old witch-like women running around mediaeval Ireland. But I discovered later that hag is an unflattering translation of a term from Gaelic folklore that refers to female spirits, usually personified as wise old women.
The cliffs are constantly crumbling, and there are plenty of signs warning thrill-seekers to keep away from the edge. Some photos on the Internet and a YouTube video show mad mountain bikers riding along the very edge on some ledges that later fell into the sea. Not while the mountain bikers were riding there, but others have not been so fortunate. People who might be tempted to hurl themselves to their doom are also advised to keep away.
At least 63 people are known to have died at the Cliffs of Moher, including one taking a selfie and not paying attention to the edge, the cause of a few Instagrammers’ demises at scenic locations around the world.
I also visited the Burren National Park, which at 1,800 hectares or 18 square kilometres is not very big as national parks go. But while the national park is small, the Burren Plateau is the largest area of karst topography (caves and sinkholes formed in easily dissolvable rock) in Europe.
There are vast stony plains with rock walls snaking in all directions; the scenery will leave you speechless. Rocks jut up from the ground, and the area is home to alpine flowers and plants.
Trees or any shrubbery are scarce here. But there are freshwater springs, woodlands, grasslands, and petrified forests — a veritable feast for the eyes. I thought it was quite an unusual landscape, but beautiful.
Indeed, the writer J R R Tolkien, the author of Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, drew some of his inspiration from the strange landscape of the Burren, such as its bald, striated hills that seem to have had spiraling walls built on them by giants, though as far as I know, these are natural, caused by uneven dissolving of the limestone by millennia of mist and rain.
According to a page on Ireland.com called ‘The Burren and Tolkein’,
Amongst the craggy fissures and creeping woods of the Burren there is a cave called Pol na Gollum (Hole of Gollum). If you’re a Tolkien fan no doubt your ears just pricked up! The notorious character Gollum is essential to the entire plot of The Lord of The Rings. Did Tolkien get the name for his miserable wretch from this cave? We certainly think so.
There are over two hundred wedge tombs around the Burren, including some in outdoor museums. They reminded me of the houses in the old cartoon The Flintstones.
While walking on the Burren, I found some stone tombs that were larger than usual. No one knows how they were constructed, as the roofs on some of the tombs weighed over a hundred tonnes each. One tomb that archaeologists have excavated revealed 22 people: 16 adults and 6 children. So, we know why the larger tombs were constructed, but not how!
Wedge tombs are a type of dolmen, or ‘portal tomb’, with upright stones and a capstone, and usually, an earth mound heaped around to start with, which over the millennia has eroded away exposing the stone structure. On the Burren, the dead were interred with the feet facing south and the head north. The sun now illuminates the dolmens very attractively at certain times.
The driver of the bus tour I was on said that children were not taught enough about these wonders in school.
The Burren is not only famous for these ancient tombs but also for all the rare species of plants that are only found here.
I found an interesting little perfumery located in the Burren. The Burren Perfumery began in 1972 and has a romantic story behind it. A lady named Sadie helped nurse Ralph, a visitor, to health after he fell from his horse. They fell in love and created the perfumery together. Everything is made on-site using local flowers. It was quite a special place.
Near Kinvarra, south of Galway city, there is the Burren Flower Farm, which uses only seaweed and natural fertilisers.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a movie is even better. So, here is a video about the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, which have been a UNESCO Global Geopark since 2011. At 530 square kilometres the Geopark is much larger than the Burren National Park.
Several hiking, and cycling and pilgrim trails also run through this area. I walked part of the way along some of these.
Every year a celebration is held in Clare, in appreciation of ancient Irish pilgrims.
Well, so much for the quotation from my book. This time around, I had lunch at Doolin, which is one of the main tourist villages in the area, with a stalactite cave, and the location from which the shortest ferry route to the Aran Islands can be caught as well.
The white zigzags on a blue background on the signs just above show that the route is part of a scenic route called the Wild Atlantic Way, which runs for 2,500 km around every nook and cranny of the west coast of Ireland.
There was also a peculiar matchmaking festival at Lisdoonvarna. I don’t know whether it is modern or whether it goes back hundreds of years.
North of the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, there is a place where you can get down to the beach, called Fanore. Shown on one of the signs above, it’s very popular. And the historic Dunguaire Castle near the town of Kinvara (or Kinvarra) in Galway, close to Galway City.
Dunguaire Castle, which is very famous, is actually a sort of tower. The castle is named after a king named Guaire, who was said to be so benevolent that one of his arms grew longer than the other from the work of giving alms, and that the dishes of the castle once magically took flight to convey their food to the poor. Irish folk tales do tend to exaggerate a bit, but it sounds like he was a decent enough fellow.
Here’s a video I made of some of the local scenes, taken when I visited in June 2022.
For more, see:
Next week, I will conclude my journey into the west of Ireland by saying some more about Galway and its nearby castles, before heading south to Kerry.
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