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In good weather this is a fabulously scenic and interesting drive. It is a long day but easily manageable. Until you approach the coast at Lahinch the scenery is nothing special but the main bulk of the day is absolutely glorious.
Just beyond the colourful little town of Newmarket-on-Fergus you come to a small gatehouse on the right leading to Dromoland Castle. This is a baronial castle, C17 in origin but C19 in its current state, which has been converted by its American owner to a luxury hotel. It was the prime residence of the O'Brien family after the demise of Leamaneh Castle further north (see Burren notes). You can't see it from the road but the gate to the estate is usually open. If you have 5 minutes to spare you should drive up to the castle through the grounds before returning to the main road. (Do not get out of the bus.) The estate is glorious. You drive through the golf course as you approach the castle and the lake on which it sits. Dromoland Castle is, like Adare Manor and Ashford Castle in Cong, one of the top hotels in the country.
Ennis This is the county town of Co. Clare. You skirt it so you get no real impression of its well-preserved historic town centre. Two great men in Irish history have connections with Ennis: Daniel O'Connell who became MP for Clare here in 1828, and Eammon de Valera, elected MP for Ennis in the 1917.
Ennistimon is an attractive place of no particular interest except for the waterfall that feeds the river Cullenagh. You can hear it better than you see it.
At the village of Lahinch you meet the sea. This is a summertime beach resort but is best known for its splendidly difficult links golf course, designed in 1894 and rated among the top 100 courses in the world.
Liscannor The town is dominated by a ruined keep castle that once belonged to the O'Brien family. Liscannor stone is visible everywhere you look. This is a flagstone found locally which is used in roofing stables and farm buildings and as an architecturally decorative feature. It is found just below ground level and is easily quarried. John Holland, inventor of the submarine, was born here. As you leave Liscannor to climb the hill you pass to your left a tall commemorative column dedicated to Cornelius O'Brien, a C19 lord who did great deeds in the service of Co. Clare.
The Cliffs of Moher This is an extraordinary part of Ireland offering some of the most dramatic and impressive landscape in all of Europe. You need allow no more than an hour for the stop. Even in good weather it will be windy up here. From the parking you see nothing except for the small but good visitor centre with loos, a little cafe and some nice books and souvenirs. Continue up the path lined with slabs of Liscannor stone and dotted with hawkers for 5 minutes or so until you reach the cliff's edge. The cliffs of Moher come splendidly into view. If you continue 5 minutes further up along the path you reach O'Brien's Tower, a C19 conceit built by the same Cornelius O'Brien as in the column at Liscannor. The views from the top of the tower, reached by a few steps, are superb. There is a small charge (you pay). The cliffs ripple in waves along a 5-mile stretch of coast. They are up to 600 ft high. Puffins, cormorants, shags, gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes and gulls circle around them. The noise of the Atlantic smashing against the cliff wall is wonderful. You can see as far as the Aran Islands.
(Incidentally, before you go it is worth phoning the visitor centre to check on the weather. On some days you wouldn't know there are any cliffs there at all, in which case you are probably better off just continuing on your way.)
The Burren The Burren in Co. Clare constitutes one of Ireland's national parks. The Gaelic word Bhoireann means 'stony place.' That pretty much says it all. It is a unique and astonishing landscape. Where every other part of Ireland revels in its 'forty shades of green' the Burren is almost uniformly grey. There are no trees and little pasture land, just rocks. One of Cromwell's generals Edward Ludlow, in an apposite but horrifically evil phrase, complained of the Burren that it had "neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him nor soil enough to bury him." This is an ancient landscape that dates back, for what it's worth, to the Lower Carboniferous period. (These notes confess to having no clue when that was.) It was formed by glacial action. The stone is karst limestone, eroded in a pavement pattern known as 'farren.' The cracks in the limestone pavement are called 'grykes.' Below ground is an endless network of caves and rivers that flood in winter. You will occasionally come across turloughs. These are lakes which only appear after heavy rainfall and disappear as suddenly as they came. The rainwater floods the subsoil and the lake emerges as the overspill. The Burren is best known for its unique flora. For this reason May or June is the best time to visit. It sustains flowers native to the Arctic, the Mediterranean and the Alpine regions, three totally different weather systems in one. There are orchids, blue gentian, cranesbill, mountain avens and maidenhair ferns. They can be seen growing in the grykes, giving extraordinary colour to the background of grey. You see no barns in this area because the rocks retain the heat all year round so the farm aminals have no need to escape the winter weather.
There are two great scenic routes through the Burren: inland past Kilfenora and Poulnabroune or by the quicker and shorter coastal road. The second road is spectacular, with constant views first on to the Aran Islands and then on to Galway Bay, even as far as the mountains of Mayo and Connemara, and with hillsides covered in huge boulders. The second route is equally spectacular in a different way and more interesting. It is described below.
The two routes diverge five miles after the cliffs at the fishing village of Doolin.
Doolin This is a detour of a mile or so. This is not the easiest place to park but it makes an excellent lunch stop. This little village is world famous for traditional Irish folk music. (People say that backpackers from all over the world come to Dublin airport with no word of English except Doolin. They end up in the right place.) There is a pub called Gus O'Connor's that does good food very reasonably. You should book. They will provide music for you at no charge. There are a couple of small and attractive craft shops in the same street.
From here head inland on the R478 towards Lisdoonvarna. You will skirt this famous little C18 spa town, known for its curative sulphur and iron springs. There is a well known festival of folk music held here in mid July. In September it becomes the site of the Matchmaking Festival, an international celebration of singlehood and the glorious search for a spouse.
Kilfenora This little place is famous for its three Irish High Crosses in the cemetery of the C12 cathedral. If you wish to see them you need to make a short detour into the village. Otherwise continue another 4 miles or so to Leamaneh Castle at the junction with the R480. This ruined house was an old O'Brien residence, first built in the C15 and abandoned in the C18 in favour of Dromoland further south. Much of its furniture now sits in Dromoland Castle. You now take the R480 north, direction Ballyvaughan, into the heart of the Burren hills.
Poulnabroune This is an unbelievable sight. Park the coach by the side of the road and walk across the rocks in the field (be careful of your step; you need good shoes) to the main central dolmen. Revel in the view all around you. This is one of 70 neolithic grave sites in the Burren. Set as it is so inaccessibly it is thought that this was a grave site reserved for only the most important ranks in neolithic society. It was excavated in 1968. The remains of about twenty adults and one newborn child were found here. The tombs here, according to carbon dating, are from between 3800 and 3200 BC. They are known from their shape as Wedge Tombs: lower and narrower at the back with the higher and broader side facing the setting sun.
Soon after Poulnabroune on the same road to Ballyvaughan you can see signs off to the right to Ailwee Cave. You won't have time to visit so don't make the detour. This is the most famous of the Burren caves that flood in winter. It was discovered in 1944 by a local farmer. The remains of bears were found inside.
Ballyvaughan At this pretty little town on the coast overlooking Galway Bay, made famous by Bing Crosby, you rejoin the coast road. There is a cafe here and a nice pub/restaurant where you can stop for a drink and the loo. Eight or nine miles later at Bell Harbour turn back inland following the signs to Corcomroe Abbey. Be careful: the road is easy to miss.
Corcomroe Abbey This beautifully atmospheric ruin was an old Cistercian monastery, founded in 1194 by Donal O'Brien, King of Limerick. It was fought over many times in the Middle Ages and finally destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Architecturally it is of limited interest except for the botanical carvings on the capitals of some of its columns. The graveyard is still in use for local families. Every year on Easter Sunday at dawn Mass is held here, attended by hundreds of people. W.B.Yeats set his prose poem The Dreaming of the Bones here. This is the ideal place to read a bit of Yeats to the group. It always goes down well.
Return to the main road heading towards Galway. Just after the charming fishing village of Kinvarra you come to the C15 keep castle of Dunguaire on your left. It was restored in the early part of this century by Oliver St. John Gogarty, writer and friend of Yeats. In the summer they do medieval banquets here. It's worth a two-minute photo stop. The road now continues past nothing of particular interest until you reach Galway.
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