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June 15, 2002
Éire: The Burren (Russell)

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A traffic sign near the Cliffs of Moher

On June 13th, we awoke to another morning of pouring rain.  For our last breakfast in Kenmare, Ita demonstrated her superb hospitality one more time, surprising Cameron by fulfilling his wish for mushrooms with breakfast.  We were sorry to say goodbye to Ita and leave the Gaines Country House.  On the way out of Kenmare, Russell stopped by the Post Office to update the Web site one more time.  His new friend, the elderly Irish postal clerk, was languidly telling some tourists that today was not a day to go out driving.

"On a day like today, you need to be sittin' on a stool.  Every now and then, put down your Guinness, look out the window, and make sure that the Muckross House is still out there.  When you're sure that it is, go and get yourself another Guinness."  He winked at Russell and added, "That's what I did the last time I was out there."

Our drive today took us north.  Rather than take the inland route, we decided to see a tiny bit of the Ring of Kerry by driving through Killarney to Killorglin, then Tralee.  We also saved more than 50 kilometres by taking the car ferry across the River Shannon from Tarbert to Killimer, avoiding Limerick.  (The ferry only runs once an hour.  Russell drove the last several miles even more aggressively than usual, making the departure with only minutes to spare.)

Once past the ferry we entered County Clare, where the Irish country roads became even more rugged, windy, and narrow.  (At one point, we saw golfers out in the pouring rain at a golf course that makes American courses look like meadows -- this one looked literally like a bomb crater zone, with overgrown grass a foot high.)  We passed the tiny towns of Lahinch and Liscannor (and made a wrong turn into Ennistymon) before we finally arrived at our destination for the next three nights: the Moher Lodge at the Cliffs of Moher.

Our first favorable omen was when we entered the house and saw Mary Considine, the proprietor, just laying on a peat fire in the guest lounge.  Our second favorable omen was when we met Mary herself and discovered what a wonderful person she is.  She and her hard-working husband Patsy run the B&B together with help from their four grown children.  They own all of the land around; and Patsy actually runs the family farm, which includes everything from milking the dozens of cows to pulling slate out of their own quarry, rain or shine (he also considers it his responsibility to keep the fire in the lounge going).  Mary's own hard work and attention to detail in the B&B have earned them a faithful following of referrals and repeat customers, from her printed breakfast menu (including pancakes with maple syrup) to her ironing the sheets every day.

After several days at the Moher Lodge, we are happy to count ourselves among the people who have been treated to a warm and wonderful stay.  Our neighbors have included a couple from the Netherlands (with whom we discussed the confusion between "Netherlands" and "Holland"), a very friendly couple from Britain near Southampton (also accomplished travelers, they have been on safari in the Numibian desert and gone shark fishing); and a semi-retired couple from New York (who accidentally ripped up the entire left side of their brand-new rental car when they drove too close to a stone wall -- luckily they bought full coverage).  Everyone seemed to be here to relax; whenever we came down for our normally late 9:00 AM breakfast, we would invariably find others just sitting down as well.

We concentrated most of our sightseeing into June 14th, the most fair weather day we had.  Our morning was devoted to an exploration of An Bhoireann (the "Burren").  Literally "the rocky place," the Burren consists of 50 square miles of desolation, where Ice Age glaciers scraped everything down to the limestone of the ancient seabed.  In addition to its sheer unworldliness, the Burren is home to Ireland's greatest diversity of plants (Mediterranean and arctic flowers bloom side by side) and more than 2,000 prehistoric sites.

(The Burren was also the area where the Irish experienced some of their worst suffering during the great famines.  With the English confiscating most of their better crops, the people couldn't grow anything else in the rocky ground, and many starved to death.  During our wrong turn when we first entered the area, we saw a stunning memorial to the 1840s famine.)

We began our tour of the Burren at the town of Kilfenora, whose Burren Centre provided a nice introductory education to the area.  In addition to a 20-minute video and a wonderful museum, we also saw several 11th-century Celtic crosses at St. Fachtnan's Cathedral next door (this church, which looks like a ruin, still holds Mass; in fact it has the distinction of having the Pope as its bishop).

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The Dooley Cross: a replica in Kilfenora's Burren Centre...
... and the real thing next door at St. Fachtnan's Cathedral 

From here we proceeded further north into the Burren itself, where we stopped at its most well-known landmark, the Poll na brón (Poulnabrone Portal Tomb, AKA the "Portal Dolmen").  More than 4,000 years old, it is speculated to be everything from a druid's altar to a burial site.  We had more fun free-hiking around in the surrounding area, where Cameron and Joss hopped across and into ravines, hopped across and onto boulders, and found dozens of other dolmens (made by more contemporary visitors) and some animal bones (Joss wondered if he would be famous).  We finished our Burren tour at the northern town of Ballyvaughan, where we skipped the Burren Experience exhibit and had pb&j sandwiches in the car.

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The Poll na brón (Portal Dolmen)
Running around on the Burren

In the afternoon, we headed back south along the coast, passing Blackhead and Doolin to reach the Cliffs of Moher.  Just a few minutes away from the Burren, this is Ireland's most dramatic coastline: for five miles, cliffs drop 650 feet into the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean.  At the northern end, O'Brien's Tower offers a high vantage point, but it was closed when we went.  On the southern side, a big sign declared "Do not go beyond this point," although everyone ignored it and hiked around on the cliffs anyway (we later learned that this sign was put here only last year -- and only for the hoof-and-mouth disease).

In the middle area, a 3-foot slate wall made Gail feel comfortable enough to let us walk around for a bit.  Russell was the only one of us, who was brave enough to walk out onto the limestone platform, where you can belly right up to the edge to see the sheer drop below (to be fair, there were dozens of other tourists on the platform as well, some of them having picnics right on the edge).

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Slate walls, a limestone platform, and the stunning Cliffs of Moher

The rest of our time here, including most of June 15th (when it poured rain all day), was spent in and around the lodge.  Every evening we would watch the mist settle in around the trees, creating a scenic and ghostly landscape.  We had our first two dinners in our room (thanks to the hard-to-find Super-Valu Supermarket in Ennistymon); on our first night, Gail the incredible wonder woman made hot dogs in a hot pot.  For our last dinner on the 15th we went out to Doolin's café, where Russell tried the duck and declared it the best he's had in our year of traveling (and he has been trying the duck everywhere he could).  We spent a lot of time in the lounge by the warm fireplace (although Joss got very hot in here), playing games and watching satellite TV.  We also made friends with the resident horse, named only "horse."

Our days here have passed by too quickly; this is an area where we would love to have lingered for much longer amid the Western Irish hospitality.  As it is, our time in Ireland is already almost at an end.  Tomorrow we will cross back east over the country to Dublin.  It seems like we just got here...


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