Doolin is a three-pub town but don’t let the size and the population of 200 permanent residents fool you. There’s an Upper Village and a Lower Village, all along the same main drag and about a half-mile apart from each other. If there is drama or competition between the two villages, the locals kept it a secret from us. This is a small but mighty town when it comes to Irish traditional music. It’s a must-stop for music fans and fellow travelers who enjoy bunking in hostels or camping by the ocean shore, or for those who want an easy stop-off before or after a trip to Ireland’s gem, the Cliffs of Moher.
This was our kind of town after a full day of driving from Galway through the Burren to the Cliffs. But first the Cliffs. Or rather, the drive to the cliffs. This is where we start to mistrust our trusty GPS named Clare.
First she treats us to the lovely Dunguaire Castle plunked down near Kinvarra for our viewing pleasure some time in the 16th century. We stop to swoon over the castle and the surrounding countryside that is, on this spectacular sunny day, positively storybook perfect and filled with every shade of green imaginable. It’s like being in the green section of the PMS swatchbook.
We begin to drive through the Burren, a rocky region that stretches across County Clare. I liken this unique limestone landscape to being on the moon, only the moon has sprouted clusters of beautiful pink, yellow, and purple flowers. Oh, and also a few cows and sheep and the occasional brave cyclist making his way up the steep twisties. The guidebook describes the Burren this way: The pavements, known as clints, lie like huge scattered bones across the swooping hills. Between the seams of rock lie narrow fissures known as grykes that support exquisite wildflowers. Tres groovy.
We bisect the Burren via a narrow highway and we’re thinking happy thoughts about cows and sheep and moving to Galway when Clare instructs us to turn right, but turning right looks like we’ll be heading west on the road to perdition (that would be eternal damnation) or quite possibly to Grandpa O’Malley’s house and we all know Grandpa O’Malley doesn’t tolerate trespassers. We drive down a few lanes and continue taking Clare’s instructions but are increasingly convinced that Clare has set us down in an Irish version of Deliverance. It’s then that Dave hits the brakes to avoid an unfortunate incident with a cattle trailer. I’m looking into the overgrown hedgerow on my left, waiting for a bull to burst through any second because he knows the sound of the trailer means good feed back at the trough. We wait and wait and then the farmer closes the trailer and drives on, after waving a friendly hello to us. We pull over the first chance we get and recalculate the route (twice) but Clare keeps giving us the same directions. When in Ireland, do as Clare says so we forge ahead.
You’ve seen them in every Ireland tourist brochure or advertisement you’ve come across. So you think you’re prepared to see them live and in person. It’s just some big old cliffy-rocky-steep-thingee. It’ll be just like seeing the Rocky Mountains or Bryce Canyon or Mt. Hood or some national treasure in the States. Um….negatory, Houston.
Located in County Clare, the cliffs rise in majestic formation from the Atlantic Ocean and stretch nearly five miles like a giant’s set of dominos. The highest point is more than 700 feet above the ever-churning waves and jagged rocks below. They give going vertical an entirely new meaning. To say the wind here is unrelenting is an understatement.
Here was the general conversation the first half hour we were there: Wow (which sounds very much like “ow-ow-ow” in the wind).
And my stock proclamation whenever I’m stunned by nature … The earth is freaking awesome.
Now, that’s what we’re murmuring out loud. Inside my stupified head I’m praying, “Jesus Mary and Joseph and all the saints, cherubim and seraphim, please for the love of all that is holy and good do not let me trip and fall over that edge to my untimely death when I haven’t found a wool sweater yet and certainly haven’t had enough pints of Smithwick’s. I beg you to let that last batch of greasy, late-night takeaway chips that must weigh five extra pounds in my stomach keep me grounded here on god’s oh-so-impossibly-green earth so this ferocious wind doesn’t send me somersaulting in a not so graceful way into the Atlantic Ocean. Amen. Oh, and I lied to my parents when I was in high school but I’m sure you can forgive a girl that sin right now as I’m hanging on to this little patch of dirt for dear life. Amen again.”
Here’s the thing: there’s a safe viewing area with a nice stone wall and then there’s a sign warning you to go beyond that point at your own risk and then there you are passing the sign la la la, utterly convinced that if those mini dots that look like people can brave it out with no safety rails then you can too. It’s a grand study in social behavior – tell the people they can’t go out there, and out they go anyway.
So I embrace the wind-blown look which includes a permanently sideways ponytail and we pass the warning signs. The day is crystal clear and miraculous, not a cloud for miles. Several times I brace myself and the backpack against a gust that threatens to blow me ass over appetite, as the saying goes. Meanwhile Dave hangs over the edge to get shots like the one above – it may not look intimidating but that’s probably a 400-foot drop. Dave also teases me for hugging the far side of the skinny trail but I’m known to get distracted by pretty things such as the 30,000 birds diving and playing in the wind so it is best to keep far, far from the edge. We’re about a mile out when Dave crafts the world’s worst and most clichéd short story whereupon a depressed lad comes to the cliffs to end his life and is saved by a dark-haired Galway beauty. We don’t realize until we’re back on safer ground that the Cliffs are, sadly, a watery grave for far too many folk. There are Samaritan signs with an emergency number posted around the perimeter of the cliffs. We thought the signs were similar to the ones we’ve seen in the mountains when you need to call in a rescue squad. But now the “Need To Talk To Someone” tagline makes sense.
Suddenly it’s 4 p.m. and we’ve been there for over two hours and we’re starving. And windblown to next Tuesday. We pop into the gift shop for postcards and I search for a floaty pen. These are the pens with fluid in the barrel and something that floats in the fluid. No dice. I decide I will send my own Cliffs of Moher design to the floaty pen people which will include tons of birds diving around the cliffs.
We reach Doolin proper with minimal mistrust of Clare and scarft down lunch at Gus O’Connor’s Pub where we also have one of our first encounters with a local we truly, truly can’t understand. Trouble is, she’s the server and she can supply us with better directions to the B&B seeing as ours say something to the effect of “you’ll pass the castle and then see a road so take a left.” Hmmm…I brave the brogue and ask for extra help and again am met with the, “oh, dear, you’re so far away. It’s way on the other side of town, it is. Now what you’re going to do is take the main road for a good long bit and then you’ll see a slew of signs and turn right and it’s just down the way there.” This time, I’m prepared. “How many kilometers would you say it is?” I ask. “Oh heavens, it must be 5 kilometers, I’m sure of it.”
Three miles. This could mean another half hour. But time has become fluid for us. We’re eating lunch – much to Dave’s dismay – at 4 p.m. and we’re never quite certain what time zone our brains and stomachs are in so what’s another half hour or three miles?
Once we find the Craggy Island B&B, we make the toughest decision of the night – McGann’s or McDermott’s. Adrian, our B&B owner recommended McDermott’s for the best live session on a Friday night. Given that he sits in on trad sessions now and again, we went with his reco.
We get a table near the stage since we’re an hour ahead of the music and watch the pub fill up with regulars and tourists.
Soon, two fiddlers and a bouzouki player begin. They dig right in and barely look up between songs. The woman has an incredible voice and it’s the first of many times we hear Caledonia but it ends up being the best rendition of the trip. We meet a couple from Philadelphia named Willow and Peter. Peter is a classically trained violinist and he’s intrigued by this whole fiddling thing. Reels and jigs aren’t in his vernacular but he’s thinking he may need to study up on it. They leave and we’re joined by Viola and Mauritz, two German natives but Viola now lives in Kildare. We have a tremendous conversation about politics and Obama and their hope for both America and Ireland. We close out the night and say goodnight to Doolin on the porch of our B&B where there are more stars than street lights and that’s a very, very brilliant thing.
The next morning, it’s ridiculously sunny so we shop the two or three shops in town and Dave and I score our wool sweaters, woo-boy!
Then we walk around the pier where I take another ton of photos while others, like the man above, capture their memories on canvas. Next up is the Dingle Peninsula. Whereas Galway had the nightlife and vibrancy, Doolin is incredible for its pastoral beauty and its calming nature. We’re excited to see what Dingle will offer.
The Babo Rating (1 cookie being Tragic!; 5 cookies being Brilliant!)
5 cookies for a nap after the cliffs and the bazillion stars in the sky above Doolin
5 cookies for the trad session and the first of many times we hear Caledonia
10 cookies to striking up conversations in the pubs with strangers who instantly become friends
Zero cookies to Clare for her poor sense of direction to the Cliffs. Clare will be awfully hungry in the morning