An unmerciful wind
An SN&R writer and his family travel to Ireland to slow down, walk the cliffs and sip on some Guinness
Over the Burren, a windswept, rocky moor in the far west of Ireland, clouds hang heavy. One can walk on the hard, pocked rocks, surrounded by tall grasses, purple and yellow wildflowers and brambles, for miles; look at the vastness of the Atlantic past the cliffs that border the Burren, see the mossy green hills and the intimidatingly large boulders that populate the slopes, and convince oneself that one has found a land at the edge of the known world.
It’s a convenient romance, and one that drew me to the region with my children. A not dissimilar impulse to that which in past years has taken me to Iceland, to Patagonia, to India’s Thar Desert. But it’s also a fiction. In fact, the Burren—an ancient geologic curiosity, its limestone rocks formed out of what was once, hundreds of millions of years ago, a tropical seabed, its soils eroded and stones shaped by the ebb and flow of ice sheets during recent ice ages—is a wondrous intersection of human cultivation and nature. In subtle harmony with the gray rock faces and long ledges of stone, are numerous rock walls, built by herders and small landowners over many, many centuries. In these enclosures, well-fed cattle and sleek horses roam. Coming up out of the deep green hills are small houses, many of them thatched; old churches; the occasional gray, stone castle.
This is a landscape across which the English revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell’s invading soldiers fought locals in the mid-17th century. It’s a fierce, treeless, landscape—there were so few trees, one Cromwellian soldier reputedly declared, that they couldn’t even find branches from which to hang people—but also a strangely serene one, a place where the rhythms of generations slow time down.
I think that, in many ways, it is the interruption of the regular march of time that we crave when we travel. It forces us to contemplate the world not just through different eyes, but at a different tempo. We take off, in a plane, from one city, the mores of which we live our daily lives within, and we land in someone else’s world. It, the journey, the arrival, presents us with the rhythms of other histories and unfamiliar stories and legends.
Time, and history, is heavier in rural Ireland; it flows slowly: Guinness, rather than lager, in its consistency. It’s a place of hundreds of years of tribal wars, centuries more of bitter struggles against the English. It’s a tiny land with more than its fair share of drama. Winston Churchill once said of the Balkans that it produced more history than it could consume; the same could well be said of Ireland.
We had flown into Dublin on July 4, and spent a jet-lagged afternoon wondering the streets around Trinity College, dining, when we got hungry somewhere between lunch and dinner time, on the rooftop terrace at Parnell Heritage Bar and Grill—named after a famed late 19th-century nationalist leader; looking at the myriad monuments; and wondering in and out of the numerous bookstores of the city’s elegant center. I bought my children a four-euro edition of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Not for now; but, hopefully, as a memento for down the road.
At the airport, we had rented a car, and a day after arriving we drove three hours westward, stopping briefly at the 16th-century Dunguaire Castle, perched above the mud flaps just inland from the coast, and into the tiny rural lanes of County Clare. Our destination: the Blackberry Lodge, a small B&B located on the northern end of the hamlet of Doolin, famed for its nighttime Irish pub music—McGann’s, McDermott’s, and O’Connor’s vie for patrons—and its locale. The coastal road to Fanore, shade upon shade of gray cliffs and, on the east side of the thoroughfare, gray rocky expanses, winds northwards past the Burren’s edge. The epic dark brown Cliffs of Moher zigzag out into the rough ocean to the south of town.
We walked those cliffs for hours, the children taking it in turns to whip themselves up into panics—Daddy, we’re too high. Daddy, we’re scared we’re going to fall. Daddy, why did you make us come on this walk?—alternating with awe. There’s nothing gentle about these cliffs. They are sheer rock faces, vertical drops into the ocean far below. And, in case there’s any doubt as to the lethality of this Tolkien-esque landscape, this place where sea and land so jarringly meet, there’s a sign near the entrance to the Cliffs of Moher walk in remembrance to all those who have died there. The sign doesn’t tell readers how many that might be, but the implication is clear: Walk here at your own peril.
And, at least on the day we were there— a day of rare and splendid sunshine—that’s exactly what hundreds of people, speaking a babel of tongues from around the world, had chosen to do. It was, apparently, where many, many tourists had come to indulge their edge-of-the-world fantasies.
After the walk, we came back to the Blackberry Lodge, parked our car, and walked the half-mile down to McGann’s pub. It was late, but still light with that wonderful gentle glow of a high summer evening in the northern seas. They seated us by the unlit fireplace, adjacent to where the trio of musicians would soon start playing. We ordered stews and drinks, and settled down to hear the pipes and banjos. It was someone else’s rhythm, and drinking my Guinness and looking at my tired children gamely trying to stay awake, I thought for the umpteenth time that day how far from home we were.
Over the Burren the wind blew, with nothing tall to stop it, nothing to make more gentle the harshness of the stones underfoot. During the day, it is a glorious sound, a symphony of whipped hair and excited voices distorted by the bluster; it is a cleansing wind. At night, in the bed in the second-floor room in the B&B, it terrifies me. It is a cacophony of loneliness, of ships sunk off the coast, of drowning, vanished men. I sit in bed, awake, alone, and mentally shiver.
The next day, we found a half-skull atop one of those stones, a skull that looked like it had once belonged to a sheep. Look carefully, we were told, in a delicate, lilting voice, by the enthusiastic tour guide at a nearby cave, and one could find 5,000-year-old burial mounds rearing up out of the landscape. The way he talked, he could have introduced elves and fairies into the conversation and I would have believed him.
The froth on my lunchtime Guinness at the pub in Fanore was thick. My children each asked to have a taste.