After a night in Galway City, we head south toward County Clare and the Burren. The road takes us by Dunguaire Castle, a small 16th century fortress rising from the shore of Galway Bay, and a fine exemple of the strongholds of Middle Ages’ chieftains. 

The medieval ruins of Dunguaire Castle tower over Galway Bay.

From there, with a passing glance at the quaint nearby seaport village of Kinvara, it’s a forty minute drive on back roads lined with low stone walls and disheveled hedges — and six thousand years back to Neolithic times.

 

 

 

 

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Poulnabrone is the oldest megalithic monument in Ireland.

Sitting on one of the highest points of the barren limestone plateau of the Burren, the Poulnabrone Dolmen (Poll na Brón in Gaelic, literally ‘the hole of sorrows’) is a monumental portal tomb.The oldest and largest megalithic monument in Ireland, it consists of three standing portal stones, each approximately 2 meters (6.5 feet) high, supporting a massive rectangular capstone. A separate slab lies on the ground nearby. It is supposed to have been used to close the back part of the portal, but has since collapsed.

The colossal back part of the portal has now collapsed.

Poulnabrone was built by Neolithic farmers, who chose the location as a collective burial site and a territorial marker. Radiocarbon dating places its use around 3800 to 3200 BC. All that remains today is the stone structure of the original monument. At the time, it would have been covered with soil and capped by a cairn. The site, including chamber, portico and cairn, was excavated in the 1980’s. The remains of 16 adults and 6 children from the Neolithic era were found, along with various stone and bone objects that would have been placed with them at the time of interment. A newborn from the Bronze Age was also uncovered on the site. These findings are now at the Clare Museum, in the nearby town of Ennis.

A World of Limestone

Limestone pavements were polished by ancient glaciers.

There is far more to the Burren than Poulnabrone. The name itself, derived from the Gaelic Boireann (‘rocky land’), says it all. While we are here, we take a moment to wander  (with caution) around the adjoining polished limestone pavements. Scoured clean by moving ice sheets some 16 000 years ago, the pavements consist of two separate parts: clints and grykes. The clints are the massive blocks of limestone that form the paving, while the grykes are the crevices that isolate the individual clints and provide a moist shelter where a surprising variety of perennial herbs and dwarf ferns manage to thrive.

The folded layers of Mullaghmore are reflected in Loch Gealain.

From the Poulnabrone area, a 30-minute drive east takes us to a very different landscape, and a major landmark of the Burren: Mullaghmore (from the Gaelic Mullach Mór or ‘great summit’). Initially formed some 350 million years ago, the area was then a seabed of compressed sediments. As the only part the Burren to have been subjected to subsequent major tectonic pressures, the barren hill is unique for its smooth contours and distinctive folded layers of limestone in varied shades for pewter and silver. And its refection into the serene waters of the small, spring-fed Loch Gealain, imbues the entire scenery with a sense of otherworldly tranquility.

The Cliffs of Moher

O’Brien Tower is one of the best vantage points of the cliffs.

An hour west of Mullaghmore, we reach the southwestern edge of the Burren and one of the most famous coastal sites in Ireland: the Cliffs of Moher. 

Stretched along 12 kilometers (8 miles) of coastline, they are one of the premier tourist attractions in the country. The striated black cliffs soar vertically from the churning Atlantic Ocean to heights reaching over 210 meters (700 feet) at their highest point, just north of O’Brien Tower. The circular stone tower was built in 1835 near the midpoint of the cliffs. It remains part of the main viewing area and one of the best vantage points to take in the jaw-dropping vistas of the Wild Atlantic Way.

The main viewing area offers a panoramic view of  the edge of the cliffs.

From there, with the waves crashing below and the seabirds whirling about, we can spot cave entrances, take in the panoramic view of the cliffs’ edge receding toward the horizon, and feel the call of the clifftop walking trails. It is the best place to appreciate the true scale of the cliffs and view the vertical, 67 meters (220 feet) high Branaunmore sea stack, formed by relentless waves eroding the main cliff over millions of years.

 

A Land of Photo Opportunities

Thatched cottages dot the backroads of County Clare.

This is the last leg of our journey around the natural and archeological treasures of Ireland. As we make our way south toward the Dingle Peninsula, we enjoy stretches of Wild Atlantic Way vistas that are the stuff Celtic legends are made of. In the ever-changing light, the foreboding rocky coastline can fade into the fog in an instant, while a beam of pale light in the distance reveals an off-shore islet. Or, along the narrow country roads, we come across perfectly coiffed thatched cottages and sheds, artfully painted barns, and the occasional proud ruins of an ancient castle.

Conor Pass

The road to Conor Pass leads by gushing waterfalls.

Conor Pass is one of the highest mountain passes in Ireland. It is reputed for its dramatic views of the Dingle Peninsula and the Wild Atlantic Way (in good weather).  From the outskirts of the tiny seaside village of Cloghane on the north side of the peninsula, a winding one-lane road rises over 450 meters (1500 feet) to the pass. It become steeper and more treacherous as we get closer to the top, weaving its way around sheer cliff faces, past high corrie lakes and gushing waterfalls. And we are driving into a blanket of fog. No picture-perfect views of the Atlantic coast for us today, only a ghostly landscape of gleaming black rocks and the gray silhouettes of staggered hills fading into a gauzy, uncertain distance.  

A glacial valley opens below the road.

We soldier on, now on the downside of the 12-kilometer (8-mile) white-knuckle drive south toward Dingle City. As we reach a lower elevation, the clouds split open to let in a shaft of sunlight. A sweeping valley opens below us, brushed with the Irish autumn palette of golds and coppers. 

While our Conor Pass experience is a far cry from guide books’ promises, it is equally remarkable and a worthy metaphor for the many faces of Ireland under its ever changing weather.

Mullaghmore and the layered hills of the Burren

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Burren: Follow route N6 from Galway to Kilcolgan, and then N67 to Poulnabrone, the R489 to Mullaghmore and the Cliffs of Moher.
  • Visiting — The Burren are parts of the natural landscape so, technically, there is no charge to see these site. This is definitely the case for Poulnabrone and Mullaghmore. However, at the Cliffs of Moher, the Visitors Centre and the main entrance to the cliffs are on the main road and there are no parking options in the vicinity other than the vast “official” parking lot located directly across the road. Parking fee was € 10 per adult (not per car) at the time of our visit. The fee includes admission to the Visitor Center, and contributes to the conservation of the area.
  • Note — The Burren and the Cliffs  of Moher are a UNESCO Global Geopark which supports sustainable tourism. Thanks to its high number of bird species, it was also made into a special protected area for birds and wildlife back in the late 1970s.

Location, location, location!

Poulnabrone

Ciffs of Moher

Conor Pass