THE CLIFFS OF MOHER
VISITING THE CLIFFS OF MOHER BRING BACK MEMORIES OF A PREVIOUS MID-WINTER VISIT
'May your joys be as deep as the ocean.'
- Irish proverb -
In July, 2018, we had travelled to Ireland to attend a family wedding. Initially we decide to spend a few days exploring the West Clare region independently before meeting up with the family before the wedding.
During these days, we explore the region surrounding our Lisdoonvarna base, and one of our first excursions is to the magnificent and iconic Cliffs of Moher. Here, I remember a tour I took of Ireland in January, 1981 and compare the two visits. On both occasions, despite the difference in seasons, I encountered fine days.
In January, 1981, in the middle of a deep, dark winter, my best friend Helene and I visited the Cliffs of Moher as part of a tour of Ireland. Despite the bleak, windy day, we had a fairly good view, at least I thought we did. Our tour bus had pulled up at a carpark of sorts and we tumbled out, racing to the best vantage point to view the cliffs. In retrospect, I think we were racing against the wind, rain, and sleet as we tried to stay warm. I had pulled out my Kodak 110 fully-automatic instamatic camera, took a couple of well-aimed shots and turned to return to the bus. Out of nowhere, an old bloke wearing a tweed coat and hat, appeared. He carried a purpose-made bag with one hand, whilst with the other, he pulled out postcards, which had seen better days. The photos on the cards portrayed the Cliffs of Moher, enhanced by whatever technology that was available at the time. Nobody had shown any interest, so like Mary Poppins, he plunged his hand back into the bag and extracted a penny-whistle, which he started to play. I'm not sure whether he was trying to sell it or wanted tips for his impromptu busking. After all, it was the middle of winter, and opportunities like busloads of under 35 year-old tourists don't appear every day.
I'm not quite sure what I expect to see today, but somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory, I wonder what happened to that little old man with the tin whistle and scrappy postcards.
We arrive at the Cliffs of Moher paystation and carpark, where there is a per-person charge to pay. The admission fee is modest, considering the amenities that are now available. We pass through the main gate and walk towards the cliffs. It is 11am and the area is crowded with people from all walks of life and from many countries. The different accents ring out as we walk toward the cliff's edge. Everyone is here to see one thing; sheer cliffs, geologically layered and folded rock, tapered to a point in the distance.
The rocks that make up the Cliffs of Moher were formed over 300 million years ago. Bands of sandstone, siltstone, and shale are exposed, each layer telling an ancient story of floods, sediments compacting then uplifted with tectonic movement. Centuries of buffeting by wind and water has created hidey holes and tiny spaces for the many birds that nest in the cliffs, such as the fulmar, puffin, and peregrine falcon amongst others. Exposed fossils are considered by geologists as some of the worlds best examples of scolicia, which are squiggly lines or trails left by some ancient marine creatures, such as eels and worms. According to some sources, this area was once an ancient river delta, which migrated into the sea.
I walk on a recently paved path to the first viewing point, which is roughly in the same spot I had stood some 37 years prior. Here I see, as if for the first time, the magnificent cliffs. This very spot is the second most-visited attraction in Ireland after the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. Today's fine weather means that nobody will go away disappointed as the cliffs sharply contrast with the steel-grey sky, which is starting to brighten to brilliant azure. The visibility is brilliant and I can see right through to Hag's Head, the southernmost tip. Turning slightly, I can see all three Aran Islands to the west, and Galway Bay to the north.
The barriers that protect visitors from falling over the steep cliffs are made of slate flagstones, which had been sourced from Liscannor, six kilometres away over a century ago. In 1835, Cornelius O'Brien built a tower on the edge of the cliff to attract tourists by providing them with a birds-eye view of the cliffs. Local legends say that Cornelius O'Brien, one time member of the parliament for County Clare won a bet with his English counterparts that he could build a fence a mile long, a yard high and an inch thick. These were the dimensions of the Liscannor flagstones and they were quickly adapted as building material as well as floor covering in farmhouses throughout the 19th century. The flagstones bear the remarkable feature of the imprint of fossilised eels or worms compacted over thousands of years. The newer footpaths are cut from the local stones and display not only similar fossilised creatures, but attractive wave ripple marks. The patterns in the paths, steps, and walls are authentic fossils and it is amazing to see these ancient stones put to practical use.
I climb to the top of O'Brien's Tower and view the cliffs from the high vantage point.
I continue along the cliff walk until I come to the end of the Cliffs of Moher Geopark. Squeezing through a small opening in the drystone wall, I embark on the short northern section of the 18 kilometre 'Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk'. Almost immediately below my feet is the Branaunmore sea stack, a natural stone tower, which is home to thousands of birds, including the Atlantic Puffin. This column of rock stands 67 metres high and was once part of the cliff. I take a deep breath and realise quickly that this is now a bird sanctuary, and the pong of years of nesting birds assaults the nostrils. I cannot see any puffins from above, nor can I see them in the cliffs to my right.
This unofficial coastal walk is closer to the cliff edge than that of the geopark, and amenities are few. I walk approximately three kilometres to the end of the cliff, which may be part of private farmland, judging from the cows in the paddock beyond. Between the crevices of rock, tiny plants abound, many of which are weeds. On the lee side, the plants grow larger, more abundant, with more prominent flowers. I sit on a rock at the northernmost point of the cliffs and look back along the curvy formations and as blue sky breaks out from its grey bonds, and feel blessed that I am able to experience a view that so few people are lucky enough to see.
I return to the visitor centre and enter the interactive area, designed to provide an overview of the area in a bright and interesting manner. As I walk along the timeline information, I'm distracted by an old photo. There is a picture of the old man that I remembered from my memorable trip in January 1981. His name was Denis McMahon and he was not only a tin whistle player, but an unofficial tour guide. According to the information plaque, he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 80, whilst walking up to his beloved cliffs.