In Doolin you might sing out over the limestone

September 7, 2018

The day dawns brighter than on previous ones, so I'm going to make the most of my last day in Ireland.

This is our second visit to the Emerald Isle, and the fifty-five-day drought has officially ended. The rain, which has fallen over the past couple of weeks, has transformed the landscape from dry, almost parched, to fresh and lush and green.

 

I drive slowly along the narrow country road. The tractors have done a lot of damage to these little roads over the course of the fine summer. Potholes and ruts fill with water after yesterday's rain, and the narrow shoulders are very damp. I hope I don't encounter too many vehicles on the road today, as there is lots of mud. And where there is mud, there is the chance of getting bogged. 

At the end of the road, the field has been cut; the third time for the season. Perhaps the grass will be baled today before more rain falls. 

 I drive past the Doonbeg Golf Course, which is owned by Donald Trump. The Greg Norman-designed golf course is built on sand dunes and little mountains of sand stand out against the blue sky.

 

I revisit the village of Quilty, where the fishermen rescued the entire crew of the Leon XIII after it was shipwrecked on September 30, 1907. The tide has ebbed, leaving seaweed on the shore. The contrast between the colours is startling, but with the low tide, the odour of drying seaweed and stranded fish is not pleasant.

The road winds through Milltown Malbay, the location of the annual Willie Clancy week each July. Although the festival has long finished, the houses and hotels are still prettily decorated with fresh flowering plants. 

Not far down the road, between Spanish Point and Lahinch, I pass between the stone walls, evidence of the defunct West Clare Railway. Percy French wrote the song, Are ye right there, Michael  as a parody of an actual train journey he took in 1896. Despite its closure in the 1960s, it had been a valuable lifeline for rural people and is still much discussed to this day.

I drive through Lahinch and turn off at one of the golf courses, taking a very narrow road, which meanders over fields and through farms. There, as I crest a hill, I have a view over the whole area. Fields are divided by dry-stone walls. Abandoned stone barns and houses are scattered across the landscape. They have not been ripped down; instead they are left as shelters for cattle. I wonder who used to live in these little cottages. How long ago? Had they been turfed out by cruel landlords and was the dreaded battering ram used to destroy what little the tenant farmers had? How many children crowded into a tiny kitchen at mealtime? Where are their descendents now? The history of this small area includes the intrigue of the ancient clan of Dal Cais, visits from the Vikings, tenant farming and the constant threat of eviction, the potato famine, shipwrecks, and more. And yet, the Irish spirit prevailed then and still does today.

I turn away from the coastal town of Doolin and drive a few kilometres inland.

 

In 1952, two young members of a British pot-holing club followed a small stream, which disappeared into the limestone rock of the edge of the Burren. Following the flow of the water, they moved boulders and dug their way into a tiny passageway. Wriggling for about 500 metres, the cramped tunnel opened into a large cavern. What they had found inside the cavern had rendered the young men speechless. It would take sixty years for the cave to be opened and shared to the public.

 

I walk through a steel gate and enter a large mine shaft. My eyes adjust to the dim interior as I walk down the 120 metal steps of the concrete shaft, which is almost twenty-five metres deep and six metres wide. To enter the cave, I have to take a guided tour. I reach the bottom of the shaft and am given a hard hat to wear as I follow my group through the low passageway. We step down a few steps and are told to wait in the darkened cave. Perhaps the actions of the tour guide are a little 'theatrical', but when the lights are switch on, there is an audible gasp from everyone in our group. The seven-metre stalactite glows white in the subtle light. This incredible work of nature had been formed by a single drop of water over perhaps 400,000 years.

The constant drips of water fall on the squat stalagmite below. It has collapsed several times and looks like a big blob of mud. There are three main stalactites in total. One is short, grey and very dead. The main stalactite, and the reason I am here today is yellow-coloured, and is now inactive. Slight earth tremors may cut off the supply of limestone-dissolved water, stopping the growth. Like a fringe around the ceiling of the cave, tiny stalactites exist, each of them decades old.

I understand why it has taken 60 years to find an environmentally-friendly solution for getting people underground to view this magnificent living monolith. Any movement to the ground could have easily stopped the flow of water through to the roof of the cave, so the sinking of the shaft had to be done with care. 

I chat to the operators and tour guides and find them to be sensitive to the conservation of the site and to provide means for people to see and experience this natural wonder for centuries to come.

After the tour, I realise that there is only one way out of the cave. Up 120 metal stairs. I wait until the last of my group have started their ascent before I start climbing. Taking a break to catch my breath every now and then gives me the opportunity to marvel at the shaft that has been driven so far down through the limestone to give tourists like me the opportunity to see first-hand a miracle of nature; one that has taken hundreds of centuries to create. It continues to grow as the tiny drops of water still drip through the cavern roof to constantly feed it. I eventually emerge into the sunlight, sitting on a conveniently-located bench to soak up the last of the day's warmth. I briefly reflect upon the last ten weeks spent here in Ireland and exploring Scotland and England. As always, I feel that the holiday has been too short, but I shall continue writing about my experiences - even after I return home.

Title Quote: Luka Boom (Hands of a Farmer)

Accommodation: Lislanahan, Kilkee, Co Clare

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