I am reinvigorated by a weekend in my favourite Irish County, County Clare on the Atlantic seaboard and seeing once again one the most evocative places in Ireland, the magnificent Cliffs of Moher and the wild Atlantic seascape which is at its most impressive on a stormy winter’s day rather than in the calm of summer. County Clare contains great variety within its boundaries. The Burren, a unique karst region, which contains rare flowers and fauna. At the western edge of The Burren, facing the Atlantic Ocean, are the Cliffs of Moher. The county’s Southern border is the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. Along this estuary is the town of Shannon and Shannon International Airport which has a proud place in aviation history. This airport was the first airport to have a duty-free zone. Clare’s unique sense of place was noted by the English Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, who was a wartime press attaché (and probably a spy) at the British Embassy in Dublin:
Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Where a stone age people breeds,
The last of Europe’s stone age race.
Ireland with Emily.
Sir. John Betjeman
Clare’s sense of place derives not just from the landscape but also from the people because it has also preserved traditions of music and story telling which makes it a magnet for traditional music and folklore enthusiasts. And it does have much evidence of antiquity with a large number of old castles and abbeys, several ancient towers, and numerous raths (earthworks of ancient Irish chieftains) and cromlechs (circles of standing stones).
For native and visitor alike one of the most evocative places are the dramatic Cliffs of Moher where you definitely identify with what the locals say “The next parish is America!” The Cliffs are featured in the opening sequences of David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter (1970). The Cliffs (Gaelic: Aillte an Mhothair, lit. cliffs of the ruin, also known as the Cliffs of Mohair from the Irish: Mhothair) are located in the parish of Liscannor at the south-western edge of The Burren area near Doolin, which is located in County Clare, Republic of Ireland. They rise 120 meters (394 ft) above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their maximum height of 214 meters (702 ft) just north of O’Brien’s Tower, eight kilometres away. The cliffs boast one of Ireland’s most spectacular views. On a clear day the Aran Islands are visible in Galway Bay, as are the valleys and hills of Connemara. The Cliffs are amongst the most impressive places to see in Ireland, and are widely considered to be Ireland’s top tourist attraction, drawing almost one million visitors in 2006.
They have been short on facilities in the past have been makeshift but this has now been remedied with the opening of an impressive interpretative centre buried into the landscape which is designed both to enhance a visit and provide the facilities needed to make the visit comfortable and satisfying. The site has been developed by Clare County Council and Shannon Heritage to allow visitors to experience the spectacular natural impression of the Cliffs, without the distraction of overly-imposing man-made amenities or features.
In keeping with this carefully-balanced approach, the “Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience” is built into a hillside approaching the Cliffs, blending naturally with the surrounding countryside. The centre is also environmentally sensitive in its use of renewable energy systems including geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels, and greywater recycling. Opened in February 2007 the €32m facility features an informative array of interactive media, exploring topics such as the origin of the Cliffs in local and global geological contexts, the bird and fish life in the area, and many more.
The Cliffs of Moher are home to one of the major colonies of cliff nesting seabirds in Ireland. The area was designated as a Refuge for Fauna in 1988 and as a Special Protection Area for Birds (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive in 1989. Included within the designated site are the cliffs, the cliff-top maritime grassland and heath, and a 200 metre zone of open water, directly in front of the cliffs to protect part of the birds’ feeding area. The designation covers 200 hectares and highlights the area’s importance for wildlife. The cliffs consist mainly of beds of Namurian shale and sandstone, with the oldest rocks being found at the bottom of the cliffs. One can see 300 million year old river channels cutting through the base of the cliffs.
There are many animals living on the cliffs, most of them birds: 30,000 birds of 29 species. The most interesting are the famous Atlantic Puffins, which live in large colonies at isolated parts of the cliffs and on the small Goat Island. Also present are hawks, gulls, guillemots, shags, ravens and choughs. “Atlantic Edge” is the exciting interpretive centre at the Cliffs of Moher New Visitor Experience. Housed at the centre of the underground building a huge domed cave contains images, exhibits, displays & experiences that will delight young and old alike.
Visitors enter via a viewing ramp which provides access for all to the central floor. This is organised into four principal themed areas exploring different elements of the Cliffs of Moher: OCEAN, ROCK, NATURE and MAN. A selection of interactive exhibits & displays shows aspects of these themes and their connection with the Cliffs. An aerial tour entitled “The Clare Journey” appears on a central screen and provides a wonderful birds eye tour od this fascinating county. The tour continues from the central dome via a winding tunnel that evokes the many caves of the area to a theatre housing a virtual reality cliff face adventure – “The Ledge”. A virtual reality cliff face adventure, THE LEDGE, is shown in the audiovisual theatre using IMAX style technology allowing visitors to experience life at the cliff face both above and below sea level, meeting a cast of characters from among the native bird and sea life.
The Cliffs of Moher are dramatic and evocative but also speak to Irish people of the pain of emigration and the history of Ireland over the years as Clare is a county which experienced the extreme effects of the potato famine and depopulation and decline. Indeed the remains of whole “famine villages” which were depopulated en masse can still be seen. A part of the ashes of British pop singer Dusty Springfield (real name Mary O’Brien) were scattered at Cliffs of Moher in 1999 as an indication that this is a place important in the memory of the Irish Diaspora. The traditional ballad popularised by the Irish folk group Planxty evokes this unique sense of place;
You may travel far, far, from your own native home,
Far away o’er the mountains, far away o’er the foam,
But of all the fine places that I’ve ever been,
Oh, there’s none can compare with the Cliffs of Dooneen.
Take a view o’er the mountains, fine sights you’ll see there;
You’ll see high, rocky mountains on the west coast of Clare,
Oh, the towns of Kilkee and Kilrush can be seen,
From the high, rocky slopes ‘round the Cliffs of Dooneen.
See also; Cliffs of Dooneen
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