Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ireland: Southern Road Trip - Galway Bay, The Burren, Cliffs of Moher

The first leg of our 12 day Southern Ireland road trip (days 1 to 3) centered around the areas of Galway Bay, the Burren and the famous Cliffs of Moher.  We were ready to see castle ruins and beautiful scenery.  We were not disappointed.

Dunguaire Castle, located just outside of the village of Kinvara on Galway Bay, was our first experience of what is considered a "castle" in the Irish countryside.  Unlike the palatial, elegantly decorated residences for royalty found in countries like France, Austria or England, many of the Irish castles were built as fortified towers inhabited by wealthy farmers and land owners.  Dunguaire Castle was built in 1520 as a tower house for the O'Hynes clan, descendents of the 7th Century King Guaire of Connaught.  Built with defense in mind, the various floors of the tower were accessed by climbing up numerous narrow, uneven steps that wound in a clockwise manner.  This design hampered the sword-wielding attackers coming up the stairs and favoured the defenders coming down by providing them with more room to swing their swords. At the top of the tower was a circular parapet with sections so narrow that you almost had to walk sideways to get through them.  Along the walls were openings to shoot arrows through and holes to pour hot oil down upon approaching enemies.  Standing on the parapet provided us a lovely view of the surrounding area.

The four-storied tower was refurbished in the 1600s and again in the early 1900s for its respective owners.  In 1966, the castle was open to the public, with each floor restored to represent one of its major periods of occupancy.  The bottom two floors reflect the 1500s with the ground floor being used for storage of foods including produce, wine, fish and salted meat, while the first floor is a grand banquet hall that is still used for events today.  The banquet hall is reminiscent of the hospitable King Guaire who was known for holding nightly banquets frequented by poets and musicians.  The furnishings of the second floor mark the time in the 1600s when Richard Martyn, the Mayor of Galway took residence in Dunguaire Castle, and modernized by adding glass windows and a chimney.  The Martyn family kept ownership of the castle until the 1900s.  The last and most interesting owner was Lady Christabel Amptill, who purchased and restored the castle in 1954, adding a kitchen, bedroom, garage and presumably flush toilets. She lived alone in the castle until 1972 when she was age 77.  The top floor of the tower contains the furniture and decor of her living space.  I find it difficult to envision this elderly woman navigating those treacherous steps on a regular basis.

Not understanding what a tower house was like, I went racing up the stairs of Dunguaire Castle to find a single room on each flight and then was perplexed when I got to the top, wondering where the rest of the rooms were.  After this first experience, we came upon many other tower houses throughout Southern Ireland–in ruins more often than not.  While passing through Cahirsiveen, at the western end of the Ring of Kerry, we followed the sign for Ballycarbery Castle.  It was a dark, rainy morning which just added to the atmosphere of the eerie moss-covered ruins looming in the distance.  We arrived at the perfect picture spot to find a group of German photo-buffs lining the road with their tripods and fancy SLR cameras.  It seemed like they were there for the long haul to capture multiple pictures of the castle in various lighting and were not keen on having interlopers join the party.  Just then, one photographer stepped aside to change the battery on his camera and I pushed Rich into the spot so that he could get some shots while I held an umbrella over his head to shield our camera from the rain.  Did we ever get dirty looks from the group!  Continuing on the Ring of Kerry we spotted McCarthy's Castle, another fascinating 16th Century ruin at the tip of a small peninsula just off the shores of Balliskellig Beach.  It was strange seeing ruins in the middle of the water while beach revelers frolicked on the sand and in the water.

The Aillwee Cave is found in 250 square kilometer area known as "The Burren" (meaning Great Rock), whose landscape consists of slabs of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum.  It seems no coincidence that Burren sounds so much like barren, which would also be an apt description of this region.  The cave was discovered in 1940 by farmer Jack McGann, or more accurately, by his dog, who ran into the cave while chasing a rabbit with Jack trailing behind.  Jack kept the cave a secret for over 30 years before revealing its location, leading to it being developed as a tourist attraction.

Today, you can take a 30 minute guided tour of the Aillwee Cave, wondering through passageways leading to picturesque caverns, chasms, stalagmites, stalactites and other weird formations, an underground river and a large waterfall.  Our tour guide pointed down to a steep cavern where McGann climbed down (without a rope!) and carved his initials.  We covered about 300 meters in our tour but the cave passages extend for over 1 kilometer.

Also found in the Burren region is one of the best preserved stone forts in the area, with various components dating from the 7th through the 17th centuries.  The circular CaherConnell stone fort was made from over 1 million kilograms of local limestone, with a diameter of 42 metres and walls up to 3 meters thick and 3 meters high.  Ongoing archaeological excavations inside the ringfort have unveiled remains from human burials, building foundations, entranceways and fire pits.  The stone walls surrounding the fort are typical of the fencing used by farmers throughout this area to delineate their property.

On the second of the two days that we stayed in Kinvara, we planned a full-day Figure-8 loop drive around the Galway Bay area.  We covered just under 200 kilometres including traversing over the Maumturk Mountains and driving up the steep and aptly named "Sky Road" near the town of Clifden.  We chose not to drive into the big city of Galway, preferring to spend our time in the beautiful countryside.

The scenery along this route was stunning as we drove by various bodies of water with the beautiful mountains in the background, dodging roaming sheep all along the way.   Passing through County Galway, we stopped at Aughnanure Castle, a well-preserved 16th century tower house and compound built by the O'Flaherty clan.  The interior was currently under renovation but we were able to walk around the grounds to view the exteriors of a banqueting hall, watch tower, defensive walls, and other fortifications.  Across from the roadside Joyce's Craft Shop and Art Gallery was a sculpture described on a plaque as the "Connemera Giant - Conn, Son of the Sea, built in 1999 for no apparent reason".  The Kylemore Abbey is a Benedictine monastery founded in 1920s, taking over the former 19th Century Kylemore Castle and grounds which includes a large walled Victorian Garden.

At the top of the Figure 8 Loop, near the town of Clifden, we decided to take a 16km side trip up and around a path that is named the "Sky Loop" that takes you up high for a stunning view of Galway Bay.  We marveled at how empty the steep, windy roads were, giving us ample opportunities to pull over for photos.  Towards the end of our drive, on our way back to Kinvara via Galway, we stopped overhead to look down on the pretty Spiddal Beach.

The next morning, we left Kinvara and headed south towards one of the anticipated highlights of our Ireland trip–the famous Cliffs of Moher, which stretch for 8 kilometres over the Atlantic Ocean and reach a maximum height of and 214 metres.  O'Brien's tower, built in 1835, acts as a viewing point of the dramatic cliffs.  The rocks that make up the Cliffs of Moher, consisting of sandstone, siltstone and shale, were formed over 300 million years ago.   While there are 600 metres of marked paths and viewing platforms, serious hikers could follow a rugged Cliffs Coastal Trail for over 20 kilometres.   On a clear day, you can spot the Aran Islands, Kerry mountains and Galway Bay.  Kittiwakes and other seabirds soar and swoop in the horizon before landing cliff-side to nest.  We were unable to spot any, but apparently puffins reside on a patch of land called Goat Island that can be seen from one of the viewing points.

We spent the night in the town of Bunratty, which positioned us within a short drive of the our next destination, the city of Limerick.  Still early in our road trip, little did we know that we would be served one of our favourite breakfasts at the Bunratty Grove B&B.  Rather than the same old "full Irish breakfast" of sausage, bacon, eggs and tomato that we continued to be offered for the rest of our stops, here we were presented with hot croissants with fruit salad and yogurt, crepes with fresh berries and delicious homemade scones.  This breakfast and the good, strong WIFI made this one of our favourite overnight stays on our tour of Southern Ireland.

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