It was calm, dry and mild, with the sun attempting to break through, as we left Fisherstreet in Doolin at 11.15 last Wednesday (March 29). The weather forecast the evening before said there would be constant heavy rain for the afternoon.
The hope was to follow the 14 km Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk. The route card showed the whole way was between 120 metres/390ft and 214 metres/702 feet above the sea.
The route rises up immediately. Looking down over Doolin Bay the white surf is evidence of the limestone reefs that were the graveyard of the Spanish Armada and so many boats and ships over the centuries.
The flat rock here and right along the cliffs was prized for its ability to break naturally into thin sheets. In the 19th and early 20th centuries up to 500 men were employed quarrying the rock. During World War I the mines closed because the boats carrying the rock to Britain were unable to travel. A number of mines were re-opened on a smaller scale in the Liscannor area in the 1960’s.
The star-like lesser celandine – which was shown in last week’s nature notebook – covers earthen banks for the whole length of the walk – and frequently mingles with primroses, a popular indicator of Spring. As well seaweeds on the shore, lichens on the rocks (particularly at Hag’s Head at the southern end of the route), some mosses and liverworts, scurvy grass, sheeps bit, sea pink and sea campion.
The dynamic power of the sea is clearly shown in the ebb and flow where narrow inlets have been worn into the rock face. Imagine if that energy could be harnessed.
Are these houses deserted since the famine era of the 1840s? Eeking out a living here from a sea of plenty and peril, and fighting wind and salt farming marginal land.
After an hour and a half the route has plateaued at close to 600 ft/183 metres. Looking south the endless views of jagged cliffs, the great power of the sea minimised from this height. The cliffs were formed over 300 million years ago. The spectacularly exposed rock face is an example of a sedimentary rock basin normally only visible under the sea. The cliffs form part of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark which has been awarded membership of the UNESCO supported Global Geoparks Network.
In less than two hours looking back on the clifftops we have walked over. Out west the ghosty ouline of Inisheer, the eastern Aran Island. It is not surprising that mythical islands were seen. Call it Hy Brasil, Atlantis or St Brendan’s Isle. Haze, low cloud, rain as well as the scientifically proven capacity of the elements to transpose images of distant places. Learn more from books, even libraries, written on the phenomenon.
At 1.30 we had our first view of O’Brien’s Tower built in 1835 by local landlord Cornelius O’Brien as a viewing point for the tourists that even then were flocking to the Cliffs. Also the first view of An Branán Mór Sea Stack, home of guillemots and razorbills.
From the platform at O’Brien’s Tower at the highest point of the Cliffs, 214m or 700 feet above sea level, the view along cliff after cliff after cliff … to Hag’s Head at the southern end of the walk.
Now west, north west, behind Inisheer, Inishmaan, the even more ghostly image of the middle Aran Island. Today the haze hides Inishmor, the main island, as well as views north of the Connemara coast and mountains and south to Loop Head and the distant Kerry peaks.
To be seen from here when it is up and running three kms out to the sea the surfing wave ‘Aileen’s’, Aill Na Searrach, where the world’s most skilled surfers come to ride the wave that can be up to 12 m /40 feet high. At Aill na Searrach (Foals’ Leap) it is said seven Celtic gods transformed into seven foals – and leapt into the afterlife, furious at St Patrick for bringing Christianity to Ireland.
After nearly three hours the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre is almost invisible not because of haze but because it is built into the hill. The inside replicates the interior of a cave. A great place to stop for good food and the hugely interesting cliffs interpretative centre.
After an hour, refreshed – and with no indication of rain in spite of the forecast of the evening before – we headed south
An abundance of marine life can be found in the waters directly off the Cliffs. From minute lifeforms, with plankton blooms in April and May, to the second largest fish on the planet, the whale shark, which come to feed on the plankton, which also feed the vast shoals of sand eels which in turn sustain the huge seabird colonies.
While these visitors come and go with the changing seasons there is a vast number of resident fish and crustaceans to be found in the waters year round. These include Conger Eel, Pollock, Ballan Wrasse, Mullet, Lobster, Edible Crab and Spider Crab.
Sea mammals below the cliff includes Whales, Whale Sharks and Seals. With special luck it is possible to see a pod of dolphins if the sea is calm.
After half an hour all of the headlands north with O’Brien’s Tower now a pimple in the distance. The distinctive call of the Kittiwake that cries its name is audible evidence that these cliffs are home to major colonies of sea nesting birds in the breeding season from April to July. Puffin, guillemot, fulmar, chough, peregrine falcon – some twenty species altogether.
A stoney beach is an occasional feature at the foot of the cliffs. Might this be a place where an enterprising fisherman trapped a mermaid into marrying him? There is a green tinge to the waters here. Away south the very vague outline of a tower.
Almost an hour from the visitor centre, how long did it take the unremitting battering of the sea to carve out this arch from the base of the cliff? On this height before Hag’s Head is this rock oucrop the Hag’s tooth?
Legend tells of the great warrior Cuchulain running from the affections of a hag or witch called Mal – after whom Milltown Malbay to the south is said to be named. After a series ofmythic leaps, a final effort into the wind crashed the Hag to her death on the cliffs. It is said her blood reddened the sea from Loop Head to Hag’s Head.
Looking directly down on the sea created a dizzying hypnotic effect.
The tower built to warn of Napoleonic invasion at the highest point on Hag’s Head. A telegraph station also operated from here.
South from Hag’s Head the cliffs are more indented than anywhere else on the walk. Does it look like huge gaps and enormous molars in the Hag’s mouth? It seems to me to be much more my imagined picture of Treasure Island.
If this is one of the Hag’s huge teeth then the stone stack must be a toothpick.
Just under two hours from the visitor centre – and six hours from when we left Doolin – a drystone fence, rich green grass and a rainbow.
Now for the first time a little rain, but not enough to wet.
The shuttle bus took us back to Doolin. From March to October between 9am and 6pm €6 pays for day-long use of the bus.
The best way to walk the Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk is to park at Doolin, take the shuttle to the southern end of the route and walk north, with the prevailing wind at your back and walking on to views of the cliffs, Aran Islands and the Connemara coast and mountains. As well if – taking photographs, visiting the visitor centre or just endlessly being awestruck by the cliffs and the sea – arriving in Doolin after the last bus has left is not a concern.
From Clare to here.
From Killarney to Doolin is a drive of three hours. The globe has lines from a great selection of Clare songs and poems.
– Frank Lewis
for more information or to book a stay at our self-catering holiday accommodation, Gallan Eile …