We’re off to the coast at Slea Head, the westernmost part of Ireland. We pass another ruined tower house – they look so cool and King-Arthur-romantic! Well, cool-looking
now, but then they were a defensive solution to marauders who wanted to rob or kill you, a sobering thought that takes the edge off romanticism. The times were tough. And speaking of tough, one of the enduring memories we’ll take from Ireland is the ubiquitous stone fences separating plots of land, attesting to the difficult conditions that early farmers
had to face! First there was need to clear the rocky land, and the stone fences are monuments to that effort, a physical “tip of the hat – you’re welcome” from the ancestors. Then there was the law requiring the land to be subdivided for each male child; before the famine each little plot would have had a house and a family on it. Before the famine of 1845 there were 40,000 people on this peninsula. Even today it’s home to just 10,000.
As shown below, the coast at Slea Head was indeed attractive, although not as dramatic as Mizen Head (“Southwest Ireland Tour II – Mizen Head and Killarney National Park“, July
8, 2015). This harsh yet starkly beautiful area was the setting for two period films of note, Far and Away (Cruise, Kidman) and Ryan’s Daughter (Mitchum, Miles).
In the pictures above you can see glimpses of Great Blasket Island in the background. The island was home to a small number of hardy Irish families for centuries. Life was difficult, the land poor, the weather stormy, and there was neither priest nor pub nor doctor. Each family had a cow, a few sheep, a plot of potatoes, and fishing skills. Because they were not entirely dependent on the potato, they survived the famine relatively unscathed. They spoke only the Irish language (which was banned on the mainland). Considerably isolated, they became a living symbol of a traditional Irish Gaelic culture. In the 1920’s and 30’s, several of them wrote books (in the Irish language, of course) that recorded much of the islands’ traditions and way of life (e.g., Twenty Years A-Growing by M. O’Sullivan). The author’s inspirational and vivid storytelling won international acclaim, and the books were translated into many languages. Although at one time the island
was home to 160 people, over time it dwindled to 22. In 1953 the government moved them to the mainland, and today the island is uninhabited.
The next day is a mostly free (collapse) day, and I and 2 others decide to hike from Ballyferriter to the nearby beach at Smerwick Harbor. It’s a gorgeous bay, but expansive – and difficult to capture in a single photo. My only picture of a good portion of the bay comes from a shot out our hotel window over the roofs across the street – not ideal, and not all of the bay, but you get the idea. Here in Ireland every place seems to have some history associated with it. When Catholic Ireland once again took up arms against Protestant England (this time Queen Elizabeth I) in 1580, a force of 600 Italian and Spanish troops sent by the Pope to aid the rebellion surrendered to the English at this bay – and were promptly massacred. Our hike will hopefully be less newsworthy, but it is windy! The bay is full of whitecaps, and when the waves break in a timed sequence along their front, streamers of mist are blown in the air in an enchanting linear choreography.
In the charming town of Dingle we engage in the noble effort of learning more about triple-distilled Irish whiskey. This intellectual endeavor is made all the more difficult
due to its intense nature; you can’t study too much without your head spinning. Breaks are needed, and lucky for us we have an early music concert scheduled at the 300-year-old O’Sullivan’s Court House Pub. Dingle was re-introduced to the world by the movie Ryan’s Daughter. It has evolved into a major tourist destination, in part due to its scenic and historical location, but mostly due to its music scene. Among traditional musicians the town is renowned as a good place to get work (“40 Euros a day, tax-free, plus drink”), and pubs with music are everywhere. O’Sullivan’s Court House Pub is not the most famous in Dingle, but it does have homey charm. There’s a video on its website that offers “a small taste of the music and craic you can find every night” (for you newbies, “craic” means “fun, enjoyable conversation and atmosphere”). The link below will take you to that video in a separate tab if you want to sample this traditional music (and a spontaneous dance) – Link to O’Sullivans Court House Pub website. The pub interior is shown below in the upper picture. The concert starred Brenden Begley, and he was amazing. He’s the guy on the left in the lower right picture, playing the accordion. His son is in the middle, and
Tommy O’Sullivan, the pub owner, is playing the guitar. I’m not a big fan of accordion music, but Brendon made me change my mind. He was fabulous, and knees were bouncing all over the room.
Back at Ballyferriter, we’re treated to a bit of a sunset on this ever-cloudy isle.
The next morning we’re off to County Clare and the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most visited attractions. We pass more ruined towers – in the first picture there’s even a
tower remnant on a very precarious rock in the center of the photo. Definitely picturesque! We have lunch at the seaside town of Lahinch; the day is stormy, and the sea
is absolutely raging, beautifully so. As we travel on, we see another ruined tower house, and then the ruins of a castle-estate; they’re everywhere!
A few miles away is the ruin of Leamaneh Castle with an interesting history (and a tie-in with our destination, the Cliffs of Moher). The castle was originally a 5-story defensive tower house, built around 1480 by the reigning King of Thomond, scion of the O’Brien family – and a direct descendent of Brian Boru (Boru is considered to be the greatest of the ancient Irish kings; in 1002 he united Ireland for a decade). You can still see the outlines of that tower house on the right side of Leamaneh Castle in the pictures below.
One of the grandsons who inherited this O’Brien stronghold was hung for fighting against the English, and the tower went to one of his grandsons, who married the newly widowed, and newly rich, flaming-red-haired Maire McMahon in 1639. They had 8 children, and around 1648 they expanded the tower into a comfortable 4-story mansion. Maire accompanied her husband on raids against English settlers, but in 1651 he was mortally wounded fighting Cromwell’s English army. Maire, realizing that the punishment for rebellion would be the forfeiture of their property, married a Cromwellian soldier and thus retained her estates. Where there’s a will ….
And now, the Cliffs of Moher. The name Moher comes from the old Irish word for “ruined fort”; a 1st Century BC fort stood here until the 1800’s. The cliffs are 700 feet at their highest, and stretch for 5 miles. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Blasket Islands in the adjacent (but way further south) Dingle Peninsula – but not today! It’s threatening rain and incredibly windy. But still so very beautiful!
So why did we spend so much time talking about the O’Briens? Because a descendent, Cornelius O’Brien, was a man ahead of his time, believing that the development of tourism would benefit the local economy. In 1835 he built what is now called O’Brien’s Tower on
the highest point of the cliffs as an observation tower for the hundreds of tourists who visited during that time. Now it’s a million tourists a year. And it is a beautiful place,
all cliffs and crashing sea. While we’re walking around, the sky turns darker and more threatening, as reflected in the series of cliff pictures below. Still beautiful, of course, but
the fierce wind is getting ever stronger, and the temperature is dropping. We make a run for the bus and hop in just as the deluge hits. Good timing!
Sorry about the long post, but hope you enjoyed the pictures. Next post: The Burren, and a 5,000 year-old tomb.