It's a long long way from Clare to here It's a long long way from Clare to here Oh It's a long, long way, it grows further by the day It's a long way from Clare to here
Ralph McTell wrote his song about it being a long way from ‘Clare to Here’ about lonely Irish immigrants in England in the 1960s. I first saw it written in huge letters on the side of an external wall of a hotel in Clare. As a descendant of the 19th century Irish diaspora, it was long way from my home to Clare but it was delightful to be there.
We had spent one day visiting the beautiful Arran Islands but our next day was dedicated to feeling safe on the ‘land’ of Clare by doing a road trip around the famous sights of this county full of contrasts, so different from the landscapes of Australia. We started off from our apartment in Doolin and headed first to Ennystimon for a morning coffee stop and a stroll around this beautiful town.
Ennystimon is a startling place on the boundary of the Burren. We parked in the main street not far from the bridge that crosses the Cullenagh River in the centre of the old town. As can be seen from the photos below, it was a sunny day but the river appeared to be in full torrent as it poured past the houses built on both edges of the river. This section of the river is known as the Cascades and I am not sure I would like to live on the edge of this river during flood time.
Visiting Clare in the 21st century shows the visitor beautiful towns and a prosperous countryside. Not far are out of Ennystimon is found a large memorial on the site of the town’s old ‘Workhouse’ that reminds us that County Clare wasn’t always the place it is today. This memorial reminds the passerby of the Potato Famine in Ireland from around 1845-52 that caused horrific starvation across the Island and led to the wholesale fleeing of its citizens to far-flung parts of the world. A travel blog is not the place for a dissertation on the nature of 19th century colonial rule by the English over Ireland…if it was, I would probably discuss such issues as the dependence of the Irish on a single crop as a food source and the export of all other forms of protein (eg. Meat) to England. Those living in Clare at the time not only fled the country willingly looking for a new life but 799 people from Clare between 1845-51 were transported (to Australia! Yikes, what a fate!) for ‘plundering’(theft of food). Before moving on from the topic, here is a specific example of a boy from Clare like the one in the sculpture depicted above… “Pat McGann was variously described as “a boy of 11”, “aged 12”, and more convincingly, a sixteen year old. Even the Judge recognised his youth, but concluded “it would not be advisable to have it go abroad that young lads like the prisoner should be allowed to steal cows with impunity – the best thing would be to send him out of the country.” (source http://www.clarelibrary.ie/)
The Burren is a curious area of Clare to visit for a number of reasons; one of them is its geology. Of its 560 square kilometres, 250 square kilometres of this area is exposed limestone that has been dissolved and eroded by rainwater for millions of years. How this unusual landscape came into being is almost a romance tale in itself. It developed under tropical seas 300 million years ago only to be forced upward and northward by continental drift to be eventually covered by sandstone. If that wasn’t enough, it then was gouged by glaciers during the ice-age, clearing away much of the sandstone and leaving it ruggedly handsome in the open air on the north-west coast of modern Ireland. The image below gives a good insight into the scarred limestone landscape of the Burren.
Despite the dominance of limestone, 40% of the Burren is covered in soil and is home to large numbers of species of wildflowers. In fact in the Mesolithic era (8000-4000 BCE) after the glaciers had retreated from the Burren, the landscape was covered in Pine and yew trees.
The map of Ireland to the right illustrates the extent of glaciation in Ireland, taken from the very interesting website, ‘Travel through the Irish Story’ (https://www.wesleyjohnston.com/). This map notes the Burren as being an area of ‘drumlins’ which are tear-drop shaped hills that were formed under the moving glaciers. Ireland was the last significant area of western Europe to be inhabited by early humanity. A good 12000 years after the glaciers had retreated, humanity found Ireland either by boat or by crossing the tenuous land bridges that formed between Southern Scotland and Ireland to the north or from a land bridge from Wales as indicated on this map. Archaeologists believe that these early settlers explored the east coast of Ireland before they found the Burren in the late Mesolithic period. Of course, the arrival of humanity brought about a significant change in the Burren environment; “by the Neolithic, c. 4000 BC, settlers had clearly arrived and began changing the landscape through deforestation, likely by overgrazing and burning, and the building of stone walls” (Wikipedia).
I noted earlier that there are a number of curious reasons for visiting the Burren. After being taken in by the ancient scarred landscape, the second reason to visit the Burren is to examine the curious remnants of the Neolithic culture that early humanity left behind in the Burren, particularly the megalithic tombs. From Ennystimon, our route took us to the most famous of the many megalithic tombs in the Burren, the portal tomb known as Poulnabrone Dolmen. On the tourist sign at the site is the following notes about the “Tomb in context”
“Over ninety megalithic tombs are known to survive in the Burren; the earliest of these are the court tombs and portal tombs built in the fourth millennium BC. The portal tomb here at Poulnabrone is one of two constructed in the Burren and is perhaps the best example in the country.”
This Dolmen was built on one of the highest points in the Burren by Neolithic farmers some time between 4200 and 2900 BCE. What we see today is the stone skeleton of what would have been covered by soil and the top of the mound marked by a cairn.
The site of the Poulnabrone dolmen was excavated in the 1980s and was found to contain the remains of adults and children. These human remains were dated between 3800 and 3200 BCE.
Above are images of two of the other 89 megalithic tombs in the Burren. On the left is the Ballymihil Wedge Tomb and on the right is the wedge tomb at Green Road. The Wedge tombs are dated mostly to the period 2500 to 2000 BCE.
On our visit to the Ring of Kerry, there were a significant number of Cahers or stone ring forts to be encountered. It was just our luck on our visit to the Burren that up the road from the Poulnabrone tomb was the Catherconnell Ring Fort, one of the approximately 300 such forts counted in Clare. These ringforts are generally protected enclosures around farmsteads, approximately 45000 of them were built all over Ireland in the early Christian Period (500-1100CE). These Caher/Cashels were sited to best exploit the most fertile farmland in an area. The image below is a conjectural reconstruction of Catherconnell in the 15th/16th century CE. (Artist: Siobhain McCooey).
Archaeological work began on Catherconnell in 2008 and this revealed that the site had been used by humanity from around the 7th Century with phases of occupation up until the mid 17th century. From then until the early 20th century it has been used as an animal pen. There is significant ongoing archaeological work occurring in and around Catherconnell that continues today.
After we finished our sojourn into Irish antiquity at Poulnabrone and Catherconnell, it was time to turn around and head back to Doolin via Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna. I couldn’t make this last section of our tour around the Buren without recalling my favourite Irish musician/singer Christy Moore. He was named Ireland’s greatest living musician in 2007 by Ireland’s national public broadcaster. As it happens, my favourite song by this great Irish musician is called ‘Lisdoonvarna’, named so because his favourite music festival for many years was held in the town of the same name that we would pass through on our way back to Doolin. The lyrics of the first verse (see right) alone are an anthem for Clare tourism. Note he also makes a reference to Ralph McTell’s classic, ‘From Clare to Here” in this verse; Moore himself left for England in the 1960s and laboured on building sites like the central character of McTell’s song.
Before reaching Lisdoonvarna, we arrived at Kilfenora (rates a mention in Moore’s song!) which is a town that is probably the place where we should have started our exploration of the Burren. It is the home of the ‘Burren Centre’ which is best described by its own website… “ Ireland’s first Interpretative Centre is THE essential introduction to this world-famous UNESCO Geopark, and to thousands of years of history reflected in ancient tombs, forts, castles and distinctively natural farming practices. Find us in the heart of the historic village of Kilfenora – the ‘City of the Crosses’ – and situated next to the ancient Kilfenora Cathedral”.
Kilfenora is one of the oldest towns in County Clare where an early saint founded a church in the sixth century. Today its Cathedral stands half ruined but sections of it are still used by the local parish. It was built at the end of the twelfth century and it displays in the ‘transept’ (see image on left below of the section with the glass roof) three high crosses from the Cathedral’s graveyard that have been restored and moved here from the nearby graveyard for preservation. The Celtic high cross on the right below is the Doorty Cross from the twelfth century which is believed to have at its top a portrait of Saint Fachtnan, the original bishop of the town.
It is only nine kilometres from Kilfenora to Lisdoonvarna. The town has a small population that grows considerably once a year for its matchmaking festival that attracts romantic hopefuls from all over Europe. For Ireland, it is a reasonably young town having been developed at the start of the 19th century as a Spa Town. The streams near the town are rich in iron and sulphur and so ‘taking the waters’ at Lisdoonvarna held vague promises of a healthy future for customers. The old photo below (Thank you Wikimedia Commons) is a classic image of hope over despair. The well-dressed Victorian folk are drinking a glass of iron and sulphur flavoured water from the Twin Well on the River Aile while the aged serving lady slumps in depression beside the well. She is clearly not comfortable with the efficacy of her product.
The town’s famous music festival ran from 1978-83 and while Christy Moore loved it, the last festival in 1983 turned riotous with a clash between the Biker security and alcohol-fueled music lovers and ended any chance of the festival continuing in the future. (See Appendix 2)
It was a great day-out visiting the Burren and some of its surrounding towns but it was always also good to get back home to Doolin. Three days in Doolin wasn’t enough given after wonderful days touring Clare, we went to a different pub every night for great food and music to die for. On two different nights we were spoiled by hearing ‘Foolin in Doolin’ (Cyril O’Donoghue, Karol Lynch and Blackie O’Connell) and getting to love the sound of the Uilleann pipes.
APPENDIX 1: The Full Tourist Map
Can I recommend the web-site ‘Town Maps’ for its great maps of Irish destinations such as the one above of Clare (https://townmaps.ie/)
APPENDIX 2: Lisdoonvarna Music festival
Christy Moore’s song about the Lisdoonvarna Music festival was first released on his 1984 album ‘Ride On’, the year after the last festival had taken place. He was on the list of performers for the 1983 concert and he apparently sang his song of praise for the festival early on in the event. What happened later is captured in this extract from an article by Dermot Stokes from “Hot Press’.
“Oh Lisdoonvarna, Oh Lisdoonvarna, the first one to really light the fuse, and without him knowing it, his wild hymn of praise to the one true indivisible Irish festival was also its swan song. Because a mere six or seven hours later there were pitched battles around the site involving dog-handling security men and a bunch of oafish bikers from Waterford, an outburst of violence which drew in scores of innocent bystanders all over the place, who had beer stolen, arses bitten and legs broken by iron bars wielded by the most unpleasant of the bikers. A vicious and ugly scenario, and a million miles away from the legendary Lisdoonvarna ethos.
1983 was a time of economic depression in Ireland so many festival goers had little money so when their demands for free entry were refused, the fences were torn down and the ingredients for a riot were in place.
Even the Bikers who were then hired to assist in security were shown no respect as their motorbikes were burnt in reprisal for their heavy-handed tactics.
Stories such as the above bring back memories of the Northern Californian Free Festival at Altona Speedway on Dec 6th 1969 where Hell’s Angels Bikers were hired as security and one festival goer was stabbed and three other people died in festival ‘incidents’. While nobody was killed at the last Lisdoonvarna Music Festival, 8 festival goers decided to head to the sea near Doolin for a swim on the second day. Currents, a turning tide and a subterranean river make for lethal conditions and eight young men were drowned.
In 2003 there was an attempt to resurrect the good old days of the Lisdoonvarna Music Festival but 190 Doolin locals with long memories protested against the idea and the local council agreed with them. They clearly decided the Romantic Lovers looking for a partner at the Matchmaking Festival were eminently more preferable than violent music festival patrons.
Despite the song about the Lisdoonvarna festival being a swan song, it’s still is a great listen (Check link below!). Christy Moore recalls… “first performed in The Lawns, Belturbet the week before I was to go on before Rory Gallagher at the Lisdoonvarna festival in 1983. The original version was more chaotic and referred to a series of events that took place on the way down to West Clare. There was a break in to Portlaois prison to serenade friends, a savage feed at the old treaty stone diner in Limerick where a card school broke out and Dickie Rock went all in on a pair of threes.”
Everybody needs a break,
Climb a mountain or jump in a lake.
Sean Doherty goes to the Rose of Tralee,
Oliver J. Flanagan goes swimming in the Holy Sea.
But I like the music and the open air,
So every Summer I go to Clare.
Coz Woodstock, Knock nor the Feast of Cana,
Can hold a match to Lisdoonvarna.