Iconic Places: Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
On the train to Galway, I had the suspicion that something was going on. I had been talking about almost every topic under the sun with two men from Athenry for the majority of the journey out of Dublin Heuston station: Brexit, health, whiskey, the Irish border and brands of tea.
All around us, there were young Irish guys and girls, drinking vociferously and listening to music out of Bluetooth speakers. No one seemed to notice. Other passengers seemed to just ignore it. I was beginning to think that Ionród Éireann (Irish Rail) might be some strange mobile party company. After all, it was only a Tuesday afternoon.
Arriving at Galway Ceannt station, the train unleashed a herd of youngsters onto the platform resembling a migratory stampede of wildebeest. What was going on?
In the intermittent rain, I walked towards Salthill, a small resort on the outskirts of Galway City and into the Nest Boutique Hostel.
“Ah,” the receptionist said, “it’s Donegal Tuesday.”
“But we’re in Galway,” I responded.
She explained that it was a strange tradition started by a barman from Donegal, entailing all-day drinking, with the bars open from as early as 9am. I decided I would avoid exploring the city until I was sure the streets were quiet and the revellers were asleep still nursing hangovers.
After a good night’s sleep in possibly the second best hostel in the world – Equity Point in Marrakech still holds the overall top spot for having a swimming pool – I headed out to arrange my transport southwards. My night had only briefly been disturbed by a group of lads who’d driven from Cobh to spend the night at Donegal Tuesday and hadn't even slept in their beds,
In the murk, I wandered along the coastal path from Salthill to Galway, getting an absolute soaking from a five-minute squall that blew in off the Atlantic Ocean and swept across Galway Bay. Despite the small islands and skerries in the bay, the sky seems so expansive here, creating a sense of exposure to the power of the tides and the elements.
Shortly after leaving Galway, the 350 bus leaves the main road and starts to weave down winding country lanes. The route takes you past the picture-postcard Dunguaire Castle and the colourful houses of Kinvara (Cinn Mhara) that face out into the bay over a low quayside wall.
The road continues to hug the coast as it goes through the small village of Ballyvaughan (Baile Uí Bheacháin) and past the tiny harbour. All the while, in the distance, larger boats can be seen rocking on the light swell in Galway Bay.
Rounding Black Head and going through Murrooghtoohy (Muiriúch Tuaithe), even in the relative warmth of the bus, you can’t help but have the sensation that you are clinging to the very edge of Ireland.
The intermittent blasts of strong wind that whip up off the Atlantic Ocean and across the almost lunar landscape of The Burren (the name meaning 'Great Rock') shake the vehicle, even more so than the undulations of the road already do.
After nearly two hours on the road, I arrived in Doolin (Dúlainn), with the bus stopping directly outside my home for the night: The Rainbow Hostel.
Doolin actually stretches along the road for a couple of miles, despite its small size and sparsely populated area, from Toomullin, near to my hostel, towards Fisher Street, for the famous Gus O’Connor’s pub, and eventually down to the harbour for boats to the Aran Islands and tours in the warmer months.
I took a walk down towards the harbour along a couple of completely deserted roads. On the way, I was passed by a grand total of three cars, one of which belong to the coastguard who have a station there. A few people were wandering around on the rocks and the breakwater when I arrived, but they didn’t stay too long.
With it being February, the light was already fading by 3pm and the spray from the Atlantic sea seemed to be catching a subtle pinkish hue in the air as wave after wave rolled in. Stood facing down the ocean in such a quiet location was already quite an experience.
After a while taking photos, I headed back up the hill, briefly tracked by the Coastguard’s drone, and headed into Gus O’Connor’s. The whole pub was getting ready for Valentine's Day evening meals so I sat at the bar and tried the Guinness infused bangers and mash for dinner – I had to eat now as no shops in the village seemed to be open.
I stayed at Gus O’Connor’s longer than I thought I would after getting into a conversation with a Canadian guy who was trying to drive around Ireland in a rented van. The idea was that he’d just park up somewhere and sleep in the back of it. It seemed like a chilly idea at this time of year.
Back at the hostel, my contemplation of an early evening went out of the window when the man left in charge suggested heading over the road to McGann’s Pub where a small band were playing. A couple staying at the hostel, a former soldier and his girlfriend, were also there. Hostel Guy and I were conscious of not gatecrashing their Valentine's Day meal so left them alone. That is until they practically forced us to join them. Maybe the meal hadn’t gone that well?
The next morning, I packed my bag. I was travelling exceptionally lightly. My blue Ortlieb backpack contained: my Nikon D3300 camera, a Tamron 16-300mm lens, a couple of spare T-Shirts, travel size toiletries, a microfibre towel, a pair of smarter shoes and just enough underwear for the week. Everything else I had, I was wearing.
I said my farewells to my host and, wishing the soldier and his girlfriend well, headed along the road back towards Fisher Street. Instead of turning towards Gus O’Connor’s I continued straight on, up the gently rising lane that lines the side of a small hill. Within just a few minutes of walking, I had the strange sensation of being completely alone.
The road takes a left turn inland, but the Cliffs of Moher path continues straight on through a gate. I was a bit unsure at first as it looked like private property, but the signs seemed to suggest it was the correct direction.
The wind was gusting quite substantially now, as the path got closer and closer to the cliff edge and started to rise up higher, becoming more and more exposed. Looking out across the Atlantic towards the Aran Islands, the sea looked volatile. Immense swells of anything up to 8 metres could be seen before waves would go smashing into the land.
The wind was so strong that I had to keep my legs in a constant state of readiness to brace against the next powerful blast of air. The sense of fear mixed with excitement was hard to deny, all exacerbated by the sense of isolation.
“Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear,” Seamus Heaney had once written. Walking along the path as it continued to become more open to the power of the ocean and the weather, it was easy to see what he meant. To one side I could see the relative safety of the Doonagore Castle emerging from the sea spray and mist, on the other side I had the sea “exploding comfortably.”
As I often experience when I’m travelling alone, I have a “what am I doing here?” moment. I was in the midst of one of these thoughts, my face burning from the persistent cold air that couldn’t be stopped by my coat hood or kefiyyeh, when I spotted a black figure in the distance.
The West of Ireland is a place of myths, legends, spirits and folklore and so I wasn’t sure whether I was imagining it as it dipped only momentarily in and out of view.
Thankfully for me, a five minutes later I saw that it was, in fact, a man in all black waterproof gear, walking around half the pace of me. I eventually caught up with him and had a brief chat, but I did wonder whether he had the same feelings as me about walking along a clifftop in something approaching a gale by yourself.
After saying goodbye to him, leaving him to amble at his own speed, it did cross my mind that on a day like today, with so few people around, you could easily disappear and not be found for days. Indeed there are plenty of stories of people who’ve gone missing in the area. By the time they’d find the GPS signal on your phone, it would already be too late.
I shook myself out of these musings and thankfully the path came inwards from the cliff edge a little more, although I did keep checking back to see if my fellow walker was still visible.
My legs were beginning to tire after one and a half hours of walking, rising up to around 200 metres above the sea. Although some parts of the path were quite flat, the rest was relatively steep and slippery. On at least two occasions, I had to run like my life depended on it when the power of the wind started to blow waterfalls back up the towering cliff face, completely soaking my trousers which weren’t waterproof.
Nearing the summit of the cliffs, with O’Brien’s Tower and the tourists who’d driven directly to the visitors’ centre coming into sight, my final challenge was to run through a boggy field, populated by some really irritated-looking cows.
I started off by just treading carefully, looking to see which bits of the grass seemed to look more stable. That system failed when my shoe sunk into the mud up to my ankles. Strategy two was to simply run. That was also pretty stupid as it just sprayed a load of mud up the back of my already soaked trousers. The winning strategy was to carefully jump from tuft to tuft of the larger grass species growing in the field, like a ridiculous version of Super Mario.
Shortly before the summit, I stopped to take pictures. From here the incredible swell of the Atlantic Ocean looked even more savage. The low rumble of the rocks being continually assaulted seemed to reverberate in the air, broken only by the roaring sound of wind rushing past my coat hood.
In the distance, a storm cloud was darkening the sky and accelerating towards the Cliffs, only to fly directly overhead, revealing sunshine and long shadows in the wintry afternoon sunshine.
With a final push, I made my way to the visitor’s centre for a cup of tea to warm myself up with and to await the 350 bus back to Galway.
Ortlieb Velocity backpack
Hi-Tec low walking shoes - really old ones!
Regatta Salton waterproof coat
Tamron 16-300mm lens
iPhone 7 - fully charged