09.15am. Still no sign of our driver. He was supposed to pick us up from our B&B twenty minutes ago, but there’s no rush; the morning is fresh, blue-skied and quiet, and we’re not quite ready to be thrown around the back of a minibus so soon after yet another textbook full Irish.
My Dad and I are in Galway, Ireland, for the third day of our cross-country trip. Dublin had been predictably pub-imposed, culminating in a visit to the capital’s glitzy Guinness Storehouse. Galway, up to now, had charmed us with its vibrant Latin Quarter, picturesque bay and warmth of its people. Somehow, the Guinness was better too. This was shaping up to be some trip.
The last time we were here, I was a lad of 6. I’d have vehemently loathed this sort of thing, especially after Disney World the year before. Dad, presumably, wouldn’t have been entirely satisfied either– early nights, even earlier mornings and relentless driving responsibilities had probably meant little to no time for leisurely supping pints of the black stuff.
Today, we are, for the first time, attempting something that doesn’t involve strenuous Guinness-drinking. We are going on a day-long excursion through the Burren countryside, and on to the Aran Islands and Cliffs of Moher; three of Ireland’s greatest natural attractions.
Jim, our sprightly and smartly-dressed driver, can be heard approaching from half a mile away, in his roaring minivan. We join a handful of other tourists and are promptly whisked off into the rugged, unspoiled, western Irish countryside. It’s a bumpy ride and much longer than expected, but, given the brilliant weather, an unforgettable two-hour journey through the Burren. Green, green and more green– that’s pretty much the gist of it –with the occasional sheep, tractor or dilapidated stone hut thrown in for good measure. “This is pure Ireland!”, Jim reminds us at various intervals, “Magnificent. I never tire of it!” We don’t doubt it; he really does look utterly besotted with his home country.
When we eventually arrive at the tiny coastal port town of Doolin, the morning’s full Irish is poised to make a spectacular escape, back from whence came. Thus, a rocky boat ride, at this point, isn’t hugely appealing.
Time to man up.
Deep breaths, water. More deep breaths, more water, and we’re ready and sailing. Destination: Inis Oírr, the smallest and most sparsely populated of the Aran Islands. On a normal day– according to Jim –these seas would be harsh and choppy, and the island cold and blustery; ‘we couldn’t have been luckier’.
We get the feeling that Inis Oírr hasn’t changed much over the centuries; apart from the small harbour, we note nothing more than a school, supermarket, church and pub, in terms of development beyond houses. Most striking though, is the maze-like assembly of stone walls criss-crossing the island’s rolling hills. They seem to go on and on, yet serve no clear purpose since sheep and horses seem to roam free. They’re old, that’s for sure. From the central viewpoint, next to what was, presumably, an important defensive belvedere many years ago, but is now a crumbling stone wall, you can see the entire island. There are no placards; no signposts; nothing that offers any sort of history lesson. We are left to our own imaginations.
Generations have been and gone here, going about their daily lives without any of the usual distractions and pretensions of modern day life. It’s another world. Pure. Simple. Disconnected.
We run into a local fellow on our way back to the harbour. “What are those castle ruins all about then?” we ask. What follows is a fast-flowing stream of heavily accented English. The American girl who has joined us tries in vain to understand, later confessing that she thought he was speaking Gaelic. We more or less get the gist of it, and that the crumbling fort has been around for ‘a couple of thousand years, give or take’ (he’d say). It’s sound enough information, so we press for more. “How often do you go back to the mainland?”. “Oohhh once a month I’d say. Just for supplies. I’m far happier here”.
It’s a humbling reality check, and a lesson learned in the understated core of human values.
The Irish sea glints under the sun as we make our way back to the coast. There isn’t a lot else to do other than stare thoughtfully/gormlessly out onto the crocodile-shaped horizon, so we are taken by surprise when a dolphin flashes across the boat’s path. Jim later informs us that this area of the shoreline is filled with them, but one is all we get.
As we inch closer to the coast, the sheer crags and overhangs begin to emerge from within the previously dark, elongated silhouette. The Cliffs of Moher are a staggering sight. As we finally reach its base, the looming, rock-solid landmass is a bit unsettling. Large waves crash against the cliff-face like feathers blowing into brick walls; the people on the edge are tiny stickmen-sized shadows; we are vulnerable, but stupefied.
One hour later we are the stickmen. Peering nervously over the edge of the 390ft chasm, we watch another tourist-suffused boat bob steadily towards the nadir of the cliff. Forget butterflies; wild pterodactyls are winging their way around our stomachs. We step back to take in a more lateral view, made all the more marvellous by the unbeatable weather we are still having. Selfies are taken left, right and centre. Somebody pretends to stumble off the edge, but, unbeknownst to onlookers, he actually falls a tiny fraction of the distance onto the grassy ledge beneath him. Haha.
Soon it’s time to return to the van, where a beaming Jim awaits us. “Twenty years a tour guide and I’ve never seen a day as beautiful as this!” I cast an eye over the rest of our group; some are shirtless, others guzzling litre-sized bottles of mineral water, and the most unfortunate, including Jim himself, three or four shades redder than at the beginning of the day. Sunburnt in Ireland. Imagine that.
But where natural beauties dwell, tourism-fuelled planning inevitably prospers. Approaching the cliffs, it is impossible to miss the ingeniously designed Cliffs of Moher Experience, a two-storey, environmentally friendly and €32 million costing structure carved into the hillside. The fancy facility exhibits interactive media covering the geology, history, flora and fauna of the cliffs. There’s also a café that sells cheese and chicken paninis. Result.
The day has taken its toll. We pile into the van, eager to get our forty winks to prepare us for one last have at Galway. Nine hours without a Guinness is an achievement. We need to celebrate. With a Guinness.