Sunday, 12 February 2006, Co. Clare
After another night of coughing that I could feel from my waist to the top of my head, I was finally convinced I was not getting better. Isn’t that what we always think, that we’re about to turn the corner? It was definitely wishful thinking in this case. In fact, I was concerned that I was getting a sinus infection, and rather than wait for it to make me truly miserable (I wrote in my notes: “My neck, my cheeks, my ears, even my teeth hurt”), and possibly spoil my trip, I decided I’d had enough. Gerry’d been patient and kind and attentive, but TLC was no longer enough. I wanted drugs.
This makes it sound all very civilized, when in fact what happened was I hobbled into the living room, threw myself on the couch, and whimpered, while, possibly, shedding a few tears, “I’m sooo sick. Do you think you can find me a doctor, like, right now? Pleeeeeze?”
Gerry dialed 11811, which, in Ireland, gets you both Yellow Pages (called Golden Pages) directory assistance and regular old information too. And it’s live, not automated. He requested a doctor in Lahinch, and was given a number to call. This was at eight a.m., which is important to the story; you see, it seems Gerry was given the number of a doctor who is retired. Actually—he woke him up. The man was then kind enough to rouse his wife, who got up and located the number of an after-hours clinic! In spite of the fact that it involves my causing two elderly folk to be woken out of a sound sleep on a Sunday morning, this is my favorite story of the trip. 🙂
Lucky, lucky me: Gerry called the clinic and learned it was in Ennistymon, or, actually, just outside Ennistymon, on the Lahinch side. So it was very close, a five-minute drive. “Just look for the ShannonDoc sign,” we were told, and to arrive at ten-thirty. No prob.
Gerry cooked up a wonderful breakfast that I could hardly eat, and by ten-twenty we were turning up the long drive to an old folks’ home, out of the back of which ShannonDoc operates, as Gerry mused aloud that the name sounded like an American television show (Doc Shannon: the story of a kind, small-town country doctor saving life and limb in the wilds of western Ireland! Tune in next week when a rich American benefactor of Irish ancestry gifts the Doc with a helicopter, to dramatically increase the amount of lives and limbs he can save! You won’t want to miss this touching episode, etc.!).
The waiting room was in the home’s dining room, empty, at that hour, of the elderly, although the décor was distinctly … old-folksy. While we waited (Gerry with his newspaper, me with my book), the loudspeaker on the wall crackled into action, as a small choir of really old women with quavery voices began singing a hymn, a capella. It was time for mass to begin, and it was being broadcast to everyone in the home, even us sick people waiting in the dining-slash-waiting room.
We were only there a short time, but I remember the kindness of the nurse, who stroked my arm with tenderness as she took my temperature, speaking quietly to me as she wrote in my chart, assuring me that I’d be well taken care of (not that I was worried). The doctor was a gentle, long-haired man in his early forties who said, as he looked at my chart, “the closest I ever got to Tennessee was Harlan County, Kentucky,” which, all things considered, I told him, was pretty darned close! It seems I was wheezy (I’d listened to that wheeze for two nights), developing bronchitis; he gave me a day-and-a-half’s worth of antibiotics and a prescription for more. He was very thorough, even informing me that the pills I would get from the pharmacist might be a different color. The whole episode took half an hour and cost forty euro (roughly forty-eight dollars), which I didn’t think was bad at all.
But this is my vacation. I’d like to see something.
So from there we set off to explore the Burren (from the Gaelic boireann, meaning a rock or a stony place), which, as I mentioned earlier, is a geologically important land formation of stratified karst limestone in northwest County Clare, about 115 square miles of it. It’s nearly impossible to describe; I read something interesting just now that said it’s not obvious like, say, the Grand Canyon. After all, Ireland is a rocky place anyway. You could just … not notice it. 🙂
But then you do: those hills aren’t green, they’re grey.
And suddenly you find yourself driving down lanes between fields of stone, like pavement, eroded into interesting patterns; underneath there are huge caves and rivers that can flood when it rains (spelunking is not for amateurs here, as it can be dangerous). Let’s not even discuss the potential for twisted ankles, since it makes me cringe. It is a very inhospitable land, and it goes on for miles and miles.
It would have been a hard, hard existence here, eking out a life from this rough landscape, yet you can find remnants of whole villages that were abandoned—either through death or emigration—during the Famine, which is fairly recent. That they were, actually, living here is the fault of Oliver Cromwell, a horrible man, the English Lord Protector who’d recently toppled King Charles in the English Civil War and was now engaged in a ten-year war of extermination (that is, genocide) against the Irish. (Actually, Cromwell had it in for Catholics, but at that time the Irish were almost all Catholic.) By the mid-1600s he had forced them to surrender, and tried to crush the Irish resistance by deporting thousands of land-owning Irishmen to west of the Shannon, saying he would send them “to Hell or Connaught!” (The Burren is a part of the province of Connaught.) At the sight of this poor and barren province, even one of Cromwell’s own generals observed that there was “neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”
There’s strong evidence of a thriving prehistoric life in the Burren too. There are megalithic stone hilltop cairns (graves), wedge tombs, and portal tombs (called dolmens) that date as far back as 3800 BC (although they were used well into the Bronze Age, which is put at 2200–500 BC). There are over three hundred fulachta fiadh—horseshoe-shaped mounds of burnt stone, built around stone or timber water toughs, which are the remains of giant Bronze Age cooking-pits, and there are stone circles too. There are several impressive stone forts that date from the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500). And early Christianity is represented as well, with up to eighty-two ecclesiastical sites—church ruins, cemeteries, hermitages and monastic enclosures, holy wells, saints’ seats or beds, and penitential stations—covering a millennium of worship.
I find this all quite amazing, given what the Burren looks like.
We’d watched the weather (on the all-Gaelic-all-the-time channel), which had indicated that we’d get rain all day. Indeed, the wind had blown ferociously through the night, and the morning light had been slow in coming due to the heavy overcast. After watching the forecast, I’d expected it to be pouring down rain, but it was just a light/thick mist, really. We drove down the N6 toward Lisdoonvarna, stopping off in Kilfenora to visit the little twelfth-century cathedral there.
This was a repeat visit; we were here in 2003. And, like the discovery I’d made yesterday at the Cliffs, progress has reached the little cathedral here, too: they’ve put a lovely glass roof on the once-roofless north transept (the south transept is completely gone). I actually was quite taken with it (watch for a photo); after all, a new roof is a new roof. This one makes no pretense about “fitting in”—it is sleek and modern and lets in plenty of light; I just really liked the juxtaposition of the thousand-year-old stones and the modern glass roof.
Kilfenora has three very famous high crosses; now two of them have been moved inside from the churchyard, to preserve them from the elements. This has been going on all over Ireland, an attempt to keep the intricate carvings from eroding.
Generally they house them right on the premises, as they do in Kilfenora; often they install … um … fakes, back out in the churchyard. Inside the chancel there is an interesting Gothic style sedilia built into the wall (a seat for the priest), above it is the carved head of a bishop.
Even though there were no overt drops of rain, it was very, very wet. This is an interesting and very Irish situation, it seems to me; walking around in it was less unpleasant than being in a downpour, even a light one, but we were getting just as soaked. So we got back in the car with the intention of finding the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a well-known site that we’d failed to find in 2003 (when we were driving around in a downpour).
On our way there I saw a little old church out in a field, and stopped to investigate. To get from the road into the field I had to go into a shallow ditch and up over a stone stile; there was a farm dog running around, following a couple who’d gone in before me about a minute earlier, although he came back and gave me a few friendly wags of his tail before running off on some other dogly errand. I watched as the pair climbed over a second stile into the churchyard; the iron gate has long since rusted shut.
We learned, together (from a sign near the gate), that this is Carron Church, and it served the largest parish in Clare until the sixteenth century, when it began to decline. The initial building was erected around 1200, but some of what is there now dates from the fifteenth century. You can see this in the photo of the doorway below—you can see the edge of the older material, and what was added, perhaps after a raid of some sort: a hodgepodge of materials that came to hand, including an old broken grindstone, a half-circle of rock that sticks out incongruously, but which was just fine to use to rebuild the church (it’s very human and touching, it seems to me). And just so you know, that raid comment isn’t out of the blue: the church has battlements and a bartizan (a small defensive projection that allowed defenders to fire on intruders below), which suggests that the parish priest felt a need to protect himself. And, of course, he did.
To the south of the church there is a small mound of stones—a cairn—from which Carron probably gets its name (you can see it in the distance in the photo above of the iron gate, in front of the far fenceline). It used to be a local custom to carry coffins around the cairn before they were buried in the churchyard.
Cairns can be found all over the world, but they are very common in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales—three regions that also share a language, Gaelic (although the dialects are different). They are always manmade, and the tradition may have begun as burial mounds among prehistoric peoples. They were often used as a landmark or to commemorate an event. (The Scots even have a blessing: Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, that is, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn.”) As a side note, cairn terriers, a breed that originated in Scotland, were bred specifically to hunt small game of the type that would live in and around a cairn.
It may seem—when you see the photos—like just another desolate pile of rocks (no pun intended), but when you’re there in person, it’s very moving. There’s no traffic noise; perhaps you hear the wind rustle through the tall grass. It’s just a silent, holy place, a monument to the hardy souls who lived in the area, squeezing a living out of the rocky fields. On Sundays, at the end of a long week, they came, perhaps in a donkey cart but more likely on foot, walking for miles to worship … right here.
I struck up a conversation with the other visitors, a brother and sister. Originally from County Clare, he’d moved away, but she still lives in and is very fond of Clare. He was just visiting. We talked some about the features of the church listed in the little informational sign in the churchyard, and about being here in winter, which has its drawbacks (it’s wet and chilly, after all). But she pointed out how nice it was to be here with no tour buses, and said that this was the only time of year that we could see these things without having people crawling all over. (As tourists, we often don’t think enough about the locals, and how we’re affecting their lives.) I was grateful to see this place with these two quiet people.
I mentioned, then, that we were going to Poulnabrone and they said that they were going there next too. The Poulnabrone portal (or tomb) dolmen dates from the Neolithic period, around 3400 BC. Used as burial sites, portal dolmens are always oriented toward the rising sun, indicating a reverence for the dead that suggests a religious attitude. These people—the pre-Celts—were the matriarchal society we’d learned about in the documentary we’d seen the night before. Poulnabroune is still in the process of being completely excavated; since 1986 the remains of fourteen adults and six children have been discovered, along with fragments of jewelry and pottery, arrowheads, and other artifacts.
So we got in the car and rolled a couple miles to Poulnabrone.
We walked around—carefully, watching where we put our feet.
It was lovely … until a tour bus pulled up.
Rant: I’d imagined … hoped … that I’d get through this trip without seeing one, but nooooooo. Nooooo. Don’t do it, kids! Don’t get on that bus! Strike out on your own! Strike out for Freedom and Truth and Beauty and stuff like that there! (ahem) But seriously. Just call me anti-structured-tour: I just don’t want to be told what to look at, what to think; I like finding my own way based on what interests me. And I certainly don’t want to be told how long I have to shop! Frankly, the “wrong” or unexpected turns we’ve taken have added just as much to the trip as the times when we’ve gone straight to our destination—sometimes much more. (Thus endeth rant.)
Anyway, this bus vomited out thirty or so bored-looking young people (I’d say they were ages eighteen to twenty-five) of a variety of nationalities. Some English-speakers (some Americans in that group), some not. It’s a short hike to the dolmen from the road, and I actually heard one girl say, once she and her friend had arrived, “There, can we go back to the bus now?”
Seriously, who is paying for this woman to take this wonderful trip? I could (maybe understand a comment like that if she were a five-year-old. (sigh)
The woman I’d spoken to at Carron Church earlier made eye contact with me and smiled, and, without missing a beat, suggested that Gerry and I might enjoy Aillwee Cave. And at that we said good-bye and moved on.
The cave was a few miles up the road, and as we drove we listened to the radio. Gerry had it tuned to RTÉ, which is sort of like NPR and sort of like the BBC. Probably more like the latter. You know you’re in Ireland, though, when it strikes the Angelus at noon and six p.m. It’s an arresting sound (the bell chimes in three groups of three, with a pause between groups); one should stop and say the Angelus (prayer) during this time. Can you imagine what might be accomplished if this actually happened?
We’d also been listening to a lot of discussion about the Irish president’s trip to Saudi Arabia; you see, from this country born of a Neolithic matriarchal society, President Mary McAleese had just been sent to address the Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia—a country where women are largely prevented from voting in elections and are subject to numerous discriminatory practices, which are sometimes required by law. Indeed, at this event women were required to arrive through a separate entrance and to sit, unseen, behind a screen! Let me tell you, people were outraged. At least the ones calling in to the RTÉ talk show were. (To be fair, in her speech Ms. McAleese called for women’s participation in Saudi Arabian political and economic life.)
And then we arrived at Aillwee Cave, “Ireland’s premier showcave,” as the souvenir booklet trumpets on its cover. This is one of the many caves in (or underneath) the Burren that I mentioned earlier, but, as the booklet points out, these other caves are “wild” caves and must be treated with caution, as they react very quickly to rainfall and could be very dangerous. The most interesting thing about Aillwee (pronounce this ALL-wee), really, is the story of its discovery. They think that the first modern man to discover the cave was the landowner, Jacko McGann, in 1940. He’s described as a herdsman, but I’m not sure if that’s cattle or sheep. He was forty-four years of age at the time, and he crawled in with a candle, explored some, left his initials scratched in the wall … and then didn’t mention the cave to anyone for thirty-three years! At that time he told a group of cavers from Bristol (England) University about it, and they performed a more thorough exploration. Two years later work was begun to open the cave to the public. The booklet shows photos of “Sunday afternoons in the car park,” picturing a traditional music group and dancers (probably taken more than twenty years ago), which I think must have been fun, in a weird way. The booklet also has a very thorough timeline, which lists such items as “1980, second tea-room and terrace opened,” “1985, Japanese royal visit,” and “Jan. 1989, ice-cream kiosk constructed”—in addition to the more important stuff like “1977, sump 1 first dived by Jeff Philips” and “Mar. 1989, tour extended to take in waterfall.” 🙂
Aside from all this fascinating detail, really, it’s … well … just a cave, albeit a charming one. Like lots of caves, it maintains a constant temperature of 50°F, has bats, lots of straw stalactites, and shows evidence that prehistoric animals used it (no human evidence until Jacko entered in 1940). Most interesting are the hibernation pits and bones of a brown bear; since bears have been extinct in Ireland for over a thousand years, this part of the exhibit is pretty special.
All in all, a pleasant hour or so. On our way out, we stopped at the little Farm Shop at the bottom of Aillwee Mountain, and bought some nice fresh cheeses and local honey (the label reads, simply, “100% pure and natural, unheated and coarse filtered honey from Ben Johnson’s apiaries in the Burren, Co. Clare”), which we used at supper that night.
The “edge” of the Burren comes upon you without warning. You’ve been driving through fields of stone, and then … you’re not. I stopped and took some pictures as we left this unique region behind.
Back in Lahinch we went for a late lunch at the Shamrock Hotel (the second recommendation, you may recall), where I had a nice potato-leek soup. We wandered down to the sea and parked.
We walked along the sea wall, where I took photos of the beach at high tide. Actually there is no beach at high tide; the waves were already crashing on the rocks that support the sea wall, and as I watched the sun go down they came close enough that I could feel the spray. Time to go home!
Back at home, we boiled water for tea and laid out fruit, crackers and cheese, and the honey we’d bought at the farm shop. Perfect and cozy.
That night we watched a television dramatization of what’s known in Ireland as the Stardust Disaster. It refers to the Stardust nightclub, which burned just after midnight on Valentine’s Day in 1981, causing the deaths of forty-eight young (teens and early twenties) people (Wikipedia’s article really covers all the bases), maiming many more (over two hundred were injured), and creating devastation in the Artane neighborhood where it was located. Gerry grew up in Artane and still lives there; he was a regular at the nightclub at that time (he says it was the place to go, if you were from Artane; he and his friends usually showed up about once a week, although “none of us were there that night,” he told me). His parents were good friends with people who lost children in the fire, so it was definitely an event that touched his family, and he was interested in watching it.
As is the case with disasters such as this, there are many, many unanswered questions, and twenty-five years later the wound is still fresh; the RTÉ docu-drama itself was controversial, as many of the Stardust families, as they’re known, felt as if it was taking advantage of their pain. I myself sat there crying, watching as the parents rushed from one hospital to the next, searching for their children. The scene was very disorganized, and it was hours and hours before parents could get an accounting; some parents lost more than one child.
Even though some exits were locked and others had chains draped around the handles (to make them look as if they were locked), most of the kids might have made it had the doors opened outward. As it was, once the panic started, the people closest to the doors were simply crushed against them—there was never enough room to swing the doors inward. This gives me chills just thinking about it.
Sadly, the owner of the club collected his insurance money and went on with his life, never publicly acknowledging the families’ loss. To add insult to injury, he kept the property, which has had a car park (read: parking lot) on it; however, late last year he built a new bar, called the Silver Swan (which is the name of the pub many of the Stardust victims drank at before heading over to the nightclub back in 1981), at one end and—incredible as this may seem—planned to open it on February 14, 2006, exactly twenty-five years after the fire. Members of the Stardust families have been picketing in front of the business ever since, trying to dissuade people from entering. The opening was postponed for a few days as a result, but I believe it’s open now. No word on how well it’s doing—they’re still picketing out there.