PRIYA GANAPATHY takes a Railtours Ireland trip down the Wild Atlantic Way to Galway via Limerick, Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher, the most popular day trip from Dublin
One would think that a Van Morrison music tour and a weeklong Literary trail in and around Belfast should have satisfied my hunger for Irish art and culture. Yet, I was chugging to Dublin for an excursion to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher. My Dubliner cabbie Thomas Brennan chatted me up, “The interesting thing about Ireland is that there are no snakes, no earthquakes, no gales, no mountains, no wildlife to speak of. It’s not too hot, not too cold. So we’re all moderate people – products of our environment. Which is why Dublin is a nice place to be.”
By 6am I was ready for Dublin Hueston Station where my Railtours Ireland guide, Andy Geraghty promised to be “in a bright yellow jacket doing star jumps on the platform!” Being a combination of rail and road, the tour would take me past coastal towns, castles and cliffs along the Atlantic, wrapping up in gorgeous Galway, the cultural epicenter of Ireland. The town shot to fame with Ed Sheeran’s cheery hit Galway Girl, though people swear that Steve Earle’s original track in the film P.S. I Love You was far more Irish and way better.
We changed trains at Limerick Junction in County Tipperary and disembarked at Limerick’s Colbert Station, learning that the Republic of Ireland’s railway stations were renamed in 1966 after rebels, who gave their life for Irish Independence. I was curious whether Limerick gave the literary ‘funny little poem’ its name or vice versa. “Not sure” replied Andy. “But I can recite one for you.”
“There was a man from Nantucket, who kept all his money in a pocket. His daughter Nan ran away with a Man, and as for the pocket, Nan took it.” In 16th and 17th century, Limerick was considered the most beautiful city in Ireland because the best-looking girls were from here. Few know that the city is also famous for its ham! Originally an old industrial town, Limerick seemed like a smaller version of Belfast.
Our next halt was Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare. The pretty guide Elizabeth glammed up in period costume explained the 15th century castle’s history in the Main Guard, a vaulted hall. Its Minstrel’s Gallery is still used for Bunratty Medieval Castle Banquets every night where visitors are served medieval meals and plied with large glasses of Ireland’s infamous drink, mead!
I was fascinated by the tapestries, the spy-holes and special Ladies Window in the Great Hall, once out of bounds for women and a stunning carved oak dowry cupboard from Germany. Gracing the walls were gargantuan prehistoric antler trophies spanning up to three meters that belonged to Giant Irish Deer, one of the largest deer that ever walked our planet, but extinct for ten thousand years. They were retrieved from the oxygen deficient boglands, which ensured their fine state of preservation.
On the fringes of Bunratty, an outlying castle served as a vantage. “Any approaching enemy would be signaled by lighting a fire on its roof. So when one arrived at Bunratty, the friendly O’Briens would greet you with a red carpet. They’d pour burning oil on you, throw excrement mixed with lime, or chop your head off, the usual ‘warm welcome’ the O’Briens gave everyone,” Andy quipped wickedly.
The journey was filled with delightful anecdotes on Irish history and culture, their love for superstitions and folklore. We heard stories about the Fairy Tree that stalled the motorway construction and Rag Trees and Holy Wells with therapeutic powers and the origin of the world famous Irish Coffee. This wizardly concoction of whiskey, coffee and cream created by chef Joe Sheridan in 1937 at Foyens near Shannon beats all the fancy coffees of today!
Though Doolin’s candy pink coloured thatched houses and stores on Fisher Street looked good enough to eat, we stepped into Gus O’Conners, a little pub for a quick lunch of Seafood Chowder. A quick hop into a small chocolate shop run by Mary and Noreen who make artisan homemade chocolate and fudge and Wilde Irish chocolate and we were off. Apparently, Doolin is a mecca for Irish music.
En route we were treated to views of the Aran Islands. The farthest one was Inis Mor (big island) with Inis Meain (middle island) and Inis Oirr (small island) nearby. Depending on the weather, the islands are accessed by ferryboats or small sea planes nicknamed “vomit comets”. The islands are renowned for their gorgeous woolen weaves or Aran sweaters, hand-knitted by the island women.
A 10-minute drive from Doolin were the majestic Cliffs of Moher, one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe and the top sight in the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s most famous tour along the west coast. We were warned about how it could be “very rainy, windy and biting cold or so misty you can’t see past your nose”. They sometimes closed the Cliffs for safety reasons. We got lucky with great sunshine, clear blue skies and strong winds that promised big waves.
Named after the Moher Castle that once stood here, the cliffs stretch for 8km. Hags Head is perched on the left at 120m while O’Brien’s Tower on the right is the highest point at 214m. The cliffs unfold in a jagged line into the horizon and the setting’s raw beauty leaves visitors spellbound, who take an adventurous Cliff Walk or a Fossil Trail.
Moher flagstones were a prized item in the 19th century and were specially shipped to London to pave building fronts and floors of the Royal Mint. If I hadn’t hogged in Doolin, I swear the gusts of wind could’ve flipped me over the cliff. My hysterical laughter mingled with other visitors’ who were equally astonished by the wild winds.
We staggered drunkenly, negotiating our way along the boundary for better views. Interestingly, the Audio Visual Interpretation Centre with a coffee shop, restaurant and souvenir shop is buried in the hill to avoid ruining the aesthetics of the spectacular landscape.
The Burren, literally ‘a great rock’ in Irish, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park that stretches for 250 sq km. Photographers, botanists and researchers flock to capture images of its unusual cracked karst glacial landscape that comes alive in spring with Arctic, Mediterranean and Alpine plants growing together in the furrows.
Near Black Head Lighthouse the panoramic arc of a full rainbow across the blue waters of Galway Bay welcomed us. In a land that believed in leprechauns, it was the closest I came to finding my pot of gold.
Galway was once a walled city and the Vikings had set up trading posts wherever they could navigate their boats. The swift-flowing River Corrib was harnessed hydroelectricity years ago ensuring that Galway had electricity long before London! Maroon and white flags fluttering from city’s buildings hailed a recent win in hurling, a 3000 year-old game unique to Ireland touted as one of the fastest field games in the world!
A few hours is woefully short to experience the energy of this University town. I knew I had to return. The vibe is so youthful and electric with lively Irish music everywhere. I hung around the legendary Eyre Square before strolling down Shop Street to see St Nicholas Church and the Lynch Window where James Lynch, a former Magistrate had hanged his own son Walter for murdering a sailor; coining the word ‘lynch’ before rambling around old world buildings housing pubs, cafes, art galleries, theatre companies, boutiques and shops selling Claddagh rings.
At Salt Hill, a popular seaside resort near Galway’s city centre, the lovely promenade offered a brilliant sea view. I could have stayed and danced with strangers to Galway Girl but I made a wild dash to the station for my train back to Dublin. Bing Crosby’s soulful 1947 Irish classic Galway Bay, echoed in my ears:
‘If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, then may be at the closing of your day. You will sit and watch the moonrise over Claddagh and see the sun go down on Galway Bay…. But if there is going to be a life hereafter and somehow I am sure there’s going to be. I will ask my God to let me make my heaven In that dear old land across the Irish Sea.’
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Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of JetWings magazine.