24 July 2018

From island hopping in
Doolin to the drama of
the Cliffs of Moher

Flowers try to burst through the rocky Burren landscape at the harbour in Doolin, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

As we drove through the rugged scenery of the Burren district in north Co Clare, Galway Bay was constantly in view, and as we moved on to see the Cliffs of Moher it was inevitable that we would end up at Doolin, a popular departure point for the Aran Islands and also the village that is at the heart of Irish traditional music.

Doolin is a seaside village on the north-west coast of Co Clare, surrounded by the rugged in Burren district and facing out to the Aran Islands and the Atlantic Ocean.

Doolin was once a fishing village, but today it is a base for exploring the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. It is a busy place in these summer months, with people catching ferries to the Aran Islands or boarding boats for tours of the Cliffs of Moher.

Doolin is also at the heart of Irish traditional music, with a reputation built on the work of musicians like Micho Russell and continuing in the live music and spontaneous singing in pubs and bars. But the range of restaurants, shops and accommodation makes Doolin popular all year round.

Doolin also offers many activities ranging from sea angling, caving and scuba diving to pitch and putt, rock climbing and hill walking. Doolin is also surfing destination, and a break that generates Ireland’s biggest wave, Aill na Searrach, is just off the Cliffs of Moher.

There are many archaeological sites nearby, some dating to the Iron Age or earlier. Doonagore Castle and Ballinalacken Castle are also in the area.

Most of the activity in Doolin takes place in the original areas of Fisher Street and Roadford. In fact, Doolin is scattered village, comprising four parts:

The harbour at Doolin is busy with boat trips to the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The harbour at Doolin is the departure point for boat trips to the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher.

Fisher Street has a pub and several shops and hostels.

Fitz’s Cross has a hostel, campsite, hotels and a pub.

Roadford has pubs, restaurants, hostels and accommodation, and trips to Doolin Cave also run from here. The Great Stalactite in Doolin Cave measures 7.3 metres. When it was discovered in 1952, it was recognised as the longest stalactite in the Northern hemisphere.

Crab Island is barren except for the remains of a 19th-century stone police outpost (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A short distance out from Doolin Harbour, Crab Island is barren except for the remains of a 19th-century stone police outpost.

The Aran Islands can be seen further out from the harbour and Doolin is one of three places with ferry services to the Aran Islands – the others are Galway and the village of Rossaveal on the north-west shore of Galway Bay.

From Doolin we drove 7 km south to the Cliffs of Moher on the south-west edge of the Burren.

The Cliffs of Moher continue for about 14 km. At their southern end, they rise 120 metres (390 ft) above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their greatest height – 214 metres (702 ft) – just north of O’Brien’s Tower, and then continue at lower heights, always with the edge abruptly falling away into the churning Atlantic below.

O’Brien’s Tower was built as an observation tower on the Cliffs of Moher in 1835 by Cornelius O’Brien (1782-1857), a benevolent local landlord who was MP for Co Clare (1832-1847, 1852-1857).

Local lore says O’Brien was a man ahead of his time, believing that the development of tourism would benefit the local economy and bring people out of poverty. It is said locally that he ‘built everything around here except the Cliffs.’

When O’Brien built the tower, he planned it as an observation tower for hundreds of tourists who then visited the Cliffs of Moher, so they could see out to the Aran Islands. Today, the Cliffs of Moher are among the most visited tourist sites in Ireland, attracting about 1.5 million visitors a year.

The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most visited tourist sites in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The harbour at Ballyvaughan
is the entrance to the Burren

The Harbour at Ballyvaughan … owes much to the work of Alexander Nimmo in the 1830s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many pretty villages we visited on Saturday afternoon [21 July 2018] as part of our journey through the Burren was Ballyvaughan, the most northerly place in Co Clare and close to the border with Co Galway.

This traditional and beautiful fishing village stands at the entrance to the Burren and looks over Galway Bay to the coast of south Connemara. It is set in wooded a vale and was once a small fishing and trading port. It is now an ideal base for exploring the Burren, and the Corkscrew Hill outside the village gave us spectacular views of the sea and the barren mountain landscapes.

The name Ballyvaughan comes from the Irish Baile Ui Bheachain, meaning ‘Behan’s Town’ or ‘Vaughan’s Town.’

Ballyvaughan owes it origins to Ballyvaughan Castle, which once stood at the edge of the harbour, on the promontory where the Irish Cottage scheme is located today.

For centuries, the castle belonged to the O’Loghlen family, apart from a brief period in the 16th century when it was held by the O’Brien family. A stolen cow was found at the castle in the 1540s, and heavy fines were levied on the O’Loghlens, including the loss of cattle, goats and sheep and of the town of Ballyvaughan.

The Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney (1529-1586) – brother of Lady Frances Sidney Sussex, founder of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge – attacked the castle in 1569, but the O’Loghlens managed to hold on to the property.

Ballyvaughan Castle stood at the edge of the harbour, where the Irish Cottage scheme stands today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The present village grew up around the harbour in the 19th century, when this was a thriving port for just a short time. Three older piers had been built by the villagers, who used them for herring fishing. But these piers were unusable at high tide, and the Fishery Board built a new quay in 1829.

The new quay was designed by the Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo (1783-1832), who had been working in Ireland from 1811. He designed a new harbour at Dunmore, Co Waterford, in 1814, and improved the navigation on the River Lee in Cork and improved the harbour at Cobh in 1815. From 1820, Nimmo worked on making extensive surveys and recommendations for Ireland’s fishing harbours.

The Knight of Kerry commissioned Nimmo in 1830 to design a new village on Valentia Island, Co Kerry, that was later named Knightstown. He also designed the road from Galway to Clifden and the harbour of Roundstone in Connemara.

Nimmo redesigned over 30 harbours on the west coast of Ireland in the 1830s. One of his major projects was the Wellesley Bridge in Limerick, built in 1824-1835 and now known as Sarsfield Bridge. Nimmo died at his home at 78 Marlborough Street, Dublin, in 1832.

By 1831, turf from Connemara was landed at the quay in great quantities, despite the shallow depths in the bay. To facilitate the turf trade, another quay was built in 1837, apparently also based to a design by Nimmo, who had died five years earlier.

The new quay was of great importance, as it allowed Ballyvaughan to export grain, bacon and vegetables and to import supplies from Galway, and also allowed Ballyvaughan to benefit from the herring fishing boom.

Exports from the Burren valleys included grain, lamb, pork, bacon and vegetables, while turf boats from Connemara crossed Galway Bay bringing much-needed peat because the Burren was without trees and lacked fuel.

Meanwhile, Ballyvaughan Castle was in ruins by 1840, and only the foundations remain today. The local landlord, Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (1797-1861), 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, was declared bankrupt in 1847 with debts of over £1 million, and he was forced to sell vast tracts of land in the Burren in 1848.

The Buckingham estates in the Barony of Burren, Co Clare, extended to 2,800 ha (7,000 acres). They were bought for £30,000 by Richard Samuel Guinness, acting as agent for Henry White (1791-1873), MP for Longford, whose father had made his fortune as a lottery operator in Dublin. White became a peer in 1863 when he was given the title of Baron Annaly, of Annaly and Rathcline in the Co Longford.

As a benevolent landlord, Lord Annaly built a reservoir outside Ballyvaughan in 1872 to supply water to the farms in the valley. This water supply was extended to the town in 1874, and in 1875 a fountain was built by the Coyne brothers from Connemara when they were stranded in town after their ship sank at Gleninagh pier.

For a while, Ballyvaughan was the official capital of this region of Clare, with its own workhouse, coastguard station and a large police barracks. But over time, as the roads improved and the piers fell into disrepair, the town lost its importance as a fishing harbour.

Ballyvaughan is a centre for water sports and a base for exploring the Burren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

During the recent economic boom in Ireland, Ballyvaughan became known as Ireland’s ‘Gold Coast’ because of a boom in property prices in the area. Today, the economy of Ballyvaughan is based mainly on tourism. The new pier and slipway, built in 2006, have opened up the area to boating, fishing, scuba diving and other maritime activities.

Today the village bustles with visitors rather than fishermen as a base for exploring the Burren’s landscapes, unique flora and its archaeological and Christian heritage. Looking at the yachts and surfboarders on the blue waters beneath blue skies in the harbour at Ballyvaughan at the weekend, I wondered whether I could be closer to a summer scene in Greece.

But on another Facebook forum, commenting on my photographs from Saint Fachan’s Cathedral, Kilfenora, another poster reminded me of lines from John Betjeman’s poem, ‘Ireland with Emily,’ first published in New Bats in Old Belfries (1945):

Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.

A scene at Ballyvaughan Harbour that was reminiscent of holidays in Greece last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)