Tuesday, January 19, 2016

9/23 – The Burren, County Clare

9/23 – The Burren, County Clare
More pics here.

On Wednesday, we took an epic tour of the Burren. This is both a geologic/ecological region and a cultural/geographical region. The Burren is a limestone area upon which unique things grow. This region has joined the Slow Food movement and is capitalizing on their unique place, craftspeople, and identity. They are interconnected to one another, passing along tips on where to go to tourists, using each other’s products, and generally promoting the local sites and people in an interconnected way. I was very inspired that Sacramento, Yolo, and Solano counties could do something similar!

We visited a salmon smokehouse, where we got to see one of three smoking ovens in the world that can both cold and hot smoke. This is because an Irishman married a Norwegian, and neither wanted to give up their version of smoking salmon. The salmon was so good, we bought a ton of it to be shipped back to our house. We drove through darling Lisdoonvarna, and I would consider staying there next time, and visiting Doolin and the cliffs as a day trip. Lisdoonvarna is a bit bigger but still charming, and seems to have more amenities than tiny Doolin.

Next up was a swing through the Aillwee Cave and Birds of Prey Center. We did not need to pay money to go in a cave (this seems to be a big thing in Ireland) but we were happy to part with Euro’s too see raptors!  We learned all sorts of facts about new species via audio guide through the cages, and watched part of a flying demonstration. There are only a few Irish raptor species, including a few we also have in the US. There were plenty of rescued Harris hawks – likely because falconry is a big deal still, and Harris hawks are commonly used for the sport.  We saw several owl species, a couple of giant eagles and vultures, and the charismatic Bateleur eagle

One of the keepers let us get close to a rescued local hawk who was close to being re-released. As a non-permanent resident, he wanted her put away before the tour bus crowds showed up, since she was meant to return to the wild and should not get used to humans, but he stopped to show us her dramatic tail feathers and how her features were adapted for her particular flight and hunting patterns. We grabbed a snack at the gift shop while also sneaking a peak at how the local Ailwee Burren Gold cheese was made – it was amazing to see the giant vats of milk and cream being stirred, and the almost-as-large wheels of cheese aging! Our snack sounded great: a local Ailwee cheese bap sandwich. Turns out, a bap is a type of roll, and referred to the bun the cheese came on. It was slathered with ketchup – so it was a bit like a hamburger minus all the interesting parts! Just bread, cheese, and ketchup. Not bad, but not very interesting!

We headed out into the country and watched a sheepherding demonstration next to the Caherconnel Paleolithic tomb. The shepherd used both whistles and voice commands to direct two dogs to manage the herd of sheep through the landscape below us. We learned about cattle dogs vs sheepdogs (not breed based but based on if they are starers or nippers!), the life and training of the dogs (now shared communally between farmers), and different kinds of sheep. Only 10-15 farms in all of Ireland produce the wool Ireland is famous for – most of the sheep are for meat and have useless wool from a cloth perspective! They are trying to find ways to upcycle all of the meat wool – insulation seems to be a promising option.

We skipped the Caherconnel Fort since there was an entrance fee (and we could see the bulk of it from outside anyhow), but stopped at the free one down the road (Poulanbrone Portal Tomb) which I thought was more impressive anyhow. We got to walk right up to this stone entrance to a grave dating back 5,000 years. It was out in the open in this Burren limestone landscape, and seemed respected there despite being available to busloads of tourists. It was remarkably un-developed and refreshing. There were a few simple explanatory signs and one silly druid-costumed man selling crystals in the parking lot, but otherwise not overdone or exploited as some of these sights seem to be.

We found another ruined church on the side of the road, out in the country in the tiny “town” of Carran. This one was tiny, just a half room with pointed roof and gargoyle like stone heads. The local saint (read: priest) was buried in the yard, in a disheleved tomb next to the tiny church. There was no one there, and just a simple sign telling us the history of this place. I appreciated both the simple sign and that there was little else.

After driving down narrow country lanes and worrying about how to pass any cars we might see, we stopped for lunch at the adorable Burren Perfumery. The food was great, the café cheerful. We watched a beautiful video about the special wildlife in this area, and wandered through their garden, which was a walking tour of different plants and herbs used for medicine, cooking, and perfume. 

Another abbey stop – this one giant Corcomroe Abbey and with an active cemetery – was next. We walked over graves (still felt wrong), found someone buried in the walls (turns out it was an Irish Chieftan), and noticed that modern graves have flowers growing over them – a sweet tradition we should adopt instead of leaving cut flowers to wilt. One of the oldest looking tombs, inside the roofless church, had a small plastic flowerpot at its foot, which had been blown or kicked over.  I set it upright and put the soil back in around the flowers, and noticed a notecard in a ziplock bag. The flowers and child’s note to her deceased grandmother were clearly recent, yet the tomb was centuries old (likely around 1200AD). Not sure what to make of that. It was not near any modern graves – those were all outside in the yard. Perhaps “grandma” was a family lineage term (many of the oldest graves shared names with families still living in this area), but how could a young girl write that she misses someone who was buried hundreds of years before she was born? There’s clearly a story there, but I don’t know what it is.

It was now late afternoon, and we’d found ice cream not far away on our map near New Quay. We drove out to a little spit of a peninsula on the bay, and had an ice cream snack at Linnalla Pure Irish Ice Cream. Despite the grand name, the ice cream was pretty normal – but the proprieter did tell us he used milk from his own cows and had locals bring him berries to add in when they were in season from the neighboring countryside. We drove around the little spit and stopped at Linane’s Lobster Bar for lunch – again with rugby and fireplace, which made for a good break. The folks weren’t friendly but were interested in the game, so we didn’t watch alone.  We were eating off the normal hours, so had the place mostly to ourselves.  

We made the coastal drive around the point back to Doolin as a storm was rolling in. We had dramatic weather and scenery but not much rain, so it wasn’t too hard to drive for Ty. We saw rugged ponies, horses, and fisherman ignoring the weather and the waves. Wild Atlanic Way indeed. I felt wussy and glad for the bourbon crème biscuits and tea waiting for me back at our lodging.

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