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Most tourists flock to County Clare for one of three reasons– the Burren, the cliffs, or to hear traditional Celtic music in the world-famous Doolin or one of the other villages. We had time for only one attraction, and if I hadn’t booked us into a fancy hotel in Clare for the weekend, I would have bailed and stayed in Connemara. A steep cancellation penalty dissuaded me from doing so.

Gregan’s Castle Hotel is featured in the Lonely Planet guidebook in glowing terms. It offers seriously chic cuisine, the kind that has to be described in long paragraphs so you can appreciate exactly what it is you are placing into your mouth. Each plate seems to have been designed by a culinary artist as interested in the overall visual effect as in the actual taste. This is not comfort food. It is like being offered a ride in a Lamborghini when you just want to go for a spin. That said, the hotel is elegant and lovely, looking out over the strangely mesmerizing Burren landscape, a geological bare plate.

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How do you describe the Burren? It is a bizarre, rock-strewn, limestone landscape, scraped bare by glaciers, yet criss-crossed with cracks known as “grykes.” The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment. The limestones formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 350 million years ago. The strata contain fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites.

The Burren is rich with historical and archaeological sites. There are more than 90 megalithic tombs in the area, including portal dolmens as well as a number of ring forts. The grykes (crevices) provide moist shelter, supporting a wide range of plants including dwarf shrubs. Where the surface of the pavement is shattered into gravel, many of the hardier Arctic or Alpine plants can be found. Where the limestone pavement is covered by a thin layer of soil, patches of grass are seen, interspersed with plants like the gentian and orchids.

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Edmund Ludlow, a commander of British forces in Ireland in the 1650’s had this to say about the region: “(Burren) is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.

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While my wife devoted her morning to polishing a paper for a conference in London, I signed up for a boat ride below the magnificent Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs are Ireland’s number one tourist attaction; they receive more than a million tourists a year. They rise 120 metres (390 ft) above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their maximum height of 214 metres (702 ft) just north of O’Brien’s Tower, eight kilometres (five miles) to the north. The cliffs consist mainly of beds of shale and sandstone; the oldest rocks are at the bottom of the cliffs.

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The government saw fit to invest 32 million pounds (nearly fifty million dollars) in a visitors’ centre which purports to explain the “experience,” but for my money, the boat trip below the towering cliffs is far more impressive. Just like our dinner in the bar on the Sunday after all the people who mattered had left Gregans’ Castle. The food was simple, delicious, and needed no explanation at all.

The best things never do.

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“Suddenly a terrifying noise broke the silence; the right-hand engine sounded like a machine gun blazing. The two men were scared stiff. The exhaust pipe of the cylinder facing inwards had split, and the engine was shooting naked flames into the slip-stream. Alcock and Brown remained helpless as the metal turned red hot, melted away and finally started striking the controls in white-hot globules.”

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“As far as Brown was concerned, the only possible way of avoiding a crash was to make a trip out onto the wings. He grabbed a knife and swung his legs out onto the nose. Seeing what he had in mind, Alcock stood up from his seat and tried to hold his companion back. Brown jerked himself free, and, in the blinding snow, he wriggled forward from strut to strut and from cable to cable, holding on with one hand. His left leg caused him difficulty, because it was still stiff from wounds he had received in the war.”

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“The plane plummeted from 4,000 ft. to 1000 ft. and, just above the surface of the water, Alcock gained control of the Vimy. For a fraction of a second he could not believe his eyes–he saw the sea lying vertically, and then with a quick automatic reflex action he straightened out the Vimy and opened the throttles to the full.”

Three brief, terrifying moments in the saga of the very first transatlantic flight from North America to Ireland in less than 72 hours. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten-Brown, a pair of intrepid British airmen, made the crossing on June 14, 1919.

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Following a frighteningly close call with the edge of a forest on takeoff, they flew through hours of dense fog and snow and sleet, encountering engine trouble, radio failure, frozen elevator flaps and other difficulties that were close to catastrophic. When they finally reached the west coast of Ireland, they were so exhausted all they wanted to do was land. Thinking the locals in a radio tower were waving a welcome when they were, in fact, attempting to warn them away from the nearest green patch, the two airmen brought the large, modified Vickers bomber down in a bog.

The men who had watched the Vimy land rushed toward the plane, jumping from one grass tuft to another through the swamp. A man by the name of Taylor was the first to reach the fliers and he asked breathlessly:

“Anybody hurt?”

“No.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

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The news of the adventure spread like wildfire, and there followed for Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Whitten-Brown a hectic round of greetings, receptions, speeches, galas, and banquets. Alcock carried a small linen bag with a bundle of 197 letters. These were rushed to the nearest post office, where they were franked and forwarded (airmail stamps not yet having been invented). The letters had made the long journey from Lester’s Field near St. John’s, Newfoundland, to London in record time.

Only six months later, twenty-seven year old Captain Alcock would crash-land once more in bad weather, this time on the way to an air show in Paris in a new Vickers plane. He would not survive. His days of glory would be far too brief. When Lindbergh made his historic flight eight years later, he gave Alcock and Brown credit “for showing the way.”

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Nearly a century later, our journey from Melbourne, Australia to Clifden, Ireland (a journey of some 11,000 miles) was dead easy by comparison. On the giant planes taking us from Australia to England, with a quick hop to Dublin, our only quibble was with the quality of the cuisine and the comfort of the seats.

Our road trip obstacles were frustrating but minor– the tricky roundabouts getting through the city of Galway. Innumerable road repairs on the windy road from Galway to the coast. I agreed to rent a GPS unit, knowing full well that its suggestions might be way off, but at least it would know where we were. Brown couldn’t even see the stars during their incredibly long night.

The M4 and M6 motorways are a dream, soaking up the kilometers, lulling you into thinking that getting around Ireland will be easy and quick. Once you leave the motorways behind, you get a sense of the real, rural Ireland. The roads are narrow, often lined with hedges which make it difficult to see what is coming around the next curve.

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The Connemara countryside is stark and beautiful, and any serious attempt to keep to a timetable will be an exercise in frustration. This is Ireland, after all. There must be time for talk and time for Guinness and time for music. Faul House in Clifden is a wonderfully hospitable B&B and most of Kathleen’s guests soon become regulars.

The weather we encountered was spectacular sunshine, an anomaly in Ireland any time of year. I had attempted to pack in too much sightseeing for the short stay we had in Ireland, so we drove the beautiful Sky road instead of cycling or walking; we had an abbreviated visit to Kylemore Abbey, and didn’t even get to the fishing village of Roundstone. There are many reasons to return. Connemara deserves at least a month, not a pair of days. Everything in Ireland should be approached slowly, with care and appreciation, like a good whiskey.

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If you have to crash a bomber into a bog, you could do a lot worse than Clifden. Stay tuned, We’re off to County Clare.


It seemed like only yesterday I swore that there was no way I would board another long flight before the annual migration to Nova Scotia at the end of May. Yet, here I am, recuperating from the effects of another long-distance journey back to Europe. This time, it was Dublin and London calling, with a loud whisper from Hong Kong, a visit with a son I hadn’t seen in ages and the chance to meet his wife and the new baby.

I will not admit how long it has been since my last trip to Ireland. Suffice it to say that the country was even poorer then than it is now. There were no flash cars careening around the countryside. The nearest anyone could get to a BMW was Germany. I was hitch hiking around the island, which seemed to be something of a novelty at the time.

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I had a cute French girlfriend, and even with my scruffy appearance, it was dead easy getting a ride. Going anywhere was another matter altogether. I remember one tractor driver in particular. “I’ll be going as far as the next village. It’s only a mile, mind you, but you’re welcome to a ride on the wagon. Don’t mind the smell. You won’t notice it after awhile.”

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During the long, dark nights we spent in London last year, we watched some excellent BBC documentaries on a very small, but sharp television set. One that impressed me with its research and visuals was about bronze-age Britain. Some of the finest artifacts came from Ireland, thanks to that wonderfully effective preservative– the bog. Guinness is only a runner up, preserving many Irish livers but little else. Many of the early celtic artifacts are held at the National Museum of Ireland’s history and archeology building on Kildare Street.

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Then there is the Book of Kells, a major attraction in the wonderful Long Room at Trinity College. And the astonishing collection of Chester Beatty, a mining engineer from New York who did very well for himself, turning a collection of snuff bottles into a priceless collection of ancient manuscripts from all the most important world religions.

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We were staying at O’Callaghan’s, a lovely old hotel that used to be a bank. Not a block away was Merrion Square, where Oscar Wilde sprawls on a rock with unseemly ease, starring at the bottom of Lord Douglas while his pregnant wife, Constance glares at him reproachfully over her shoulder. A short walk away is St. Stephen’s Green, the wonderful bust of James Joyce, a statue of W.B Yeats, among many other artworks.

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While my spouse attended to her business in Dublin, I carried on the duties of a museum-loving tourist, hitting the National Gallery of Art, a photographic archive, as well as a Trinity College, a few bridges across the Liffey, and, of course, several restaurants and pubs.

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It is hard to tread the streets of Dublin without seeing it through the rich filter of literature. Trinity College conjured up my early days in Paris, when I stumbled across a copy of “The Ginger Man” at Shakespeare and Company. J.P. Donleavy’s antic tale of Sebastian Dangerfield’s messy married life and endless battles with his creditors still holds up.

“You hear them downstairs when Marion’s out to shop, knocking hard on the door. And it can’t stand it. And they never stop the damn knocking and some try to push it in. O the fear of them coming up and me naked, my dignity wilts and it’s a poor enough weapon defending debts…. Marion not standing up to it very well….Mousy blonde hair, hanging over her head like sauerkraut. Silence got her. If she breaks a blood vessel, the doctors and expense will be something terrible.”

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A bonus for me was the chance to catch up with an old friend from L.A., his mom and aunt, for drinks and dinner, as well as an invite from a former colleague of my wife, now Governor of the Bank of Ireland. Needless to say, he has a rather nice office. Fortunately, I had my cameras along.

Stay tuned, We’re off to Connamara.

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