Up the stunning R478 coastal road, full of scoops and cuts, pleats and tucks, bights and coves, where the cold Atlantic is engaged in its never-ending battle with the rocky shore: By mid-afternoon, we pull into "The Cliffs of Insanity," as so aptly termed in The Princess Bride. Née The Cliffs of Moher, they are the most visited outdoor site in country and were short-listed for one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature (but didn't make the final cut). Beyond the capacious car park there is one spectral man-made structure overlooking the 702-foot-high cliffs, a gray tower built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O'Brien, a descendent of the first High King of Ireland. He erected the phallus-like lookout ostensibly to impress potential mistresses, though word is they were more impressed by the view than by the lord they privately called Corny.
Just beyond the huge grim pawn is the precipice. It's one of those places that makes you dizzy and disoriented looking at birds flying below, and it attracts the crazies. Some mountain bikers snuck a ride along a narrow ledge for a few yards and posted it on the internet as "The Most Terrifying Mountain Biking Trail On Earth."
And the day before our visit an American woman posted a fake image of Jesus Christ on the cliffs, and punked a web audience into belief. (Earlier in the summer I visited Medjugorje in Bosnia where over a million pilgrims a year flock to see the site where a group of local kids supposedly saw the Virgin Mary in 1981, so I don't underestimate the tourism potential in these sightings and have seriously considered announcing an apparition in my backyard.) Extreme surfers often tempt fate in the 40-foot-high Aileen wave below. Hollywood drove a Mercedes off the cliffs (for the pre-digital Paul Newman-vehicle, The Mackintosh Man.) Someone recently did a Michael Jackson and hung his baby over the edge. Then there are the suicides. Our guide refuses to share the numbers, but it is safe to say this is the Golden Gate of Ireland. She does offer that there have been "29 known interventions."
We're now squarely in The Burren (from Boireann, a rocky place), a dusky karst surface that looks like the maria of the moon, with not a high-rise in sight. "Sorry, there are no high-rises," edifies our guide Ciarán, "We came too late to money, and they block out the sun."
Late afternoon we're feeling high tea, so pull into the Burren Smokehouse, amusingly decorated with a leaping mosaic salmon at the entrance, large story tiles on the outside and inside walls depicting the Irish saga of the "Salmon of Knowledge." It's a chipper shop spilling with curios, including a publication that would only sell well in rural Ireland or New Zealand: a pin-up calendar of sheep. "Let's go have some craic," proprietor Peter Curtin suggests, offering up a nosh of freshly smoked salmon on toast.
Then he reveals the mythology behind his theme. An ordinary salmon ate some hazelnuts that fell from the Tree of Wisdom and in so doing gained all the knowledge in the world. Moreover, the first person to eat of its flesh would, in turn, gain this knowledge. A poet then caught the salmon and gave it to his servant to cook, instructing him not to eat a whit of it. The servant cooked the salmon with care, but when he touched the fish with his thumb to see if it was ready, he burned his finger on a drop of hot fat. Immediately he sucked on his burned finger, and -- whoosh -- he possessed the noosphere. Yet with all the hindsight of history, he lacked sufficient foresight, apparently, to warn of the real estate iceberg Ireland hit in 2008. It's a craic story nonetheless, Peter says. Ciarán adds the only difference between Iceland and Ireland is one letter and six months.
Still, Ireland is optimism in action. We settle into a guesthouse in Doolin, but Didrik wants to sup down the road at O'Connor's Pub, as his great Aunt is an O'Connor and he wants to lay claim. Gus O'Connor says it's been a family operation since 1834 and has strong ties to Irish Americans, especially policemen, and he shows off what may be the largest collection of police patches in the world, all dispatched by Paddys in the various precincts around America. "It's all mad craic," he beams between unstinting sips of Bushmills Black Bush.
Up the arrestingly empty Ballyvaughan Road, the feeling of spaciousness is thrilling and comforting at the same time, as there is nothing to crack into. Our next stop is The Poulnabrone Dolmen ("Hole of the Sorrows"), a megalithic tomb dating from about 3,500 BC, looking like an oversized stone stool for the dead. Excavations in the 1980s found at least 22 adults and children buried here, along with a polished stone axe, a bone pendant, quartz crystals, weapons and pottery. A low cloud seems to push down the flat top, and the baleful effect is all the more as it has started raining cobblers' knives, the first precipitation since we've arrived. "It only rained twice last week," Ciarán slags, "once for three days and then once for four days."
To seek shelter we decide to go potholing, Irish for spelunking, at the nearby Aillwee Cave, what they call a keyhole cave for the shape of its entrance, and the feeling you get of spying on another world. Nuala MulQueeney, the director, says we're not the only ones to find refuge here: It used to be a bear haven. About 1,400 years ago some European brown bears (now extinct) escaped the winter cold in this climate-controlled grotto -- it's a constant 50 degrees down here -- but apparently never came out, as a pile of bear bones lie in a scallop by the path. Nula suggests this may have been the last bear den in Ireland.
Beyond the bones it's a garishly lit underworld, like a themed frat party, but an exciting moment is when Nuala turns off the lights for the total darkness experience. Having crawled a few caverns, I would say that with the lights off, if you've seen one cave, you've seen them all. One guide shows us a stalagmite that he says has been carbon dated as 7,000 years old, and then he traces his finger down the cone to mark certain eras: "Here is when the Greeks built the Parthenon," he swipes a line about mid-section. "And here is when the Egyptians built the pyramids," as he pulls an invisible line further down the shaft. And then he drops his finger near the base, "and here is when Mick met Keith Richards."
Evolving out of the cave, we make our way to the cultural hill village of Cnoc Suain ("Restful Hill"), where the motto is "Bíonn siúlach scéalach" ("The traveller has tales to tell") -- or sings and plays music, in our case. We happen into a traditional jam session with the legendary Mary Bergin on tin whistle (the instrument some hold responsible for making the Titanic sound track the bestselling of all time), Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh on Bodhran drum (he was a solo in Riverdance for four years and one of the groundbreakers in the musical vocabulary of the instrument) and Steve Sweeney lilting, which is a kind of mouth music along the lines of a Gaelic Bobby McFerrin. It's a lively session by a blazing peat fire, with the easy language of Irish whiskey flowing blithely.
When the music stops, co-proprietor Charlie Troy offers to show me his bog. A former teacher in botany and geology, Charlie preserves a keen interest in wet earth. His backyard is an impressive and ancient expanse, flat as a floor, festooned with gorse, for peat's sake. He compares this Atlantic blanket bogland to the Amazon rainforest, as it absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide and, when compromised, it contributes to climate change. He instructs that peat, or turf as it's known here, grows about a millimeter a year. About 90% water, it's a remarkable preservative: Plunging an iron rod, taller than me, down through the sloshy ground to bedrock, he says we have descended through 2,000 years of time.
Just as the sands of the Sahara, if blown away, reveal pyramids and temples, if we could roll back this blanket we would find evidence of early civilizations. Manuscripts from the 9th century, in mint condition, were unearthed here. And he says a murdered male school teacher was found 24 years after the crime, though condition was not so mint.
We head back to the thatched cottage, where Dearbhaill Standún, the other proprietor of Cnoc Suain, is baking Irish Soda Bread and reciting Gaelic poetry in dulcet tones, a combination that sets the heart aflutter and inspires more whiskey.
At this point we're feeling pretty ripe, and not ready for bed, so we blow into the nearby Padraicins Pub, where a couple of teenage girls, arms pressed to their sides, are jigging various Michael Flatley moves for a group of Americans on an Elderhostel bus tour. The tour group seems jet-lagged, and not particularly inspired by the step dancing (though a few are coaxed to the floor to flail with the lasses), but for us it is positively foot-stomping, and on a break we ask the girls what they think of their hobby.
"It's super craic!" they giggle, before they twinkle back to the wooden floor for another round.
Read part three of this series.