She’d been almost desperately chirpy up until this point. Effecting the typical bubbly repertoire of the local girl acting as a tourist guide, she had that Stepford Wife, house-proud air as she marched us cheerily over a crest to reveal the Cliffs of Moher’s ball-dropping, 1000ft fall to the angry Atlantic below. Yep, she was all sunshine. Until she spotted the Germans.
“So bloody … it’s so stupid … why are they so stupid?” The words hissed low and smooth with the sea spray as they left her lips. She had temporarily forgotten her brood of tourists there, within earshot. Following her eye, I spotted them, too – about seven or eight khaki-shorted, pastel-shirted, canvas-hatted offenders. Even though they were close, they were hardly visible through the burning cloud of spray that filled the air to a kilometre above sea level – spray that had made the precarious, sloping edge they were standing on alarmingly slippery.
There it was: six inches of slick, sloping rock separating these suburban twits from their utter oblivion. And they were just there, stumbling about, fixing their hats because, you know, it was windy up there.
Gollum, who our tour guide had come to resemble, suddenly took charge of her demeanour. It’s so dangerous, isn’t it?” she giggled falsely. “And so many of them fall right off.” Given my burning hatred at the sight of these idiots, that was great news. “How many?” I asked, trying to act concerned, but actually sounding excited. She replied with an equally guilty excitement: “A few years ago I saw eight just like that go over one by one. The first one went, then the others tried to grab on and they all went. The wind was blowing out over the cliffs towards the sea. That’s when it’s the most dangerous time.” I saw a flash in her eye.
The locals must hate the idiot tourists here. Busloads are dropped off every few minutes at the souvenir shop 300 metres down a dirt track from the edge of the cliffs. They ignore the souvenirs and go in for a quick pee, regroup, then march up that track and proceed to ignore the safety fences and lookouts that run parallel to the edge. Mothers, children, teenage boys, the young, the old, the sick and infirm all mingle on the edge – and then just stand there fixing their hats because, you know, the wind.
Almost every guidebook on Ireland includes a shot of the Cliffs of Moher. Some are impressive but most lack a sense of scale. The cliffs are heartbreakingly daunting. Giant natural ramparts against the aggressive might of the Atlantic Ocean with a single poppy seed – the lonely stone sceptre of O’Brien’s Tower – perched on its centre edge. Like a pin scratch, the walking trail weaves along the edge of the cliffs – and on this pin scratch are the people. It’s a landscape where people shrink into insignificance.
The cliffs, also known as the Great Wall of Thomond, are best appreciated from the tower – you can spy the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, The Twelve Pins and The Maum Turk Mountains to the north, in Connemara, and Loop Head to the south. Loosely interpreted, this means you can see a bunch of great big, muscly rocks rising up out of the sea. It’d be a great place to just sit and think, to disappear amid the enormity of it all – but for the plumes of idiots emanating from the buses.
A defeated hypocrite, I get back on our own tour bus and begin the 25-minute inland trek to Aillwee Cave, perhaps the oldest cave system in Ireland and a relatively secret attraction, safe from the buzz of Continental accents that are cutting up the coast.
Aillwee sits in the north-east of County Clare near Ballyvaughan and is still one of the few caves which shows the true haunting features of Clare underground – massive caverns, stalactites, subterranean rivers – while being a showcave that has been tamed for the public with the fitting-out of walkways, bridges and friendly lighting.
From the outset, it’s fairly typical fare: the cave entrance is sunk into a man-made harbour of souvenir shops (you can buy bags of fool’s gold for £1), information points and food kiosks. Queueing for the cave tour is an experience akin to lining up for The Snowy River Rampage at Australia’s Wonderland – that whirr of childish excitment that sanitised adventure brings. Good, stupid fun.
Inside, a labyrinth of low snaking passageways cut far into Aillwee Hill while becoming gradually lower and narrower as they reach the warm bowels of Clare. As the roof finally opens up, the first chamber is revealed – a long, sepia-toned cathedral with a single deep imprint on the earth floor where a hibernating bear once slept out the winter – 12,000 years ago. Behind it lies 210 metres of shimmering stalactites and bridges spanning wild, undeground waterfalls.
Aillwee Cave was originally an underground river fed by the melting snows of the Ice Age. The river dried up as the ice retreated, leaving the cave as it is now. The original show cave has three chambers: Bear Haven, Mud Hall and the Cascade Chamber. Beyond the tunnel, into the new cave, the passages become much larger. The show cave ends where the floor falls steeply at the beginning of the Highway, a straight passage 90m long and 20m high – one of the largest caverns in Ireland.
But along with the besieged Cliffs of Moher, Aillwee is ultimately a novelty stop for travellers on a mission to escape the pubs and pissheads of Limerick City for the day in order to take in the ancient, sea-burned countryside of western Ireland.
The scenery, with its rock candy houses dotted across rolling green paddocks on the edge of the cold Atlantic, is mesmerising. Foreign and unfathomable, it’s the Ireland of childhood picture books. Charming, but jeez the pint and conversation go down a treat back among the buzz and bravado of Limerick. An experience of equal parts, then.”