Life Travel

Ireland's wild, wonderful west

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

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DOOLIN, Ireland -- "No tree to hang a man, nor water to drown him, nor soil to bury him," complained one of Oliver Cromwell's men who came to The Burren four centuries ago from England in vain pursuit of Irish "rebels."

But our travelling band found the same geography had much more sight and sensory appeal. Enveloped in the mist of O'Brien's Tower, 215 metres above the Cliffs of Moher, or surrounded by cracked limestone slabs with geraniums bravely poking skyward, this was perfect setting for cottages, livestock and of course, O'Connor's Pub.

This excursion to the West country was the main course of a Railtours Ireland trip that began via train from Dublin. After a sumptuous Irish breakfast, black pudding included, the emerald countryside unwound for about 90 minutes towards Limerick. Switching to bus mode, we toured the town made famous in the novel Angela's Ashes and on to 600-year-old Bunratty Castle.

Bunratty's Great Hall, where the Earl of Thormond occupied the throne-like Chair of Estate, is filled with medieval furniture from across Europe. Mind your footing up the spiral stones of the north solar to the Earl's apartment with its thick table salvaged from a Spanish Armada wreck.

In the day, ladies were often confined to watching Hall proceedings from spy holes high in the solars, which now allow ideal overhead views of long banquet benches, tapestries, chandeliers, cabinets and stained glass. Some windows have 1,000-year-old fertility symbols etched in them.

Outside in the Bunratty Folk Park, time flashes forward through the centuries with a reconstructed blacksmith's forge, weaver's shed, farmhouse and fisherman's hut, right up to 19th century village shops.

Driving deeper into County Clare, The Burren revealed itself in full glory. Translating in Irish as "Great Rock," the Burren covers about 250-sq-km.

As its smooth limestone was eroded by wind and rain, both in ample supply out here, thin deep cracks formed caves and allowed a rainbow of flowers to thrive far from their natural abode in mountains and temperate climates.

Western Ireland is also rife with bright gold rhododendron bushes and the odd fairy tree. Believers still attach personal effects to the branches for good fortune. Peat bogs, where well-preserved bodies from 500 B.C. were discovered in 2003, still yield archeological treasures trapped for centuries.

The Burren ends dramatically, dropping into the Atlantic along the 8-km stretch of the Cliffs of Moher, both UNESCO recognized as a global geo-park. The 300-million-year-old cliff face is said to be the second most visited in the world after Gibraltar. The visitors' centre explains its history, topography, four-legged life and 20 different species of birds.

The tour ends in lively Galway, with an option to return by rail to Dublin or stay overnight and further explore the region. Choosing the latter, we did the "Connemara Loop" the next day, a figure-eight road north of Galway in a mountainous district that includes a national park and fjord.

As we drove, keeping time with Irish ballads, sure-footed Black Head sheep jumped clear of us on narrow roads, scrambled up the side of rocky out-crops and watched us depart.

Cows graze just a few feet from the lapping ocean, near crude stone markers of mass graves from the Potato Famine in the mid-19th century. Roughly half of the one million deaths linked to "The Great Hunger" were children under 12.

Two noteworthy movies were filmed in this area, The Field (1990) in Leenane, where a plaque outside Gaynor's Pub recognizes Richard Harris, John Hurt and the cast. Further north in Cong, John Ford won one of his best director Oscars with a young John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man (1952).

The afternoon was a two-hour stop at Kylemore, a castle, abbey and walled-garden built in the 1860s by local politician Mitchell Henry. Majestically set into the shore of a remote mountainside lake, King Edward VII was one of its visitors and once hoped to buy it. But when Henry's wife died prematurely, it passed to the Duke of Manchester, then an order of Benedictine nuns, whose abbey in Belgium had been destroyed in World War One.

The first two floors of the residence are open and some of its 33 bedrooms, but the Victorian gardens and nearby hiking trails make a satisfying full-day outing.

Night or day, Galway has its own charms, a university town of 75,000 in what is already one of the youngest countries in Europe. The "City of Tribes" fiercely protects its Irish language and heritage, having once suffered greatly under English rule. Eyre Square is handy to out-of-town transport, shopping, dining and the pedestrian mall around the Latin Quarter. Galway also prides its stronger musical bonds.

Irish stew, Galway salmon or meals at many international diners go down nicely with a Guinness, Harp or Jameson's whiskey, watching musicians gather at pubs such as Tigh Fox, Taaffe's and Tigh Neactain.

Reason enough to return to this corner of Ireland again and again.

NEED TO KNOW

-- Aer Lingus flies direct between Toronto and Dublin.

-- Contact info@railtoursireland.com for details on various day trips and ireland.com for travel information and ideas.