By Judy Enright
Special to Boston Irish
When I am asked for advice about traveling around Ireland, I say this: Get out of the car or bus whenever possible! There is so much to see in the cities and countryside once you slow down and let your feet take over.
If you have been to Co. Clare and haven’t visited Aillwee Cave, you have missed a fascinating place. Some years ago, we visited the cave in the Burren in Ballyvaughan. The guided tour is so interesting and the children in our group marveled at the other-worldly shapes of spotlighted stalagmites and stalactites. The young boys loved the darkened passageways and the overall eeriness of being inside a cave, of course. The girls on the tour weren’t quite so enthralled by the spookiness.
A few years ago, I went back – sans kids – to see if I was still a fan of the Aillwee Cave. Again, the guided tour and narrative were fascinating and informative. I enjoyed a homemade snack in the cozy tearoom and a stroll through the well-stocked craft shop in the Cave Access building as I waited for the tour to begin.
The story of the cave’s discovery is so interesting. It seems that Jacko McGann, a Ballyvaughan native and herdsman, followed his dog and discovered the cave in 1940. He explored much of it over the ensuing years but didn’t share his discovery until 1973 when he talked with a group of cavers from Bristol University.
In 1975, the Aillwee Cave Company bought the land and began to create a show cave that could be opened up and made safe to welcome the public. Blasting cleared much of the way through narrow caverns, handrails were installed as was extensive lighting, and a pathway was paved with locally quarried Liscannor flagstone. Parking lots, roads, and a mountain walk were added over the years.
In 1988, Aillwee Cave welcomed its one-millionth visitor!
Down the hill from the cave – and new since my last visit - is an outstanding Birds of Prey Center and a farm shop where you can try some of the award-winning Burren Gold cheeses. I bought two flavors: Nettle with Garlic and Oak Smoked, and both were much enjoyed back at my accommodation.
When you’re at the farm shop, do enjoy the cheeses and check out local produce such as pickles, jams, pesto, oils and spiced vinegars, fudge, jams, and bread mixes. These make nice gifts to take home and I usually pack a jar or two of very well bubble-packed jam inside a shoe in my suitcase to keep it from breaking. I have to say that method has worked well so far.
The show presented at the Birds of Prey Center was well worth the price of admission. Mark Barrett, the presenter on the day I visited, put owls, hawks and an eagle through their paces and talked about the birds and their attributes, diets, and habits. After the show, you can walk through the center and see all sorts of birds of prey – vultures, falcons and many types of owls - in cages that replicate their natural habitats.
Aillwee Cave and the Birds of Prey Center is a fun way to spend a day in Ireland with your family or on your own. For more information, go to aillweecave.ie
KILFENORA and THE BURREN
As I drove around the Burren that spring, I passed through the Co. Clare village of Kilfenora, called “The City of Crosses” for the medieval high crosses at St. Fachtnan’s 12th-century cathedral there. I stopped at The Burren Centre, which is open daily from mid-March to Oct. 31 and depicts and explains the Burren’s flora, fauna, archeology, geology, and architecture. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
I have always been captivated by the magnificent and magical Burren landscape that resembles a moonscape, so an informational center was right up my alley. The center features a 12-minute comprehensive film (offered in many languages) by the brilliant environmentalist and independent film producer Eamon de Buitlear that traces the formation of the Burren some 320 million years ago. The images are absolutely stunning.
After watching the film, I walked through the exhibition, had homemade soup and brown bread in the tearoom, and looked longingly at some of the wonderful items in the craft shop.
More information about the center is available at: theburrencentre.ie
Before you leave Kilfenora, be sure to walk around St. Fachtnan’s Cathedral next door to The Burren Centre. The crosses are truly magnificent and the cathedral is well worth a visit.
WHAT TO DO IN CO. CLARE
While you’re in the area, be sure to:
• Stay at Riverfield House (riverfielddoolin.com) in Doolin for a wonderful B&B experience with a charming and witty owner;
• Take a Cliffs of Moher or Aran Island cruise from the pier in Doolin;
• Listen to music at one of Doolin’s many pubs;
• Stop for delicious fruit jams, marmalades, chutneys, and jellies at the Clare Jam Company just off the coast road in Doolin and try the smoked salmon or send some home from the Burren Smokehouse in nearby Lisdoonvarna;
• Drive the coast road from Doolin to Ballyvaughan to see some of Ireland’s most magical coastal scenery;
• Listen to great jazz at the Doonbeg International Jazz Festival June 3-6. See doonbegjazz.com for details.
There’s a lot to do in Ireland from all kinds of water sports to equestrian activities to cycling, walking, hiking to music and art, garden and museum visits.
The local tourist board (marked with a big green shamrock) is a great source of information about everything from accommodation to activities in the area you’re visiting.
If you’re in Dublin, the Dublin City Council has hundreds of bikes and many bike stands available around the city. Wouldn’t it be fun to see Dublin by bike and not have to worry about finding a parking space or garage for your car?
More interesting things to do in Ireland include:
• A visit to The Glasnevin Cemetery museum in Dublin. The cemetery is the resting place of more than 1.5 million, including patriots Daniel O’Connell, Eamon de Valera, and Michael Collins.
• Achill Island hosts a half marathon and 10K run on July 2, which would be fun to watch. This marathon traditionally attracts thousands of runners. Find more information at: achillmarathon.com.
Enjoy your trip to Ireland whenever you go and don’t forget to check the internet for the latest travel specials. Aer Lingus often offers web deals on flights and ground travel as do other airlines that service Ireland.