Office Adventures 2 The Burren
We were moving through the countryside, following a road buried into the natural valleys of the area. On ground level the landscape is a mess of long grass and scattered stone. Allow your eyes to wander up and they’ll get lost in the clouds just like the peaks of the region, on this day shrouded with low lying cover. The roads adhere to the landscape and not the other way round. Every few minutes you’ll be turning around a new bend, finding a new sight. There are no trees and very little green the closer you get to the coast, all the trimmings of the earth are worn away and you’re on pure stone for the rest of your stay. The Burren is a hard place, but a beautiful one too.
It was raining the day team Educated Machine set out to explore it and I couldn’t help but feel that precipitation suited the place. Even on a bright day I’d imagine it could be described as a moody place, on a dark day though I think we found it in its element. We are in the West of Ireland after all, which would remind you of Atlantis at times.
Micheal, Darren, Ruth and myself had decided to check out some caves but we weren’t sure which ones as we made our way south. The ruins of Caislean Sean Muckinish, as I later learned they were called, didn’t help with our indecisiveness as it related to our final destination, though we were pretty sure we were heading to Aliwee. The aforementioned ruins are slumped at the beach of a small inlet just off the main road. They’re completely open to wander about, and pregnant with mystery. I’ve only been able to dig up the name and the time of construction for the place, the 1400’s, and thats all I really want to know for definite. The site itself is fairly striking, one lone wall is left standing facing east while the rest of the structure is either crumbled or crumbling westward. The walls left standing still contain the voids where windows were housed making it possible to take in the view once afforded by them. The ground floor of the tower house is accessible and is left with its ceiling. The first floor is reachable too, though how the original tenants ascended to it I don’t know as we had to climb the broken stonework itself to get up there. Its impressive just how much of the place is left. Pieces of decorative stonework and plaster are still intact despite taking a regular battering from the elements they’re left to brave. The lone tower wall itself doesn’t even look to be going anywhere fast though, failing a tsunami or some such disaster its probably got another century left in it, should you want to visit yourself.
Our conversation turned to the people who inhabited the place 600 years ago, and what they must have made of everything before us. When it was being built and first lived in the “New World” wasn’t yet known to Europe. The Atlantean horizon must’ve either made people ache with an urge to explore or given them a deep fear of the unknown. Mythical islands like Hy Brasil and Tir Na Nog were said to be out there waiting to be found, Hy Brasil even appeared on maps up until the 1800’s such was the strength of its legend. After a bout of wonder we then devolved to throwing boulders into the water for a while, because for some reason thats fun and really satisfying.
We moved on, still unsure whether we were going to Aliwee or Doolin cave, but sure we’d end up in a cave at some point. We swung down to Doolin village itself though for some food. Doolin is one of those strange places in the middle of nowhere that offer gourmet lunches that one might assume you’d only find in some metropolis. Outside the eatery Darren found some intricate stonework that he, for a second, thought maybe held the key to finally finding Hy Brasil but then decided he’d rather be in out of the rain. Naturally as we were in Doolin, we decided we’d go to the Aliwee caves because being awkward is fun.
It actually turned out to be a great choice though as it meant we had to traverse the coast road to the caves, and this is one of those areas where the “journey not the destination” cliché rings true. As we moved on it became obvious to us that the very edge of the island or Ireland itself is laid bare for all to explore so stop and explore we did.
Treacherous is a word I learned the meaning of while standing on the cliffs of Clare. When approaching from the road you’ll first cross crabgrass and then you’ll be walking on bare stone that seems to be eroding in real time. There were curious holes everywhere, all filling up with rainwater. As you approach the edge the ground seems like its being torn apart under your feet. Fissures cut deep and wide, looking like some great giant has been hacking away at the ground with an axe for years, constantly paring the rocks down. I’m sure from above it looks like Jupiter’s moon Europa, scarred from eons of environmental wear and tear. We all approached the edge in turn for a glimpse of the drop. Its quite a sight too, a sheer rock wall that descends sharply into the water constantly crashing up against it. If you fall here, you’re dead. Which is why we all took turns shouting at each other for getting too close to the edge. Looking down, its intoxicating. There’s a fear of falling and an urge to jump all mixed together. You also feel fine doing it yourself, but its terrifying watching other people do it because you know what’s going through their head. Its also hard to forget, that today could be the day the piece of cliff you’re standing on finally surrenders itself to the sea.
Obviously we didn’t die and just got back on the road to continue some office adventures, on the way to Aliwee, we stopped in a tiny hamlet so I could grab some snacks. What’s funny though, is that this village and its shop seemed stuck in a rather specific time period. Not the 1700’s, 1800’s or 1900’s but somewhere around 2004 as it still had that years releases for rent on VHS in store. On a personal note, I’ve always been a huge nerd for film, and that love started on VHS which is a medium I still have a lot of affection for. In my mothers house I still have a large stash of tapes I’ll rummage through whenever I’m home and honestly some of my favourite memories from childhood are of hanging out in video shops and poring through old and new releases. It might seem trivial but it was quite special to me, I only wish they had Hellraiser and Commando on the shelves too.
We pushed on towards the caves, making yet another stop to investigate what seemed to be a mini church at the side of the road that also purported to be part of the county Clare municipal waterworks. It was a curious little structure, it looked like the top of some great Cathedral poking out of the earth with its distinctive stonework. Instead of a floor there was a small pool filled with crystal clear running water. In one corner also there was what seemed to be a little shrine filled with spent candles dug into the wall. Ireland is weird.
We were finally, definitley heading for the Aliwee Caves at this point. Follwing distractions though was worthwhile as we ended up on a spectacular stretch of road. Just a few feet from the edge of the island itself the road chases up and down the west coast dodging incoming water and rolling hillsides in equal measure while allowing both to provide incredible views. Upon getting to the caves we all immediately started bumbling around the reception area, taking in the immense melange of green goods for visitors to purchase in remembrance of their trip to and inside the island of Ireland. One of the staff members was surprised to hear we were only down from Galway and not further afield, which probably means not as many locals visit the place as they should.
The actual history and geology of the Aliwee Caves are better recorded by experts on the subject so I’m just going to note some personal reflections. When entering the cave mouth you’re overcome by darkness, but when your eyes become acclimated to your surroundings start to make sense. It was refreshing to see how rough and haphazard the place was on the inside, I was really hoping it wouldn’t be a place where all the sharp edges were removed. There is a narrow concrete path for you to follow as you venture in but the walls around you keep you on your toes. Solid stone protrudes wherever it pleases and visitors have to play by the caves rules as they explore. The place is full of interesting features such as hollows that once sheltered bears though prehistoric winters and waterways that would otherwise be hidden from view. Indeed, it seems that the caves and all its features are part of a usually unseen world that the rest of us trod around on top of oblivious. When we reached the middle point of the tour the lights were turned out so we could experience the total darkness offered by the depths. That far inside the earth there is no ambient light what so ever. Its a pure, abyssal, inky space. You could be anywhere and nowhere and if it were up to me I’d have stayed there a while longer. According to the guide its a form of complete sensory deprivation and you can go slowly insane as a result of it so maybe its for the best. Once the lights came back on we were guided though more twisted tunnels and past a waterfall or two before ending our stay in a mud caked hall that fills up with water quite frequently.
On our way out of the grounds we stopped off at the cheese mongers housed on the Aliwee grounds. Though we were more interested in the fudge. The fudge they make and sell there is weapons grade stuff. I was nearly on sugar overload from the samples they offered, which were quite generous. Still, I decided to be brave and bought a half bar of the Salted Caramel. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a potent sucrose experience. The fudge was of course delicious, but I felt like I’d need to chase it down with a shot of insulin.
We were actually well on our way towards getting home after our underground sojourn much to the approval of wheelwoman Ruth when it was mandated that we needed to stop at another castle. This time it was Dungaire castle in Kinvara, which is in a much better state than our first stop. It seemed be open to tourists, but we’d arrived late and weren’t able to get inside the building itself. The grounds are incredibly well preserved, the main tower house and adjoining courtyard retain a healthy wear and tear while still looking tough enough to last a few more generations. It was built in the 1500’s, so it was fascinating to consider that the first castle we stopped at may have already been in a state of disrepair while the original tenants were first moving into this one. At this point into the day the sun finally punched through the clouds and everything seemed refreshed. Once again the conversation turned back to the people who originally inhabited the place, and with further reflection it seems like this entire trip was all centered around exploring the common ground we share with the past. Be it the landlords of the 1500’s or the wild bears who stalked the coast during the Ice Age. It’s really something to be able to explore these layers of human existence and reach out and touch pieces of the past that seem so far out of reach.
So, with all areas of interest exhausted we pushed on towards home. The hills settled into a flatter landscape, the roads became straighter and the infrastructure of modern life started to gradually load in and remove the feeling of remoteness we went in search of. Back in Galway we all went our separate ways. Though of course only for a short while as we needed to get back to work and grind into our desks as soon as possible.
Oh and we also got to meet Darren’s dog. She is dangerously adorable.