I’m partial to the west coast of Ireland for its myriad wonders, which appear in small towns that are hidden like gemstones in neat grids of logic separated by rambling, idle roads. There are worlds within worlds in these Irish small towns: history and lineage and myth and folklore, meaning so resonate and full of discovery the very act of rounding a corner can haunt a person to the bone marrow. I’m a firm believer that the way to the soul of a place is best found on foot; it’s easier to raise your antennae to the uncanny when your feet are grounded, and this is just what I was thinking as I navigated the sidewalk in Kinvara, down to the docks on the water’s edge. There across the bay, deep on the horizon, County Galway stretched in all its heavenly promise. The next day, we’d be driving our rented car the 45 minutes it takes to get to Galway City, but for now there was the lure of County Clare in the opposite direction. My friend and I had decided to make a day of it; we’d make our way slowly to the Cliffs of Moher, for no other reason than it seemed the thing to do, and we’d park the car and explore wherever the fancy struck, along the 49-kilometer route it takes to get to what seems the edge of the known world.
In the town of Kinvara, life teemed around us in all its natural rhythm: pub doors opened to the early fall sunlight, children roamed the streets in navy school uniforms, in pairs and in packs. A man ahead walked two border collies off-leash; they tacked side to side, noses sniffing, rounding back to me for a pet. Up from the docks, as the sidewalk rode the incline, art galleries and shops with T-shirts in their glass fronts reading “I’m a Galway Hooker” beckoned in praise of the town’s claim to fame. In the village center café, two men played vocal one-upmanship in guttural accents that dripped soggy with Guinness. We’d parked the car earlier, across from Dunghaire Castle; we’d already gone a few rounds with our cameras as we stood in the driveway of the accessible fortress, rising from a knoll abutted by water so tranquil it took calisthenics to consider who thought what, when positioning it just so.
Through the Burren, we might have been on the other side of the moon, for all its otherworldly weariness. Though I’d read much of what has been written of the area, I’d never seen it, and its gray desperation felt so inhospitable as to be hospitable, so repellent as to be attractive, so world without end, amen. In the car park of Poulnabrone dolmen, a disheveled man stood bearded behind a card table selling his jewelry. Were it not for the distraction of the couple behind us, my friend and I would probably still be standing there listening to this proud Irishman wax erudite rhapsody on the dolmen’s history and why we had to have one of his handmade commemorative pieces for ourselves. Up the windswept tor, we took turns standing in front of the dolmen while the other took a picture, until the couple behind us snapped us together, freezing us in a time where I can still feel the wind in my hair, the rock beneath my feet, the magic in the air.
Down from the burren, on the road to Doolin, an unmarked tower called my name, and I mean this literally. Were my mother alive, God rest her, she’d tell you she named me after her mother, Claire Crossan, whose family hailed from County Clare. But what she wouldn’t tell you is why she nicknamed me Doona, and my thought has always been she thought Claire was too unwieldy, until I reached a certain age. When pressed, which I did repeatedly, my mother only confessed to making up a baby rhyme with the name Doona, which somehow became my moniker. But my mother was a dyed-in-the-wool American Southerner, which is a breed of cat not in the habit of explaining themselves, ever. So you can imagine the enlightenment and sense of inevitability that descended in a roadside shop later, after we’d stopped the car and traipsed the hillside, coastal property of that crowned tower, which loomed sentry behind a walled enclosure overlooking Doolin Point. There on an aluminum stand beside the cash register, postcards of Doonagore Castle rested at eye level. My friend took one in hand and said, “You’re not going to believe this.” We turned over the uncanniness, all the way to Lisdoonvarna then into Doolin, where the road flowed to a gray-stone bridge over water, and signs on hand-painted easels announced which traditional musicians would be playing that night, in one of the pastel-colored thatched pubs that stand sandwiched together like ducks in a row set in an Irish Disneyland. Walking down the street, there wasn’t a soul who didn’t make eye-contact and extend a “hi-ya,” for such is the way of it on Ireland’s western shore. One aproned woman swept the sidewalk in front of a restaurant and called out, “If you’re on your way to the Cliffs of Moher, you’d be wanting to get a move on. The wind’s rising now; you’ll be wanting to beat it.” “Forewarned is forearmed,” I said to my friend. We got back in the car and went on our way, but it wasn’t without its obstruction. On the side of the road, in front of a cream-colored house, an elderly, yellow retriever lumbered perilously close to the traffic. It took a few blinks for me to register that it wore a long linked chain, tethered to a post too close to the road. I pulled the car in the resident driveway, assessed the problem and knocked on the house door. When no joy came, I called the dog to me and wrapped its leash around the front door, spied a water bowl on the front porch, found a yard hose, and filled the bowl with water.
It was late in the afternoon, by the time we reached the Cliffs of Moher. We climbed the steep, paved road from the carpark to the visitor’s center, took an obligatory circle around inside, then out to O’Brien’s Tower, from which we gazed south and stood in awe-struck wonder, for nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of size, nor the towering majesty of this world’s natural wonder.
“I’m never getting over this,” my friend said. ‘I can’t believe I’m standing here.”
“I can’t either,” I said, “though it occurs to me today has been just as much about the journey as it has been the end.”
Claire Fullerton is the author of "Dancing to an Irish Reel." Visit her at http://www.clairefullerton.com.