Sean Mallory recounts his family visit to the Burren. Sean Mallory hails from County Tyrone.
At least once a year my family and I make the four and half hour to five hour pilgrimage by car to the Burren area of Co Clare for a weeks’ holidaying, a most welcomed sojourn away from the madding crowd of life. A time to switch off and forget the world and all its woes.
The ‘king in waiting to the British throne’, Prince Charles, recently visited here but not of his own choosing. That decision was made by the British State in agreement with the Irish Foreign Office ... diplomacy. Nevertheless, unlike his historical predecessors who condemned the native Irish to live and die on such harsh landscapes, he uttered thoughtful words of his wonder at this barren rock.
A journey’s route devoid of the modern motorways, which were driven through the Irish countryside without care or consideration for what went before or what will remain after, and all for the expediency of commerce. Certainly not built to hasten the Mallorys’ journey!
But we tend to avoid these tediously boring roads, with their bland blue signs emblazoned with soulless information and a god damn hard shoulder that follows you everywhere!!!! Road numbers now replace names as the age of the sat nav takes over. And so, with sat nav off we opt for the old primary routes that have existed for decades and which take the traveller on a more ‘picturesque’ route through multiple towns and villages of various counties. Of go the Mallory family, ging, gang, goolying their way down through Ireland.
Thus these primary routes not only provide the driver as he passes through each town and village with a mental tick box of what towns and villages remain and the distance covered and yet to cover but also unintentionally provide him with a more realistic picture of the state of the Irish rural economy. And not least if required, a potential re-supply point for essentials like crisps and drinks that unlike the same products for sale in motorway service stations, they don’t cost half a month’s salary!
As we journey along, the omnipresent travel bag of boiled sweets of varying striped flavours is produced from time to time. A bag that seems to be bottomless and always half full. These I simply crunch my way through much to the ire of my wife who expects them to last the whole journey.
Those counties that exude the utmost economic health and prosperity tend to be along the British border and for obvious well-known reasons, that I have no intention of even attempting to explain as to why. If you don’t get it now, then you never will. But as you travel further into the West it becomes poignantly clear that all is not well and that government cuts and taxes have all had a detrimental effect on the people. Shop fronts once retained to a high standard have now been let go. The spare cash is just not there to pay for minor repairs or upkeep such as a fresh lick of paint – things are tight.
By the half-way point which is actually closer to our destination than further away from it, we stop to take a welcome break of 30 minutes to an hour for a bite to eat and a stretch of the legs, necessitated by the sounds of boredom emanating from our travelling companions in the back seat – the kids.
Usually, our break consists of a pre-packed picnic of an assortment of foods ranging from ‘man’ sandwiches made by my own hand and whose contents usually have the nutritional value similar to eating a 50 pence piece, or wraps for the kids, prepared by their mum and full to the brim of nutritional value...not as tasty as the ‘man’ sandwiches though.
Pork pies and/or Scotch eggs for the boys which draws a rebuke from their Mum as the wraps are set aside for these little bad boy delights, more crisps, fizzy drinks (we are on holidays after all), and a flask of well brewed tea but as frequent as is the case, we have forgotten to pack a spare cup. We’ve done this so many times that it has become a standard family joke. And as always, it’s my cup that we have left behind ... go figure that one!
Our journey ends at Corofin, Corrofin or Coroffin, depending on what direction you enter the village and what sign post you read. A quirk of the Irish, or as one local put it to me, “sure you’re here now and that’s all that matters” ... I suppose they’re right!
Corofin is a typical small Irish village. A main street punctuated with emporiums of fine wines and spirits whose sprawl is checked by family run businesses such as the butchers and the coiffeur outlets and the ubiquitous Centra store. Some of these drinking houses are only open part-time or closed most of the time. Very few are open full time as there just isn’t the population to sustain them anymore. Who would ever have thought that a bar would close in Ireland due to lack of clientele!
A village population depleted by emigration that has seen a noticeable gulf appear in its age groups. The youth have mostly upped sticks and gone, only to return for family weddings or funerals or for short sojourns such as our own.
Due to its myriad of loughs, turloughs and rivers that flow around it, Corofin is hailed as an angler’s paradise and is visited by many would be anglers from all areas of the globe. It sits on the edge of the Burren but to me, like all the villages around there, kilnaboy, Kilfinora, Lisdoonarna, Ballyvaughan, Tubber or Carron, it is very much part of the Burren. The locals are very friendly, considerate and polite and are quite used to us ‘tourists’ and our distracting traits and who can be differentiated from the locals by our designer outdoor clothing.
Where the tourist perceives beauty and mystery, the local, through familiarity sees a contemptible stone or a landscape devoid of any potential marketable value but a contempt that all too often hides their own admiration!
It is strange, but how many beautiful places are outside our own doors and how many times have we actually visited these but which we can dismiss with a demeaning wave of the hand or a lash of the tongue, and yet, when the occasion arises, we can talk enthusiastically about them all!
My wife’s aunt’s house is our destination, a mile outside the village on the edge of Lough Inchiquin on a wooded hill and part of the locale known as Clifden. We are always greeted with a very warm welcome and a melancholic goodbye. It was here, my wife, spent her childhood holidaying and a place she introduced me to over 20 years ago and for which I am eternally grateful ... the woes of my world don’t penetrate the limestone of the Burren!
Every year since my introduction to this harsh and beautifully mystic landscape I promised myself I would take a day aside and walk the Burren. But due to other holidaying demands and commitments it was only this year that I, along with my three children, in an attempt to distract them from their technological infatuation with the ipad and a game called Minecraft, made a concerted effort to do just that.
My wife gladly waved us of having excused her absence from the expedition by mumbling words about it would be good bonding exercise for me and the boys and that she had other things to do......mmmm, bonding indeed. I was completely unaware that I was lacking in ‘father to son’ bonding. But ‘she who has to be obeyed’ had spoken and who am I to question that. Still scepticism abounded.
Such ridiculous scepticism was quickly dismissed by our youngest who declared the day to be a boy’s day out. The excitement rose. With rainproof summer coats tied around the waste and backpacks consisting of bottles of water, packets of crisps of varying flavours, bars of chocolate, a few apples and oranges, and more man sandwiches made by daddy – the best sandwiches in the world, gleefully swung on to their backs, the boys were eager to get this boys day out on the road!
Immediately, the backpacks were reluctantly removed as they were informed that we had a short car journey to make first and that they needed to take them off to get in to the car! Groans of disappointment were soon dispelled with enthusiastic talk of what was to come. Expectations were high.
The day was overcast and threatened rain but we parked the car up in what only at best could be described not as a hard shoulder but more of a flattened ditch. The car sat precariously on the road (lane) and in the Burren. We all dismounted and the boys oblivious to the potential plight of the car headed up the road (lane) to acquire ‘walking sticks’ from the cut hedge row.
You always need a stick or a Gandalf staff and/or Legolass’ bow while on an expedition in case you are set upon by Orcs – a legacy of Tolkein’s visits to the Burren while as an external examiner to Galway University.
We stepped on to the limestone of the Burren and began to follow the path with the red arrow and then the path with the green arrow and then a black arrow and there may have been a yellow arrow in there too but finally we made our own path .... without an arrow!
Careful placement of your foot is required on this barren limestone environment as for thousands of years it has been eroded and weathered by the elements until salient rocks with razor-sharp edges protrude like an assassin’s blade. One wrong footfall and you could find yourself in a serious spot of bother. Of course, this obvious hidden danger is ignored by the boys who skip playfully over the stones and rocks, exploring as they go.
A gang-leader is self-appointed and seconded by his sibling. The boys have chosen, and the two open up quite a gap of distance between themselves and us. ‘Us’ consisting of myself and our youngest who deliberately lags behind at his daddy’s side in the vain hope of securing some extra sweet treat reward for loyalty but in fact each of us intermittently holding hands for balance and succour.
Dotted with turloughs, we find ourselves slowly progressing, and one moment we make our way around this way and the next moment that way, all the while time slips by unnoticed as the explorers trundle on. The discovery of many rare and extraordinarily coloured plants and flowers, small young frogs, and noisy grasshoppers ... and apparently the only lizard in Ireland (which I take multiple photographs of) are a topic of conversation for many minutes and especially the sudden unexpected appearance of a herd of feral goats which eke out an existence on the sparse grasses and flowers, causes ‘Us’ to pause for thought. They are quite large, with thick long haired coats for protection against the ravages of winter storms and thick ringed horns that wind out from their foreheads and curve and curl down to a pointed end that stretch forebodingly to the left and right of each eye. Weapons to attack and defend themselves against Orcs! The young one grips my hand tighter and I his, as they pass by without even a sign that they were aware of our presence but we know they were!
He lets go after they pass and bends down to retrieve a flower for mummy but as heart breaking to him as it is I explain that the Burren is a protected environment and that as such, it is illegal to take the plants no matter what the reason for they are unique to here and cannot be found anywhere else on earth and that they most likely wouldn’t survive anywhere else. Plus if the Garda catch you, you’ll go to prison for a very long time.
This last remark seems to have instantly curbed his appetite to gather the local foliage and he objects to my demand to leave them be ever so slightly but wants to talk more about what surviving is, the Burren / Mordor and which would I prefer, to be eaten by a zombie or a shark? Not an easy one to answer as I have been here before and each choice only leads to more questions of equal calibre!!! The whimsical mind of a 6 almost 7 year old child at work I suppose.
The rain begins to encroach and I shout for the boys to hold up until we catch up. As the drops begin to fall we take shelter at the base of Mullagh Mor, in an isolated cluster of leafy trees, bent over by the constant assaults of the wind. We are quickly joined by other explorers! Americans, French and Italians and all of us attempt to accommodate each-others group under this small leafy shelter. The goats don’t seem to mind the coming shower and graze on. You’re never alone on the Burren!
The anticipated shower of rain never materialises and the dark clouds move off to the south to ruin someone else’s day. At this moment, we are quite a distance away from the car. At least an hour’s steady walk and I am beginning to think that maybe we should return before the clouds return and empty their cargo upon ourselves. Gang-leader objects and demands that we continue until we reach the top at least. The other concurs while the youngest sides with daddy. He’s determined to get that extra reward no matter what! He’s had enough for the day. He explains that he can’t go any further as his cast on his arm is too heavy and making him tired. The result of an accident in a play park a few weeks prior to our trip and which when explained to hospital staff how it occurred makes mammy and daddy seem somewhat ashamedly callous and a potential case for social services!!!!!
I respond that I didn’t know he walked on his arms. He doesn’t find my response funny! Amidst his protestations I give in to the boys’ demands.
A decision reached by the excitement on their faces of the prospect of climbing a mountain. The youngest whinges and remonstrates profusely but after I try in vain to explain why we are going on he only groans in submission and moans about life not being fair. At this point I mention the opportunity to have a bite of lunch. The two boys wish to push on to the top where they will have their lunch and to which I initially agree to let them go on.
The ‘Whinge’ on the other hand, thinks having lunch is a great idea and finds a lovely rock to sit down on and have a nice bite to eat ... he saves a space for me to join him. I give in to him and plead with the boys to rest a few minutes while we eat and they very, very, grudgingly agree and give the ‘Whinge’ the dreaded death stare! I don’t want them heading of on their own without some form of supervision. The goats are still around and who knows what may happen.
I pour myself a cup of hot flask tea which always taste very different from teapot tea but nonetheless is invigorating.
They all devour the ‘best sandwiches in the world’ (I won’t elaborate on their contents but allude to the fact that a lot of 50p’s were consumed that day) while at the same time extolling me with stories of Orcs and what to do if you run in to a band of them. The real tourists (the Americans, French and Italians) either through a lack of understanding our language or in comprehending the subject look on somewhat bemused at the boy’s stories as they pass out of the leafy cluster to continue on with their own adventure. The sandwiches don’t last long and the ‘Whinge’ looks at me for something else.
What he doesn’t know is that silly old daddy is totally aware of the fact that he munched his way through his crisps, chocolate and apples from about 3 minutes in to the walk! This I alert him to but as is always the case, those big brown pleading eyes melt my stead-fast heart of refusal and I give in and pass my backpack over to him. He selects my bar of chocolate while at the same time implying that I wasn’t that keen on it anyway so it’s ok....what can you do, eh?
So, lunch over, the two boys take their leave and dash off. From basecamp, we exit the trees and trek back to the designated path and head off up to the summit. Once again the boys open a gap between ourselves and them and with his staff in hand, Gang-leader rushes up the mountain.
Mullagh Mor is very much like a walnut whip that has been ever so slightly compressed. Its limestone strata are separated with shallow ravines and rock bedded platforms that offer the weary climber no relief at all but alternatively, offer the adventurous, the opportunity to climb like real explorers while father looks on with a beating heart full of trepidation and anxiety. I don’t mind them climbing, it’s what young boys do, but I do wish they wouldn’t do it in front of me!
As agile as the feral goats, Gang-leader makes it up one strata layer after another until he is on the final slope to the summit. His right-hand man attempts the same but somehow takes a wrong turn and ends up stuck half-way up. I shout as loud as I can for him to climb back down and go a different way but the wind has changed direction and carries my voice off towards Co. Galway. Fear of him falling grips me and I suddenly make a dash towards him but he is so far away that if anything does happen I wouldn’t be able to help.
I curse myself for allowing this to happen. There are too many ravines and other limestone obstacles for me to traverse to get to him on time. I call across to Gang-leader and he is able to hear me as the wind has changed direction again and I call for him to go back to help his brother to which he dutifully obliges.
At the same, his brother suddenly realises what I realised a few minutes before and begins to climb back down and disappears behind a lower strata. He’s out of my sight and I am afraid now. What if he has fallen? How will we get him to hospital? Will I be able to find him? His mother will kill me!!!!
Gang-leader then comes back in to view and signals that he has found him and points to where he is following behind. That sight diminishes my anxiety.
While all this was going on, the Whinge had begun a sit down protest and was making a daisy chain which no doubt gave any passer-by the impression that he was totally distracted by his older brother’s predicament ... not!
After this incident and a return to a normal heartbeat rhythm, I head back over to the Whinge and explain to him just how close to the top he is and cajole him in to believing that it would only be five minutes more to get there. He jumped up, and the two of us headed to the top. Daisy chain and all. As we prod along discussing orcs and elves and Gandalf I wonder when does a little fib become a lie?
At the top the boys greet us loudly with scathing remarks on our lack of speed. They’re sitting atop a huge pile of stones placed there by previous successful walkers and the boys lay their markers of achievement. We dutifully laid ours on top. Photographs were taken and then I stood and took in the view – spectacular.
The land stretched for miles and miles in all directions but it was only then that I realised that that part of Clare was somewhat bowl shaped.
Father Ted’s house lay somewhere in the distance, hidden among the tall hedgerows and I thought about the afternoon we visited and had tea and scones – home baked scones! Ted, Dougal and Father Jack were long gone but there was a Mrs Doyle who dutifully served us large mugs of tea that never seemed to empty!
The wind blew but it was warm and in the far off distance huge sheets of rain could be seen falling .... I thought of Michael Cussack whose home we visited the day before and how he wrote of the joys of growing up in the Burren ... life would have been hard, very hard back then, but the allurement of the Burren would have made life less backbreaking.
We descend much quicker, and nod to those we pass with the relief that we’ve already achieved what they’re hoping to do. The goats have moved on and are mere specks in the distance. As we descend the Whinge returns to the adorable and cute youngest child he was before we began our adventure and passes his goodbyes on to the frogs and grasshoppers and enquires if we will ever see them again to which my answer of ‘not likely’ draws a despondent gasp of disappointment.
Five minutes later the frogs etc, etc have all been but forgotten. The whimsical nature of children.
We return home to regale their mother, granny and aunt with stories of the day supported with my montage of photographs. After dinner, which is eagerly consumed by all – no words of “I don’t like this or I’m not eating that”, tonight – exploring is a hungry business, the boys, still enthused, enquired of an energy depleted auld man, their dad, what mountain would we climb tomorrow!!!!!
Maybe Minecraft isn’t that bad after all!