Day 6: Dunguaire Castle, Caherconnell Stone Fort, Poulnabrone Dolmen, Ailwee Caves and Birds of Prey Center, Cliffs of Moher, Medieval Feast at Bunratty Castle

We had another very full day ahead of us and so, sadly, couldn’t wait for Dunguaire Castle to open and only had the opportunity to view it externally, though this was certainly impressive. Dunguaire overlooks the beautiful Galway Bay. It was built in 1520 by the O’Hynes clan. In the 1920s it was bought by Oliver St. John Gogarty, who began restoration, and, according to Shannon Heritage, “It became the venue for meetings of the literary revivalists such as W.B. Yeats, his patron Lady Gregory, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Martin and J.M. Synge.” Impressive!

Then we were off to the Burren to see some considerably older sites. Our first stop was Caherconnell cashel, a drystone fort (otherwise known as a ring fort), which dates to the 10th century A.D. (ring forts themselves were generally built between 400 and 1200 A.D.) and which was occupied as late as the 17th Century! Radiocarbon dating of the remains of a woman and two children found in burial boxes (cists) right inside the walls shows that they date way back to 535 A.D., demonstrating that use of the site itself long predates the building of the fort and that the family’s ancestral remains were incorporated into the holding. A 7th century firepit quarried into the bedrock and other evidence also argue for earlier use of the site. Caherconnell means the caher of Connell, and based on the size of the stone fort (large for its kind), the Connell family was well off and had plenty of room to bring their animals inside the walls (as the lay-out indicates they did) during times of attack. Luxury items found at the site, like glass and amber beads from outside their territory, further demonstrate their wealth. Also found during excavations, cool things like bone combs, harp pegs, arrowheads, buckles, musket balls, needles, gaming pieces (again showing wealth as well as leisure-time activities). Excavations are still on-going and while it’s been a while since college and my dig days, I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and join in!

Next we were on to the Poulnabrone Dolmen, an impressive and scenic neolithic portal tomb that dates back to around 3,600 B.C.! I love the term “portal tomb”, since you can absolutely look at this and imagine the ancient people who’d built it thinking of this as the portal to another world…a.k.a. the afterlife. Poulnabrone itself means “hole of sorrows”. Excavations and analysis indicate that remains were taken elsewhere to decompose/skeletonize and then brought to their final resting place within the dolmen’s chamber. Remains here indicate the burial of a baby, six juveniles and sixteen to twenty-two adults, only one of whom had lived past the age of forty. You can find more information here.

It decided to rain while we were at the dolmen, which put to rest our thought that we might visit all the outdoor sites of the Burren. Instead, we decided to head for Ailwee Caves and Birds of Prey Center where there would be less precipitation dripping on our heads. I hadn’t been to caves since Howe Caverns (which I loved) as a kid. While not as extensive, the Ailwee caves were really interesting. They’d been found in 1944 by a farmer looking for his disappearing dog, though not revealed to anyone until thirty years later. According to the Clare County Library, “Aillwee Cave was originally an underground river fed by the melting snows of the ice age. The river dried up as the ice retreated leaving the cave as it is to be seen today.” Today any water entering the caves seeps away through the stone floor, leaving them mostly dry except for some current dripping, still adding to the stalactites and stalagmites…except during especially wet weather, which the caves will reflect. Glacial activity backfilled the caves somewhat, and the farmer was only able to go so far, but today much of the scree and stone has been removed (revealing a set of brown bear bones, demonstrating that they’d have called the cave home). There were some cool features like the “frozen waterfall” you can see in the pictures.

Apropos of nothing at all: the little cafe at Ailwee sold the best scones I had while I was in Ireland, though there wasn’t nearly enough jam! Yes, I love scones. Yes, I had them even though I’m allergic to wheat and yeast. Yes, it was worth the discomfort.

The Birds of Prey Center was great as well. Though it was drizzling, we got to see an owl, two vultures and a peregrine falcon fly…all very neat. We also saw and read about many other birds that they had on-site. It would be difficult to pick a favorite. I love owls, as you can probably tell by the number of pictures I took of them. However the peregrine falcon has always been a favorite, and the Bateleur Eagle (the bird with the black feathers with the brown saddle on his back, the gray wing accents and the red face and beak) was pretty darn cool.

We were staying that night in Liscannor at the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, where, unfortunately, there was no internet in the rooms and very slow/poor internet even in the lobby, which we were told was because we were in the Burren and that’s how it was. A bit tired (rainy days and Mondays will do that and this was the former), I took a small nap and awoke to the light streaming through the windows. With the weather cleared, Pete and I rushed off to the Cliffs of Moher, which were absolutely breathtaking, as you can see. So gorgeous we wanted to take a cruise the next day so that we can look up and see them from their bases and travel next to or even through some of the arches created, but the weather called for gale force winds, and no cruises were scheduled.

That night was the medieval feast at Bunratty Castle, for which we arrived a little bit late, because the lady at our hotel told us it was only half an hour away when it was actually more like fifty minutes. (We were so rushed, I didn’t even stop to get pictures!) But we only missed a little bit, like the choosing of the guests of honor for the evening. Personally, I think Pete would have made a wonderful king/chieftan and could totally have rocked the crown. It was a fun night. The singing was beautiful, our table companions nice and the meal (remarkably) not a problem given all my various food allergies. Especially tasty was the turnip soup. If you’d told me that in advance, I’d never have believed you.

It was a great end to an incredible day.

Comments
  1. The dolmen! That was my computer wallpaper for a couple years! I still maintain there’s a parallel universe out there where you and I are rival archaeologists instead of writer and agent.

    • Nah, we’d work cooperatively…as long as I get to study the human remains; I’m happy to leave you the artifacts, etc. Forensic anthropology was always my favorite area. Nearly went to graduate school for it!

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