County Clare, Ireland, is otherworldly: hilly, lush green paddocks (pastures) separated by centuries-old stone fences and dotted with small herds of cows, horses and donkeys. And sheep – glorious in shagginess and shades of white, black and brown – can be heard tearing the grass out by its roots, surrounded by multi-colored lambs.
An ancient, crumbling tower lies somewhere in the background of nearly every paddock, its presence a lingering testament to the agony of the Potato Famine.
Curving round a one-lane road (and hoping not to have to pull over into a six-foot ditch), the main two-lane road appears, and in ten minutes a cascading waterfall and Lahinch Beach. The ocean is rough and punctuated with surfers along the mile-or-so stretch of sand. The air is crisp and fresh, and in the summer all the locals can be found here or sitting up at the bar having a beer laughing and watching the waves.
The next day, a visit to the Burren (Gaelic: Boireann, meaning “great rock”). Rich with archaeological tombs, ringed forts, Druid tables and Celtic Crosses, it’s designated a national park. Traveling through the Burren leads to the magnificent Cliffs of Moher (Gaelic: Aillte an Mhothair), one of the top visitor attractions for foreigners and Irish alike.
A spectacular 400 feet high, the Cliffs of Moher were one of the finalists selected in 2009 for the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” campaign. Twenty-five years ago you could picnic right on the edge of the cliffs, but then they began to crumble and became a favorite jumping place for sad, broken-hearted poetic Irish. Now there are ropes, signs and stone walls to block any accidental or planned leaps as the ocean roars and leaps halfway up the cliffs, rendering one silently in awe. There, if you’re lucky, you might see a rare colorful puffin, which looks like a miniature cross between a penguin and parrot.
Dublin, a mere two-and-a-half hours away by highway, is irresistible in its international flavor, with languages heard and food available from around the world. But half a day there and it feels like I’m in New York City, so it’s off to one of the most startling discoveries in anthropology, Newgrange.
Newgrange is five hundred years older than the pyramids of Egypt and predates Stonehenge, although it shares the similarity of a passage and chamber that are illuminated by the winter solstice sun. The cost is around $10 per adult, and only about 100 people a day are permitted into the tomb.
A docent gives an intriguing account of the discovery of Newgrange and its sister tombs in the area. There are various repetitive carvings on the stones – some over two tons. How they managed to carry them from 50 miles away has not yet been explained.
For that matter, neither has the fact that Newgrange, which took over three generations and dozens of men to build, was replicated throughout northern Europe and down into Spain. Were these Neolithic people communicating? And if so, how? Standing inside this tomb made of different types of rock, slate and stone, many questions arise that may never be answered.
Each year on winter solstice, a lottery is held to allow a few people the opportunity to wait in the darkness for the sun to shine through the chamber and perhaps find an answer for themselves (Newgrange.com).