Ireland's WESTERN WILDS

Article excerpt

THE EMERALD ISLE'S WESTERN COUNTIES ARE RENOWNED FOR THEIR IMPOSING BEAUTY AND TIES TO IRISH LITERATURE.

   I will arise and go now, and
   go to Innisfree,
   And a small cabin build
   there, of clay and wattles
   made:
   Nine bean-rows will I have
   there, a hive for the
   honeybee,
   And live alone in the bee-loud
   glade.

   "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

A place of such melancholic beauty--both gentle and wild, enchanted and tragic--cannot help but summon forth the muses to inspire the bards of the land: Swift, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, to name a few. But arguably Ireland's preeminent scribe was William Butler Yeats, who landscaped his poems with the imposing terrain and sea, the mythic tales, and Irish folk of the western counties where he spent his summers.

It was here, in County Clare, that I began my journey by car, catching the waning warmth of Ireland's sunniest September in memory, only to bo spoiled for the more characteristic weather to follow. In an ever-shifting kinetic tapestry, sunlight and shadows rolled across the patchwork of emerald fields appliqued with white sheep, castle ruins, and brightly trimmed cottages, all stitched together by stone walls. The intermittent showers were made magical by the rainbows arching across dazzling blue and glowering gray. While leprechauns and pots of gold may be the stuff of fable, Irish rainbows most definitely are not.

I'd premised myself an afternoon of hiking, and I set out on a segment of the well-marked Burren Way. These two hundred square miles of exposed limestone are so stripped of verdure that a Cromwellian general lamented that "there was no wood to hang a man, no water to drown him, and no earth to bury him." True, it offers little to the hasty passerby and requires a degree of intimacy to fully appreciate. The Visitor Center in Kilfenora is a good place to buy a map and become acquainted.

As barren as the Burren appears, it possesses a unique diversity of flowers of both Arctic-Alpine and Mediterranean species. The region draws an international crowd of botanists. Tucked away on a remote road is Ireland's only perfumery, Vincent Fragrances, which chose the Burren as a source of uncorrupted inspiration for its wild orchid, fern, gentian, and lichen essences.

Though sparsely populated now, the region is marked by dolmens (massive stones poised on uprights), wedge tombs, and barrows that attest to six thousand years of settlement. Circular enclosures surrounded by mounds and trenches dating from the Iron Age, known as ring forts, are left undisturbed by farmers so as not to rouse the wrath of the fairies who hold sway over such haunts.

   Come away, oh human child
   To the waters and the wild
   With a faery, hand in hand
   For the world's more full of
   weeping
   than you can understand.

"The Stolen Child"

Strewn with ruined abbeys, churches, castles, and abandoned farms, Ireland is haunted by a tragic, turbulent past. Viking raids, clan warfare, civil wars, and centuries of British colonial rule scarred spirit and landscape alike. Impoverished western Ireland was struck particularly hard by An Gorta Mor--the Great Famine--caused by the potato blight in the 1840s and exacerbated by England's indifference. The forlorn roadside graveyards of the million who died of starvation and sickness are poignant reminders of politics capitalizing on nature to be its henchman. This year, Ireland commemorates the 150th anniversary of the famine with a series of events.

Figuring that the renowned Cliffs of Moher would photograph majestically in the sunset's glow, I raced to the Atlantic only to see the sun swallowed by a cloud bank. Nevertheless, the 650-foot drop (Europe's highest) into the churning sea sent shivers through me. Perspective is lost until one realizes that the dot moving along the far crest is a human being. Duly impressed, I returned the following morning. …