Ancient Irish legends and myths surrounding the Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare are one the most popular tourist attractions to visit in Ireland but what you might not know is that they are steeped in tales of ancient Irish myth and tradition.
There’s no surprise that an odd bunch of tall tales surrounds the Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs’ jarring beauty has inspired legends ranging from underwater mythical cities to a witch falling in love with Cu Chulainn.
Here are summaries of five of the most popular stories.
The Legend of the Hag and Cú Chulainn
A witch named Mal fell deeply in love with Cú Chulainn, the legendary member of the Red Branch, the warrior band of the High King of Ulster. Unfortunately for the Hag, Cú Chulainn did not return her love. Mal would not be denied and began chasing Cú Chulainn all about Ireland.
Cú Chulainn ended up south of the Cliffs of Moher, on the mouth of the Shannon River. Cú Chulainn leaped to the island known as Diarmuid and Grainne’s Rock.
Mal continued the chase and luckily was carried by a gust of wind as she leaped for the island. Cú Chulainn quickly leaped back and Mal, with the false confidence from the last jump, leaped again but fell short without the help of wind. Mal crashed into the rocks and her blood reddened the bay giving some cause to assert that Malbay was surely named after her.
The rocks, now named Hag’s Head, was said to take the shape of Mal’s profile and remains visible to this day.
The Mermaid of Moher
A local man was fishing at the Cliffs of Moher and noticed a mermaid.
He struck up a conversation with her but soon set his sights on her magic cloak. As the two talked, the man grabbed the cloak and ran to his house.
Needing the cloak to make her return to the sea, the mermaid followed the man back to his house but couldn’t find the cloak for it was well hidden. With little options left, the mermaid agreed to marry the man and the two would soon have a son and daughter together. However, the mermaid would not forget her magic cloak.
Years later, while the man was out fishing, the mermaid found her cloak, left for the sea, and the man, nor their kids ever saw her again.
Interesting facts about the Cliffs of Moher
On the west coast of Ireland the Cliffs of Moher are one of the most outstanding coastal features of
The Cliffs are located at the southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare, Ireland.
They rise to 120 meters (390 feet) above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and reach their maximum height of 214 meters (702 feet) just north of O’Brien’s Tower, eight kilometers to the north.
From the Cliffs of Moher on a clear day one can see the Aran Islands and Galway Bay, as well as the Twelve Pins and the Maum Turk mountains in Connemara, Loop Head to the south and the Dingle Peninsula and Blasket Islands in Kerry.
O’Brien’s Tower stands near the highest point and has served as a viewing point for visitors for hundreds of years.
The tower was built on the cliffs in 1835 by local landlord and MP Sir Cornellius O’Brien as an
observation tower for the Victorian tourists that frequented the cliffs at the time: “strangers
visiting the Magnificent Scenery of this neighbourhood”.
The human story and history of the Cliffs of Moher dates back at least two thousand years as the name
derives from a 1st Century BC fort that stood where Moher Tower now stands. The old Irish word “Mothar” means ruined fort and it is this that gives the cliffs their name.
Moher Tower is the stone ruin of an old watchtower which stands on Hag’s Head, at the southern end of the Cliffs of Moher. It was built as a lookout/signaling tower during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).
Hag’s Head is a natural rocky promontory that resembles a seated woman when viewed from the north.
The Cliffs of Moher were originally the site of a gigantic river delta and were formed about 320 million years ago during the Carboniferous period.
The cliffs consist mainly of beds of Namurian shale and sandstone, with the oldest rocks being found at
the bottom of the cliffs.
The rock layers are rich in fossil formations and geologists consider the area one of the world’s foremost natural laboratories for the study of deltaic deposition through deep water systems.
Today the cliffs are undergoing coastal erosion. Waves constantly crash against the foot of the cliffs, and this incessant wave action erodes the cliff base, causing sections of the upper cliff face to
collapse into the sea under their own weight.
Being almost vertical, their sheer drop into the heaving Atlantic ocean is a haven for sea birds.
There are an estimated 30,000 birds living on the cliffs, representing more than 20 species. These include Atlantic puffins, which live in large colonies at isolated parts of the cliffs and on the small Goat
Island, and razorbills. The site is an Important Bird Area.
Beautiful wildflowers and grasses cloak the cliffs in spring and summer. From atop the cliffs dolphins, whales and seals can often be spotted.
Land mammals inhabiting the area on the cliff edge include badgers, stoats and rabbits. There is also a large population of hares and can often be seen early in the day during spring. And a herd of feral goats
live precariously on narrow paths below the top of the cliffs.
The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions and receive more than one million visitors a year.
The closest settlements are Liscannor (6 kilometer / 3.7 miles south) and Doolin (7 kilometers / 4.3 miles north).
Quarrying of the flagstone that occurs along the Cliffs of Moher and in their vicinity was a substantial industry in the 19th & early 20th century. The stone is prized for its ability to break naturally into thin sheets, which are easily quarried by hand.
The Cliffs of Moher form part of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark which was awarded membership of the UNESCO supported Global Geoparks Network in 2011.
There’s no surprise that an odd bunch of tall tales surround the Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs’ jarring beauty has inspired legends ranging from underwater mythical cities to a witch falling in love with Cu Chulainn.
The cliffs have appeared in several films, including Ryans Daughter (1970), The Princess Bride (1987) (as the filming location for “The Cliffs of Insanity”), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), and Leap Year (2010).
The cliffs have also appeared in music videos, including Maroon 5’s “Runaway” video, Westlife’s “My Love”, and Rich Mullins’ “The Color Green”.
Ireland’s travel secrets: The Slieve League Cliffs (PHOTOS)
Ireland’s most famous cliffs are without a doubt the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare – the famous vista is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland and has a number of accolades to its name, including being voted the best cliff view in the world.
But Ireland is an island, meaning there are many other cliff faces to be explored, and if there’s another view you can’t miss, it’s the view from the Slieve League cliffs in Co. Donegal.
The Slieve League Cliffs (or Sliabh Liag in Irish) are located on the southwest coast of Donegal, where Slieve League mountain meets the water. They are the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe - almost twice as high as the Eiffel Tower and nearly three times as high as the Cliffs of Moher, rising 1,972 feet from the Atlantic. Visitors have described the experience as feeling like they’re standing on the edge of the world.
As Belfast naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote in 1939:
“A tall mountain of nearly 2000 feet, precipitous on its northern side, has been devoured by the sea till the southern face forms a precipice likewise, descending on this side right into the Atlantic from the long knife-edge which forms the summit. The traverse of this ridge, the "One Man's Path", is one of the most remarkable walks to be found in Ireland - not actually dangerous, but needing a good head and careful progress on a stormy day. The northern precipice, which drops 1500 feet into the coomb surrounding the Little Lough Agh, harbours the majority of the alpine plants of Slieve League, the most varied group of alpines to be found anywhere in Donegal.”
The town of Teelin will be the starting point for most ventures to Slieve League. To properly take in the majesty of the cliffs, guides recommend leaving your car at the car park, where the Slieve League Cliffs Center is located, and walking the few miles to the cliffs. Tours and guided hikes are also available.
Experienced walkers only should venture beyond the viewing point onto One Man's Pass which loops around onto the Pilgrim's Path. There are terrific views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sligo Mountains and Donegal Bay as you walk towards the terrifyingly high top of Slieve League, where the cliff face of Bunglas rises nearly 2,000 feet above the raging waters.
In addition to offering spectacular views, Slieve League is also steeped in history. It was a sacred spot before Christianity came to Ireland, and then served as a site of Christian pilgrimage for over 1,000 years.
A Napoleonic signal tower built in the 1800s to help keep watch for invading French ships still stands.
There’s also a stone Éire marker – a relic from the days of WWII, or “The Emergency,” as it was called in Ireland – which indicated to planes flying overhead that they were above Ireland, which remained neutral throughout the war.
If you want a different view of the cliffs entirely, boat tours of the waters below Slieve League are also available, offering the chance to see seals, whales, dolphins, basking sharks and sea birds, as well as the option of a swim in the coves at the base of the cliffs.
For more information or to plan your visit, check out the Slieve League Cliffs website.
In the 1990s, the Clare County Council in Ireland initiated development plans to enable visitors to experience the famous Cliffs of Moher without significant intrusive man-made amenities. When you visit the Cliffs of Moher today, you will understand why they are known as “the edge of the world.” These rugged cliffs are a significant tourist attraction, receiving over one million visitors annually. They rise out of the ocean as high as 214 meters high and stretch for eight kilometers in length. You wouldn’t be wrong if you call these cliffs a historical wonder or a geographical marvel. They are what defines Ireland’s multifaceted and indulging coastal experience.
If you want to experience the maximum beauty of the Emerald Isle in full view, visit no other place than the Cliffs of Moher located on the southwestern side of the Burren. You can hire a reliable Galway Tour Company to lead you to these iconic cliffs. Here are the top reasons why you need to visit the Cliffs of Moher during your trip to Ireland.
The History of Cliffs of Moher
It is believed that these cliffs are more than 320 million years old. They date back to the period when Ireland had ancient rivers that washed down sediments in the ocean scraped from the cliffs’ sandstones, shale, and siltstones. These cliffs obtained their name from fort “Mothar,” brought down in the 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars to create space for the creation of a communications signal tower at Hag’s Head.
7 Interesting Things to Do at the Cliffs of Moher
Cliffs of Moher Cruise. Photograph by JackOfAllTrades at English Wikipedia.
There are so many fun things to do and see when you visit the Cliffs of Moher. They include:
- Trek to the Hag’s Head: The name Hag’s head originated from a local legend of a lady who died when following her husband across the cliffs. The southernmost point of these cliffs features an ancient watchtower where you can experience some stunning views in a quiet environment. Additionally, this place has fewer visitors, thus, ideal for a great private getaway.
- Stroll from Doolin to the Cliffs: The stroll from Doolin to the Cliffs can take you almost two hours one way. Thus, if you are up for a substantial half-day worth of impeccable Irish beauty, this is the perfect way to achieve it. This 18km journey will land you in Liscannor from Doolin. The Cliff’s coastal trail was officially opened in 2013 and offered the most incredible way to visit the Cliffs of Moher.
- Climb the O’Brien’s Tower: Slightly medieval and perched at the topmost section of the cliffs, O’Brien’s tower looks like a tiny castle built in the 19th century. Its sole purpose was to give visitors a breathtaking view of the cliffs. You can spend a few euros to enjoy the views at this attraction.
- Check out the Stack: The Stack rises to a height of 60 meters from the coat of Cliffs of Moher. Also known as AnBranan Mor by the Irish people, the Stack is a distinctively identifiable structure, and it’s close to the O’Brien’s Tower. For this reason, it ends up in many photos taken by visitors here.
- Visit Sports Filming Locations: The Cliffs of Moher provides a great place to film movies and sports. Two of the top films (Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter) have already shot in this location. Another great film is known as the Cliffs of Insanity also ended up being filmed at the Cliffs of Moher.
- Cliffs of Moher Cruise: This cruise is incredible because it allows you to view the cliffs from different angles. While visiting the top of these cliffs stands to one of the top tourist activities in the whole island, fewer people forget to take a boat and view the cliffs from below. These cruises are impressive, inexpensive, and full of spectacular views. You should add this cruise on your upcoming Cliffs of Moher Itinerary!
- Watch the sunset at the Cliffs of Moher: The stunning views of the sunset on the horizon while on these cliffs merely is priceless. It leaves you with lasting memories like never before. Make sure to add this on the list of things to do while at the Cliffs of Moher.
Are you ready for your next trip to the Cliffs of Moher? Well, here are a few things you need to consider. First, t hese cliffs are more than just a tourist attraction – while visiting the Cliffs of Moher tourist’s center, you will experience the most iconic sights of the cliffs easily and quickly. Second, i t is not a must to visit the visitors’ center – this location may be the easiest when you want to catch a better view of the cliffs however, you do not have to go all the way there. Consider using other small parking locations to avoid huge crowds. Finally, the Cliffs of Moher can be Dangerous – you must be careful while visiting the Cliffs of Moher because of the high winds and sheer drops. With millions of visitors flocking in, the risk of tragedy is doubled.
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The featured image in this article, a photograph by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen looking north along the cliffs towards O’Brien’s Tower, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The tragic reality of deaths at the Cliffs of Moher
For some of you intending to holiday in Ireland soon these lines are the most important I will write and you will read for the rest of the year. I am shocked to be penning this message, but if it saves a life I will be doing a very good deed indeed.
The message is stark and simple. If you or anyone in your party is in a low state of mind, or has a pressing personal problem of any kind in their lives, DO NOT VISIT THE CLIFFS OF MOHER ON THE CLARE COAST.
I speak from long experience.
They recovered another body from below the famed cliffs a few evenings ago. The rescuers have been doing that on an increasingly regular basis for years now.
There was always a suicide toll at this awe-inspiring wonder of nature but, beyond doubt, for those with troubled minds, the Cliffs of Moher has become even more dangerous with every year that passes.
Typically a lone person travels in their car to the car park at the magnificently developed visitor center, which now attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Typically their friends and families have no warning that a tragedy is imminent.
Often it is the deserted car, alone in the car park, early the following morning which tips off the locals to the possibility of a tragedy having happened again during the dark hours. Typically, too, those who take the long horrific fall leave a suicide note in their cars. It is a weird ritual by now.
Typically, and horribly also, the recovery of their broken bodies, even for the experts, is a very difficult task, especially if the weather is bad. Often it takes weeks rather than days before there is recovery. I think some of the lost souls are never recovered at all, God love them.
I have reported down the years on some of the suicides at Moher. I have seen a couple of bodies away down below in the surf line after the events.
One sight that stays with me is that of a female body wearing a bright red dress, tossing and turning in heavy seas which prevented the rescuers from reaching her. I will never forget that sight.
Her story later emerged and it was almost standard for the scenario. She was a middle-aged Dubliner, with no mental or personal problems her family and friends were aware of, and she traveled down to Moher as a passenger on a coach tour.
She was missing when the party boarded the coach again after viewing the mighty cliffs and enjoying one of the most scenic vistas along the Wild Atlantic Way that has been so successful as a tourist attraction in recent years. There was no warning for anyone who traveled with her about her dread intentions.
I think I told ye before about a conversation with a Cork taxi driver who picked up a male fare in Cork city a few years ago. The thirty-something passenger was a pleasant young man who talked freely about life and sport on the journey.
Initially he said he wished to go to nearby Lahinch resort but, when they reached there, he changed his mind, said the taxi driver, and asked to be brought the few extra miles to Moher. When they arrived there he paid the agreed fare, gave his bottle of water to the driver, and wished him safe home. Then he went off to his death just like that.
I've stood on the verge of the attraction myself many times down the years. Before the splendid visitor center was established you could position yourself right on the edge of the fearful void and look downwards at the foaming Atlantic far below.
Personally, I've always thought how dreadful it would be to trip and accidentally take the final tumble. There is certainly for most a high level of awe and wonder and fear involved in standing there.
For some, clearly, there is much more.
Nowadays it is not really possible to have an accidental fall because of the fencing. Those who go over, tragically, are doing so deliberately. And it is happening far too often.
Accordingly, on any occasion now when I hear of another broken body being brought ashore by the dedicated first-responders, the phrase which leaps into my mind is “the terrible beauty. "
And that is why I am writing this way this week of the peak holiday season. The stupendous sight of the Cliffs of Moher is totally worthwhile and stimulating for almost all who come there.
But far too often, also, there are the lonesome cars at dawn in the car park or nearby. And the notes on the dashboard.
Isn't there an old saying, “See Naples and die…” Truly there is a wider context, for whatever reason.
Cornelius O’Brien and the Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher have long been admired for their scenic beauty, but few know much about the man who first promoted tourism to this inspiring place. Cornelius O’Brien, a benevolent local landlord, was the first to formally recognise the cliffs as a tourist destination. Samuel Lewis reported in 1833 that O’Brien was erecting ‘an ornamental building in the castellated style . . . for the accommodation of visiters [sic] to this bold and iron-bound coast, from which is obtained a magnificent view embracing nearly the whole line of coast from Loop Head to the northern extremity of the bay of Galway, together with the Arran Isles [sic] and a vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean . . .’. In order to make the cliffs accessible, safe and attractive, O’Brien also built stables and an iron picnic table for the convenience of visitors, whom he frequently entertained at Birchfield, his nearby estate. His only surviving son, George, continued his father’s hospitality to strangers.
Cornelius O’Brien (c. 1782–1857) was born around 1782 at Birchfield, Liscannor, Co. Clare, the third son of Henry O’Brien of Birchfield and Ennis. He was educated by Stephen O’Halloran in Ennis, entered the King’s Inns, Dublin, in the Hilary term of 1803, and graduated as an attorney in the Easter term of 1808. He was a proctor, solicitor and magistrate for County Clare, with a business address in Dublin. Throughout his career, however, his primary place of residence was his estate at Birchfield.
O’Brien was elected MP for County Clare on 1 December 1832, but he was clearly involved in local politics before this date. He was a member of the committee that selected Daniel O’Connell to run in the 1828 election. His own politics were liberal, pro-Repeal and pro-secret ballot and tenants’ rights. He held his seat in Westminster from 1832 to 1857, losing only once, in 1847. Advancing age and ill health forced his retirement from parliament in March 1857, two months before his death on 30 May 1857.
Apart from his estate at Birchfield in the townland of Beaghy (Kilmacrehy), Cornelius O’Brien’s holdings in Clare were extensive. In 1829 the Birchfield estate was valued at £50, and his role as an improving, resident landlord is an important aspect of the man. The Griffith Valuation in 1855 showed that he held 9,679 acres, spread across seventeen parishes and 36 townlands of County Clare, and had 275 tenants. Jonathan Binns, assistant agricultural commissioner in 1837, noted the great number of whitewashed and comfortable cottages scattered over the O’Brien estate, an indication of the care and attention of the owner. O’Brien sometimes provided his tenants with a car to bring in lime from Doolin, and in times of need he supplied the poor with wool and potatoes in lieu of labour.
O’Brien’s Tower, the Cliffs of Moher’s first ‘visitor centre’, described by Samuel Lewis in 1833 as ‘an ornamental building in the castellated style’. (Perry McIntyre)
O’Brien’s care of his tenants continued through the Famine, with some evidence that he waived rent. In an angry debate at a meeting of the Liscannor famine relief committee, George Westropp, agent for Dean Stacpoole, accused O’Brien of favouring his own tenants in the allocation of relief work. O’Brien replied that if Westropp had the slightest compassion in such a year he would not have taken rent from his poor tenants and would have told them to take back their money and buy some bread with it. It is unlikely that O’Brien would have made such a statement if he himself was charging rent.
Harriet Martineau visited Clare in the wake of the Famine in September 1852. As she travelled from Galway along the coastal route to Clare, she described scenes of utter desolation until she came to the whitewashed dwellings of O’Brien’s tenants. She was not the only contemporary observer to note him as a kind landlord. His care and expenditure in making the Cliffs of Moher accessible, safe and attractive to visitors made him popular among his tenants, who were given employment when little else was available.
Cornelius O’Brien engaged in numerous building projects, beginning with the construction of Birchfield House before 1816, the year he married Margaret Long. His next project was the relocation and upgrading of St Bridget’s Well at Kilmacrehy from higher up the hillside to its present location beside the road. Here he erected the well-house and rustic seating for his tenants. He then turned his attention to the dangerous ford across the river between Lahinch and Liscannor, where in 1833 he facilitated the building of a fine stone bridge of three arches, known as O’Brien’s Bridge, which remains to this day. In 1845 he built a boys’ and girls’ national school beside the main road to St Bridget’s Well. He also erected a little Gothic structure over the nearby Reliever’s Well.
Cornelius O’Brien was on many committees and was chairman of the Ennistymon Poor Law Union from its formation on 25 August 1839. The workhouse opened in September 1842 and, along with five auxiliary workhouses, by 1853 provided accommodation for 3,618 inmates. The minutes reveal that O’Brien was very active in the weekly meetings and on the subcommittees that worked to improve roads, to house people evicted by their landlords during the Famine, and to obtain suitable contracts for the supply of a variety of needs for the workhouses, including additional accommodation.
There are no known portraits of Cornelius O’Brien, but two monuments other than O’Brien’s Tower remain to memorialise a man who has been overshadowed by the more powerful Thomond O’Brien families, particularly Lucius and William Smith O’Brien (leader of the rebellion of 1848). In mid-October 1854 the first meeting of a testimonial committee took place in Ennis at the office of the Clare Journal and Ennis Advertiser. Sir Colman O’Loghlen QC presided, and there was a unanimous decision to erect a testimonial as a mark of appreciation for the successful efforts of Cornelius O’Brien of Birchfield to improve the condition of the middle and lower classes in his neighbourhood, including encouraging their education. Mention was also made of the accommodation he afforded to all classes visiting the Cliffs of Moher and surrounding scenery. There was much debate about the form of the testimonial, and by the time a sketch of the proposed monument appeared in the press in November 1855 donations amounted to more than £400. The sketch shows O’Brien on top of a column similar in style to Daniel O’Connell’s in Ennis or Nelson’s in Dublin’s Sackville Street and London’s Trafalgar Square. Despite the inscribed date (14 October 1853) it was not completed until after his death, and was certainly not built by him as self-aggrandisement, as is often wrongly claimed.
The other remaining monument to Cornelius O’Brien is his family plot in the nearby cemetery above St Bridget’s Well. It was built for his son, John Cornelius O’Brien, a lieutenant in the 22nd Regiment Native Infantry, who died at Secunderabad, India, on 28 December 1856, aged 26. Five months later Cornelius himself died and was buried in the family mausoleum. Ten years later his other son, George O’Brien, was also laid to rest there. Thus 1867 saw the end of the O’Brien association with Birchfield House, which today lies in ruins.
The stables and the iron picnic table are long gone from the Cliffs of Moher, but the astute visitor can still see the local testaments to Cornelius O’Brien. His visitors’ tower and the magnificent view that these cliffs have long offered to the casual visitor remain to remind us of Cornelius O’Brien 150 years after his death.
Perry McIntyre is an Australian historian with a strong interest in Irish emigration who regularly brings groups of genealogists to Ireland on tour.
Where are the Cliffs of Moher?
If you want to know where are the Cliffs of Moher, they are located on the west coast of Ireland (along Ireland’s famous Wild Atlantic Way), close to Liscannor village in County Clare.
Why the Name?
The Cliffs take their name from a ruined promontory fort ‘Mothar’ – which was demolished during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800’s, to make room for a signal tower at Hag’s Head. The word ‘Mothar’in old Gaelic means ‘the ruin of a fort’.
The Cliffs stretch for 8km (5 miles) as the crow flies.
The Cliffs reach 214m (702 feet) in height at their highest point.
What Can I see From the Top of the Cliffs?
On a clear day the Aran Islands, Galway Bay, the Twelve Pins and the Maum Turk mountains in Connemara. Looking south you can view the Dingle Peninsula and Blasket Islands in Kerry.
Cliffs of Moher Fun Facts
The Cliffs of Moher is a hotspot for a wide range of flora and fauna with as much as 20 different species of birds to be seen.
The cliffs have been featured in many movies including Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, Leap Year and many more.
There is a long list of tales associated with the Cliffs in Irish folklore for those interested in the subject.
One of Ireland’s most famous sights, the Cliffs of Moher are entirely vertical and the cliff edge is abrupt. On a clear day the views are tremendous, with the Aran Islands etched on the waters of Galway Bay. From the cliff edge you can just hear the booming far below as the waves crash and gnaw at the soft shale and sandstone.
With a due-west exposure, sunset is the best time to visit.
Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience
Cliffs of Moher,
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Situated in County Clare and bordering the Burren Area, the Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland's most spectacular sights. Standing 230 metres above the ground at their highest point and 8km long, the Cliffs boast one of the most amazing views in Ireland. On a clear day, the Aran Islands are visible in Galway Bay as well as the valleys and hills of Connemara.
To the south of the cliffs is Hag's Head and the cliffs reach their highest point just north of O' Brien's Tower. The Tower was built by Cornelius O' Brien, a descendant of Brian Boru, to impress female visitors. The seastack, Breanan Mór, stands over 70 metres above the foaming waves. You are advised to dress warmly when visiting the cliffs because of the cool Atlantic winds blowing in off the ocean.
Nevertheless, a walk along the cliffs is not to be missed. Be very careful as there are no safety barriers and sections of the cliff sometimes give way. Those with a head for heights can easily walk to the edge of the cliff and view the Atlantic Ocean below. There is a tourist centre and a small shop, which sells souvenirs. The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland's most visited attractions and when you've been there, you'll know why.
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The Story of the Burren
The landscape of the Burren has been shaped by geological forces for hundreds of millions of years.
The story begins in a tropical sea near the equator, includes the development of a major river delta, migration and collision of continents, the expansion and contraction of the polar ice caps and last but not least, the rain that sweeps in from the Atlantic.
The rocks that make up the Burren were all formed during the Carboniferous period between 359 and 299 million years ago. This geological period is named for all the coal deposits in North America, UK and Europe that were formed at this time.
In the Burren are there are two major rock types the lighter coloured limestones to the north and east and the darker siltstones, shales and sandstones to the south west. The limestones which make up the typical bare Burren landscape were buried by the slightly younger siltstones and sandstones which make up the Cliffs of Moher.
The different rock types were formed under different conditions the limestones, which contain fossil corals, crinoids and brachiopods were formed in a warm tropical sea near the equator, very much like the Bahamas today. The limestones were deposited slowly over a very long period of time, around 20 million years and much of the rock is actually made up of little bits of broken fossils.
The shales, siltstones and sandstones that make up the Cliffs of Moher and the area south west of Lisdoonvarna and Kilfenora were formed much more rapidly from sand and silt being washed into the sea by a major river system which has long since disappeared. Fossils are not common in these rocks although the traces left by creatures that crawled through the mud are readily seen in the famous Moher flagstones.
Shortly after these rocks were formed the entire continent collided with what is now Europe, this caused the rocks ,which were originally horizontal, to become gently folded as we can see at Mullaghmore, in fact all the rocks of the Burren are tilted slightly to the south. The enormous forces that caused the folding are also responsible for the many cracks and fissures the run through the limestone now.
Much later, only about 2 million years ago the ice age started in northern Europe. Huge masses of ice over 200m thick came from the north and north east and scoured the surface ripping up soil and rock and carving valleys and then depositing the rocks and clay as the ice melted. We can see these rocks scattered across the Burren as glacial erratics today. Along the coast there are many rocky beaches where it is possible to find rocks which are not originally from the Burren, these granites, red sandstones and others were carried by the ice from Connemara and east Clare and have been eroded by the sea from the glacial deposits left by the ice.
The last Ice age ended around 15,000 years ago. Since then the rain has been quietly dissolving the limestone and widening the fissures and also forming many of the caves we see all through the Burren. The rain continues to slowly dissolve the limestone today. The combination of features formed by rain and ice are known as a glaciokarst landscape and the Burren is a globally significant example which was awarded Geopark status in 2011.
Let’s have a closer look at the rocks and how they got here..
The Story of the Limestone
It is a warm day somewhere close to the equator and the crystal clear sea extends as far as the eye can see. The wind is making waves, there are clouds in the sky. The sea floor is visible through the waves as white and cream coloured patches of sand but there is no land in sight. We are adrift in a tropical sea.
We dive beneath the waves. Suddenly a whole new world of colour and life is visible! There are creatures everywhere brachiopods the size of small saucers sit in the white mud, like oysters or mussels their two shells open slightly to allow them collect plankton from the seawater. There are mini forests of crinoids these small stalked creatures are attached to the sea floor but some can release themselves and move for short distances. Their ‘heads’ looks like feathery flowers, waving in the water to collect food particles. There are corals here too, not the big complex reefs that we see along the great barrier reef but smaller clusters and groups attached to the sea floor. Some of these corals are a metre wide, they are the branching colonial corals and the tip of each branch contains a corallite that collects food. There are also smaller individual or solitary corals, they look like small cow horns that have been turned upside down and stuck into the sea floor. Every now and then a fish swims past and we also see coiled shells swimming in the water, these are the Goniatites propelled by underwater jet propulsion, they are relatives of the Nautilus and related to octopus and squid. They have good eyes and are fierce predators, actively hunting other swimming creatures, they catch them with their tentacles are kill with a bite from their beaks. The sea floor itself is a patchwork of colours, there are some patches of loose white sand, in other places the sand has been colonised by a variety of red and green algae, encrusting bryozoa, and a myriad of organisms known as foraminifera that live in beautiful but microscopic shells.
A closer look at the white sand reveals that the individual grains are made up of tiny shells and fragments of crinoids and other bits and pieces of the shells of dead animals. Every now and then a wave moves the sand, it rolls the grains back and forth and makes ripples just like you see on any beach at home. If a storm comes the much bigger waves will completely rearrange all this, ripping up living corals, crinoids and brachiopods and moving them along the seafloor for hundreds of metres, eroding and mixing them with other sand until eventually the storm passes and everything will settle back to be colonised again.
These living creatures extract calcium carbonate (CaCO3) from the seawater to make their shells. As they get buried they are cemented together by more calcium carbonate which precipitates out of the water buried with them and binds the grains together. This is how the shells become the grains and fossils in the rock we know as limestone.