Monday, November 4, 2013

Ireland: Around the North

For our last few days in Ireland (April 4-7, 2012), Eileen and I continued our journey north through the wild and rugged landscape of County Donegal, turned back eastwards to cross into Northern Ireland, and finally re-entered the Republic for a drive through the gentler and more settled east for our return to Dublin. 

It seems that the further northwest you go in Ireland the more awe-inspiring the scenery gets - something to bear in mind for any readers who think that the southwest is the only part of Ireland worth visiting. 

Common limpet (Patella vulgata)
Common limpet (Patella vulgata)
Our route north from the Burren in County Clare took us to Sligo, where we spent the night, and along the coast north to County Donegal.  I had a few more chances to explore seacoast for marine life: Common Limpets (Patella vulgata) clinging firmly to the stones or wedged in ledges near the tide line…

Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea)
Common Periwinkles (Littorina littorea) clustered in a tide pool...

…and shells and bits of coralline algae on a rocky beach.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)
At one point I came across a Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus), the most thorough-going coastal specialist of Ireland's songbirds, making its way along a cliff edge.

Lest anyone think that brilliant colours are confined to tropical coastlines, I submit this photo as proof that lichens and algae can brighten up a rocky landscape as thoroughly as corals.

Dog Whelk (Nucella lapillus)
This bright little Dog Whelk (Nucella lapillus) seems to be sitting in the mdst of an expressionist painting.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Eileen and I had not, originally, intended to get as far north as County Donegal, so neither of us had much of an idea of what awaited us there. It turns out that in the southwest part of the county near Killybegs is a sea cliff that is not only spectacular, but twice as high as the fabled Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.

The cliffs of Sliabh (or Slieve) League are nearly 600 m high, making them among the highest sea cliffs in the whole of Europe. Despite the wet and chilly weather (which, after a sequence if atypically lovely days, had reverted to Irish type), they were worth a short slog up the trail to see. They must be spectacular when the sun is shining, assuming that does happen now and again.

We pressed north through more beautiful County Donegal scenery. This is a distant view of Mount Errigal near Gweedore, the highest mountain in the county.

A closer view gives a good idea of why we regretted having so little time to explore. Unfortunately, we were bound by our need to catch an airplane in Dublin in a couple of days, and, like it or not, we had to press on, over the border into Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland boasts probably the most famous scenic attraction in the island (and a World Heritage Site to boot): the Giant's Causeway, a collection of some 45,000 basalt pillars, formed during volcanic activity some 50 to 60 million years ago, on the north coast in County Antrim.  Seeing it was our main reason for visiting Northern Ireland (though we did spend time in Belfast, which is doing its best to make itself over from a war zone into a tourist attraction by building, among other things, a massive exhibition hall devoted to the Titanic.).

The Giant's Causeway comes by its name rather obviously - it does not take much imagination to see the parade of columns heading off into the sea as a series of steppingstones leading out over a now-sunken bridge (especially as the sequence picks up again on the other side, in Scotland - something the Ancients would surely have known). 

I confess I found the reality of the Giant's Causeway less awe-inspiring than the picture I had built up in my imagination - the giants involved, if any, were rather less gigantic than I had prepared myself to believe. Fascinating, yes - overwhelming, after the cliffs and mountains of County Donegal, perhaps not so much. Still, they are certainly not an everyday sight, and well worth the seeing. 

According to folklore (eagerly kept up by tourist operators) the causeway is the work of the giant Finn McCool, and various bits of the surrounding area have been given names appropriate to the idea of his former presence. This stone may look like the remains of Mr. McCool's ankle, and indeed it is referred to as the Giant's Boot.

Past the Giant's Boot we came to the Organ, and indeed this particular group of columns, some 12 metres high, does resemble a gigantic set of organ pipes. Geologists refer to this sort of structure as a colonnade, and you can find a detailed explanation of exactly how it, and the other peculiar features of the area, formed, at this website operated by Queen's University in Belfast. 

Here, Eileen kindly provides readers with an indication of scale (also see our first picture of the Causeway, above). The pillars of the Organ seem to be weathering out in sections, giving them something of a resemblance either to an ancient Greek marble column or to an oversized set of children's toys.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
The path between the Boot and the Organ gave us a chance to enjoy some early spring flowers: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)…

Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana)
Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana)...

Common Scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis)
…and Common Scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis). Even among the handiworks of a giant, it's worth paying attention to the little things.

The Giants Causeway was really the last natural history-related stop on our Irish trip, but since I have broadened the usual scope of this blog to include some ancient monuments (hard to avoid in Ireland) I will end with a few pictures from the most famous of them. 

 This is Newgrange, and it dwarfed the dolmens, stone circles and so on that we had seen thus far. It's such a well-known and well-documented place that I don't need to say much about it here, except to encourage anyone visiting Ireland to go.   We spent our last morning in Ireland there before heading for the airport, and  there is something to think about in the jump from a 5000-year-old series of tombs (even a rather heavily–restored one)  to a jet flight across the Atlantic. 5000 years from now, will anyone remember us?

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