Travel # 17 -- April 6, 2005
The Burren with Mike, The Happy Cabbie

By Bob Corbett

Mike, the Happy Cabbie, arrived early and exactly on time to take us on our long visit to The Burren. It was a cold and rainy day, not looking very great for all the places we planned to get out and walk a bit, but not so heavy that we couldn’t do anything. One of those wait and see days….

We were well fortified with the huge Irish breakfasts which Mary served us. Her's were the best of the Irish breakfasts we ate. Her puddings were better and I just loved the way she cooked my sunny-side up eggs, which were neither runny nor hard, just that perfect place in between. Yellow goo!.

Mike fancies himself a comedian, which seems to be the case with all the Irish tour guides, and as we headed out of Ennis and toward our first stop at the Burren Visitor's center at Kenfora, he rattled on about Irish history, often illustrating things with a joke.

One was quite special since it was both funny and illustrative of an important moment in Irish history. As Mike told it: During the famine of 1845-48 millions of Irish either died or immigrated, especially to the U.S. At that time no Irish Catholic could own land, only Protestants. But, some Protestant groups did respond to the natural catastrophe of the potato famine and they ran soup kitchens. However, there was a price to be paid: If you wanted the soup, you had to convert to Protestantism, and for many that meant a change of name. As you know many Irish names begin with an "O" or a "Mc" or a "Mac" and so on. Those prefaces to the name were especially Catholic. So, if you wanted the soup you would have to change your name from, say, O'Connell or McDuffy to Connell and Duffy respectively. All this, said Mike, for a lousy watery soup which barely kept you alive.

As the years went on this name change became an identifier and if one retained one 'O' or 'Mc' and such, one was proud of one's family's ability to "keep the faith." and not have taken the hated soup.

The story Mike told takes place nearly 100 years after the famine in the time of WWII. As he tells it an important politician in Dublin was Mike O'Gorman. He was very popular and even an honest politician (okay, so I don't believe EVERYTHING Mike says). One evening at the local pub Mike O'Gorman was tipping a pint of Guinness when one of his neighborhood folks came in and very sincerely thanked Mike for his work and praised him, but getting his name wrong, saying, "Mr. Gorman, you're a good man for the distinct."

Mike leaped up, fire in his eyes, and screamed out: "O'Gorman, man, O'Gorman, we didn't eat the god dammed soup!"

A few more jokes later, and some wonderful natural history of the landscape we arrived at the tiny Burren Center. That was a great stop. We had to pay about 4.5 Euros each, but first there was a short film -- 15-20 minutes -- on the natural history, the flora and fauna of the Burren. So interesting. Then they opened a room for us and we went into the "Walk through history in the Burren." What a marvelous and well-done place. It was a set of curving hallways, lined with exhibits of The Burren as reconstructed in its natural history, from pre-historic times to the present. It went on and on, and was easy to spend nearly an entire exciting hour in that set of curing corridors.

Next we were back in the car and headed into The Burren itself. Here we first got FULL confirmation of what I have been maintaining in this whole journal -- the value of traveling by bus and not by car. Alas, there are no buses which can get much into the Burren, so a car (or bike or foot) are the only options. But, one can see very little. Mike has a lovely Mercedes cab, comfortable and such, but low as cars are. The stone walls, which line every road, are higher than the passengers sitting in the car, thus one can see so little. Having been on several buses up to now all over the place we were completely spoiled and terribly disappointed that we could see so little of the landscape. While I always had suspected this fact, it wasn't until we had done considerable touring in the buses and then expeiecing that radical contrast in Mike's cab that it really hit home was a TOTALLY different experience it is to tour in a bus than a car.

Mike's first stop was a small ancient church, and at that moment it wasn't raining so we got out and walked about. This is where the guide is a great help. He just knows this stuff backwards and forwards and is filled with detail and dates and such. I think at times a guide is worth more for what they know than their transportation. On the other hand, you also have to live with lots you don't want to know, or some very bad jokes as well. Mixed bag there.

The trip was long and marvelous. My favorite place is the huge dolman -- Druid burial altar -- in the center of the Burren. When we arrived there it was just pelting rain. We had our rain gear and really wanted to walk out into the rocky, moon-like area and get up to the dolman. Mike insisted there was no rush, we should just wait a bit. He was so insistent. We waited. And within 10 minutes the driving rain let up and just a slight drizzle was left. We got out, and much to our surprise, so did Mike and he walked with us across the stony field to the dolman. Now they have it roped off and you can’t approach fully (same as they do for Stonehenge in England). 20 some years ago when I was there there weren't any fences at all, no any other people either.

A decent photo of the dolman may be found at:

Photo of the Dolman

While we were there a group of cyclists came along. Oh my goodness they were utterly drenched and just freezing. I was so happy that we had changed our plans. Originally we were staying not at Ennis, but a tiny village in the Burren and were going to rent bicycles for three days of private touring. That fell through when the lady at the B&B wrote me that the bike rental place wasn't open that time of year, so we cancelled and opted for this cab tour. Wheeee, given the weather I was very happy. Those poor cyclists were just trembling and there is no shelter for miles and miles from where we were.

We pressed on and the rain persisted. We did get to see everything I had hoped we would, but didn't get out any more since it was just pouring.

After we left the Burren and moved to the coastal part of The Burren, the rain let up and it even cleared up some. This is when Mike sprang his surprise. I had thought I was utterly insistent: We just wanted The Burren, and didn't need any other parts of his tour. He had agreed to that. Now he said: Well, we have to go back to Ennis anyway, and this is one of the greatest roads in the area and almost no tourists have any idea of this road. No buses can use it since it is too narrow.

And then we took the sea road from Ballyvaughn to right before one gets to Doolin. It was a good 30 minute ride, maybe more and it was stunning, just stunning. On the left were the high hills of stone and rock that make up the western face of The Burren, so utterly stark without a blade of grass or anything else growing, just the eerie and awesome landscape. On the right, since we were headed south, was the Atlantic Ocean, and a very rough coast line with crashing waves. There were some fields both between the road and the sea and the first 50-100 years east of the road before getting to the rocks of The Burren. Here there were the constant stone walls and lots of sheep.

It was a very marvelous trip, rain and cold or not, and we returned to Ennis so very happy we had hired Mike, The Happy Cabbie, who does live up to his name. We asked to be dropped at The Old Ground Hotel to have a late meal, and Mike said he’d come in since he wanted to introduce us to his wife, who is a waitress there.

Despite the fact that the lunch time was long over and it was yet a bit too early for the dinner hour, it was packed. We did meet Mike's wife, but no table was open in her station, and besides were really hoped to get a table up in "the poet's corner." And we did, the table we liked the best, surrounded by all this lovely dark wood, and the books in the shelves behind the booth, the old red velvet-looking stools -- it was such marvelous atmosphere, and we had another stunning Old Ground meal.

By the way, after my last note about our arriving in Ennis and being guided to The Old Ground Hotel by our landlady, my former grade school classmate Larry Hillebrand, who is on this list wrote to say:

On our recent trip to the Old Sod, we stayed in the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis for several days. This was our central location for day trips touring of Western Ireland. A great place, great pub, great music, good eating... . Sometimes staying in hotels is worth it..... Larry

As I had mentioned we were not living at the hotel, but about 200 yards down the street at the Grey Gables B&B. But what a coincidence that Larry had stayed at the place we ate at for four awesome meals. (Two of those come several days later when we will return to Ennis.)

The Burren remains one of my favorite places in Ireland. However, it is hard to figure how to see it. I've been there three times, twice in a rental car, once in a cab. I would still like to visit The Burren by bicycle, over several days. It would be a hilly and difficult ride. It's definitely and up and down world. But The Burren cries out for slow movement, time to see and relish one of the most unusual Landscapes on the planet Earth.

Hmmmm, walking it? That's another option. There are definite walking trails and maps of those trails. That might well be an option as well.

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Bob Corbett