The Cliffs of Moher- Tourist Trap or Must Visit Destination?
If you've ever considered a visit to Ireland, you may have come across dozens of articles and hundreds of pictures of the Cliffs of Moher, with a tad bit about O'Brien's Tower thrown in. I am well aware that there is a variety of opinions. Some writers recommend avoid the Cliffs, calling them a tourist trap. Other writers declared the Cliffs an essential destination on an Ireland itinerary. I am not so presumptuous to assume that I can resolve the question for any potential visitor. But I will throw out my vote on the side of "Must See Destination," and share why.
Before I planned my trip to Ireland, I actually had NOT heard of the cliffs. Giant’s Causeway was a place I had dreams about. I HAD to go there. I was also vaguely familiar with the Irish Tourism Board promotion of the Wild Atlantic Way, so I thought a bit of driving along the coast would be lovely. Otherwise, I had a strange fascination with the idea of Irish Holy Wells, and a driving need to reconnect with the area of my father's ancestry. Between all of that, I had an agenda. But, because of the strong suggestions of friends who had already made the venture across the pond, I started investigating a few other locations, including the Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular and widely visited natural attractions. They have been written about by dozens of travel websites and blogs. They are strongly promoted by the Irish Tourism Board. They have even been featured in some hugely popular movies, such as the Princess Bride, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But none of this should come as a surprise as the Cliffs have been wowing tourists since the early 19th century. In fact, O’Brien’s Tower, the small circular castle-like building that stands at the highest point of the cliffs, was built specifically for tourists of the time, back in 1835.
Regular readers already know that I am a great big history nerd. For me, no story is truly complete without a bit of the history and back story behind the destination. So, why is that little castle-like tower standing there near the highest point atop the Cliffs of Moher?
It began with a man named Cornelius O’Brien. He was a wealthy landowner, owning most of the land in the areas surrounding the Cliffs. He was well-educated and extensively involved in politics, working as an attorney, proctor and solicitor, and serving as magistrate. Like most landowners in Ireland at the time, he was also a landlord. Unlike many others, he was also a man ahead of his time, in his views on economics and social policy. Cornelius was the man behind the works done at the Cliffs, and throughout a portion of County Clare, and the tower is named for him to this day.
It is a sad fact that when natural attractions are discovered, then developed for tourism, the changes that are made are often done at the detriment of the local community, or the environment. While this still occurs to a degree today, it was almost universally the case in the 1800s. What may come as a surprise, is that O’Brien’s Tower, and the other works that will built for visitors at that time, were built-in a way, to improve the community, and help the poor peasants of the area.
For centuries, the Irish people were harshly oppressed, and poverty was widespread. During the 1800s, the suffering of the Irish poor was at its worst. Many landlords evicted their poor tenants for the inability to pay the rent. This was one factor contributing to the densely populated workhouses, and the mass migrations to countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia.
Cornelius O’Brien on the other hand, handled things a bit differently. Rather than evicting his poor tenants, he waived their rents and provided them with work when possible. Foreseeing the benefits tourists would have on the local economy, he sponsored many public works which would encourage visitors. These public works also provided work for the poor. These works included building roads throughout County Clare, to improve transportation, and various projects at the Cliffs.
O’Brien’s Tower was built near the center and highest point of the Cliffs, which is just over 700 feet high. This would provide the absolute best view possible. Round, picnic type seating areas were also added at the foot of the tower, and stables were built nearby. Cornelius then decided that flagstone fencing was necessary at the Cliffs of Moher, for the safety of visitors.
The flagstone was quarried from the end of the cliffs, near Liscannor. It is essentially compressed sedimentary rock, formed over millions of years. Liscannor flagstone contains the fossilized remains of sea life, in particular eels. When the stone is quarried, the result is sheets of rock that are about 3 by 3 feet, and a few inches thick. A full mile of the fence was installed along the highest point of the Cliffs. This flagstone guarding not only protected visitors from the high winds and abrupt edge of the cliffs, it also made them feel more comfortable during their visits.
The facilities built at the Cliffs of Moher would serve visitors from across Ireland, and nearby England for decades. After Cornelius death though, it seemed no one else understood the significance of the Cliffs, whether for Tourism and economical benefit, or any other reason, and no one took the baton. Gradually, as travel became more available, the tower and walkways began to deteriorate. It wasn't until the 1970s, that the area once again was recognized. The picnic tables and stables were removed, but the tower was refurbished, and the first official visitor's center was added.
Today, at the main visitor’s area of the Cliffs, the flagstone walk and fences have also been fully refurbished. Observant visitors may note the tiny fossils in the flagstone. The tower has also been refurbished, and visitors can again climb the narrow spiral staircase to peer the view from the top. It all stands as a testament to the durability of the Irish character, and the foresight of Cornelius O’Brien.
Visitors come from around the world to experience the majestic views from the Cliffs. Many visitors adapt their entire Ireland itinerary, to make a stop at the cliffs. It is said that on a clear day the view from the tower stretches to the mountains in Connemara, known as the 12 Bens, to the north, the Aran islands to the northwest, and to the Loop Head and the Napoleonic signal tower, to the south. Even when it is not so clear, the views are impressive, as our photos reveal.
How The Cliffs Came into Existence
Believe it or not, millions of years ago, the area of the Cliffs was near the mouth of a powerful river, that flowed from the southwest. During what was known as the Upper Carboniferous period, there were very heavy rains, that washed sediments into the river's flow. These sediments, which included sand, mud and silt, flowed down river to a great delta, where they dumped into the sea. We see the same processes occur in our powerful rivers today.
The deposited sediments pile up, and over millions of years, begin to compress. The forming of sedimentary rock always occurs by the process of various sediments piling up, and then compressing. This means a particular rock is relatively unique to its location, because of the specific combination of sediments from the surrounding areas. It also means that the rock forms in layers, that are clearly visible when erosion occurs, which is true of many natural wonders that were formed by the erosion of sedimentary rock, such as the Grand Canyon.
The different types of rocks forming the Cliffs of Moher include types of siltstone, sandstones, mudstone, and shale. An individual layer may be only a few centimeters thick, or more than a meter thick. Each layer holds the mysteries of the surrounding environment, during the time it was formed, through the speicifc composition of the sediment, and through the fossils it contains.
The shape and face of the Cliffs is constantly evolving, due to the ever-present coastal erosion that takes place. Wind, rain, and ice, are all contributing factors, but the primary force is the power of the Atlantic, and the continuous crashing of the waves. This erosion eats away at the surface of the rock, leaving cracks, crevices and caves. Portions of the Cliffs separate, forming the sea stacks and sea stumps we see today. And, as the bottom layers of rock weaken, portions of the top collapse, as the weight can no longer be supported. The Cliffs we see today will not be the same as those our grandchildren see.
The Modern Cliffs of Moher Visitor's Center
In 2007 a modern visitor's center was built. The center was designed to be environmentally friendly, and to balance the desire to share the wonder of the Cliffs with the world, yet cause as little disruption to the ecology of the area as possible. The center is built into the hillside, to not disrupt the views of the landscape. It cannot be seen from the parking area, and it is barely noticeable until you are near the entrance.
The center features gift shops, washrooms, first-aid care, and a cafe. The highlight though, is the Cliffs of Moher Experience, featuring multi-media and interactive exhibits, to educate visitors about the geology of the Cliffs, as well as the wildlife and human impacts. Rangers and Geologists are onsite to answer visitor questions.
Expanding the Cliffs of Moher Experience
Standing at the edge of the Cliffs, climbing O’Brien’s Tower, and visiting the museum at the visitor’s center, is as far as most visitors go. These things make a great experience. But to get the full feeling of the cliffs, we highly recommend going beyond that. Guided tours are available, departing from the visitor’s center, or the nearby town of Doolin. There are also Cliffs Cruises, that also depart from the pier in Doolin.
We booked a cruise online in advance, which is of course the best way to go to guarantee a trip at a particular time. If you opt to take a cruise or hike, take a jacket! The winds on the Atlantic can be bitter, even in warmer months Most of the boats have some heat inside, but for the best views and pictures, you will want to be outside on the boat.
The cruise will give an entirely different perspective to the Cliffs. Cracks and weakness of the rocks that cannot be seen from the top are visible. The layers and striations of the rock are striking. The full length can be grasped at one time, once the boat is in the right location. O’Brien’s Tower appears quite small in relationship to the height and length of the Cliffs. And of course, tiny hikers can also be seen, skirting the edge as the make their way.
The cruise also provides a close up opportunity to see some of the sea stacks and sea stumps. The great sea stack, which towers beneath O'Brien's Tower, is known as Branaunmore. I must point out this name is Gaelic, and I do not have the proper Gaelic phonetic symbols. But it interprets to roughly mean The Big Prince, or The Rook. It is speculated this name stems from the resemblance of Branaunmore to a chess piece. Indeed it is quite majestic from the water's surface.
There are thousands of seabirds who make their summer homes on the face of the Cliffs and the sea stacks. The Cliffs have been designated as a Special Protection Area for Birds, under the EU Birds Directive. They boast the largest mainland colonies of cliff nesting seabirds in Ireland, including some species that are diminishing throughout the rest of Europe, such as Atlantic Puffins. The families of guillemot and razorbills, are known to be of numbers that are internationally important. Likewise, puffins, kittiwakes, and fulmars reside in numbers that are recognized as significant.
When I saw the stone columns, or sea stacks, in the Atlantic from the top of the cliffs, I believed the white stripes on the rock to be striations in the stone, geologically formed. To my surprise, when our boat pulled next to the towering rock, I learned that these white stripes were actually droppings from the huge colony of guillemot. It was an amazing sight, thousands of seabirds, living their lives there.
UNESCO Status for the Cliffs of Moher and Burren National Park
The drive between the visitors center and Doolin only takes a few minutes. Doolin is a small quaint town, known for it’s folk music. There are a few gift shops and well reputed pubs for refreshment. Lodging is also available near Doolin, and the surrounding areas, for those who want to take their exploration of County Clare beyond the Cliffs. The entire area has an intriguing history and unique natural attractions.
In fact, the area has the distinction of being one of only 127 areas worldwide that have been recognized by UNESCO under the new category of UNESCO Global Geoparks. This recognition is well-deserved, and from my perspective, pays tribute to the vision of Cornelius O'Brien.
Most people are familiar with the UNESCO World Heritage sites, but this new category only launched in 2015, so it is not so widely familiar. So what exactly does this new category of distinction mean? It is best to use the UNESCO description.
UNESCO Global Geoparks are single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development. A UNESCO Global Geopark uses its geological heritage, in connection with all other aspects of the area’s natural and cultural heritage, to enhance awareness and understanding of key issues facing society, such as using our earth’s resources sustainably, mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing natural disasters-related risks.
A lot more information about the surrounding areas is available at the Official Geopark Website. The Burren, with its Karst limestone formations, give an otherworldly feeling to visitors. For archeology buffs, there are remains that are thousands of years old, including ancient portal tombs. For the history lovers, there are stone fort ruins, castle towers, and other historic structures. For environmental travelers, there are over 1,100 plant species, and 28 different types of butterflies thriving in the Burren environment, as well as caves to explore. And, for those who want some physical activity, there are walking and hiking trails, biking trails, and surfing is great in the area at certain times of year!
Our Stance on the Cliffs of Moher - A Must Visit Destination!
As I mentioned at the onset of this article, I am very glad that we made the decision to visit the Cliffs of Moher, and to see O’Brien’s Tower. In a country with innumerable incredible places to visit, I still consider it one of the must see locations. I also personally feel that the boat trip is almost as essential for the experience, as standing at the edge. My reasons why..
- The views really are stunning, as is the entire drive to get there, and depart, in any direction. You get some amazing photo opportunities.
- The science aspects- geology and biology- are fascinating, and there is an opportunity to learn more about it.
- There are chances to see flora, fauna, and minerals, close up, if the timing is right. If you go at the right time of year, dolphins and whales can also be seen offshore!
- I love the history of the area, and what it reveals about the Irish people. It tells me a little about the character of my ancestors.
- The entire area is set up in a sustainable way, unlike many other major attractions around the world. The communities and residents all play a role in the management of the Cliffs and the Burren.
- I LOVE sightseeing boat cruises.
- UNESCO recommends it!
If you love natural wonders, geology, bird watching, or incredible views, when in Ireland, make the visit, and take the cruise. Until then, you can watch the Princess Bride again, and as the Dread Pirate Wesley climbs the Cliffs of Insanity, enjoy the experience vicariously.
A few tips for your visit:
- The main cliffs visitors area is very busy during late spring and summer months. Purchase tickets in advance on their website, to ensure entrance.
- Visit after 5:00 to get the smallest crowds. In spring and fall this might also afford you with the chance to see the sun set over the Atlantic
- The visitors parking lot is on the opposite side of the road, so it can be confusing.
- The area is known to be windy all year round. On top of the Cliffs, hang on to your belongings, as it is not unheard of for items to be lost to the wind, and over the edge.
- Stay on the paths. The surface near the edge of the Cliffs can be unstable due to the constant erosion taking place. In other words, the ground can be crumbling from beneath, which is not apparent at sight.
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