It's easy to miss the part of Ireland that has been spared the crushing banality of mass tourism. To find an older Ireland that hasn't been Europeanized or modernized by the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger, go to County Clare, a place known to most tourists only for Shannon Airport and its featureless, even ugly surroundings. People don't dally there. Some poor souls take 20-minute bus rides from the airport to "castles" where they "feast" at "banquets" served by "maidens" in long medieval costumes and are serenaded by joyless harp music. The maidens, you can be sure, chain-smoke on the way home to Limerick after work and turn their radios to the sounds of the Tree Frogs or Calamity.
Those who have avoided theme-park Ireland are through Clare in an hour or less, going down to Kerry and its famous Ring, or up to Galway and Connemara. But you can find that place that is no longer "the back of beyond," that still resists modernity, by heading for the Atlantic and following the towns north. Quilty, Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna, Kilfenora, Corofin, Doolin . . . their lovely names a soft musical gateway leading to the heart of the Burren (from the Irish bhoireann, a barren, rocky place), that magnificent, otherworldly landscape of limestone mountains, rocky valleys, underground rivers and fields of stone that covers more than 100 square miles of northwest Clare.
Before a tour proper of the Burren, it's good to sample some traditional rural pub life. Not a clean chrome bar attached to a hotel with a fiddler competing wearily with CNN or, God help you, Britain's Sky News. Try, instead, Cooley's on Ennistymon's main street on a weeknight when there's music.
In the packed bar, two fellows with guitars, in clothes they've worked in all day coaxing cattle into trucks, will work just as hard playing without pause for 3 1/2 hours. No banter with the crowd (which at times pays no attention anyway), just guitars and singing, running through their repertory of 25 tunes and beginning again. The crowd-pleasers are violent rebel ballads of hangings and English evil, or cornball country-and-western about fractured romance and flamboyant boozing.
Here there is noise, and life, the country girls shy but convinced it is the height of sophistication to order vodka and Pepsi. The boys pound down pints, speaking too loudly with each other, thinking their frightened peeks at the girls are expressions of manly boldness. The ladies' room is, as one woman said to her friend, with a shake of the head, "Oh, God, desperate. Just desperate."
The facilities are one thing, but the crack (conversation) is good, as you're led to an old man who predicts the weather in the old way, by "signs."
"There's no doubt," he says, with great solemnity, "it will be a bright summer. The crows are building their nests high in the trees along the Cullenagh. And the dolphins have returned to Doolin. It augers well."
Even though television in just 20 years has eradicated a peasant culture that endured for a millennium, there is still talk of the old superstitions. Some farmers on the Burren are reluctant to cut bushes or move stones because of a power protecting the objects. Wells have been considered holy, not just water holes, since long before Christianity replaced pagan beliefs.
Drive north out of Ennistymon toward Kilfenora, along the narrow road bordered by rock walls. These lacelike fences are designed to stand when savage Atlantic gales blow through. Within a few minutes the Burren opens out, a place that constantly changes, sometimes minute to minute.
Your first encounter can reveal it as an eerie, even ominous place. In its limestone fields there is little color, and the Burren picks up its character from the changing sky, which seems to be, after a while, part of the land. The sky can change on a breeze from blue to moody gray, to high rushing clouds black as rage, and then back to innocent sun once more, all in the space of half an hour. And so the Burren changes its shape and its emotion.
Although it may look lifeless, it is not. Rare plants grow from fissures in the limestone. Arctic and Alpine flowers grow side by side, some botanists theorizing that this mystery is because of the Gulf Stream winds washing over Ireland. It's more likely that the geologists have it solved; seeds left by the glacial breakup of the Ice Age took root, as the receding masses scoured and shaped the bald Burren hills and left the enormous sculptured "pavements" of stone.
It is, most of the time, as quiet as a desert, and hiking through it under that huge amphitheater of changing sky produces a sense of time as a vivid, tactile object. It's no wonder the Cistercians came from France in 1194 and built Corcomroe Abbey as a place of meditation for the monks. Just outside the crossroads village of Bellharbour, it still stands, in excellent repair, at the head of a "dry" valley. Dry because most of the streams are underground, running through a vast honeycomb of caves.
Another 12th-century church, Kilnaboy, near Corofin, is also in remarkable shape, and has one of the three or four best representations of a sheela-na-gig in Ireland. These are stone carvings of female figures, legs open, exposing their genitals unashamedly. They are Celtic representations of fertility, but also a celebration of and belief in female sexual power.
The early Christians incorporated the image into their architecture, but without comment. (The Irish are the way they are, for better and worse, because of the tension, still apparent today, between these pagan and Christian traditions.)
The current economic boom, the first in Irish history, has brought another set of tensions to the people who live and farm in the Burren. Mary Nagle and her family live in a farmhouse not far from Ennistymon, tending a herd of 80 cows. A bright-eyed woman in her fifties, she bustles around her sitting room getting tea, her wash hanging near a wall where an image of the Infant Jesus of Prague stares out next to a calendar and, tellingly, a map of Europe.
The European Union has brought money and new agricultural techniques to Clare. Pesticides and weed killers are now used, as is slurry fertilizing, a system of intense concentration of manure to create more green spaces. This is eating away parts of the land.
When Nagle was young, she left Clare and went, as did many young women, to England to train as a nurse. She feels fortunate she can live and prosper in the place she was born, even though she knows the new methods could change the natural world she loves. She is torn between that old Irish axiom--you can't eat scenery--and the belief that interfering with nature can have disastrous effects.
"The Burren," she says, "is a place people come to who are seeking something."
One of those things is music, the best traditional music in Ireland. Clare is known as "the music county" because, as Noel O'Donoghue, 35, says in the kitchen of his farmhouse near Kilfenora, "it's never stopped being played. There was never a need for a 'revival' of the music. It's never been 'old,' it's just been here. In pubs, at house parties that went from dusk till dawn with tea, cakes, something stronger, and dancing and music."
O'Donoghue plays flute for the group Moher, which performs seven nights a week when home in Clare and tours as far afield as the United Kingdom, Holland and Italy.
"I love to travel," O'Donoghue says. "I always like the road, seeing places, meeting different people, hearing different music. But then, I like it here, I like it at home. It hasn't really changed all that much since I was a young lad. It stays the way it is." He was searching for another description, but then nodded his head toward the window, and no more needed to be said.
The view from the kitchen is of a long Burren valley full of yellow gorse, daisies and buttercups. Fragile primroses dot depressions in the land. Beyond is a rise of newly planted evergreens under a treeless, dazzling-white rise of foothills. Sun shadow moves slowly over the limestone ridges, creating fluid purple and black forms.
Seamus Heaney, Ireland's Nobel laureate for poetry and no sentimentalist, was struck by the unique and deep beauty of northwest Clare and the effect a visit can have. In a poem called "Postscript," Heaney writes:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore . . .
You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass,
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Ambrose Clancy, a New York writer, is the author of the novel "Blind Pilot" (William Morrow).
GETTING THERE: Aer Lingus offers nonstop service to Shannon from Boston, Newark and JFK airports and is quoting a round-trip fare of $814, with restrictions and including add-on fare from Washington. Quilty and Miltown Malbay are about an hour's drive north of the airport.
WHERE TO STAY: Berry Lodge (Annagh, Miltown Malbay, telephone 011-353-65-87022) is an old country house set in the fields with sea views, just south of Spanish Point. It's inexpensive and comfortable, and the food is superb. Run by Rita Meade and a staff of women, Berry Lodge is a serious cooking school that has just added a spacious lounge next to the large dining room, and restoration of the walled garden is in the works. Ask for a room at the front of the house.
WHERE TO EAT: Barrtra (telephone 011-353-65-708-1280), off the Lahinch/Miltown Malbay coast road, down a narrow farm lane, is a small house with one of the best kitchens in the West of Ireland. The view looks out on pastures to Liscannor Bay. The local fish, mussels and lobster, prepared by Teresa O'Brien, are sophisticated and delightful. The menu has wit as well, with things like gin-and-tonic sorbet (real gin, real tonic).
Bruach na hAille in Doolin (telephone 011-353-65-74120), a cottage in the upper village near a humpbacked bridge over a stream running to the sea, is a place to spend a little more to eat well--an unpretentious (but serious) and wonderful restaurant. The Doolin pottery used here is simple and beautiful.
PUBS: O'Brien's, on Main Street in Miltown Malbay, is one of the most unusual pubs in Ireland. In the West, pubs can also serve as post office, hardware and grocery store, leather shop, etc. O'Brien's is simply a pub, but stepping from the street inside is like falling down the rabbit hole with Alice. It is the size of a walk-in closet, brightly lit, with two stools at a four-foot bar. One Guinness tap. Three feet from the bar is a low bench covered in red velvet cushions. Joe Murray, not a large man himself, keeps everything crisp to the final detail. Have a whiskey or a pint, and see if you can stop smiling at the perfection of the miniature pub.
At Croi na Bhoirean in Caraan, an old Gardai (the national police of Ireland) barracks has been connected to a pub and restaurant by Michelle and Robert Cassidy. This spacious place is literally, as its name says, in "the heart of the Burren." There are spectacular views down an ever-changing valley and a turlough, a "disappearing lake," that can be fully flooded in winter, then disappear in summer down "swallow holes."
MUSIC: Everywhere. O'Connor's, in Doolin, is Carnegie Hall for traditional music. In the upper village, try McDermott's, where the music starts late and plays late.
HIKING, FISHING, PROVISIONS: Wall's, on Main Street in Ennistymon, has everything you need, and at good prices. Owners Vince and Pat both know and love the Burren. Talk to Pat about the Burren Action Group, the most committed environmental organization on the scene, protecting the Burren from development and exploitation.
GUIDES: Christy Browne (Fertile Rock Study Tours, Station Road, Lahinch, 011-353-65-81168), a scholar of the Burren's history, geology, botany, animal life and folklore, is a raconteur, wit, teacher, gentleman and boon companion. If you want to know anything or everything about Clare and the Burren, give him a call. No one is even close to Christy Browne as a guide of the Burren's mysteries and gifts.
CAPTION: The rugged terrain of the Burren in County Clare features limestone mountains and rocky valleys.