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Coastal walks, ancient legends and friendly pints in Ireland

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The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” the illustrious ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once claimed. In the village of Liscannor, perched on the west coast of Ireland, the charms and power of the sea mingle with ancient legends of magical leaping horses, golden keys lost in great battles, and a witch’s tragic, unrequited love.

It’s also where John Philip Holland was inspired to invent the modern submarine, where churches dating back to the 17th century continue to attract pilgrims from all over surrounding County Clare and the Aran Islands. And a mere five miles away, one of Ireland’s top attractions, the Cliffs of Moher, stand over 200 meters above the Atlantic Ocean, and give shelter to an estimated 30,000 cliff-dwelling birds. It’s no wonder it took Brian Hayden less than two days to decide to buy his holiday home here.

Brian’s Liscannor holiday home – Photo by Brian Hayden

“Liscannor didn’t immediately strike me as a holiday destination place,” Brian tells me from Limerick, Ireland. Thirteen years ago, Brian and his wife were searching for a holiday home somewhere near the sea when they drove by a house for sale in the tiny, relatively undeveloped village of Liscannor. “My son said ‘stop the car.’ He pointed to the house and said it ticked all the boxes in terms of what we were looking for. He was right! We bought that house two days later.”

The 1970s bungalow-style house was fairly “tired looking” when Brian and his wife bought it, but it sat in the middle of the village and overlooked the fishing harbour just across the street. “We got an architect who suggested ‘turning the house upside down’. We made it slightly higher, moved the living area upstairs for the views and moved the bedrooms downstairs. We ended up doing a lot of work, but love living upstairs with the fantastic views.”

As soon as Brian and his wife moved into the small village, they were warmly welcomed. Such sincere welcoming has brought them back nearly every weekend throughout autumn, spring and winter. “It’s a very friendly village,” Brian tells me. “It’s not unusual to meet someone who thought they were passing through some years previously and yet have remained there, as though captured by it beauty and tranquility.”

In Liscannor – Photo by Brian Hayden

Although County Clare abounds with natural beauty and rich history, it’s the small but lively community Brian speaks of most fondly. Brian parks up his car for the weekend and every afternoon and evening he’ll walk to one of the village’s four pubs, waving or stopping to chat to passers-by. Over a pint of Guinness, Brian will catch up on local gossip and join in with the sing-songs.

“The pubs have a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and everyone talks to everyone else,” Brian says. “You’re never alone when you go into the bar. There are sing-songs, and everyone who can sing—and, after a few drinks, even those who can’t—join in. There’s a lot of ‘self entertainment’!” When weather is nice, everyone moves outside the pub. “Sometimes you can’t find the bar staff on a fine day—they’re all outside.”

Liscannor has just one main street along which the four pubs and award-winning seafood restaurant Vaughans Anchor Inn welcome all. “Each pub has its own different characteristics,” Brian tells me. “During the winter one of the pubs has music on Sunday nights, with up to 10 musicians for a nice evening of music.” It’s also a beautiful area for walking, and the area has a history of flagstone quarrying. Sailing ships would pass through the harbour throughout the 1900s to transport the sought after Liscannor limestone. Today, it’s still exported all over the world.

Inside a local pub – Photo by Brian Hayden

Both walking and cycling around the village offer places of historical interest and fabulous views, although bicycles don’t last long in the salty air. Brian describes the area to me: “They say there’s so much wind there that trees won’t grow, and the shrubbery is bent over from prevailing winds off the Atlantic. We’re close to Burren National Park that’s a rocky landscape with almost no vegetation, and a great place to go walking along the undulating hills of about 1,000 feet.”

On the first day of spring, an open air mass brings together crowds of pilgrims at the nearby St. Brigid’s Well. The Celtic equivalent of the Roman Minerva and Greek Athena, Brigid’s spirit rests in a little house of votive offerings such as rosary beads, medals, pictures, and St. Brigid’s crosses. You can also walk to the local swimming area, Clahane, for a “refreshing” ice-cold plunge. “You have to jump straight into the water and then climb a steel ladder to get out again,” Brian says, laughing. In the summer, the population swells with families holidaying and tourists visiting; golfers and surfers abound.

Another popular activity is taking a boat ride around the harbour to view the birds in the Cliffs of Moher—a UNESCO Geopark you might recognize from scenes in The Princess Bride or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. “It’s like living in apartment or tenement buildings, with birds living on ledges above one another and it’s fascinating to watch,” says Brian. The Cliffs stretch for 8 km and are a diverse example of a cliff-nesting seabird colony in Ireland, including Atlantic puffins, hawks, gulls, guillemots, shags, ravens, and choughs.

“It’s like going to a different world away from the city and the hubbub,” Brian says thoughtfully. “You’re transformed immediately into a sense of tranquility, a slower pace and feeling that you’re closer to nature. When I’m by the sea, I feel a great sense of being on the edge between space and earth.”