x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Take a seaside holiday with Victorian vistas in County Clare

Stunning scenery, charming towns, historical sites and good old Irish craic all make for a great summer holiday in County Clare.

The Doonagore Castle. Courtesy Tourism Ireland
The Doonagore Castle. Courtesy Tourism Ireland

The water is so chilly that I dip in a toe and beat a hasty retreat. The west coast of Ireland, with the waves rolling in from the Atlantic, is no place for wimps like me. But if I am not going to swim, I intend to savour the view.

Lahinch in County Clare is one of those perfectly rounded bays, flanked by grey-green hills, which belong to a Victorian seascape. The white of the clouds, scudding across the pale blue sky, is echoed by the white of the waves, imperious and incessant. Some of them seem to stretch right across the bay, two kilometres wide. Seagulls circle above the rock pools. Dogs scamper across the pale sand, with their owners struggling to keep up.

The surfers, bobbing up and down in their shiny black wetsuits, are in their element. So are the golfers, hacking their way across the links that skirt the bay. So are the families eating fish and chips at O'Looneys restaurant on the promenade, with the sun on their faces and the wind ruffling their hair.

It is a very Irish scene, redolent of seaside holidays in the 1950s, and if Lahinch seems unsophisticated compared with the Med or the Caribbean, it is none the worse for that. The lack of polish is part of the appeal: a reminder that life in the slow lane can sometimes be far more fun than life in the fast lane.

After lunch at O'Looneys, the haddock lip-smackingly good, we join the hackers on the golf course and, for the next four hours, enjoy the unique challenge that is links golf, where your best shots can be caught by gusts of wind and deposited in bunkers, and the only crime is to take the game too seriously.

Time and again, we stop, gulp in the sea air and marvel at the view - even more seductive than in the morning, with the sun starting to dip towards the sea and the fast-rolling waves acquiring a pinkish tinge. It is a sublime spot, totally unspoilt, and typical of one of the most evocative counties in Ireland.

Whether you are a golfer, a rambler or just a wanderer from place to place, Clare in summer ticks all the right boxes: stunning scenery; quirky little towns; terrific hospitality; fishing and horse-riding; traditional Irish music, joyous and life-affirming; and a spectral history dating back thousands of years.

In the heart of the county, much photographed, is a dolmen, or portal tomb, believed to date back to around 3500BC. Known as Poulnabrone, which in Irish means "hole of sorrows", it is a simple construction: a huge flat stone perched on top of two vertical stones. But, like Stonehenge, it was clearly a place of ritual and ceremony. When it was excavated in the 1980s, archaeologists found the bodies of 20-odd adults and children buried under the monument, along with weapons, stone axes, jewels and pottery.

More recent Irish history - the horrors of the Potato Famine of the mid 19th century, when countless thousands died - is commemorated in a roadside monument near Ennistymon. The beautifully designed monument shows an orphaned four-year-old boy waiting outside the door of the workhouse - the fate of all too many children of the era.

Geographically, the glory of County Clare, a magnet for visitors from around the world, is the Burren, a limestone escarpment which from a distance looks bare and forbidding but close to becomes a riot of colour, with flowers shooting up from every crevice and butterflies zig-zagging through the gorse bushes.

The area is a botanical wonderland, with Irish peat and heather competing with alpine plants that would look more at home in Austria or Switzerland. Hares and rabbits scuttle across a landscape of primitive simplicity.

On the southern edge of the Burren are the dramatic Cliffs of Moher: sheer rock-faces, nearly 200 metres high, buffeted by Atlantic winds. We inch towards the cliff-edge, take a peep at the waves, crashing against the rocks below, then retire to a safe distance. But it is not a place you forget in a hurry. The landscape has an elemental grandeur. Even the seagulls seem overawed by their surroundings, huddling on grassy ledges, not daring to venture too far from the cliffs.

If visitors to County Clare tend to gravitate towards the coast, the hinterland is equally beguiling. The county town of Ennis, where our hotel is situated, makes the perfect base. It is a snug, compact community, on the banks of the River Fergus, with a colourful history. There is a ruined Franciscan friary, dating back to the 15th century, a handsome monument commemorating the great Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell, known as The Liberator, and a maze of narrow lanes winding through the town centre.

The Ennis shops, varied and sophisticated, are a reminder that the Emerald Isle, geography notwithstanding, is at the heart of Europe. Old-style doilies and shamrock tea-towels have been superseded by French and Italian fashions. The traditional music shops are still there, and the painted shop-fronts belong to a 1950s stage set, but there are also hints of cafe society that would not be out of place in Prague. Old Ireland and New Ireland achieve a thrilling synthesis.

"And what'll you be having this glorious morning?" says the waitress in one cafe, where we have stopped for coffee. Her freckled face is wreathed in smiles and, for two pins, she would tell us her life story and give us a tip for the 2.30 at Leopardstown. There is a spontaneous friendliness about her that is quintessentially Irish.

Of the smaller towns in Clare, the Victorian spa town of Lisdoonvara is probably the best-known, if only because of the Matchmaking Festival which is held there every October, and attended by singletons from all over the world, in search of love. They would have more chance of finding it on the internet, but who can resist Irish hospitality at its unstinting best? The twinkling smiles and the rollicking sing-songs? The craic at the Matchmaking Festival is legendary and, yes, Cupid's arrow does occasionally penetrate the blarney.

If you are not looking for love, Ballyvaughan probably trumps Lisdoonvara. It is a picturesque little fishing village cum crafts centre, where you can buy hand-made jewellery, eye-catching modern sculptures and paintings by local artists. But the truth is that Clare has any number of nooks and crannies, from sleepy hamlets to winding country lanes, that are worth exploring.

Cows graze in the shadow of dilapidated castles, with rooks perched on the ramparts. Shoppers queue for fish, talking nineteen to the dozen. A woman pedals uphill on her bicycle, swearing under her breath. Horses prance into the distance, manes flowing.

The one disappointment of our holiday is a boat trip to the Aran Islands, one of the last redoubts of traditional Irish culture - pony-traps, wooden rowing boats, women in crocheted shawls, etc. The craggy scenery is glorious, but we have to share it with so many other people, as the tourist boats converge on the harbour, that the islands lose some of their charm.

We have better luck at another popular visitor attraction - the Ailwee cave, in the heart of the Burren. A tunnel links a series of underground caverns which have an eerie beauty that no amount of jostling tourists can spoil. Stalagmites and stalactites come at you from every direction. There is even a little rounded-out hollow where bears would once have hibernated - you can just make out the silhouette of a Stone Age Winnie the Pooh.

In a week of happy exploring, probably our favourite discovery is Corofin, not far from where the TV sitcom Father Ted was filmed. It is a small, friendly town, and boasts a picturesque lake, Lough Inchiquin, which looks like something out of an Irish fairy tale.

There is a ruined castle on the shore, its crumbling walls overrun with ivy, and in the heart of the lake, two diminutive wooded islands, where one could imagine leprechauns living. A white-haired fisherman in a skiff, bent over his rod, completes the picture.

At night, the heartbeat of Corofin is Bofey Quinns, a pub painted such a vivid orange that you hesitate before entering. But there is nothing wrong with the hospitality inside. A divine seafood chowder is followed by the juiciest of rump steaks. Guinness, of course, is available.

As the food settles, the live music starts and for, the next two hours, the bar is a sea of happy faces, enjoying sounds that have been heard in Ireland for centuries. The fiddler fiddles till his arm aches. The red-haired flautist gives it her all. Even the old man on the squeeze-box, his eyes half shut, exudes a serene passion.

Call me sentimental, but I can feel tears pricking my eye. Ireland is that sort of place, grabbing you every time with its homespun charm.