A soft mantle of green fields and hills and shallow lakes and streams cloaks most of Ireland. But here and there Nature has made a dramatic flourish, perhaps as a reminder of her awesome power. The Cliffs of Moher are one of her boldest gestures in Ireland’s otherwise gentle landscape. Looming out of the Atlantic in a jagged concertina of sheer rock, these dark cliffs stretch for 5 miles (8km) along the County Clare coast.
There is nothing gentle about the Cliffs of Moher – no sandy bays at their feet, no grassy slopes on their feet, no grassy slopes on their flanks, no delicate flowers on their headlands. They rise sheer from the sea to a lofty 670ft (200m), and although the ocean batters at their base with artillery of wind and wave, they seem capable of withstanding attack for ages to come.
Daunting indeed is the Atlantic at this point. Each foam-capped wave piles over the backwash of the one before and explodes against the cliffs in a turmoil of dark blue and grey. And on all but the calmest days, man or beast venturing near the precipitous edge of the cliffs is drenched in salty spray whipped up by the westerly winds.
Standing on the clifftop is an eerie experience. The thump and roar of the waves in the churning cauldron below the cliff face appear to be mute. Only when they soar upwards on a sudden gust can their piercing cries be heard.
On a stormy day, nowhere in the British Isles can be more inhospitable yet more exhilarating. At the base of the cliffs, a thick fringe of coffee-coloured foam hurls rock fragments high, and the cliff face takes on the blackness of the rain clouds overhead. Slabs of the white-flecked gunmetal-grey sea complete the leaden, monochrome effect.
Although they seem invulnerable, the cliffs are slowly crumbling. Sections occasionally plummet into the sea, sheared off by the combined action of the rain, which loosens the Clifftop soil, and wind-borne salt, which eats into the rock face. It was in the sea that the cliffs began their story. Their limestone base (myriad skeletons of minute sea creatures) was laid down over 300 million years ago. Century by century, the sea deposited more overlays of different coloured sandstones and shale; all were eventually pushed above the surface by continental movements.