I'm awoken by the beeping sound of a garbage truck: hostels are not known for their thick walls.

Wandering downstairs, the desk person tells me about a 20€ tour that goes past the Cliffs of Moher. I'm not usually one for tours of any sort, but I go for it on a whim. Heading around the corner, I stop by the cash machine (which warns me to be alert for skimming) and then pick up a veggie bap for breakfast. Not twenty minutes later, I'm on a bus heading out of town.

But it's hard to either read or really enjoy the scenery because the bus-driver-tour-guide keeps talking. The whole time. Without any stop.

Except when we stop: “We'll take five or ten minutes here at the castle for photographs!”

So here's the obligatory castle photo:

But, if I walk us around the castle, we can see the intertidal zone. Much more interesting, don't you think?

Too soon, we're pulled back onto the road, and then driven for a photographic stop at an abandoned monastery. It seems obvious, as I walk around and through its now-roofless halls, that this is simply the last stage of a monastery's life. You start out with a fine building, and then you begin to stash dead bodies in it. Eventually, all the space under the floor, and much of the space in the walls, becomes filled with bodies and plaques telling you about them. At that point, you strip the roof and build a new monastery somewhere. And then other continue putting in grave markers for good measure. The cemetary outside simply wanders in through the monastery's doors and windows without a noticeable break.

Next stop: a pub, for coffee. Anyone who has a deal with a tour company like this must make a killing. I wonder how such deals are made and kept, and how this affects a community. It's on a different order of magnitude, but in Alaska a pre-requisite for a cruise ship making a stop at a town is that the cruise company literally be given ownership of a street. The street is then filled with souvenior shops and bars of a generic nature. Though this would probably happen naturally just by the presence of a ship. None of the places we stop at are so obviously corrupted, but, then again, it's hard to differentiate as an outsider.

We stop at what the driver calls a “fairy circle/fairy fort”. I know there's probably an interesting history to this, and maybe he's even explained it (though he's much more fond of speaking about it in terms of fairies). But the truth is, he's said so much and so much of what he's said has been uninteresting that I've just tuned him out.

(I later look it up and they are usually the remains of ringforts, hillforts, are circular dwellings, though the superstitions around them are strong.)

You can tell from the width and compaction of the path that this is a frequent tour stop. The driver shepherds us around the circle in a clockwise fashion.

Then we drive up and into the austere, and somewhat bleak, landscape of the Burren and its ancient, exposed, weathered, and glaciated bedrock.

After that, the bus winds towards the coast, leaving the Burren behind, and there's a stop for lunch.

I think the part that impresses me most about the Cliffs is not really the cliffs themselves, but the drive up to them. The Cliffs exist on a grand scale which defies comprehension and, while visiting them, it's hard to get a sense of their full scale. But, on the drive up, we're passing simple homes and farmsteads and, looking out or down towards them, you can really feel how the earth simply stops just beyond. An abrupt line and then the sea juxtaposed in a way which feels, on a deep level, unsettling.

We've got 1.5 hours at the Cliffs, which is really the reason I've taken the tour. And we're free to roam, so I can get away from the tour guide. After a bathroom stop, I head up towards O'Brien's Tower where I discover I don't have the 2€ I need to get to the top. But it's no matter, the view from the ground is shocking enough. The Cliffs are far larger, far more dramatic than I'd anticipated. My brain looks at them and understands that they are high. If I stare long enough, it will even calculate how high. But it buggers me belief.

But there's another thing. From the top of a cliff, it's very difficult to see or get a sense of it. And so it is here, you never see the cliffs as a whole, only patches of them that, taken in aggregate, form a mental image of the whole. The experience of the Cliffs then is more of sensation than reality, a patchwork of memories from which you construct your beliefs about what you are seeing.

I have a few pictures that show the full extent of a portion of the cliffs, but let me try to construct for you, in photographs, what it is that you really see. There's not a lot of scale to these images, but the little white specks you see (look for them!) are seagulls and sometimes you can make out little people on the tops of the cliffs (look for them too!).

Eventually, my walking takes me to a part of the cliffs where I encounter a number of promising signs. Naturally, I ignore them all. The trail I am now following is indication enough that countless others have done the same.

I think this part of the walk is my favourite. Without the railings and protective walls, the feeling of being by the cliffs changes. In most places, I am no closer to the edge than I was before—indeed, by the visitor's center there are places where the wall goes within a few feet of the edge—but the wall forms not only a physical, but a psychological barrier.

It's inconceivable that, barring the sudden appearance of a hurricane, I would accidentally move five feet to my right and hit the edge. This doesn't happen. But, all the same, the edge is there and it tempts you to think not in probabilistic terms, but in possibilistic terms. Is it probable that my legs will suddenly have uncontrollable muscle spasms? Is it probable that a sixty mile per hour gust will appear out of the blue on a fairly calm day? Is it probable that I will suddenly faint and then slide across level, gravelly ground?

No. But it's all on the outside edge of possible.

Frequently differentiation between probability and possibility turns into a tug-of-war between a calculated and rational understanding of a situation and our emotions and fears.

Is it probable that the plane will crash? Is it possible?

Sometimes the cost of thinking possibilistically is low.

Is it probable that I will need the seat belt? Is it possible?

Other times, it can be quite high.

Is it probable that the 80-year-old grandmother the TSA is searching will have a bomb? Is it possible?

Other times it is very difficult to know.

Is it probable that a gun will make me safer? Is it possible?

Is it probable that I'll get mugged? Is it possible?

But the exercise is not without point. A good understanding of the odds allows us to approach life with confidence, choosing what it is we want to do with the confidence that we are not at the whims of reality. One of the purposes of science is to quantify what, exactly, the odds are.

There are a few places where deep cracks run through the soil, but I see these far ahead of time and steer well clear of them. I walk along the cliffs for a very long ways, until I have only fifteen minutes to get back to the bus. Then I turn and jog back along the tops, in those places where it's safe.

Mercifully, on the trip back the bus driver does stop talking. We make only one stop, closer to the sea.


And here are some long-shots of the cliffs, showing them from top to bottom. Pretty, but not, I think, as representative.




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Little cousin - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 23:18:44 (PST)
Cousin, these are absolutely breathtaking photos. You can exchange cliff stories with Andrew!

home - Thursday, December 8, 2016 at 04:40:03 (PST)
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