Doolin is a gem of a small town, augmented in the tourist season by thousands of visitors. They swell the population temporarily, filling bed-and-breakfasts, vacation homes, hostels and hotels. We visited during the season, and found that someone walking on the road was more likely from the U.S. or Germany or other parts of Ireland than from Doolin itself.
The town lies at the edge of the Burrens, a fragile ecosystem growing from shallow layer of soil atop a limestone base. Traditional small holdings keep cattle and sheep, grazing them in stone-walled pastures and raising hay for winter. A farm may comprise several stone-walled fields, not all contiguous, so grazing rotation moves animals from one field to another.
In Doolin, we stayed at Dubhlinn House bed and breakfast, close to everything, but quiet and restful. Martin Riley, our host, served up a terrific choice of breakfasts every morning from traditional Irish, with eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, sausage and white pudding to “fake Irish” with beans substituting for the meat. One of our other favorites was the smoked salmon served alongside scrambled eggs. Brown bread or white toast topped by Irish butter and homemade strawberry jam completed the meal, enough to carry us far into the day. (I’m sure the many other B&B places also have good breakfasts, too.)
We came for the Doolin Folk Festival in June, but there are plenty of other festivals. Doolin also hosts a Craft Beer festival in August, the Micho Russell Memorial Weekend in February, the Writers’ Weekend in March. Just six kilometers from Doolin, Lisdoonvarna, home of the September matchmaking festival, is a short drive and worth visiting at any time of the year.
Aside from festivals, music fills Doolin’s pubs as part of the town’s culture, tradition and daily life. The pubs, restaurants and shops are distributed up and down a main road. Goods range from souvenirs at the Shaggy Sheep to fine woolen goods at The Sweater Shop and music and books next door.
The ferry to the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher is at the Doolin pier, just two kilometers from the center of town. Inis Oírr (Inisheer), the smallest of the islands, lies just 30 minutes from the pier.
For an easy day trip, take the ferry, have lunch at a pub, and then tour the island with a pony trap and driver. From the Bronze Age cairn to the 20th century shipwreck, the island has plenty of history. For a longer visit, or for a visit to the larger island of Inis Mór (Inishmore), plan on an overnight stay at a B&B or hotel.
Leaving Inis Oírr on an afternoon ferry, we cruised to the Cliffs of Moher. Towering 700 feet above the ocean, their forbidding grandeur stretches for five miles along the coast. One of the dark sea caves provided a suitably mysterious setting for the Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince movie in 2009. The Princess Bride and several other movies also filmed on the Cliffs. The visitor’s center at the top of the Cliffs offers splendid vistas, hiking trails, and O’Brien’s Tower to climb.
June is prime time for puffins — nesting season on the cliffs. Puffins and sea gulls (herring gulls) and a few ducks floated, flew and circled the ferry during all of the trip, but when we drew close to the cliffs, their numbers multiplied. Parallel lines of puffins lined the ridges up a huge crag that rose from the ocean near the cliffs. They stood close to one another, calling out in a cacophony of bird voices. Some flew about, little wings beating a distinctive pattern, something like whirligigs in a strong wind, contrasting with the swooping flight of the gulls.
Besides the cliffs, human-made monuments abound. Doonagore Castle, above the town, was built in the 16th century, replacing a castle that dated back to the 1300s. It has now been restored, and is privately owned. Doonmacfelim Castle, which also dates back to the 16th century, has not been restored. Nearby Ballinalacken Castle towers above the Ballinalacken Castle Hotel.
From soaring cliffs and ancient castles to the homelier pleasures of good food and music, Doolin offers a gateway to Ireland’s Atlantic Coast.