Clare’s Flaggy Shore: where nothing is black and white
Our Going Coastal series continues with a stroll along a part of Co Clare with serious literary credentials, in a landscape that has its own natural poetry
Fintan O’Toole and Gordon D’Arcy by a granite boulder during their walk along the Flaggy Shore near New Quay, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Along the Flaggy Shore, exotic tropical corals are in bloom. You can bend down and examine their beautiful branchings and minute elaborations. For, even as the grey Atlantic swells, and a soft summer rain adds texture to the humid breeze, you are standing on an ancient African seabed.
Some 350 million years ago, before the continents were formed, this limestone pavement was a muddy ooze somewhere south of the Equator. The vividly white coral fossils that are etched with such delicacy on to the surface of the grey stone that runs all along this magical stretch of shore on the south side of Galway Bay speak of other places, warmer climes, incomprehensibly distant aeons.
This is a place of alluring anomalies, where sea and land refuse to be neatly divided. They melt into a literal grey area – grey sky, grey water, grey rock – where nothing is black and white and everything is suspended between opposites.
To amble along the Flaggy Shore, between New Quay and Finavarra Point on the northernmost edge of Co Clare is a short walk in space but a long one in time. Doubly so, indeed: when you turn off the main road and head down towards the nearby coast, you enter geological time, moving into a space that is obviously shaped by a chronology that belongs, not to us, but to the earth.
And this walk is not to be done briskly. If you wanted to, you could do it there and back in an hour. But the point of the place is its density. Physically and imaginatively, it is clotted with tiny wonders that demand attention.
From the Ó Dálaighs to Heaney
It is doubtful that any short stretch of the Irish coast is so rich in literary associations. At one end, Finavarra, is the site of the 15th-century bardic school of the Ó Dálaigh poets. At the other, where the walk begins, is the little pier below Linnane’s wonderful seafood bar. The fourth part of Bernard Shaw’s epic play Back to Methuselah begins in 3000 BC “on Burrin pier, on the south shore of Galway bay in Ireland” – exactly on this spot: Shaw wrote it in a hut beside the pier, and the Flaggy Shore evidently got him thinking in slow time too. (New Quay was – and sometimes still is – called Burrin or Burren.)
Shaw was here because he was staying in Augusta Gregory’s summer house, Mount Vernon, still standing at the eastern end of the shore, with its clean white walls and red-framed windows and the three cypress trees that are said to have been a gift from George Washington to his friend (and Gregory’s ancestor) William Persse.
Augustus John stayed here (and designed the fireplaces). The shore did strange things to the arch-realist George Moore, who claimed to have actually seen the emanation of the spirit of Cathleen Ní Houlihan here.
William Butler Yeats wrote The Player Queen and The Dreaming of the Bones looking out over these waves and rocks. In the latter, the young fugitive says he is to wait until a currach from the Aran islands puts in “At Muckanish or at the rocky shore/ Under Finvara, but would break my neck/ If I went stumbling there alone in the dark.”
In one of his finest poems, Postscript, Seamus Heaney urges: “And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore / In September or October, when the wind / And the light are working off each other . . . ”
These imaginative associations thicken the place, but this landscape has its own natural poetry too. It asks to be watched closely, and one of its keenest observers is Gordon D’Arcy, environmentalist, teacher and painter, especially, of birds.