The Cliffs of Moher lie on the west coast of Ireland, running for eight kilometres along the wild Atlantic ocean and rising at their highest point to over 200 metres. Contrary to information published in many guidebooks they are not the tallest cliffs in Europe, nor even on the island of Ireland. But as nearly one million visitors every year will attest, they are one of the most spectacular sights that one can wish to see.
Perhaps their popularity is increased by easy access; located close to a regional road, the viewing area with the vista of a rolling stretch of five headlands stretching out to the south can be reached without difficulty and hence has been visited since the early days of tourism in Ireland. In 1835 local landowner Cornelius O'Brien built a gothic tower near the highest point (214m) for the sole purpose of providing a viewing point for the visitors that were already flocking to see this iconic panorama.
The cliffs were formed in the Upper Carboniferous period, almost 320 million years ago, when the location was the site of a gigantic river delta. Bands of Namurian sandstone, siltstone and shale are exposed in a spectacular fashion and here one can study an example of a sedimentary basin normally only visible under the sea. The rock layers are rich in fossil formations and geologists consider the area one of the world's foremost natural laboratories for the study of deltaic deposition through deep water systems. Moher or Liscannor slate was quarried at the cliff edge into the early 20th century and many of the flagstones were exported to Britain where to this day they can be seen at the Royal Mint in London and St Georges Hall in Liverpool.
Prior to quarrying and tourism there was a long established history of human activity at the Cliffs of Moher. In fact the name comes from the ancient Irish language word for ruined fort "Mothar" and refers to a 1st century BC fort that stood at Hags Head near the current location of the Napoleonic signal tower built in 1803. The legends and folklore of the locality include many tales about the cliffs and the fantastic formations that ocean and climate have carved from the rock.
Humans are not the only visitors to the Cliffs of Moher; during the nesting season they play home to more than 30,000 pairs of nesting seabirds and they are a protected habitat under both EU and Irish wildlife legislation. Internationally important numbers of both guillemot and razorbill can be found at this, the most significant seabird nesting colony on the mainland of Ireland. Other protected species that can be found include Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Shag Black backed Gull. The Chough, also known as the Celtic Crow, and the Peregrine Falcon are also in residence and many other bird species can also be seen. Marine wildlife such as grey seal, dolphins, basking sharks and, occasionally, sea otters and both minke and humpback whales can be spotted.
Tourists from all over the globe come in great numbers to see this remarkable natural heritage and indeed the location is the most visited natural site in Ireland. In the late 1980s approximately 250,000 visitors a year came to view the Cliffs of Moher. By 2001 this number had risen to almost 600,000 and by 2006 to over 900,000. Every guidebook, travel brochure and ravel documentary on Ireland included images of the cliffs. This popularity brought with it challenges and threats to the natural environment. As at any site of natural heritage, there was the risk that mass tourism can impact negatively on that which the tourists were coming to see.
In the 1990s and early 2000s this was undeniably true at the Cliffs of Moher. Visitor facilities onsite, which consisted of a small tearoom and gift shop, with woefully inadequate toilets, were under severe pressure. No interpretation was provided for those who wished to do more than capture a holiday snapshot. Crowding, traffic congestion pollution, littering, inadequate sewage facilities and haphazard casual trading were present. Increasing numbers of tourists clambering out to the extreme cliff edge at the main viewing area led to increased erosion, habitat damage, reductions in bird numbers and substantial safety issues. No visitor management was causing a real danger to the environment and visitor safety. The net result was a negative impact on the natural environment and a reduction in the quality of the visitor's experience. The 2006 edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook referred, not unfairly, to the Cliffs as "a sightseeing circus".
Fortunately however, by this time the owners of the site, local authority Clare County Council, was close to delivering on their strategy to provide state of the art facilities, interpretation and visitor management at this iconic location. A euro;31.5million construction project with a complex twenty year development history had finally broken ground at the site in summer of 2005. Over a period of 18 months construction of an eco-friendly underground visitor centre proceeded along with development of viewing areas, steps and cliff edge pathways and an ecological reconstruction of the damaged cliff edge habitats. A membrane biological waste treatment plant was included onsite; parking areas for cars and coaches were reoriented to reduce visual impact and renewable energy sources for the visitor centre including solar and geo-thermal energy were provided.
To complement the built environment a new visitor management and education programme has been developed. Onsite staff provide visitor support, education and management as well as safety, first aid and conservation measures. The visitor centre, housed beneath the grassy hillside, adjacent to the cliff edge contains state of the art visitor facilities including toilets, first aid centre, baggage store and all the usual commercial facilities such as gift shop, cafe and restaurant. But the focal point of the cavelike visitor centre is the central dome and theatre space which houses an exhibition providing interpretation and education on the many aspects of the Cliffs of Moher.
Atlantic Edge is the name of the exhibition which combines a series of multi-media and low tech displays to illustrate information on various aspects of the cliffs. The main dome is themed into four main areas - Ocean, Rock, Nature and Man - exploring each of these themes in turn and, through interactive displays, allowing visitors to delve into the information to the extent of their interest. Small children are catered for in a soft floor play area that plays tribute to John Philip Holland, the inventor of the submarine who was born in the neighbouring village of Liscannor. A further feature in the dome area is the 10 minute aerial tour of County Clare, entitled The Clare Journey, set to the haunting music of traditional uileann pipes. A winding corridor, reminiscent of the natural cave systems found in the locality, brings the visitor to the theatre which houses a virtual reality film called The Ledge in which the viewer has the sensation of flying along the ledges and promontories of the cliffs before swooping below the water to experience the marine world below. The CGI based experience lasts about 5 minutes and can be viewed repeatedly as part of the self guided tour. Returning to the dome the visitor reaches the exit by means of the circular ramp that displays stunning images that echo the themes articulated throughout the exhibition.
In addition to developing facilities, interpretation and visitor management at the Cliffs of Moher that live up to what nature has provided, the motivation for Clare County Council included a desire to see a greater economic benefit for the county from the tourism honeypot of the Cliffs. Since the new visitor facilities and management programme opened in February 2007 average visitor dwell time at the Cliffs has seen an increase of 28% and the number of visitors with an overnight stay in the county has increased by 18%.
Education visits to the site have increased dramatically with over 15,000 student and school and university tour visits in 2008 with many more visitors enjoying guided tours and talks from Rangers and members of the Education team. Conservation measures including wildlife monitoring and erosion monitoring have been undertaken by the Ranger team in cooperation with bodies such as Birdwatch Ireland, the Clare Biodiversity office and the Geological Survey of Ireland. The Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience is part of a Failte Ireland backed pilot scheme to develop an Eco-Tourism accreditation model. Visits from older and disabled visitors have also increased considerably given an increase in accessibility both of the visitor centre, which is a fully accessible building, and around the site which benefits from onsite staffing to make up for the challenges of the natural terrain.
A considerable number of awards have been won by the centre and the exhibition including Excellence in Intrepretation in 2007 from the Association of Heritage Interpretation (Britain Ireland), Best Commercial Interior Access for All (2007) and Best Exhibition (2008) from the Institute of Designers in Ireland, Best Public Interior (2007) from the International Federation of Interior Architects and Best Irish Visitor Attraction (2009) from the Irish Consumer Travel Awards.
The Cliffs of Moher are one of the sights not to be missed on a visit to the west of Ireland. The long term success of Clare County Council's project to ensure that the visitor facilities and management onsite live up to the majesty of the natural heritage will require longer to assess. But the early results are positive and the future holds exciting possibilities, not least inclusion on Ireland's tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription.
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