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The Cliffs of Moher

In the opening portions of 1987’s The Princess Bride the inimitable Andre the Giant carries Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, and Wallace Shawn up the Cliffs of Insanity in an attempt to lose The Man in Black (Cary Elwes), who ascends the vertical walls at an inconceivable pace. Insanity is a perfect descriptor for these cliffs; they are immense, imposing, and seemingly fantastical. But unlike most elements in the film, the cliffs are actually not fantasy, but a real location!

The Cliffs of Insanity are The Cliffs of Moher, located in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast. The landscape is mindbogglingly extensive,  a set of sea cliffs that run over 14 kilometers (9 miles) and rise 214 meters (702 feet) above the Atlantic Ocean. The scene is one of the most popular attractions in the country, drawing millions of people per year. The cliffs are part of a UNESCO  Global Geopark.

The name comes from the word “Mothar,” which means “the ruin of a fort” in Old Gaelic, after a citadel that was demolished during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s to make room for a signal tower. 

Image by George Karbus via

The rock here is over 300 million years old. During the Upper Carboniferous period, the area was situated at the mouth of a giant river. Water flow brought deposits of sand, silt, and mud to the sea, where they were lithified into the shale and sandstone seen today. Sedimentary rock tends to form in distinct bands, separated by what is known as unconformities (basically “missing time”). The bands at the cliffs range from several centimeters thick to several meters. Each stratum is a look into time past.

The rocks, despite having an indestructible appearance, are still being shaped by weathering. The ocean is a cruel, unrelenting neighbor. The sea stack seen in the photo above – called Branaunmore – was once part of the wall. Waves slowly eat away at the base of the structure, which causes it to collapse under its own weight. What we see today as an unfathomably large monolith is merely a snapshot. 

Branaunmore, a 67 meter high sea stack, seen by boat - Photo by Kyle Stout

The cliffs are perfect nesting spots for seabirds. Over 20 species of adorable avian critters form colonies at Moher, including Atlantic puffins, peregrine falcons, and choughs. The area is recognized as an Important Bird Area.

The waters bring in basking sharks, whales, seals, and dolphins. At the top of the cliffs live feral goats.

Milky Way at Cliffs of Moher by George Karbus

Visitors can amble on the edge of the cliffs on the official Coastal Walk, which traverses 18 kilometers. Ferry trips also allow one to take in the opposite vantage point. Both views offer a primal, elemental experience. Standing at the top and looking down the sheer drop or bobbing on the waves, craning at the towering expanse, present a – dare I say – inconceivable beauty.

think I know what that word means!

Panorama including O'Brien's Tower - photo by Kyle Stout
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