How The Cliffs Of Moher Became Ireland’s Most Majestic Attraction

Published May 23, 2018
Updated January 15, 2021

The Cliffs of Moher are brimming with folklore and wildlife, and have become a popular setting for Hollywood films.

Cliffs Of Moher

Wikimedia Commons Looking north along the Cliffs of Moher towards O’Brien’s Tower.

The grand and majestic Cliffs of Moher sit above the Atlantic Ocean, stretching along Ireland’s west coast for approximately nine miles. O’Brien’s Tower, an observational tower built in 1835 by Sir Cornelius O’Brien, is its highest point, reaching up to 702 feet.

With its astounding height and breathtaking views, these cliffs are one of the Emerald Isle’s most visited natural attractions.

The Cliffs of Moher also have a rich history, one that comes with an array of majestic folklore tales. In more recent years, its spectacular setting has served as a backdrop for a number of Hollywood features and pop culture moments.

It also makes for some pretty impressive travel photos — it’s no wonder over 1.5 million visitors make the trek to visit the famous landmark each year.

Formed Millions Of Years Ago

Vintage Postcard

Wikimedia CommonsA 19th-century Photochrom postcard of the cliffs, with Leacmayornagneeve rock in the foreground.

The Cliffs of Moher are located at the southwestern edge of Ireland in the Burren region of County Clare. The rocks that make up the cliffs were formed during the Upper Carboniferous period.

It all started about 320 million years ago, when the region was much warmer. With the hotter temperatures, heavy rain caused floods that washed sand and mud out to the sea. The sediment was dumped at the mouth of a large river and compacted into solid rock, which, over time, created the cliffs.

You can see its age in the bands of sandstone, siltstone, and shale that pave the cliffs. Each rock layer tells its own historical tale that represents a particular event in the life of the ancient river. These types of rock formations are typically not seen above sea level.

From the top of the cliffs you can also see caves and sea stacks, including one called Branaunmore (meaning “Big Prince” or “Big Raven”), which is visible from O’Brien’s Tower and rises out of the water at 220 feet. This sea stack was separated from the cliffs by erosion.

Also from O’Brien’s Tower, you can see the three Aran Islands, the Twelve Bens mountain range, and the narrow piece of land called Loop Head, marked by a prominent lighthouse.

Rich In Folklore And Ancient Irish Legends

The Cliffs At Sunset

Mobilus In Mobili/FlickrThere may be the Lost City of Kilstiffen out there.

The Cliffs of Moher, like many natural wonders, have inspired myriad folklore tales over the centuries.

The cliffs got their name from a promontory fort called Mothar or Moher, which once stood on the southernmost part of the cliffs known as Hag’s Head. There, an old stone ruin called Moher Tower stands.

The name Hag’s Head comes from a legend about an old hag known as Mal who became infatuated with the Irish demigod Cú Chulainn.

The story goes that she chased her love across Ireland until he made his way to Loop Head and managed to escape her clutches by hopping across the sea stacks like stepping stones. Mal still followed, but lost her footing along the way and ended up shattering to pieces against the cliff.

The Mermaid of Moher experienced a slightly better fate. This tale begins with a local fisherman who meets a mermaid with a magic cloak. The mermaid needs the cloak to return to the sea but, in an effort to trap her, the man steals it and makes a run for his house.

The mermaid follows him but can’t find the cloak and is forced to stay on land. She winds up marrying the fisherman and they have two children together. Years later, while the man is sleeping, the mermaid finds the cloak and returns to the sea, never to be seen again.

Then there’s the myth of the corpse-eating eel. As the legend goes, Irish saint Macreehy killed a giant eel when it ventured into the nearby cemetery to feed on the corpses.

When the water is at low tide, two visible stones are said to mark the bed of Macreehy. For generations, a carving of the eel appeared on one of the stones until it slowly eroded away.

The Lost City of Kilstiffen may be the most fascinating legend of them all, though. The city, believed to be located off the shore of an area called Spanish Point, is said to have sunk below the water at the foot of the cliffs when the ruler lost the golden key that opened the castle doors to the city.

According to the myth, the city will remain underwater until the key is found and returned. Some believers say the key is under a gravestone marked with ancient Irish letters on the County Clare mountain called Slieve Callan. Others say the key is in a lake on top of a mountain.

In one version of the story, the city rises every seven years and, if a person witnesses it, they’ll die before it rises again. Some have even claimed to see the city, shining from below the surface.

Where Sharks And Puffins Mingle

Cliffs Of Moher Wildlife

Simone A. Bertinotti/FlickrSome 20 species of birds call the cliffs home.

While you may not spot a mermaid or corpse-eating eel nowadays, you’ll likely see some of the area’s protected local wildlife.

Since 1989, it’s been designated a Special Protection Area for birds. Some 20 species of birds live on the cliffs, including razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes, and even falcons.

Visitors arriving in late February may catch seabirds like razorbills and great black backed gulls migrating back to the area. Come around the end of March and you may catch a sighting of the Atlantic puffin.

There’s plenty of marine animals living near the cliffs as well, including seals, whales, dolphins, and the basking shark — the second largest living shark in the world.

The Cliffs Of Moher On The Big Screen

The Cliffs of Moher are the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride.

Being such a unique and spectacular site, the cliffs have appeared in various shows and movies throughout the years. Most notably, they served as the location for “The Cliffs of Insanity” in the 1987 film The Princess Bride.

The cliffs were also used in a pivotal scene in 2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which features the lead character and Professor Dumbledore.

The next year, the cliffs made an appearance in 2010’s Leap Year, starring Amy Adams.

There have even been a few music videos shot at the Cliffs of Moher, including Maroon 5’s “Runaway” and Irish pop group Westlife’s “My Love.”

Visiting The Cliffs Of Moher

Tourists On The Edge

Anne Burgess/Wikimedia CommonsTourists looking over the edge.

Thanks to Hollywood, word of mouth, and now Instagram, of course, Cliffs of Moher are one of the most visited attractions in all of Ireland. They’re one of the highlights along the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500-km road that snakes along the western coastline of Ireland.

In 2011, they became part of the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark, which has been officially designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Geopark.

Under this designation, the area is managed and protected, and used for educational programs and sustainable development.

That said, due to waves crashing at the foot of the cliffs, the tourist attraction is in constant danger of coastal erosion, which has caused sections of the upper cliff face to collapse.

While visitors can walk along a coastal trail, there are several high-risk areas that may be susceptible to rockfalls and landslides. It’s also possible to experience the cliffs from sea level at Blue Flag beaches including Lahinch, White Strand, Spanish Point, and Fanore.

In fact, the great French marine explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau was said to refer to the waters off the coast of Clare county as a place for some of the best cold water diving in the world.

From whatever angle you want to see them — from the top of O’Brien’s Tower to the crashing waves of the Atlantic — the Cliffs of Moher are certainly an attraction worthy of a visit.

After learning about Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, check out these 18 European natural wonders. Then read about the the world’s weirdest natural places.

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