Let's be honest, spending a day wandering around a cave in Co. Clare is not something that's ever been at the top of my to-do list. They're wet, they're damp, they're dark and sufferers of claustrophobia may well find them an altogether uncomfortable experience.
Bending down in order to negotiate the lowest point of the Ailwee Cave, I felt I'd need a decent lie down afterwards in order for my back to return to working order.
Known as one of the oldest caves in Ireland, the Ailwee Cave can be found in the Burren region of County Clare but I found it easily accessible as a day trip from Galway City which is about an hour's drive away.
Upon arrival, the first thing I came across was the Bird Of Prey Centre, located down the hill from the caves. Keen to check out some high-flying eagle action, I enquired about taking a tour only to be told that a live flying display would be taking place in just over an hour's time. Even better.
It was recommended that I take the Ailwee Cave tour to pass the time so off I went up the hill, choosing to continue in the car instead of walking in order to save valuable minutes and not at all because I'm a lazy fecker.
A striking aspect at the beginning of the tour is the logo for Ailwee Cave which features the silhouette of a bear figure. What the hell has a bear got to do with a cave in the west of Ireland? Well, it turns out that Ailwee is thought to have been the last major dwelling place for the Irish Brown Bear, the bones of which we even got to see at the start of the guided tour. Every day is a school day.
The guided tour was fairly swift, lasting about 25 minutes, and it made me realise just how much I'd forgotten about Junior Cert geography. From stalagmites to stalactites and various rock formations, I definitely emerged more educated about caves than when I walked in. I have to admit, at one point I did have to resist the gobshite in me shouting out "how come all the rocks are different sizes?", à la Dougal McGuire in The Mainland episode of Father Ted.
Once the tour was done, it was back down to the birds of prey to see what they had to offer. Before entering the show, myself and my fellow guests were given the opportunity to take a stroll around and get a look at some of the birds up close. I'll be honest, before I did my research on things to do in the west, I had no idea such a facility existed in Ireland.
Walking around, we were able to marvel at the majestic creatures as their beady eyes stared back at us over their beaks, wondering what all the fuss was about. The Birds Of Prey Centre is home to eagles, falcons, owls and hawks from all over the world and is an ornithologist's dream. Each cage displays information for you to learn and rhyme off the next time you want to show off your knowledge of birds to your mates down the pub.
It was soon time for the flying display and we were called in to take our seats in an outdoor amphitheatre-like structure. A member of the team introduced us to Batty of the Bateauler Eagle species which are mostly native to sub-Saharan Africa.
After a couple of minutes of telling us all about Batty, a gentle giant who enjoys the company of people, our new friend was left to soar above our heads before doing a lap and swooping down again, inviting gasps from his captivated audience.
Next, people were given the opportunity to get up close and personal with Batty and there were no shortage of enthusiastic tourists who wanted to take up the offer.
Perched on the wrists of volunteers (wearing protective gloves), Batty sat patiently for a few seconds before suddenly taking off again, as spectators clapped with glee at what they were seeing.
The whole show took about 30 minutes and is a great way to end the afternoon with a smile on your face.
The Ailwee Caves and the Birds Of Prey Centre are the perfect combination for anyone looking to pass a couple of hours in the Burren region. There is something for everyone as elderly guests were just as mesmerised as younger visitors at seeing the birds in action while the cave section is great for learning a bit more about the history of the region.
As I left, I wondered why I had never heard of the Ailwee Caves And Birds Of Prey Centre and felt that this is an Irish tourist attraction outside the norm that could be lot more well-known. But maybe that's just me.
Seeing the majestic eagles soaring in the sky, it was easy to forget I was still in Ireland. A unique experience and one I'd definitely recommend.
Sound like something you'd enjoy? More information can be found here.