In praise of the Bur­ren

County Clare features some of Ire­land’s most haunt­ing land­scapes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - JOHN HA­GAN

DUR­ING the 17th-cen­tury English purges in Ire­land, one of Oliver Cromwell’s gen­er­als, Ed­mund Lud­low, was heard to re­mark: ‘‘There is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth to bury him.’’

The ob­ject of his de­ri­sion was the Bur­ren, the strange, harsh and beau­ti­ful north­west re­gion of County Clare, an en­vi­ron­ment hos­tile and bleak, yet frag­ile and sen­si­tive.

Known by its Celtic name of Boire­ann, mean­ing a rocky place, the Bur­ren is a rugged lime­stone plateau, the rem­nant of what was a shal­low sea floor 300 mil­lion years ago. Its cur­rent moon­scape-like ap­pear­ance devel­oped in the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago, when glaciers gouged away the soil and shale and ex­posed the un­der­ly­ing soft lime­stone to eons of weather­ing.

For more than 260 sq km, the coun­try has been laid bare and is tat­tooed by fis­sures. It is as if the coun­try­side had been turned in­side out, its bony and in­dented skele­ton now on the out­side. Af­ter a rain shower, the lime­stone glis­tens a dusky grey be­fore tak­ing on an in­tense bone-white hue with the ar­rival of the sun. How­ever, it is by the light of a full moon that the Bur­ren is at its most haunt­ingly pic­turesque.

Re­plete with rem­nants of an­cient civil­i­sa­tions, ma­jes­tic and moody cas­tles, Celtic burial places and pa­gan fer­til­ity sym­bols, the Bur­ren is one of the most in­tact arche­o­log­i­cal land­scapes in Europe.

Stone tombs, or dol­mens, more than 4000 years old and the ru­ins of about 20 churches, built be­tween the sixth and 12th cen­turies, lure arche­ol­o­gists, his­to­ri­ans and tourists from across the world.

While there may well be, as Lud­low ob­served, a dearth of trees, there is no ab­sence of flow­ers. On the con­trary, myr­iad flora have taken root among the lime­stone fis­sures. More than 1000 species usu­ally found thou­sands of kilo­me­tres apart bloom here. It is the only place in Europe where Mediter­ranean and Alpine plants grow to­gether in per­fect har­mony, the re­sult of cli­matic con­di­tions and the high de­gree of re­flected light from the land­scape. Maidenhair ferns, alpine vi­o­lets, cranes­bills, moun­tain avens, fox­gloves and even or­chids nes­tle amid the run­nels and crevices and put on a bril­liant dis­play in the spring.

The Bur­ren’s more shel­tered val­leys sup­port stoats, foxes, badgers, hares and pine martens, while wild goats are a com­mon fea­ture on the up­lands. Those in­ter­ested in or­nithol­ogy will dis­cover bird life aplenty. Stonechats, red­shanks, yel­lowham­mers, larks and pip­its all find the pave­ment fis­sures pro­vide good nest­ing places.

The place to start a visit is the Bur­ren Cen­tre in Kil­fenora, where an at­mo­spheric au­dio­vi­sual pre­sen­ta­tion il­lus­trates how this unique and mag­i­cal land­scape — and man’s place within it — has evolved. As the sign out­side the cen­tre sug­gests: ‘‘Take the jour­ney.’’ John Ha­gan was a guest of Tourism Ire­land. dis­cov­erire­land.com/au the­bur­ren­cen­tre.ie

THINKSTOCK

The hos­tile and bleak, yet frag­ile and sen­si­tive land­scape of The Bur­ren in north­west County Clare

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