In praise of the Burren
County Clare features some of Ireland’s most haunting landscapes
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
The hostile and bleak, yet fragile and sensitive landscape of The Burren in northwest County Clare