Last month I spent a while cat-sitting for friends in the Burren in the west of Ireland. The Burren is one of my favourite places, a thinly populated area in County Clare renowned for its botanical, geological, and archaeological richness.
The late cartographer Tim Robinson described it as ‘a vast memorial to bygone cultures’; I would extend that beyond human cultures for reasons that will become clear. Robinson’s meticulous map of the Burren was among those I took exploring from my base in Corofin village.
This post is more of a photo/geography/archaeology post than a language one, but it does include notes on place names.
The name Corofin comes from Irish Cora Finne ‘white ford’, or ‘weir of the white (water)’ as translated by Deirdre and Laurence Flanagan in their book Irish Place Names. The same root may be familiar from the fair-haired Fionn Mac Cumhaill of Irish legend.
The white water is the River Fergus, which flows past Corofin and links the two lakes that bracket the village. Its riverbank enjoys constant activity from herons, swans, and other wildlife. This arched stone bridge across it was built in 1790 and is a protected structure:
On its way to the Shannon Estuary, the Fergus flows through Lough Atedaun (Loch an tSéideáin ‘lake of the breezes’), whose seasonal level changes a lot because of the karst limestone bedrock, more on which below.
From my perch on a boulder on the shore I snacked on blackberries and homemade muesli bars, watching dragonflies flit in the marsh grass:
At the edge of the village near the lake – which can just about be seen in the distance here – is the derelict admission block of a Famine-era workhouse, built to cater for 600 destitute people in the 1850s:
On the other side of Corofin, circling the larger Lough Inchiquin, I broke off to climb Clifden hill and found myself in a tunnel of mature hazels. One dropped a nut near my feet, the first of many I would gather:
A short drive south lie Dromore Woods (Drom Mór ‘big ridge’, a common place name in Ireland), where I met a friend and their dog for a walk. The topography differs drastically from the Burren’s, but ‘geologically it is a continuation’, as Donal Magner writes in Stopping By Woods.
The neighbouring village of Kilnaboy or Killinaboy (Cill Iníne Baoith ‘Church of the daughter of Baoth’) has a medieval church with a Lorraine cross on the gable wall – an unusual feature in Ireland – and a fairly well-preserved sheela-na-gig relief sculpture above the entrance, though my photo doesn’t do it justice:
Squatting in the cemetery on the other side are the remains of a round tower:
On the drive down from Galway I had passed Kilmacduagh, the site of Ireland’s tallest round tower (and its tallest pre-modern construction of any kind), but I didn’t go in. This photo is from a previous visit:
County Clare has over 75 of Ireland’s c.400 prehistoric wedge tombs, so named because of their tapering shape, with the broader opening typically aligned towards the setting sun. I found a few up a winding road some miles outside Killinaboy, including Parknabinnia, which was in the news lately:
Across the road from the Parknabinnia tomb is a glacial erratic, a lone boulder shaped by slow abrasion millennia ago and still holding the view together:
Nearby I chanced on a sign for Cahercommaun triple ring fort and followed the trail to this dramatic, cliff-edge cashel, which was excavated by a Harvard archaeological expedition in 1934 and is now a national monument. There wasn’t another soul for miles around:
Cahercommaun’s location probably had great strategic value in its day and would have been home to a local king. A sign along the walk includes this illustration reconstructing life in the fort around the 9th century:
Further west are the ruins of Leamaneh Castle, said to be haunted by Máire Rua (Red Mary, so called for her hair), and where the overcast sky imposed a mood. Leamaneh is from Irish Léim an Eich ‘the horse’s leap’ or Léim an Fheidh ‘the deer’s leap’. A good account of the building’s history can be read in the excellent Book of the Burren.
The same book notes that the Burren’s geology has a ‘marked bias’ along the north–south axis, manifesting in the karst and mirrored in the road system. The road north from Leamaneh bisects the Burren, taking you past a string of old churches and tombs to the Aillwee Caves and on to Ballyvaughan.
Caves abound in the region – more have been mapped here than in the rest of Ireland put together – and the Burren National Park building in Corofin has a drawing of Gollum from Lord of the Rings superimposed on a photo of a local cave. The Burren is said to have inspired some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary visions.
Near Aillwee is the popular Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb almost 6,000 years old. I was lucky to arrive just as a tour bus left. The structure has a striking presence on a small cairn elevated above the surrounding karst:
As well as being a burial site (excavation in 1985 found the remains of 33 people), it also had ritual and ceremonial functions.
Poulnabrone is from Irish Poll na Brón ‘hole/hollow of the millstone/quern stones’ – though popularly/romantically mistranslated as ‘hole of the sorrows’. Here’s a schematic from a display at the site:
The Lough Avalla farm trail had been on my to-do list for years, but whenever I was in the area I tended to climb Mullaghmore instead. This time I committed to Lough Avalla, and what a wonderful trail it is. Early on, a holy well sets the scene:
Here’s a glimpse of the lake itself, seen from a natural staircase of rock:
The Burren’s karst landscape is more specifically glaciokarst. The limestone was laid down in stages in tropical seas over 300 million years ago, then drifted north to its present position.
The last ice age scraped off the surface soil and loose stone, scouring the rock and exposing a vast layer of terraced slab that gives the area its name – boireann is Irish for ‘rocky place’:
Cracks in the rock, formed by tectonic forces, were widened by erosion from acidic rainwater. Those fissures, known as ‘grikes’, grew between the long, undulating jigsaw pieces known as ‘clints’ or ‘cregs’.
In some grikes are pockets of soil that foster the Burren’s unique flora, with Mediterranean-type plants growing next to Alpine-Arctic ones. I didn’t do much wildflower-spotting, but here’s a bright forget-me-not:
Much of the 7km Lough Avalla trail runs through land so rugged that it’s easy to forget you’re on a working farm till you suddenly find yourself in a field in the company of Belted Galloway cows:
Close by I passed an impressively horned goat (though not an Old Irish Goat, I think) snoozing by a stone wall. That’s Mullaghmore in the background, with its unmistakable, flattened-meringue appearance:
Back at sea level I bumped into Harry Jeuken, a Dutchman who runs the farm with his family and created the trail about a decade ago. He insisted that I visit the tea room for a cup and some apple tart; I didn’t need much persuading.
Another view of Mullaghmore, from the walk back to the trailhead:
While I was in the parish, I popped over for a discreet look at Glanquin Farmhouse, better known as the parochial house in Father Ted. Fans of the sitcom might enjoy my old post on the uses and origins of feck.
Rich pickings from the walk (with Harry’s blessing), plus a handful from Cahercommaun:
I also met fauna on the smaller end of the scale:
And somewhere in the middle, these two rascals I had the pleasure of keeping company:
On my way back to Galway I stopped at Lough Bunny to impress the scenery on my mind before leaving Clare. As anglicizations go it’s less obnoxious than most, but it’s still misleading – Loch Buinne means ‘lake of the flood’:
So beautiful, the photos, the writing, the descriptions, the whole trip. I’m jealous. But also frustrated that I have no idea how to pronounce anything in Gaelic! Sad. I would need everything transliterated (in addition to translated). Thank you for the travelogue, at least. So glad for you that you got to experience that!
That’s very kind, thank you. I visit the Burren regularly enough, but this was the first time I stayed overnight – and for over a week, so I was very lucky. Irish pronunciation can be tricky to transliterate into anything other than IPA, because it has sounds absent from English. But if there are certain words or phrases you’re especially curious about, let me know and I’ll give it a go.
Your pictures are wonderful, and your notes worth reading again. I’m glad you included the very lovely shot of the forget-me-not, but the ancient stones and structures captivate me, too. All in all, your travelogue gives me one more reason — make that *several* more — to visit Ireland. Thank you!
Thank you. It is a captivating place, one with a unique charm and feel. The Burren National Park website has a nice page on some of the region’s flora. I hope you find your way there one day.
Great writing, creating both a distinct sense of the places in question, and a desire to visit for myself. If you ever wanted to, you could nail some Wainwright-esque travelogues!
Thanks, Edward. I’m lucky to have the place within reach, and my photos only scratch the surface of what can be explored there.