A visit to the Burren

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.

Photo of the main street in Corofin, taken in bright sunlight from near the bridge at its southern end. A mature tree overhangs the street on the left, while on the right is a terrace of colourful one-, two- and three-storey houses with flower beds and a few cars outside.

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:

Photo of an old, three-arched stone bridge across a river. Bright sunlight is reflected on the surface of the water, and short grass and some young trees grow on the banks.

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:

Photo of Lake Atedaun under a light blue sky with puffy clouds. In the foreground are my outstetched legs on a boulder, with two other boulders nearby, plus a large grey gate with no apparent purpose. Between me and the lake are bands of long grass and reeds in wetland.

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:

Photo of the workhouse admission building in Corofin. It is a long, low, gloomy, derelict building on the left, facing a small modern estate.

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 narrow country road surrounded on both sides and overhead by a thick, lush array of trees. On the left side of the road is a low stone wall covered in ivy; on the right is a thick undergrowth of ferns and other plants. Dappled sunlight breaks through the canopy onto the road.

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:

Photo of an arched doorway in old church ruins. Just above the entrance is a relief sculpture of a sheela-na-gig. Outside the entrance and within the building are clustered grave slabs and tombstones.

Squatting in the cemetery on the other side are the remains of a round tower:

Photo of a round tower stump in the cemetery outside the ruins of an old church. The tower is 3 or 4 metres tall, and 4 or 5 metres across, rounded on top with grass growing on it. Tombstones surround it, and the sky is overcast.

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:

Photo of a round tower in a cemetery. The tower is over 34 metres tall, leaning slightly, and conical at the top. The lowest doorway is several metres up. The sky behind it is light grey.

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:

Photo of a wedge tomb, with a large horizontal slab of rock placed across supporting slabs. Grass grows on top of it, and there is a thick scattering of stone beside it. The land slopes away behind it before rising to low hills.

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:

Photo of a glacial erratic, a lone boulder, on a slight rise in a field. The land slopes away behind it before rising to distant hills. The sky is overcast and moody.

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:

Photo of the inner circle of a ring fort, taken from the wall forming the ring. The wall has grass growing through rocks, and the inner circle is covered in long grass. To the left, the fort suddenly gives way to a valley below. The sky is overcast.

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:

Illustration showing, from overhead, how the ringfort might have looked centuries ago. It holds a couple of dozen small thatch-roofed buildings, some with fires lit inside, and lots of human activity, some of it centred on groups of farm animals. Beside the drawing is text describing the political context of Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries and the topographical, political, and agricultural advantages to building the ring fort here.

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.

Photo of the castle ruins, set against a brooding overcast sky. It is four storeys high, with a broken tower adjoined on the right. To the left are a few small farm buildings, and in front is an empty field.

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:

Photo of the dolmen in the near distance, with a few people looking at it from the rope ring around it. Most of the photo shows the ground leading up to the dolmem, which is karst like 'crazy paving' with grass between the rock.

As well as being a burial site (excavation in 1985 found the remains of 33 people), it also had ritual and ceremonial functions.

Photo of the dolmen from closer up, showing its structure compsed of several large slabs of rock and big capstone on top. One tall tree is silhouetted in the background, along with a few smaller bushes under a cloudy sky.

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:

Illustration of the dolmen, pointing out its 1.5 tonne capstone, portal stones supporting it, sill stone underneath, and cairn on which it stands. There's also an overhead schematic, and text that reads: 'Poulnabrone is a classic example of a portal tomb with two tall portal stones flanking the entrance to a rectangular stone-lined chamber which is covered by a single large capstone. A low oval-shaped mound (cairn) of loose stone, which helped stabilise the chamber, surrounds the tomb. This cairn would originally have been no higher than it is today, suggesting that the dramatic tomb structure was designed to be the main visual focus.'

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:

Photo of a boreen (small country road with a strip of grass growing down the middle) with trees and undergrowth on either side. To the left is a rusty old metal gate, a bicycle, and a small wooden sign on a tree, which says HOLY WELL.

Here’s a glimpse of the lake itself, seen from a natural staircase of rock:

Photo of Lough Avalla in the middle distance, surrounded by trees and hills on all sides. In the foreground is a short steep descent of rough rock, with a handmade bannister of branches running beside it.

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’:

Photo of a large, flat area of karst, sloping to the left. It is composed of long chunks and strips of rough limestone with long cracks between them. About 100 metres ahead it gives way to a row of bushes and trees.

*Burren intensifies*

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:

Close-up photo of four forget-me-not flowers, each with five bright light-blue petals and a yellow and white centre.

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:

Photo of a cow from a couple of metres away. It is black with a wide white band around its body, shaggy-coated and grazing contentedly. Behind it, the field ends with a thick row of trees before a steep rise of rock.

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:

Photo of the Burren from an elevated position. In the foreground is a white goat with large curved horns, lying peacefully in the long grass near a stone wall. Behind it the land opens out to a valley of woods and farm fields. In the distance is a small mountain and lakes, under a dark-grey cloudy sky.

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.

Photo of the tea room, with a wooden tables set for visitors. A wooden door is open on the right. The floor is stone paving, and there is a stone hearth with a wide chimney. It's an attractive room, with pictures and trinkets lending colour and charm.

Another view of Mullaghmore, from the walk back to the trailhead:

Photo of a straight, narrow, gravel road with bushes and stones on the verges. The road leads towards a low mountain in the middle distance with distinctive twists in its geology.

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.

Photo of a grey, two-storey house in a field. In front is a close-cropped grass lawn, and there are two cars parked on either side of the house. Behind it, the land rises through fields to a small cliff.

Rich pickings from the walk (with Harry’s blessing), plus a handful from Cahercommaun:

Photo of a white plate filled with hazelnuts in their shells, on a marble-effect worktop. Beside it can be seen part of a blue and white patterned teapot.

I also met fauna on the smaller end of the scale:

Photo of a baby snail, antennae extended, pale brown in colour, moving towards a mug on a varnished wooden table. The mug has a Christmas pattern and looks enormous beside the snail.

And somewhere in the middle, these two rascals I had the pleasure of keeping company:

Photo of a cat on a small wooden table in the garden. The cat has black, red, and white fur (including white feet) and faces the camera as if about to jump into my lap. A paperback book is also on the table.

Photo of a cat sitting on a comfy armchair with a yellow throw and a white and blue cushion with floral design. The cat has dark fur with flecks of red and white, and a bell around its neck.

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’:

Photo of a calm thin lake with a series of hills in the background, reflected on the water surface. In the foreground is rough grass and stone ground, and the sky is blue with wispy clouds and contrails.

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4 Responses to A visit to the Burren

  1. 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!

    • Stan Carey says:

      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.

  2. 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!

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