Last summer, I spent a splendid weekend in the Burren, an area of breathtaking beauty. The Burren is tucked away in north County Clare, thirty miles from Galway city and seventy miles from Limerick. The Burren consists of great grey limestone slabs and boulders rooted firmly in the ground and surrounded by fertile land. You can drive for hours with this great wonder all around you, in the flat land as well as in its mountains and valleys. Covering an area of 150 square miles, it is the largest area in Western Europe with such a landscape. This mesmerising phenomenon of nature is a product of the Ice Age, stretching back three and a half million years to when Ireland was first formed.
Writers and artists have been coming to the Burren for decades; sensitive minds and hearts drawn to its rich history. The author JRR Tolkien visited frequently during the 1950s. Many suspect that it was these visits that inspired his idea for Middle-earth in his book The Lord of the Rings. Was I about to walk in his footsteps and be in awe at the sights that caught his imagination? I stayed in the village of Ballyvaughan where a mild winter climate in this region means less frost and snow than the remainder of the country and this is one of the reasons why the land is so rich in calcium. These mineral rich grasslands are perfect for rearing cattle, horses and goats.
There is something so calming about the landscape that it automatically brings a sense of calmness. Here I found peace amongst the roughcast beauty, peace amongst a corner of nature that has refused to be tamed. Perhaps, it is a thank-you from God to Ireland because it appears that nature has protected this part of Ireland and has rewarded it with great goodness. The Burren contains 70% of Ireland’s natural species of flowers, plants and fauna. I was intrigued to learn that there are thirty different kinds of butterfly in Ireland and that twenty-eight are found in the Burren. Pine martens are extinct in most other parts of Ireland but in the Burren these wild animals have made their home with relative ease.
Another advantage of the Burren is its closeness to the sea. A trip to Blackhead opens up before you scenes of the Atlantic Ocean with the closeness of the three Aran Islands almost inviting you to swim over to them. Seals are often to be seen around these parts. I saw several bunches of gentians, their blue colour shining radiantly in the evening light. This rare wild flower has settled alongside better known Irish flowers which include purple orchids, buttercups, mountain avens, primroses, yellow pimpernels and sea asters, all of them growing in abundance. Little wonder that they have tugged at the heartstrings of writers and poets for many years.
The tranquillity of staring at the sea and the silence was contrasted by a visit to Gleninagh Castle. The castle, also overlooking the sea, was built in the late 1500s for the O’Lochlain family – a chieftain clan from Munster. I stood before it and dreamt about what it would be like to have been a dinner guest of the O’Lochlain’s. What would have been on the menu? Possibly a fine hog-roast, perhaps washed down by Poitín or wine. But whilst the O’Lochlain’s may have lived in luxury, the rest of Ireland lay in starvation. The potato crop, the main harvest of the land began to fail badly with blight year after year until failing completely in 1847. By this time the O’Lochlain’s had long since abandoned the castle. But whilst the castle had been splendour in its heyday, it held its own dark secrets – a cold, damp windowless cellar which housed unfortunate prisoners, a reminder of Ireland’s long historical conflicts and invasions dating back to the days of Cromwell.
I was reminded of the deep sense of spirituality our pre-Christian ancestors had when I visited the dolmen stone at Poulnabrone. Here people gathered in secret to worship Mother Earth, their paganism making them closer to nature. Our ancestors’ minds were devoid of Catholicism and organized religion and their ceremonies would have been conducted in Gaelic. I imagined them to have been sincere in their thanks to the gods of their universe for having provided them their sustenance or in their requests for help to alleviate their suffering. The dolmen stone was a formal burial place. Excavations of its ground in the late 1980s found over forty bodies buried in the Bronze Age. Its occupants had been buried with their most valued possessions, including a polished stone axe, a decorated bone pendant, stone beads and quartz crystals.
My final trip was to Corcomroe Abbey. Here I encountered well preserved 12th century ruins that were once inhabited by The Cistercian Order. The monks were well-known in the area for farming, bee-keeping and fruit growing. The area around Corcomroe is known as Santa Maria de Petra Fertilis (Our Lady of the Fertile Rock). Women who have trouble conceiving come here to pray for a baby. The grounds of the abbey are still in use for the burial of local people in its parish. Silence prevailed around the ruins only interrupted by crows nesting in the upper gables.
There are only Seven Wonders of the World but I cannot help feeling that if the explorer who drew up this list had visited the Burren, there might have been an eighth. I will return one day. I have little option because the Burren is now in my veins and there it will stay forever.
Published in the Clare People and The Harp newspaper.