The Burren: A Place In-between
by Charles N. Barnard
When I plan travels these days, I often look for places that lie somewhere between the main roads. Terra
incognita. I have discovered the satisfactions of following dotted lines, of exploring lands that lie at the edge
of a Flat Earth.
In Ireland, for example, when I daydream over a map of that lovely island, my eye will run first down the
ragged, rugged western coast. I locate all the famous tourist areas that I once felt obliged to see and know — Connemara, famous for its landscapes, Shannon, famous for medieval castle banquets, Dingle, famous for
dramatic seascapes, and Killarney, famous for its scenic drive, the Ring of Kerry.
But then I remember a place in Ireland's west country that isn't
even labeled on most tourist maps but which is, for me, more memorable
than all the famous places. The Burren rates only a few sentences in most
guidebooks; it is crossed only by some thin dotted lines on roadmaps.
It is an inconvenient corner of County Clare that is more often by-passed
than explored by Ireland's visitors. It is a strange and lonely territory
that takes its odd name from the Gaelic tongue — boireann, the rocky
Read no more if you hope to learn of resort hotels, gourmet restaurants and big-chip nightlife. They are not
here. The Burren is 300 square miles of apparently desolate shale and limestone, one of Nature's
abandoned quarries, a place where, at first sight, one can imagine the grinding, earthquaking power of Ice
Age glaciers and feel the blunt dread of Stone Age life.
The first time I saw any part of the Burren was several years ago, driving south from Galway in a howling
rain that windshield wipers could only slash at ineffectively. I was aware of a wet wilderness beyond my
clouded windows. The streaming hills seemed to have the color and texture of old elephants standing
motionless in a monsoon.
"A closer look reveals, however . . . ." say the brochures, listing
flowers and birds and butterflies and relics of history and mysteries
of geology in the Burren. That's what I have come back to see. I would
not remotely consider traveling to Ireland for, say, a second medieval
banquet at Bunratty Castle (entertaining as the first may have been),
but, yes, I would return to the Burren again and again for that closer
Where are we? County Clare faces the Atlantic; it is the land north of the broad estuary of the River
Shannon and south of Galway Bay. Shannon Airport to Galway city is 57 miles via a fine new road that
passes northward through Ennis and Gort. A lot of high-speed tourism goes straight up this route to arrive
at the wonders and beauty of Connemara. Unfortunately, there is no hint of what lies only a few miles to the
west in Clare.
The Burren is worth a detour, raining or not.
Let's begin in Ennis because it is a convenient base and an interesting old market town on the banks of the
River Fergus. There is a friendly, first-class hotel there, the Old Ground, and a helpful Tourist Information
Office, and a quaint network of narrow streets that still squirm in all directions as they did in medieval
times. Ennis is a nice walking town.
It is a 15- or 20-mile drive over country roads from Ennis to the sea. One road leads to Spanish Point,
where some ships of the Armada crashed ashore in defeat and where, in the grass-covered dunes, some of
their dead crewmen were buried. A more direct road leads to Lahinch, a small beach town (population 500)
and golfing resort, where one of the two 18-hole courses was designed by the same architect who laid out
our own Augusta National. From Lahinch it is only a few minutes along the coast road to the Cliffs of
Moher, a major tourist attraction.
Most visitors at the Cliffs are unaware that these somber, near-vertical
walls that drop 700 sheer feet into the pounding sea are the terminal
edge of a great limestone plateau that extends many miles inland —
the Burren itself. Here come thousands of tourists a week, by car and
bus, to see the raging Atlantic try to devour the land. They stretch their
legs with a 15-minute walk to the top of a windy headland, make some photos
and go on their way. There is a tingle of fear and awe about the Cliffs
of Moher, no mistake; they are a looming Niagara without the waterfall,
a dizzying picture of primal forces.
Inland from the Cliffs the land is green for a few miles; there is topsoil and farming and some cattle graze.
But drive on to Doolin (famous for folk music) and then to Lisdoonvarna (an old spa town) and a change
of mood begins to overcome the traveler. The sky empties and the reach from one horizon to another
widens. It is like a climb above timberline. Trees become smaller, plants struggle, something is happening.
Stone walls divide the land into what seems a maze of small fortified pastures, and both earth and space take
on a gray, bleached look. It is the beginning of the Burren. A few miles beyond is the real thing.
Before we enter, a few geological facts. The Burren is a landform
that was thrust from the ocean millions of years ago. Its shale and carboniferous
limestone are relatively soft, sedimentary material that was formed on
the seabed. In places, this buried mountain of limestone is more than
3,000 feet thick.
With the coming and going of various ice ages, the great tableland
of the Burren was ground flat by the movement of glaciers. These left
behind some areas of glacial deposits and many huge boulders and blocks
that geologists call erratics. The retreating ice also left behind a surface
that is unlike any other in the world, one that appears to have been paved
smooth with giant rectangular blocks.
These blue-grey "pavements" of the Burren are called clints; the
fissures between them — that may be six inches wide at the surface
and 20 feet deep — are called grykes. At a distance, square-mile
areas of this surface appear dead level and all the lines between pavements
seem to vector off from where one stands to vanish at infinity. If geologists
did not assure us otherwise, there are areas of the Burren that might
be mistaken for the remains of a Roman road or the floor of some vast
How does one explore the Burren? First, by all means, with the
excellent large-scale map (1.8 inches to the mile) published in 1977 by
T.D. Robinson and sold at local tourist information offices. It is based
on a government ordnance survey and well marked with irresistible annotations
as to the whereabouts of the Burren's secrets — "hoofmarks of [ice
age] cow . . .two slab shrines . . .lead & silver mine . . .standing stones
. . .triple cliff fort . . .site of ancient racecourse . . .deserted village
. . .marks of a saint's fingers in stone . . .early Bronze Age cemetery
cairn . . . ."
Who could resist such a menu for exploration? Not I.
If time is limited, take the road from Lisdoonvarna northeast to Ballyvaughan. It is a distance of only 10
miles, but allow a generous hour and be prepared to spend more. Drive slowly, stop frequently. Don't miss
the grassy green bogs and dark, scrubby groves of hardy Sitka spruce. As the land rises and the sun sets,
notice how golden shafts pass through the screen of irregular spaces in the Burren's endless network of
stone walls — late light penetrating the lace border of an old window curtain.
Even if there is no therapeutic need, search out the "arched stone that
cures headache" (there is one for toothache, too, but I passed that up).
When you have parked your car and begin walking over the clints and grykes,
pause to see what a rock garden grows between them! Literally hundreds
of varieties of wildflowers — some from the Arctic, some from the
Mediterranean, some from the Alps — thrive in the labyrinth of limestone
crevices and are in bloom from March to September.
The Burren has not always been a place where fragile, indomitable life
survives in spite of hardship. Its celebrated pavements were once well
covered with earth and crops and many varieties of trees. Earliest man
must have cut the timber, however, and destroyed his environment. All
that is left after 4,000 years are more than a hundred of his megalithic
tombs. They are among the most dramatic finds a visitor can make, giant
slabs of stone (some weighing as much as 100 tons) forming crude, slant-roof
mausoleums that loom on the horizon like Stone Age chicken coops.
In later centuries, man left other monuments: cathedrals, round towers, high crosses, ring forts, castles. To
see them all requires more than a 10-mile crossing of the Burren by a single road. There is a constant
temptation to double back, to take yet another route across this bleak badlands, to find one more wedge
tomb, one more forgotten cross before sundown, to go on prospecting for additional treasures of history.
Not all of the Burren's millennia can be traced on its surface. Beneath
the flinty, arid hills is one of Europe's greatest systems of subterranean
rivers and caves. The largest of these is the Aillwee, discovered beneath
a 1,000-foot Burren mountain of the same name in 1944. Its entrance is
only a few miles south of Ballyvaughan, and it is open to the public from
April to October.
Several miles of Aillwee have now been explored by speleologists; guided tours take visitors along safe
paths through various large, well-lighted chambers. In one, shallow pits where bears once hibernated can be
seen. (Bears have been extinct in Ireland for more than 500 years.) In another are the bones of badgers.
The Aillwee cave is one of the few tourist facilities within the heartland of the High Burren. Another is a
modest "display center" in the town of Kilfenora (population 125) on the Burren's southern boundary.
Here (small entry fee), a scale model of the region and a slide presentation will add considerably to a
visitor's understanding. Books and maps useful in exploring the Burren are also for sale.
Nearby the Center are the remains of an 11th-century monastery
and a 12th-century cathedral with important high crosses and tomb effigies.
Kilfenora (22 miles from Ennis) can be a good starting point for any Burren
itinerary. Only a few miles east is one of the largest of the area's ruins,
the 14th- to 18th-century Leamaneh Castle, an imposing four-story structure
that was a fortress of the O'Brien clan.
The most dramatic and panoramic view of the Burren is on the Lisdoonvarna-Ballyvaughan
route. Near its midpoint (not far from the site of a Blessed Bush and
the marks of Saint Brigid's knees — that, heathen that I am, I could
not find), the road crests and begins a switchbacking descent known as
Corkscrew Hill. To the left and right are barren hills; five miles ahead
a green valley; beyond are the blue waters of Galway Bay.
Near the bottom of Corkscrew Hill are the remains of Gregans Castle, a 15th-century fortified towerhouse,
once the residence of the Prince of the Burren. Across the street is a comfortable country hotel, known also
as Gregans Castle. At the very least, it is a place to stop for tea.
Now that you've seen my Burren, no doubt you'll be rushing back to Shannon, or on to Connemara. Well,
no one has time to see all the mysteries and wonders of this place in one visit, I agree. Sometimes, on a
winter night in Connecticut, I take down my Burren map again and trace my finger along paths I haven't yet
I've been looking at a road that turns to the right shortly before
one arrives at Corkscrew Hill. I know just where it is, but I have never
taken it. The map show this dotted line passing through Lissylisheen (where
there are two wedge tombs, I know) and then going on to Kilcorney, where
there is a cave with a wonderful tale attached. It is called the Cave
of the Wild Horses, and it has never been completely explored —
for there is said to be a bottomless pit that bars the way only a hundred
feet from the entrance. Now, if legends be believed, this cave disgorges
great torrents of sweet water several times a year. The source and timing
of these floods is a mystery.
Further (I was told at a pub in Fanore), enchanted birds live
in the cave along with some magical horses that mate with none but members
of their own herd. They can be seen running free on spring nights, I was
assured — but only when the moon is full, of course.
I'm going back one day to look into that. It's as good an excuse as any, I think, for an early return to the
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