The Burren

The Burren was described by the Cromwellian general Edmund Ludlow as “a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”

Typical Burren vista (Photo – pacaguisa)

The Burren (Boireann – “great rock” / “rocky place”; aka Boirinn – dative form), a weird and wonderful region extending across northwestern County Clare and a small part of County Galway, is one of the world’s finest examples of glacio-karst landscape, famous for its luminous scenery dotted with sites of archaeological / historical interest.

Part of the area was made a National Park in 1998 and The Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark gained membership of both the European Geoparks Network and the UNESCO-assisted Global Network of National Geoparks to become the third Geopark to be designated in Ireland in 2011.

In addition to these pages, the region is explored by:

ByRoute 1, taking in Liscannor Bay, Lahinch, the Cliffs of Moher,   Doolin, Black Head, Ballyvaughan and Kinvarra;

ByRoute 12 taking in Dysart O’Dea, Corrofin, Killinaboy, Leamaneh, Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna.

Measuring roughly 250km2, the rocky windswept region is a rolling mosaic of limestone pavements, calcareous grassland and scrub, fen, turloughs (disappearing seasonal ponds / lakes), petrifying springs, swallow-holes, cliffs, boulders, erratics and scree. The limestone karsts are crisscrossed by deep grooves known as “grikes”, leaving isolated slabs called “clints”, in turn pitted with shallow indentations, runnels, dolines and poljes (flat depressions within the limestone).

The resulting moonlike landscape at first glance appears treeless, bleak and barren, but  is streaked with gorges, hollows and valleys containing enough soil and rainwater to support a startling abundance of wildlife.

Karst meadow. (Photo – Matthewobrien)

For a beautiful photo of a gryke accompanied by a moving poem, click here.

Flora & Fauna

 

Due to the unusual environment, arctic, alpine and Mediterranean plants thrive side by side; most flower in spring, attracting botanists from all over the world to see their unique juxtapositions. The flora ranges from algae, lichens, mosses, ferns, brambles, heather, ivy, saxifrage, wall lettuce, wood sage and dark red helleborine to creamy-white Burnet roses, magenta-coloured bloody cranesbill and no less than 23 varieties of orchid. Many species are rare in Ireland, and some are only found in this area.

 

The vivid blue flower of the alpine Spring Gentian is used by the tourist board as a symbol for the Burren. (Photo – Tigerente)

 

In addition to sheep and cattle, the Burren’s varied fauna includes almost every mammal native to Ireland, from wood mice, bank voles, pygmy shrews and pine martens to rabbits, hares, red squirrels, Irish stoats, foxes, badgers, otters, seals and seven types of bat (including rare Lesser Horseshoe Bats), plus feral goats and mink descended from fur farm escapees (but, oddly, no hedgehogs).

 

Birds include Peregrine falcons, ravens, kestrels, merlin and hen harriers, smaller species such as warblers, tits etc., and waterfowl such as mute and whooper swans, curlews, lapwings, plovers etc.

 

Viviparous lizards sun themselves on hot rocks in summer, while common frogs and newts are both found in the wetland areas.

 

There is also a wide range of butterflies (including bright yellow Brimstones, Brown and Purple Hairstreaks and rare Pearl-bordered Fritillaries), moths (notably the endemic Burren Green, discovered in 1949) and other interesting insects, such as damsel flies and a water-beetle (Ochthebius nilssoni) otherwise found only in  northern Sweden.

Visitors come from far and wide to tour the Burren’s archaeological / historical sites, of which there are over 2500. Drivers, cyclists and especially walkers following the unpaved “green roads” enjoy the many imaginative placenames bequeathed by local folklore. The Burren’s limestone cliffs are popular with rock-climbers, while potholers / spelunkers admire the caves, tunnels  and underground rivers speleologists have charted in the area.

Burren Pre-history & History

 

The limestone karst of the Burren was formed from organic sediment beneath a  shallow tropical sea about 350,000,000 years ago, and was hurled into place by a massive geological cataclysm, then subjected to long aeons of  repeated Ice Age glacier formations and retreats leaving visible striations across the landscape.

 

Palaeobotanical and palynological studies indicate that the Burren was once dominated by pine woodlands with an understory of hazel, ash, oak, yew and alder. The first Mesolithic settlers left little trace on the environment. Nevertheless, archaeologists have traced the development of an ancient agricultural society in the Burren over 6000 years, from its hunter-gatherer origins to the present day.

 

On the evidence of numerous burial sites, monuments, barrows, fulachta fiadha (cooking sites) and artefacts, the Neolithic period (c.3000 BC onward) saw a significant growth in the number of  human inhabitants, who reached their zenith of  prosperity during the Bronze Age.  Trees were steadily cleared to make way for farmland until the “Iron Age lull“, while methods such as reverse transhumance (putting cattle, sheep and goats to graze on the lowlands in summer and on the hills in winter), continued in use for millenia and were essential to the development of the “ageless” landscape.

 

The Burren has the densest concentration of ecclesiastical sites in Ireland. Early and medieval Christian monks brought new  tools, techniques and crop species to the area, gradually shifting the main focus of agriculture from the hillslopes, where ringforts protected families and their valuable animals  from marauding wolves and other predators, to the fertile lowlands,  better suited for tillage and winter grazing of animals bred for dairy produce rather than meat.

 

The Burren formed part of the territory of Corco Modhruadh (“seed / people of Modhruadh”) coextensive with the diocese of Kilfenora. Around the C12th, the territory was divided into Corco Modhruadh Iartharach (“Western Corcomroe”) and Corco Modhruadh Oirthearach (“Eastern Corcomroe”), aka Boireann, which later became the baronies of Corcomroe and Burren respectively.

 

The Ó Lochlainn / O’Loughlin / O’Lachlen clan ruled Boireann down to the mid C17th from their medieval Tower House, Gragans Castle. The chief of the family was known in later times as the ‘Prince of Burren’ and clan members were buried in the family tomb near the altar of Corcomroe Abbey. Their kinsmen the Ó Conchubhair / O’Connor clan ruled Corco Modhruadh Oirthearach from Dough Castle near Liscannor.  Both clans fought frequently with the O’Briens.

 

The Annals of the Four Masters (1616) contain many references to the region, e.g.Burren’s hilly grey expanse of jagged points and slippery steeps, nevertheless overflowing with milk and yielding luscious grass’, and include tales of daring raids: in 1055 AD a ‘predatory excursion’ produced many ‘spoils’; in 1314 marauding parties ‘gathered herds, flocks and all valuable gear of the Corcamachs’ from among ‘Burren’s uncouth ways, narrow gaps, crooked passes, rugged boulders and high sharp crests’; and as late as 1600, an O’Donnell raid stripped the Burren of its ‘cattle, flocks and booty’, and with ‘enormous amount of cattle and plunder, they left the cleft stone passes of white Boireann behind’.

 

The main population centres within the medieval territory of Boireann were Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan, New Quay / Burrin, Noughaval, Bealaclugga, Carron and Fanore / Craggagh.

 

The population remained  substantial until the mid-C19th Great Famine, when the stone walls that are now such a feature of the area were built by locals employed by philanthropic famine relief schemes. Despite such measures, thousands died of starvation and disease, the local subsistence economy collapsed and emigration became the norm, leaving the deserted landscape visible today.

 

TJ Westropp posing at a dolmen

 

Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922), a Limerick-born Anglo-Irish antiquarian and folklorist, was the first modern investigator of the region’s archaeological riches: his Prehistoric Forts and Dolmens in North Clare remains a standard reference work.

 

Until only a few decades ago the region’s name in English was just “Burren”, like Connemara, unadorned by any article; the “the” is a C20th addition.

The Burren ecosystem was at least partially created by man and beast, and certainly maintained by the farming community using traditional methods of land management and animal husbandry, many of which are still  employed. It is important to remember this and appreciate the difficulties that the farmers had to overcome to make a living out of this rocky landscape. The impact of farming on the Burren is explored in more detail here.

View from Corkscrew Hill by surrealpenguin

Corkscrew Hill is so named for the many curves and sharp switch backs on the road on its northern slopes, constructed as part of a Relief Scheme during the Great Famine and now forming a section of the N67 inland connection between Lisdoonvarna and Ballyvaughan.

Gregans Castle Hotel*****, located on the north side of  Corkscrew Hill, is  an impressive C18th manor house with beautiful mature gardens and spectacular views across the Burren to Galway Bay. Guests have included JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Seamus Heaney plus leading politicians and film stars etc. Run since 1967 by the Haden family as an elegantly decorated luxury country house retreat, it is renowned for its award-winning restaurant.

The Burren Ecotourism Network was established in 2011 in order to help residents, businesses, community organisations and regional development agencies protect this delicate and important landscape,  with  education courses and public meetings to coördinate initiatives, regular clean-up / maintenance drives and campaigns to keep the region sustainable by promoting locally produced foods, hand-crafted artisan products, and environmentally sound activities within the area.