Scoured by glaciers, sheered / severed from Newfoundland, and repositioned during that epochal phase in Earth’s expansion gently referred to as “contentental drift,” the Burren is mute evidence to the oldest geological narrative: the narrative of Creation.
Situated in the northwest corner of County Clare, abutting the Atlantic on the West and the south side of Galway Bay on the north, its coast includes the Cliffs of Moher, whose fossil-studded walls are evidence of the dramatic climate change (what are they?).
The Burren is characterized by its bony, terraced limestone mountains stripped of its trees during the Bronze Age. Its karst pavements are scarred by deep fissures interspersed with grassy strips where flowers unique in Europe/ British Isles inject seasonal colour and poetry. If its early history is shrouded in myth, the story of human habitation remains an open book for all to read. From Neolithic/megalithic times, people have used the rocks of the Burren to create landmarks, tombs, places of sacrifice and worship, protective ring forts, boundary markers, holy wells, churches, monasteries, castles, legal and bardic schools, and cottages. The whole of western European human history can be read in the archeological remains of the Burren which, according to a recent survey, average per square foot.
Christianity arrived early and is marked by ruined churches going back to the century. The monks, inspired by the Anchorites of Egypt, saw the Burren as analogous to the desert, although they realized that its appearance was only skin deep. Corcomroe means “Fertile Rock” and indeed, however sparse, the herb-laced grass and meadows of the Burren has long been famous for producing the best beef in Ireland.
This is the ancient territory of the Ui Lochlainn, the Vikings who came ashore in the 10th century, were converted to Christianity, intermarried with the indigenous Celts, farmed, fought to protect their territory, and joined forces with their sister clan, the O Connors, and the dominant O Brien clan, to beat out the Normans in . Evidence of their early history is still largely underground. Ireland’s most spectacular Celtic treasure, the Gleninsheen Collar, now in the National Archives, was discovered by a farmer while ploughing, thought to be a coffin handle that would bring bad luck, and hidden for years in a stone wall before it was shown to an astonished archaeologist from the National Archives who quickly spirited it away to Dublin!
By the 15th century the Burren was the site of castles and tower houses, the Cistercian monastery of Corcomroe, and the cathedral church of Kilfenora with its exceptional Tall Crosses. Evidence of its rich artistic life can be seen in the remains of these structures, and of its intellectual life in fragments of surviving manuscripts and poetry. The work of centuries was brought to a precipitous end in the 16th century when the legality of the succession to the British throne lead that an expedient king to embrace the Protestant Reformation thereby pre-empting papal authority and strip the monasteries of their rich lands and buildings, giving them as spoils to his supporters. Corcomroe and Kilfenora were stripped of their roofs, like monasteries throughout England.
His daughter, Elizabeth 1, having come to the throne, was desperate to ensure support. Her lackies forced their Catholic tenants to slaughter survivors of the Spanish Armada as they climbed ashore and hung the rest near Doolin. Those chiefs who would forswear the old religion and take the Oath of Succession were rewarded, and those who would not, were evicted. The O Briens agreed and were made Earls of Thomond. The O Lochlainns refused, and within a generation had been evicted. What the Tudors began, Cromwell finished. Told that, on the Burren, there was not enough water to drown a man, a tree on which to hang him, or earth to bury him, he delegated the dirty work to his general Ironside. At the end of the 17th century, the anti-Catholic Penal Laws, which remained in effect for a century, ensured that any who practiced the Catholic religion, had any land, were educated, or spoke gaelic would pay a huge price. Although they were revoked during the Napoleonic Wars when the British feared French Invasion via Ireland, they had done irreparable damage. When the Great Famine hit in the 1840s, poverty and destitution were rampant, and for most the alternative was emigration or death. The population of the once proud Burren was decimated.
However, it was here that the first signs of hope that Ireland’s sad history was about to be reversed. It was the indomitable people of Clare who, donating pennies, sent Daniel O Connell to Westminster. The love of the Burren, of myth and history, of the language, the music, the art and poetry, and the life of the mind and soul, were far too deeply rooted to be eradicated by the events of a few hundred years.
Today the Burren remains, as it has for centuries, a mute witness and open book to geological and human history from the dawn of time. The history and folklore of the area has been studied and collected since childhood by Edward O Loghlen of Ballyvaughan (pl. ) who has been sharing it with the Ui Lochlainns in their ancestral home in the reunions of 1995 and 2005. A handful of farmers, like Patsy Linane (photo), continue the ancient practice of transhumance, moving their cattle from the lower pastures to the top of the Burren in the winter, thereby preserving the landscape. A new centre of artistic learning has sprung up in the form of the outstanding Burren College of Art which includes the restored O Lochlainn Newtown Castle. A fine food and catering business has been opened by Cathleen (O Loghlen) Connole who was raised on the Burren and walks it daily (photo ). The rich herbs which grow in the limestone fissures and have long been a component in the best tasting beef in Ireland are used to create perfumes and other products at the Burren Perfumery near Caron.
And quietly, quietly, hidden away in the silent hollows between the rocks, where the shadows gather at dusk, where the fairies are said to live, are poets, philosophers, writers, and singers, among them John O Donohue, Re O Laigleis, Naomi O Connell and John Connole. All this creativity wells up, like the turloughs on the Burren, in festivals, symposia, performances, and art exhibitions each summer including the
But to experience the Burren fully, you will need to experience it like the Druids and Early Christian monks. You will need to make a pilgrimage out onto the Burren by foot. It is there, in the silence, that you can hear your soul speak.