Last weekend, I hiked part of the Burren Trail with my friend, walking buddy and guide, Jenni. The Burren is an expanse of karst landscape located in Co Clare, stretching some 250 km between the villages of Ballyvaghan, Kinvara, Tubber, Corofin and Lisdoonvarna. Its name derives from the Irish Boireann, meaning ‘great rock’, or ‘stony place’.
The unique rocky lunar-like appearance of the Burren is due to it being composed of huge limestone pavements gouged by the last ice age. Over time, fissures and cracks have formed along lines of weakness, and these are called ‘grikes’. The slabs between grikes are known as ‘clints’.
Jenni advised me not to step on any patches of greenery; although they look solid, they often disguise grikes, which can be quite deep, causing the unsuspecting walker to fall and sustain injuries. I did get caught out by one or two, too busy applying my eyes to the view or fumbling with my camera, instead of concentrating on my feet.
Not surprisingly, the Burren is home to over 90 megalithic tombs, cairns, ring forts and portal dolmens, including the famous Poulnabrone. Many of these are quite tumbled, and in a wide open vista of tumbled stone, hard to identify.
In ancient times, the Burren was the home of the Corco Modhruadh tribe; the name meant ‘seed or people of Modhruadh’. At some point during the C12th, the territory was divided in two: Corco Modhruadh Iartharach (Corcomroe West), which was ruled by the Ó Conchubhair clan, and Corco Modhruadh Oirthearach (Corcomroe East), ruled by the Ó Lochlainn clan.
On the first day, we walked from the beach at Fanore to the sleepy town of Ballyvaughan via the Blackhead, Gleninagh pass and Newton Castle. Unsurprisingly, legends abound. According to myth, the Blackhead was home to a Fir Bolg chieftain by the name of Irghus (pronounced Eer-ish).
Blackhead was also said to be haunted by a banshee known as Bronach the Sorrowful. In the August of 1317, she appeared to Prince Donchad O’Brien, who was leading an army against his enemy, who were sheltering in the old abbey at Corcomroe. She wasn’t pretty;
“She was thatched with elf locks, foxy grey and rough like heather, matted and like long sea-wrack, a bossy, wrinkled, ulcerated brow, the hairs of her eyebrows like fish hooks; bleared, watery eyes peered with malignant fire between red inflamed lids; she had a great blue nose, flattened and wide, livid lips, and a stubbly beard.”
from the Triumphs of Torlough A.D. 1350 by Seean mac Craith
She was washing limbs and decapitated heads in Lough Rask until the lake turned red with ‘blood, brains and floating hair’, and foretold that this would be the fate of Donchad and his men. They attempted to kill her, but she rose up screaming into the air and disappeared. Sure enough, they lost the battle, and by sunset that day, they were all dead.
In the legend of Bóthar na Mias, Colman, a monk, and brother to King Gaire the Hospitable of Hy Fiachrach Aidhne, now known as Gort, disappeared into the wilderness of the Burren to fast and pray. After the deprivations of Lent, his companion longed for a meat feast, so Colman turned to the power of prayer, and his wishes were answered.
King Gaire was just sitting down with his court to a grand Easter feast, when all the dishes suddenly flew up into the air and floated out of the castle. Gaire sent his warriors in hot pursuit, and they followed the food all the way to Colman’s hermitage.
Terrified by the sudden appearance of his brother’s fierce warriors, Colman prayed for deliverance, and he was answered; the feet of the men and the hooves of their horses stuck fast to the ground. The route from Gort into the Burren was known ever after as the Bóthar na Mias, or the ‘road of dishes’.
On the second day, we took the Wood Loop, via Tonarussa, through the coll between Moneen and Ailwee hills, down to Oughtmama valley, St Colman’s holy well, up Turlough Hill, finishing at Corcomroe Abbey.
In Irish, Ucht Mama (Oughtmama) means ‘the breast of the high pass’. Three tiny churches were built here, now in ruins and shielded by hazel trees, and nearby is a holy well dedicated to St Colman.
Turlough Hill is crowned with a huge, mysterious and enigmatic prehistoric circular enclosure which has archaeologists scratching their heads in puzzlement. It’s huge, with the remains of 160 circular dwellings. Life here would have been bleak and windswept; there was no running water, no grazing for livestock, or land for farming crops. The huge stone wall contained as many as 10 entrances, which is unusual and indicates it was not built for protection. Who chose to live here, and why? It’s a mystery.
The barren surface of the Burren is interspersed with areas of verdant foliage which lie scattered over the stone like bright rugs. These are spotted with blue spring gentian, an alpine flower; purple orchids, bloody cranesbill, and lots of others we couldn’t identify. The colours really popped against the stone. Who would have thought such a bleak wilderness could produce so many beautiful, vibrant and delicate flowers?
We didn’t see any wild goats, although we saw the evidence they left behind, if you get my drift. Nor did we see pine-martens, but we did see many small birds, and heard lots of cuckoos. In fact, we were treated to the aerobatic spectacle of a cuckoo being chased from a nest by two very determined and much smaller parent birds, something I doubt I’ll ever be lucky enough to see again.
We ate wild garlic, trudged through mud, scrambled up rocky ledges, splashed across waterfalls, meandered through hazel forest, and off-roaded across karst. We admired dramatic coastal scenes, rested beside holy wells, followed in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors in the places they built and lived. We carried everything we needed on our backs, and gloried in rare and consistent sunshine.
The Burren is only a small corner of Ireland, but as we traversed its breadth, we felt like ants in its vastness. We hardly saw a soul, and it felt wild and powerful and ancient, almost untouched by man in places. We embraced and admired and respected it; in return it allowed us safe passage, and for that brief space in time, yielded up its secrets and beauty.
Still to come…
St Colman’s Holy Well