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.

Poulnabrone (c) Trever Miller httpetrever.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikimedia commons

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
Corcomroe Abbey
Newtown Castle
Gleninagh Castle


Get more mythology straight to your inbox. Sign up to my mailing list.

Or try one of these…

Advertisements

101 thoughts on “Legends of the Burren

  1. I wanted to make a stunningly literary comment about the Burren being captured by you in all its glory, but all that’s going through my head for some reason is ‘HON THE BANNER’. Sorry. Can’t get away from the GAA, it’s in the DNA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I imagine it’s heaven for an archaeologist. I dont know what I’m looking at half the time; I can see something is there, but I don’t have the knowledge to interpret it. I thought we found a holy well at one point, with the remains of a fullachta fiadh, but I’ve never seen one before, so couldn’t be sure. Its so frustrating to have a teensy bit of knowledge. If I’d had none, we would have just walked past oblivious. I’m sure we walked past lots of ancient sites without realising. Jenni and I just had to agree that ‘it was definitely something’… it became our catchphrase for the weekend lol!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I maintain my standpoint, those photos are to die for. The rocks look like the surface of the moon. and that grass disguising potholes or cracks or whatever – thats bloody frightening. I wonder, Turlough Hill, is there any evidence it was a look out? or place or the army or whatever. I mean, if makes no sense people lived there cause it was too hard to live there, maybe they didn’t. Sure there were houses, but what if their purpose wasn’t ‘living’ in the normal respect?

    Like

  3. What a beautiful walk and a splendid way to spend your Birthday weekend, Ali. Even with the horrors of those stories you tell I’m so glad you never encountered Bronach the Sorrowful. I can’t imagine what a sight that lake would have been.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved reading this, Ali. It makes me want to go back and really take the landscape in. We only had a few hours as it was, and there were a surprising number of people even though we weren’t on a tour or anything. But even traveling there again won’t give me the vast images in your descriptions. My experience is far too close in for anything equivalent. I can feel the wildness… it was there in the wind even with the people and my brothers around. 🙂 I can still remember how the limestone felt under my hands and the tiny delicate plants in the cracks in the rocks. Life asserts itself everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it does, and that was the most amazing thing. Those incredible orchids and gentian and a whole host of stunningly beautiful flowers flourishing in such an inhospitable place. How can there be such beauty where there is rarely anyone to see it? Lol… that question should spark some answers in your philosophers brain!

      Like

    1. Gripes is close enough lol! I fell victim a couple of times myself. Difficult to walk across as a fully sighted person, I don’t know how you managed it, Éilis! But I know that never stops you. 😊

      Like

    1. Yes, we have been so lucky with the weather lately. Today was actually WARM! Put me in the mood for a holiday! It is still wonderfully wild up there, and I know it sounds daft, but it felt so BIG! I really do love wide open spaces.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What fabulous photos, Ali, and a great description of the Burren in all its splendour. When we lived in Clare we often took the kids camping to Fanore beach. One August bank holiday, we caught so much mackerel the pub nearest our campsite took a couple of buckets as payment for our drinks, lol. Mind you, there’s nothing like a weekend of eating mackerel to turn you off it for a while. Did you go into Ballyvaughan?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! What a great story! Yes, there’s only so much mackerel you can eat. Its a stunning part of the world alright. We stayed overnight in Ballyvaughan. Thats where I took the sunset pictures, in the little harbour there. There was a full moon and it was so still and silent. It really was a beautiful and special evening.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. well the inveterate walker in me is soooo jealous of such outstanding beauty. As for the history and mythology to boot, well, it makes for a ramble where there is no time because you are so mesmerised.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Diverse is the perfect word. We walked through such diverse scenery just in one day; coastal, mountainous, hazel forest, shady streams and waterfalls, the karst, bare barren hills, leafy country lanes, lush meadows. It was lovely and so varied. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Absolutely gorgeous, Ali. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited the Burren though I have a maternal grandmother from close by and my mother’s mother was always going back. So full of ghosts, the air must be alive with them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on BRIDGET WHELAN writer and commented:
    I visited the Burren many years ago – it’s an extraordinary landscape and Ali Isaac has captured both the beauty and the stories that lie just under the surface. Cromwell’s army didn’t think much of it: “It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him” (Quote from Ludlow, commanding officer of Parliament’s campaign against the Irish in 1650s)

    Like

  9. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Ali Isaac is exploring some of the mysterious and seriously myth ridden parts of Ireland.. I first visited the Burren in 1988 on a trip down the West Coast of Ireland. On a summer’s day it is an incredible sight.. on a Wintery and wet day with black clouds on the horizon it is down right spooky. Head over and learn more about this mythical place.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sally! That route you took down the west coast has now been branded and marketed as The Wild Atlantic Way, and is very popular with tourists. I believe its doing the tourist industry a lot of good. Now a similar thing has recently been launched around Meath and Westmeath called Ireland’s Ancient East. Its quite new, and I don’t know much about it. But I expect we will see more of it in the future. The Burren though is quite spectacular.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Cathy. I have a new camera and no idea how to use it yet lol! So I’m sure the photos could be better, but I’ll keep practising. Luckily I got away with it this week, as the subject matter was already so stunning, even my poor photography skills couldn’t spoil it!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautiful photos! I live in Galway, so I always have a lovely view of the burren across the bay, but it was only last year that I actually walked the loop at Ballyvaughan. It’s a really unique place – great post 🙂

    Like

    1. Hi Evie, nice to meet you and thanks for your lovely comment. It’s always the same, when you live somewhere, with the best will in the world, you take it for granted. I live in Co Cavan, and we have a little Burren of our own, which is full of archaeological remains, just like yours, and yet I have never been there! Must put that right this summer. 😄

      Like

  11. Absolutely beautiful.
    As I may have said before, I fell in love with the Burren the first time I went to Ireland and I’m so sorry I didn’t get the chance to go back last September with my friends.
    But I suppose this means I need to go back at some point. Hey, maybe we can go together 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is only so much you can fit into each trip, isn’t there? Ireland may be a small country but it has plenty to see and do. You will definitely have to come back and I would love to meet you when you do. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  12. What a breathtakingly beautiful place! Your pictures are gorgeous and (as always) your stories of ancient tales, people, and places bring an amazing sense of life and history to what otherwise would be just a nice walk. Thank you for sharing your Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Barb. Yes, for me the stories really make it come alive. They add an extra dimension, a pop of magic, certainly when you look at the remains of ancient structures, and you’re wondering why on earth anyone would choose to live and build there, especially without our modern conveniences.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely no horses up there! But lots of cattle in the valleys, its so lush down there, as if nature is compensating for the austerity of the tops! It was a great trip. Wish I could get to do more of them, although I’m really grateful for the ones I have.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep! It was my birthday on the Saturday, my friend brought a mini bottle of wine and a cake with candle up the mountain for our picnic lunch! It was a lovely surprise! 😁 But probably not the most sensible thing we ever did!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That was nice. I’ve taken such things on camp outs before. It makes the event more special. I had to use mix when backpacking and make it in camp though. Gets all mushed up otherwise.

            Like

  13. That was a great trip you had, Ali. I seriously believe with Jenni as guide and you as storyteller there would be a lot of people happy to pay to go with you. We had a hard time finding an ancient site near Poulnabrone and I had no idea what i was looking at when we got there. You wouldn’t be able to guarantee the weather you had, but there could be a good myth or legend around a fire with a Guinness and some hearty Irish stew to look forward to. Besides, inclement weather would show just how hard it would have been to live in the Irish environment in those bygone days without goretex, thermals and waterproof hiking boots. Have you ever considered it as a business opportunity?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I often get asked to lead tours, but not yet up mountains. I’m not fit enough for a start! Also, the weather on a bad day just makes it too risky… you’d be cancelling more trips than you’d be leading! Lol! I agree with you, though; in a vast landscape of tumbled stone, its very hard to recognise and identify the crumbling remains of many of these ancient sites, unless you are experienced and know exactly what you’re looking for. We found the fort, but it would be easy enough to miss it completely. We walked the perimeter and made out some circular depressions where dwellings had been built and huddled against the outer wall, but again, we could easily have walked right over them without noticing. For me, I like to enjoy these places in silence and solitude. I don’t want semi interested tourists traipsing all over them (no disrespect to tourists! Ancient places are either ‘your thing’, or they’re not). The people who are meant to be there will find their own way there. That’s what I believe.

      Like

      1. It was Cahercummaun that we had trouble finding. A group of archaeologist students who had been working on a nearby site arrived to look at it with their teacher and i listened in as he told them all about it.
        It’s a group of people like that I could see you leading.
        You could charge a bit extra and it would be like a boutique tour group of interested folk and they would be hanging off your every word – I’m sure there’s people around who would pay extra for the privilege of a private tour like that. I wouldn’t like you to miss your calling, Ali!

        Like

  14. As I read and looked at the photos my mind wander to a troupe attempting to traverse such a terrain. Can you imagine what a barricade that would be? I’d hate to be a soldier trying to make it to the other side in a hurry. A few broken legs, maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting reaction to the post, Sue! I’d say quite a few broken limbs… it would be a nightmare to cross in a hurry, especially in bad weather. And as for the people who built their monuments up there… why? It’s intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bad weather and loaded plates for that matter … it’s astounding that the food stayed put for any length of time and didn’t make a mess across the rock or get whipped backward into some unfortunate person’s face by the wind, lol! The birds would have had a field day, no pun intended. 🙂

        . In response to the picture I sent of your telling of the legend, Ailbhe says, “Glad it wasn’t me…” which means I would surmise that a mission like that would have indeed been exceptionally gnarly. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s