Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Burren

“It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, nor wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him,” said Lieutenant-General Edmund Ludlow of England.  In the three-hundred and sixty years since the lieutenant-general visited Ireland’s Burren, it is safe to say that this geographical wonder has changed little.  Indeed, while hanging and drowning men was not in the forefront of our minds during the College’s visit to the Burren, we would have been hard pressed to prove Ludlow wrong. 

Nestled in County Clare, the Burren attracts thousands of tourists yearly, containing famous villages such as Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan, and Kinvarna, remarkable landmarks such as the Cliffs of Moher and Blackhead and, of course, rocks.  Lots and lots of rocks.  More rocks than you will see in one place for the rest of your life, guaranteed.  Because, equally remarkably, there is no place else in the world like the Burren.  It is unique to Ireland and it is one of the many things that make Ireland unique to the world.

Limestone encrusts the ridges of the Burren like cracking plates of ice on the swells of an ancient sea.  Cliffs jut unexpectedly from the landscape, the earth forming and dissolving around the narrow roadways that seem so out of place on this alien land.  Boulders lay like the broken remains of a giant’s football, tossed aside by the glaciers and left to shade solitary patches of earth—the only shade most of the Burren knows.  Marbled with crevices called “grikes” and massive caves, this place is unexpectedly treacherous.  And yet we were repeatedly told that the cows are always fatter when raised in the Burren.  Personally, I found it hard to believe that any form of livestock could be long for that world until I saw a dairy cow wandering up a slippery hillside, with a cluster of sheep and one pudgy pony in tow.


Because of its geology, the Burren harbors innumerable species of native flora and fauna that either cannot be found anywhere else in the world or that should never have been found here (excluding the dairy cow, who continues to baffle me).  Artic flowers, rare insects and wily foxes coexist in a land that looks to have never known life.  In fact, because of the sunlight the dark stones absorb and the rain that continuously soaks its earth, the Burren has a moderate climate that encourages lush vegetation.  I bought a bottle of water from one of the small villages that speckle the area and saw that Ballygowan mineral water claims 750 years of limestone filtered purity.  Yes, it was delicious.  No, it did not taste like dirt.

The dairy cow I saw, as it turns out, was one of the many that belong to farmers whose families have lived in this area for centuries.  Ancient lore, passed down by legends, thrive with the same rich diversity here as the plants and animals who also call it home.  At the Burren Center in Kilfenora, County Clare Ireland, visitors can learn not only of this vibrant human history, but also the fantastic geologic evolution that molded the lore.  I highly recommend this museum, which you can have a look at yourself at http://www.theburrencentre.ie/ .

Knowing that people have lived here since ancient times and that there isn’t enough soil to bury a man, I should have anticipated that professor, Dave Ansett, would propose the question of “what do you think they did with grandma?” during our drive.  This brought us pause and it wasn’t until we passed a bizarre, square landmark that I understood the answer.  Obviously built from the stones that make this place unique, the ‘portal tomb’ thrust its ancient head high above the surrounding earth, reminding the world of forgotten civilizations.  Since their dead could not be buried, the Burren’s ancients constructed these formations to mark the resting places of their families.  While the exact use of these structures is debated (Were they used for rituals?  Did they serve a purpose other than as a marker?), the history and dedication that they now represent is indisputable.

From the plated crests of the Burren’s sun warmed ridges to the shadowy crevices that have never known light, this place adds a serene quality to Ireland’s beauty.  I look forward to returning in May, when the wildflowers will be in full bloom (though I will still be too early for the orchids, I’m told) and the grasses so green that they tint the air.  I look forward to visiting at least one portal tomb, buying around two bottles of Ballygowan water…

…And re-finding exactly three windblown trees.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Cliffs of Moher

Chances are that if you ask an Irishman about a place you need to see before leaving Ireland, he will direct you toward the Cliffs of Moher.  One of Ireland’s top tourist sights, it is easy to see why the movies and people are fascinated by this spectacular landmark.  In fact, if you are a fan of Harry Potter or The Princess Bride, you may already know this place.  The Cliffs of Moher have long commanded humanity’s awe and respect, their sheer, 200 meter drop into the Atlantic Ocean awakening a new sense of respect within the human heart. 


Nestled in a part of Ireland known as the Burren, the Cliffs are not only aesthetically enthralling: they are a geological wonder.  Thousands of years of compacted layers of silt, mud and sand have eroded away to give the Cliffs their uniquely jagged appearance, soil breaking down under the will of ancient rivers and, of course, the fury of the Atlantic.  Time created these natural wonders and, as with most things, it is time that will also take them away.  Every year the Cliffs lose more of their lower levels of soil to the ocean, the edge eventually collapsing.  At the base of the Cliffs, square pillars of black stone can be plainly seen, the natural formations molded by the power of salt water and wind.

Recent development near the Cliffs has brought many modern conveniences for the visitors.  There is a museum dedicated to the history and geology of the Cliffs as well as a gift shop, restaurant and occasionally live music.  While I visited, a man sat on the stone pathway and played traditional tunes on an Irish flute, the haunting and lively melodies drifting with the wind that never truly settles.  Visitors can walk for miles along the edge where railings and stairs have been placed for the protection and convenience of the Cliffs’ swarm of sightseers.

The Cliffs of Moher also hold interest for birdwatchers.  With over 20,000 species of breeding seabirds nesting in the area, including the Puffin, Chough, Fulmar, Guillemot and Razorbill, the Cliffs of Moher are in the Special Protection Area.  Visitors are required to remain on the stone pathways that line the cliff’s face; anyone who deems it necessary to climb over the wall and challenge the Cliffs’ edge will be promptly asked to vacate the premises.  Truly, I didn’t have much interest in venturing close to the edge anyway—as the gale force winds would often give abrupt bursts that sent the visitors sprawling.

Of course, common sense is not abundant in all of mankind.  Many people deemed it necessary to tempt fate and challenge the wind, climbing over the wall and flitting about the cliff’s continuously collapsing edge.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Before World War II, however, going over the edge was a popular way to both catch food and pass the time, fourteen or so people lowering one man down the cliff’s face on a long rope.  The climber would, if hunting, take along a separate rope with a noose at one end, slipping the loop over an unsuspecting nesting bird’s head and snaring supper.  He would then ring its neck, throw it in a basket, and continue down the drop.  Needless to say, this was not the safest of professions.

All in all, I can’t but agree with the locals: if you are travelling in Ireland, you shouldn’t leave before paying a visit to the Cliffs.  They attract thousands of visitors year round from all corners of the world.  Even on the rainy, February day that we decided to visit I could hear French, German, English and Italian languages all around me.  My only suggestions are to dress warmly, try to find a day that it isn’t raining, and to be sure to not forget your camera.  The Cliffs are sure to awaken a hidden sense of wonder.


Walking Distance

There are three things that Americans should know about Ireland.  First, they drive on the left side of very narrow roads.  This may seem fairly straight forward, but you would be amazed at how many close calls we can have when attempting to reverse our habits.  And believe me, coming around a hairpin turn in the Burren and finding yourself nose-to-nose with a speeding coach is the less tasteful of memorable experiences. 

Secondly, while hitchhiking is not frowned upon in this part of the world, be careful with what you ask for when flagging someone over.  Requesting a ‘lift’ will result in you climbing into the car and being escorted to your destination.  Asking for a ‘ride’ will either end with the Irishman driving indignantly off while you stare perplexedly down the roadway or, more interestingly yet, the abashed American receives exactly what he or she requested.  It will suffice to say that this bit of knowledge could save you a world of trouble in the long run. 

Finally, everything within a square radius of fifteen miles is considered ‘walking distance’.  So when you start off from your bed and breakfast on foot and in search of the promised sightseeing that is ‘just down the road’, don’t be surprised if it is a good day’s hike away.  While this can be an excellent time to see some of the magnificent countryside, most people prefer to be slightly more prepared for such an outing (like having means of a ‘lift’ back home). 

These are three things that I learned very quickly upon arriving in Ireland.
Once every spring, Duluth, Minnesota’s College of St. Scholastica offers their students the opportunity to spend a semester studying abroad in County Mayo, the Republic of Ireland.  This year’s twenty-one accepted students will live for thirteen weeks in Louisburgh, a town of roughly three-hundred citizens, while calling the village’s ‘holiday cottages’ home.  During their stay, the students will not only learn the fine art of heating their home with a peat fireplace, but will also spend their three day weekends traveling either independently or with their group, seeing much of the Republic of Ireland before returning to the States.  As number twenty-one of the people studying here, I can easily tell you that Ireland will touch your soul. 
There is a rugged, well-worn feel to Ireland that I have never experienced anywhere else in my life.  As I stand on the ruins of an ancient burial site or marvel at the complexity of a Celtic cross, a deeply moving sense of history tugs within my heart.  For a moment, I can almost see the ancients striving to survive on this weather torn land.  I can feel their pain in war and their firm will to survive, a strange desire to protect this magnificent land stirring within my unsuspecting heart.  Seeing Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, for the first time paralyzed me with its majestic serenity.  For while I expected the country to be lovely, I did not fully appreciate the effect it would have on me until that first glimpse of Ireland’s beauty. 
And, of course, the landscape is only part of the appeal Ireland holds for many of its visitors.  The Irish people themselves hold a deep appreciation for their land and thereby can usually understand why Ireland’s beauty moves those who have never witnessed it before.  They are welcoming and sincere, accepting a group of twenty-one students and three faculty into their homes with open arms, going well out of their way to ensure the ‘Yankees’ are comfortable.  It is a strange and wonderful sensation to be three thousand miles from where you were raised and yet still feel at home.

From Ireland’s food to its ancient cultures to its abundant green fields, I’m inviting you to take the journey of a lifetime with me.  The College of St. Scholastica will be in Ireland for thirteen weeks, Ireland will be in our hearts forever—of this there is no doubt.  Take some small piece of that away with you as well.  Whether your interest is in the rough shores carved by the Atlantic or the green fields flecked with white sheep, so long as it is within ‘walking distance’, you will find something here.  Welcome to Ireland.