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.

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