Walking the Burren
The Burren is a fascinating karst landscape centered around County Clare, where every rock and blade of grass tells a story. There was always precious little topsoil covering the surface limestone that eroded away completely by the Late Bronze Age due to over farming and environmental changes. One of the largest collections of exposed limestone pavement in Europe is left in its place.
You’ll find oddities like Arctic-alpine and Mediterranean Basin plants living side by side and low-impact herding techniques used to fight the expanse of invasive shrubland. It’s home to Neolithic sites, like the Poulnabrone dolmen and Burren National Park, which is part of a UNESCO Global Geopark along with the nearby Cliffs of Moher. It’s also where local eco-tour operators, like Tony Kirby from Heart of Burren Walks, work to educate visitors and preserve the area’s unique culture and environment.
We had the opportunity to walk the Burren with Tony, and I learned something new with each story and every step, but one stop by an ancient deer park wall brought five hundred years of Irish history to life.
Tony started by having us look at the wall and imagine the massive amount of labor required in its construction, usually provided by the poorest members of society for little pay and a generational ‘reward’ of never being allowed on the land again. A stand of Harebells grew at the base of the wall, a flower tied through folklore to the Puca fairies. The half horse/half man Puca and this flower are particularly prominent in the Burren.
St Patrick’s Catholicism was quite different from Traditional Roman Catholic practices. It left room for fairies and magic. Some stories even say that Patrick embedded the pagan symbol of the moon goddess (a circle) with a cross, making the first Celtic Cross. Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, and no Norman Castles were ever built in the region.
The area held onto its old ways until the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s. Over one million of the poorest Irish died, and another two million immigrated away from the Island. The Roman Catholic Church provided perhaps the most organized response to the crisis, but they asked for devotion in return, which marked a shift away from the old traditions.
There are too many details and stories from my Burren Walk to pack into an adventure piece, but if you get a chance to go out with a dedicated local guide like Tony, you will not regret it.