The Burren:Ireland's land of stone

by frankbeswick

The Burren in County Clare is an enchanting limestone landscape where alpine, arctic and lusitanian flora flourish side by side and which is rich in insect fauna and history.

To walk in the Burren is to enter an enchanting landscape, superficially barren, but on closer, more thoughtful inspection abundant in life. It is flora that finds its niche in the narrow fissures that march or rather tiptoe across this ancient land. In summer the walker's efforts are repaid by an abundance of insect life, particularly buterflies, but also birds; and there are small valleys where cattle thrive in the rich calcareous grassland. The Burren is rich in neolithic monuments that give mute testimony to the antiquity of humanity and culture in this area.

Image above courtesy of marybettinibank

Reflections on the Landscape

We can take negative or positive views of a landscape. The Cromwellian, General Ludlow, sent to subdue the Burren and counties Clare and Limerick dismissed the place with words sometimes wrongly attributed to Cromwell, "Not enough wood to hang a man, not enough water to drown him and not enough earth to bury his coffin." He saw a landscape in terms of the death that he could inflict. But he saw shallowly, for hidden in the limestone fissures that you can see in the picture below is a floral abundance attended by much insect life, as butterflies dance their endless pirouettes around the blossoms. 

Ludlow, supposedly a Christian, cannot be excused his ignorance, for had he read his Scripture properly he would have realized that wilderness, as the Burren is, can be a place where spiritual experiences can be had, as sojourners in its great silences become sensitized to the spirit that Wordsworth detected permeating nature. [Lines Written above Tintern Abbey.] When I stood on the heights above Black Head, west of Ballyvaughan, [see the map] the part of the Burren that juts into Galway Bay, I became aware of a stone landscape that rolled away from me into the distance and a profound silence. To me it was a spiritual place.   

Yet the Burren, whose name derives from an Irish word for a  stony place, is a man-made landscape. The bare, denuded surface was once soil-covered and people dwelt comfortably in this land warmed by the southwesterly winds that come up from the mid-Atlantic and the North Atlantic Drift, the current that makes the British Isles warmer than its latitude should allow, as the abundance of megalithic tombs and forts testifies; but the slash and burn agriculture destroyed the tree cover, resulting in soil erosion on a massive scale. Soil flowed down into fissures [grikes] and caves, along with the small valleys on the Burren, and there it provided the basis for plants to grow. We were left with a broad landscape of limestone pavement, divided into clints and grikes, to use the commonly accepted geological parlance, these being blocks and fissures respectively.

But there is an advantage to the limestone surface, for the rock traps heat in Summer and releases it slowly in Winter, creating a temperate climate in which plants thrive. Furthermore the grikes provide sheltered accomodation for plants, for as long as they keep their heads below the surface, they will be sheltered from salt-laden winter winds and storms. Sunlight can be guaranteed to get into them part of the day and they must be getting enough to thrive. Moreover, the soil in the small valleys is lime-rich from the limestone bedrock, which makes for good rich grass on which cattle thrive.  

Another factor favourable to plant growth is the high light density on the Burren, which comes from the fact that the limestone's light coloration reflects light and because the area lacks the air pollution which dims sunlight in areas with less clear atmospheric conditions. 

Limestone pavement

The Burren
The Burren

Where the Burren is

Flora and Fauna of the Burren

The Burren is botanically unique, for there is nowhere else in the world where arctic, alpine and Mediterranean plants grow together and at low altitude. We do find in Britain that there are places where arctic/alpine plants have survived the ice age, but they are rocky, inaccessible and rare.On the Burren the pre-ice age flora was Lusitanian, similar to the flora of Portugal, and some managed to cling on during the cold period, but alpine/arctic flora arrived during the ice-age and managed to hold on as relict species after the ice had gone. 

Alpine flora are represented by the abundant mountain avens, [Dryas octopetala], which vie with the flourishing bloody cranesbill [Geranium sanguineum] white contrasting with the cranesbill's red. In Spring purple orchids and blue gentians add to the rainbow of colours that flaunt themselves in the grikes. Birdsfoot trefoil is also common and provides food for the butterflies.The beautiful, two-lipped white trumpet-shaped florets of eyebright are mixed in with other flowers, for eyebright [Euphrasia] is a semi-parasite which attaches itself to the roots of other plants to tap their nutrients, but it does need a lime-rich soil, which it finds in the grikes. 

Trees are rare and quite stunted. Often found is juniper and also dwarf hazel. Juniper, once common in the British Isles, is now becoming rare due to loss of moorland habitat, so the Burren is a precious redoubt for it. The hazel is self-seeded, as no-one plants trees on these wind-challenged lands, but at least it gets a chance to seed, as hazel in England is subject to the predations of the American import, the grey squirrel, which gobbles up the nuts. But there are no grey squirrels in Ireland, and if there were, the Burren has resident pine martens, whose favourite lunch is grey squirrel, so it looks as if the hazel is safe for now. There is some scrubby deciduous woodland on some shaded slopes on the east of the area. 

In places you find the occasional turlough [Irish for dry lake] which is a lough that only fills in wet weather and drains in dry conditions. Around these you find a standard wetland flora, including  wild mint and watercress,especially when they are near a small bed of clay that enables boggy conditions to develop. The loughs are blessed with a fauna of amphibians, such as newts and frogs.

In summer butterflies luxuriate: Blue, small copper, fritillaries, red admiral, peacock and many others, including some rare ones blown in from warmer climes.Visitors might see the rare Burren green moth, only discovered in the 1940s. 

Mountain hares are ever-present and while in the past they used to be hunted by people in need of food, there is now a cultural acceptance that no one should shoot them, but this does not save them from predatory raptors, such as kestrels. A wide range of bird, including snipe and woodcock can be seen at times. 

Experiencing the Land

So walk with me on an imaginary stroll in the Burren. We will not travel far, but enough to sample it.It is a warm, sunny day in Spring and the sea is peaceful. We begin at Black Head and scramble up the easy stepped slope made of alternate limestones and shales until we reach the level land. You look back over the Atlantic out into the distance where several miles out the continental shelf ends in a massive underwater cliff that causes the upwellings that give Ireland its richly productive waters and its sudden mists. The ancient Irish used to look out and dream of a wonderful land to the west, Tir nan Og, the land of youth,and on days like this it is easy to see why. 

Looking inland with a warm, moist southwesterly wind at your back, you survey the landscape, a  terrain of stone with green patches rolling into the distance, with small undulating hills. The walk is not hard, for the stone surface is not jagged, but well-softened and rounded by wind and water. You step lightly over grikes, looking down at the abundance at your feet, the shy plant communities huddled in their cosy world. Suddenly you disturb a hare, which shoots off into the distance, speeding lithely and lightly over landscapes in which we clumsy humans  struggle.To see a hare move is inspiring, yet chastening, reminding us humans of our limitations. You walk carefully so as to avoid snipe's nests, which are well hidden to protect their four brown eggs. One flies up before you, and you know that she is drawing you away from the clump of mountain avens where she nests. So you avoid that spot. 

You are lucky to see a pair of rare clouded yellow butterflies performing their courtship dances in the endless rite of Spring. You know that somewhere their eggs will be laid and you delight that a subsequent generation will be assured. 

The past is ever near in Ireland. Nature's silence is a profound background to bird song, the sighing of the wind and the music of running water, and it refreshes while opening doors to a sense of the transcendent. You talk but little on your journey, communing in silence with your companions, and when you reach your turning point, the Poulnabrone Dolmen, the remnants of a neolithic portal tomb, you explore in respectful silence, knowing that twenty two adults and six children lie underneath, taking with them their loves, hopes and fears. You quietly eat your lunch and enjoy the views and the peace of the Spring day; and you wonder about generations past. 

Then you turn to face west, as the dolmen's inhabitants did. The sun is already past its zenith and beginning to sink down into the occident, where later on you will see it slipping red over the horizon with its light kissing the rippling waters.  The west is your guide, so you follow the sun back to your starting point, scrambling again down the stepped slopes of Black Head and then wallking back to your hotel. 

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Poulnabrone Dolmen
Poulnabrone Dolmen
Updated: 01/30/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/11/2018

Ireland can have a difficult climate, but the Burren, which is by Galway Bay, receives warm and moist South Westerly winds at times. I have stood on the shores of the bay and enjoyed the warm, moist wind. But you are right, warm climates are so appealing.I feel this today, as Britain suffers icy winds and snow sweeping down from the Arctic. Roll on Summer!

AngelaJohnson on 02/11/2018

I do like the atmosphere of desolate places, but not for long. I like sunshine and warm temperatures the best.

frankbeswick on 02/04/2018

You have always had strong feelings for Galway and Limerick [where our Father's relatives originated] but I prefer the North West of Ireland, firstly because I once dwelt there in Cavan and secondly because I married into a family rooted in County Mayo. Thus I support Mayo in Gaelic football, they are the family team. I have also visited Connemara.

Veronica on 02/04/2018

Yes The Burns and Burkes are Connemara and Gort in Galway.
I have been to Gort and visited the church and pub there. Connemara is magnificent. I have been there too.

The Limerick ancestral home for the Mannings are Castleconnell and Croom .

Regarding the Burren, ... so sez little sister .. you have no feelings anyway ... :)

frankbeswick on 01/31/2018

Thanks. Veronica, I know that most of our father's ancestors came from Galway and Limerick, but have you got a specific village/town for the "ancestral home.?"

You are right to say that the Burren has an eerie feel about it, though this was not my predominant feeling when I went there. I was mainly struck by the silence.

Incidentally, when Maureen did some research into her ancestry she discovered that her maternal grandmother's family came from a village just east of the Burren, but moved up to Mayo for business purposes. They were cattle dealers.

Veronica on 01/31/2018

Excellent article Frank.

The Burren is a very eerie place, a bit like a lunar landscape I thought when I visited.

This magnificent place is about 10 miles approx. from Frank's and my ancestral home in Galway.

frankbeswick on 01/31/2018

Yes, Juniperus communis is the most common species in the British Isles. The problem of mismatches between scientific and common names is a world wide one.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/31/2018

FrankBeswick, Thank you for sharing The Burren with us and its signature animals and plants, such as dwarf hazel and green moths. Is the juniper in question Juniperus communis? Do you have mismatches sometimes between common and scientific names? On this side of the pond, I'm thinking of the red cedar that's actually Juniperus virginiana.

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