The first time I saw the Burren in northwest County Clare, Ireland, I thought that perhaps I had taken a very wrong turn and landed on the moon. Imagine an endless landscape of limestone, lined with crevasses and covered with rocks that look like the remains of a bowling match between giants.
Though from a distance, the Burren looks as if it could hardly support life, if you walk through it, you will be surprised by its unusual variety of plant life. Arctic and Mediterranean flowers bloom side-by-side, providing vivid bursts of color in contrast to the stony landscape.
In the mid-seventeenth century the Englishman Edmund Ludlow described the Burren as “a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
This area has seen human habitation for at least six thousand years, as evidenced by over 90 megaliths, including wedge tombs, ring forts, and dolmens. The most famous of these is the Poulnabrone Dolmen. These megaliths are older than the pyramids of Egypt, and to walk among them is a profound journey through time.
The Burren is also known for its many caves. The best-known is Ailwee Cave, where you can see unusual geological formations.
Before exploring the Burren, I recommend visiting the Burren Information Centre in Kilfenora. Here you will find a beautiful and well-designed exhibition that traces the history of animal and human life in this area. Especially worth seeing is a three-dimensional map. I also highly recommend a film shown in the center that traces the history of the area from its initial formation 320 million years ago. The photography is breathtaking.
Here you can also obtain maps and guides for your Burren journey. Do pay special attention to the environmental guidelines. This is a fragile environment. Let the stones stay where they are, don’t pick the flowers, don’t climb the megaliths. The Information Centre summarizes the guidelines: “We remind all visitors to ‘Leave no trace of your visit, take nothing but memories’.”
The Burren is a challenging terrain. Be sure to wear sensible walking shoes. If you have any difficulty in walking, your best bet is a slow driving tour, with stops at the many scenic locations. This is a vast area, and the views of the limestone-covered hills are magnificent. The Burren borders the Atlantic Ocean and Galway Bay, and at some points the sea is visible.
This is one of my favorite places in Ireland, and I visit whenever I’m in that country. You, too, may find it an area you revisit as often as possible. It’s not often that in a place of wild, natural beauty you can have so strong a sense of ancient history.