Monday, October 10, 2011

The Burren

Friday, 7th October was the last full day of this trip I would spend in the hundred and fifty or so square kilometres of limestone plateau south of Galway Bay known as the Burren.  I had decided to spend the day, which had dawned exceptionally clear and sunny, exploring nearby.  Hitherto, during the eight days I had spent there, I had but hurried through much of the Burren on my way to places further afield.  I could comfortably have spent every day and more of my stay just strolling around the Burren but preferred, on this my first visit to Ireland, to get something of a  broader-brush idea of the country.  Consequently I had to compromise; to make sacrifices to time.

At least five thousand years of history have been written, much of it tantilisingly enigmatically, in the stones of the Burren.  Deforested for agriculture as early as Neolithic times, the topsoil of the area has long since blown and eroded away.  Nonetheless sparse populations have continued to survive, farm and leave built evidence of their presence in this rather bleak environment.  My first impression of the Burren was one of a wasteland of bare, wind-swept rock, littered with large boulders and latticed with dry-stone walls.  The Burren is far from this.   Glacial action and subsequent rainwater erosion has engraved the limestone surface with deep fissures in which grasses and other plants flourish to provide nutritious fodder for grazing animals. 
P. J. Kavanagh wrote of the Burren as, “ . . . a desert which is not a desert - cattle fatten on its limy grasses, and in spring Arctic flowers jostle with Mediterranean ones, sheltered in the cracks of its limestone slab”, while Cromwell’s surveyor reported to his master, in typically grim Cromwellian language, that it was, “a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury”.

Poulnabrone dolmen is the structural remnant of a 2,500 year old burial chamber, one of a great number of dolmens, stone rings and standing stones dotted around the Burren that provide evidence of the area being occupied during Neolithic times.  Many of the Burren’s extensive stretches of dry stone wall are also believed to be of Neolithic origin.  The Burren is also rich in ruins and sites of several early Christian and mediaeval churches, abbeys, monasteries as well as many castles, intact, ruined and restored dating, from the 11th to 17th centuries.  

Site of church dedicated to St Columba, 6th century. 

Founded, early in 7th Century, by St Colman Mac Duach, the visible remains of the monastery at Kilmacduagh are largely mediaeval.  The leaning round tower, which dates from the 12th century, is the highest in Ireland.

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