The Burren’s name derives from the Irish word boireann, meaning “stony place” – an apt description for this desolate plateau that occupies the county’s northwest. It’s rocky and windswept – a unique striated limestone landscape that was shaped beneath ancient seas, then forced high and dry by a great geological cataclysm. This is not the green Ireland of postcards. But there are wildflowers in spring, giving the 560-sq-km Burren brilliant, if ephemeral, colour amid the arid beauty. Its northern and western edges hug the coast road between Ballyvaughanand Doolin, while, to the south and east, the rocks gently slope towards lush green fields. Formed mainly of fissured limestone pavement, pitted by occasional valleys hidden beneath ominous-looking cliffs, the Burren is a thoroughly otherworldly place with barely a sign of life. The starkness of the landscape, crisp white in sunlight, deep grey-brown in rainfall, has a primeval allure and remains utterly fascinating. Few now live within its bounds, but many endured this harsh environment in the past, leaving relics of their inhabitation. Ancient burial practices are reflected in the abundance of Stone Age monuments, while later, Iron Age people built ring forts and circular stone dwellings, many of which remain well preserved.
Despite its apparent harshness, the Burren supported quite large numbers of people in ancient times, and has more than 2500 historic sites. Chief among them is the 5000-year-old Poulnabrone Dolmen, part of a Neolithic/Bronze Age tomb, and one of Ireland’s iconic ancient monuments. Around 70 such tombs are in evidence today. Many are wedge-shaped graves, stone boxes tapering both in height and width, and about the size of a large double bed. The dead were placed inside, and the whole structure covered in earth and stones. Gleninsheen, south of Aillwee Caves, is a good example. Ring forts dot the Burren in prodigious numbers. There are almost 500, including Iron Age stone forts such as Cahercommaun near Carron.
The geology of the Burren (Boireann is the Irish term for ‘rocky country’) is the result of immense drama and excitement in ancient times that produced the moonlike landscape we see today. Follow the deep rivulets in the stone and you’ll see that the barren Aran Islands just offshore are all part of the same formations. Massive shifts in the earth’s crust some 270 million years ago buckled the edges of Europe and forced the former seabed here above sea level. At the same time the stone sheets were bent and fractured to form the long, deep cracks so characteristic of the Burren today. During numerous ice ages, glaciers scoured the hills, rounding the edges and sometimes polishing the rock to a shiny finish, and dumping a thin layer of rock and soil in the cracks. Huge boulders were carried by the ice, incongruous aliens on a sea of flat rock.
Flora & Fauna
Soil may be scarce on the Burren, but the small amount that gathers in the cracks is well drained and rich in nutrients. This, together with the mild Atlantic climate, supports an extraordinary mix of Mediterranean, Arctic and alpine plants. Of Ireland’s native wildflowers, 75% are found here, including 24 species of beautiful orchids, the creamy-white burnet rose, the little starry flowers of mossy saxifrage and the magenta-coloured bloody cranesbill.The Burren is a stronghold of Ireland’s most elusive mammal, the rather shy and weasel-like pine marten. Badgers, foxes and even stoats are common throughout the region. Otters and seals haunt the shores around Bell Harbour, New Quay and Finavarra Point.
The Burren is a walker’s paradise. The bizarre, beautiful landscape, numerous trails and many ancient sites are best explored on foot. ‘Green roads’ are the old highways of the Burren, crossing hills and valleys to some of the remotest corners of the region. Many of these unpaved ways were built during the Famine as part of relief work, while some date back possibly thousands of years. They’re now used mostly by hikers and the occasional farmer. Some are signposted. The Burren Way is a 123km network of marked hiking routes throughout the region.
* Descriptions are from Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.