Ireland’s Fascinating Burren


NOT everyone found it fascinating. Some saw it as little more than a barren, rocky wilderness. “There is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him,” said English Lieutenant General Edmund Ludlow, sometime after his visit there in 1651.

Most visitors, though, are captivated by it. Naturalists, botanists, archaeologists, historians, and thousands of others who regularly come here have many different reasons for seeing it as “a fascinating and awesome stretch of land.” Where is this place? Why does it appeal to so many different people?

“A Place of Rocks”

It is at the very edge of Europe​—on the west coast of Ireland, between the world-famous Cliffs of Moher to the south and Galway Bay to the north. It is called the Burren. The name comes from the Irish word boireann, and it means “a place of rocks.”

Rock dominates the landscape. “Exposed by some quirk of geology,” says one guidebook, in many places “huge pavements of grey limestone dotted with massive boulders stretch as far as the eye can see.” The whole Burren area, in fact, is a vast limestone deposit that covers some 500 square miles [1,300 sq km]. Much of this “mysterious brooding moonscape” seems totally devoid of any soil.

Like “a Huge Storage Heater”

Wind and rain have sculpted the limestone pavements or slabs, known as clints, into some wondrous shapes and forms, giving the Burren a dramatic, stark beauty all its own. But it was not the unique beauty of the Burren that first attracted the people who settled here thousands of years ago. They were more interested in the Burren’s remarkable ability to provide year-round grazing for their cattle.

The large expanse of limestone​—over 3,000 feet [over 900 m] deep in places—​acts “as a huge storage heater, soaking up warmth in summer and slowly emitting it in winter.” Along with the moderating influence of the ocean temperatures, this created a very attractive farming environment for those early settlers.

Early Builders in the Burren

Past generations, such as those early farmers, left their mark all over the Burren landscape. There are dozens of megalithic tombs. One of the most famous of these is the Poulnabrone dolmen, built long before the time of Christ. What we see today, of course, is only the bare skeleton of the original tomb​—just the huge limestone slabs that the ancient builders used to construct this memorial to their “special dead.” When it was first built, say the experts, the tomb was covered with an imposing heap of stones and earth.

Long before the Celts arrived in Ireland, inhabitants of the Burren left evidence of their  presence in the form of stone burial places that are called wedge tombs because of their particular wedge shape. In 1934, at a place called Gleninsheen, a young man found what he thought was a “queer looking thing.” This turned out to be a beautifully manufactured gold collar​—now seen as “one of the finest achievements of Irish Later Bronze Age goldsmiths.”

Great mystery surrounds these ancient peoples. Who exactly were they? What did they believe? What was the purpose of their buildings, such as those on the exposed summit of what is called Turlough Hill? Was this enigmatic site an ancient hill fort, or was it set aside as a sacred place for some special religious rituals? No one really knows.

Later communities built countless stone or earthen ringforts, ancient fortified homesteads. They were followed by the builders of the many churches, monasteries, and castles.

The Underground Burren

Even underground, the Burren is a fascinating place. Water has penetrated deep into the porous limestone deposits to produce “one of Ireland’s most remarkable underworlds.” The limestone is honeycombed with caves. Many of these caves are still active, that is, they still have streams, rivers, and waterfalls flowing in them. In one cave, called Poll an Ionain, is what is said to be Europe’s longest free-hanging stalactite​—over 30 feet [9 m] long!

Since many caves are dangerous, cautious visitors confine their explorations to the relatively safe Burren’s show cave, the Aillwee Cave, the only one open to the general public. Here you can see traces of an animal that has been extinct in Ireland for more than a thousand years​—the brown bear. The bears, it seems, hibernated in this cave, where  the temperature stays at 50 degrees Fahrenheit [10°C] all year. Deep inside the limestone mountain, you can marvel at the strangely shaped stalactites, stalagmites, and other extraordinary rock formations. You can also try to imagine the force of water that gouged out the remarkable caves and caverns in the first place.

A “Botanical Metropolis”

It is the remarkable plant life that really makes the Burren different. This landscape “is one of Europe’s most varied and astonishing habitats,” says one writer. It includes seashore and mountainside, meadow and woodland. There are hundreds of totally enclosed valleys, formed thousands of years ago by the collapse of some of the Burren cave systems. Strange lakes called turloughs are transformed into meadows during the summer months, as the water table falls. Stone walls​—some of them thousands of years old—​stretch everywhere across the limestone pavements and surround every available patch of green.

Giving even more variety to this astonishing habitat are the cracks and crevices, known as grikes, in the limestone pavements. These fissures can be up to six feet [2 m] deep. In individual crevices, isolated islands of soil have developed that provide sheltered and varied havens where plants of all sorts grow.

Throughout the Burren, says botanist Cilian Roden, “rare and spectacular plants occur in an abundance normally associated with daisies or thistles.” Although more than 600 different species mingle here, it is not simply the variety or abundance of plants that makes the Burren different. What makes it unique is the extraordinary mixture of plants. The “flourishing of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean flora, lime haters and lime lovers, all growing together in this small corner of western Ireland” has baffled and bewildered botanists for hundreds of years.

The beautiful blue spring gentian, considered an alpine plant, grows even at sea level in the Burren. Within a few inches of one another are Arctic plants, such as the mountain avens, and subtropical plants, such as the maidenhair fern. More than 20 species of orchids thrive throughout the Burren. Here, too, in abundance are wild thyme, wood sorrel, bloody cranesbill, bird’s-foot trefoil, thrift, and many more. The Burren fully merits its description as a “botanical metropolis.”

Yes, it is rocky. Yet, the Burren is no barren wilderness. It reflects the beauty and diversity of creation. It stimulates the mind, excites the senses, stirs the imagination, and lifts the spirit. Come to Ireland and see the fascinating Burren!

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The Burren Region

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Panoramic view of the Burren

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The Cliffs of Moher drop a sheer 650 feet [200 m] into the Atlantic

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Inset: Even underground, the Burren is a fascinating place

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Courtesy of Aillwee Caves

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Flowers: Courtesy