Nearly halfway up the west coast of Ireland, at about 53 degrees north, nine degrees west, there stands the presiding symbol of one of Europe’s most peculiar places. The thing is peculiar enough in itself, being an ungainly megalithic structure, five millennia old, that stands there all alone and looks to me, especially in silhouette, suggestively like a witch’s supper table. It is the Poulnabrone dolmen, and it is a proper symbol of the Burren, a place of infinite strangeness.
The Burren is an indeterminate limestone region of about 100 square miles, sparsely inhabited, with small towns and villages only at its edges, and a landscape that can seem, at first sight, forbiddingly unwelcoming – stern bald hills, apparently devoid of life or colour, crossed only by a few narrow roads, and with nothing much to see, so the map suggests, but tombs and ruins.
But wait. The witches of Poulnabrone stir their cauldron and the Burren reveals itself to be a place of paradoxical magic. As the clouds shift, those grey hills are suddenly tinged with mauve or violet, those uninviting lanes blossom with gentians, an ancient history comes to life and almost everywhere you go you will stumble across the geological wonders that have made these 100 square miles celebrated across the world.
Stumble is the right word, for the Burren’s most famous features are the immense platforms of limestone slabs that figure on the jackets of books and travel brochures. Patterned with crevasses, they can be treacherous to the unwary. These huge expanses of empty stone vary from pavements that might almost be man-made to wide piles of rubble, and there are patches of them throughout the Burren, sometimes noisily attended by tourist coaches and hiking parties, more often weirdly silent. The Irish name for the region, An Boireann, means simply “a stony place”, and probably the most famous quotation about it comes from the Cromwellian general Edmund Ludlow, who said it had “not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him”.
This is karst country, akin to the limestone highlands of Slovenia or the Mendip hills of Somerset, riddled with caves and potholes, sparse of foliage, conducive to poetic legend. It has its own jargon – the big slabs themselves are called clints, the cracks between are grykes, and the big boulders that stand here and there, left behind when the ice of the Ice Age melted, are properly known as erratics. There is a pub in the middle of the Burren, called Cassidy’s, which overlooks a wide green declivity: it seems a kindly pastoral prospect but is really a geological hiccup called a turlough, and every now and then water floods into it from hidden springs, turning it in a matter of hours into a lake. That’s the stuff Burren legends are made of, like the cave in the north they call the Cave of the Wild Horses, because once upon a time a herd of mustangs suddenly emerged from it and laid waste to the country around.
But it is not all turloughs, caverns and grykes, because all over this place of secrets a sweet sub-alpine flora flourishes. Everywhere, subtle touches of colour, in between the sterile rocks, show you where the gentians lurk, or the wild orchids, Lady’s Smock, milkwort and irises and honeysuckles. The Burren is like one vast botanical rock garden but infinitely subtler than most, and minus all labels.
There are wild goats about, too, and pine martens, seals in the sea, kestrels in the air, and in some of the waters a kind of water-beetle so rare it has been found only at five sites on earth – one in Sweden, the other four here.
There are also walls, miles and miles of walls. The place is criss-crossed with dry-stone walls, on flat ground as on hillsides, walls of such complex fascination that they amount to a kind of composite art form. Where do all the Burren walls go? Where do they start? How old are they? What are they for? They may be just piled together any-old-how, they may be carefully patterned, and they have been lovingly analysed by scholars and artists alike. Some are age-old, some were probably piled together by a farmer’s bulldozer the week before last, and they are a constant reminder that the Burren, far from being a desert or a wilderness, has been the home of humanity for longer than history.
The place is instinct with human allusions, often curious, sometimes unique, from the bones of the 33 people buried beneath the Poulnabrone dolmen to the shades of the German U-boat crews who, locals say, came ashore during the second world war to draw water from the holy well of Gleninagh. There are supposed to be only about 1,700 people living permanently today in the Barony (yes, the Barony!) of the Burren; many thousands, though, have lived and worked there, from the Stone Age until now and, almost into modern times, they were governed by the local clans and chieftains, O’Louchlins, O’Connors, O’Briens, living by their own immemorial laws, honouring their own bardic traditions.
Since then, famines, wars, evictions and economics have all conspired to lay waste to the Burren’s population but not to destroy its sense of continuity. Those ageless walls help, of course, and so do the countless miscellaneous lumps of masonry, once tower houses, villages, shrines, monasteries or churches, which hauntingly litter this countryside. Customs and allusions die hard here. On islets off the coast, I am told, the odd farmer still makes a raft of seaweed, and poles it ashore to use as fertiliser. In taverns fiddles, flutes, accordions and whistles still play the old music. Cassidy’s, that pub beside beside the turlough, was not always a pub: it was a British army post long ago, and then a station of the Irish garda, and its walls are full of mementos of a man from down the road, Michael Cusack, who was the original of the Citizen, Joyce’s anonymous and curmudgeonly character in Ulysses.
Christianity came to the Burren at least a thousand years ago and the most substantial of its monuments is the ruined abbey of Corcomroe, near the northern coast. It was founded by Cistercians in the 13th century and is now evocatively isolated in its silent valley but those monks knew what they were doing when they dedicated it to Holy Mary of the Fertile Rock.
For, despite tinges of desolation and touches of the forlorn, the Burren has been wonderfully creative – fertile in a wider sense, a sense that needs no rafted seaweed to maintain it. Artists and writers have long been inspired by it, the ancient music has been sustained by it, eccentrics and enthusiasts of every kind have pursued their convictions in a place where the extraordinary is so often the norm.
Think of it! The minute village of Kilfenora has its own 10th-century cathedral, and its titular bishop is the Pope. Inside the grykes of the limestone platforms, land winkles live. The glue fungus, I am assured, is almost unique to the Burren, but the dear old slow worm showed up for the first time only in 1971. Tolkien’s Gollum, they say, was conceived in a Burren cavern, and the longest free-hanging stalactite ever discovered in Europe hangs in one of them. Many a rare bumble bee frequents this countryside, 70 sorts of snails prefer it. At Lisdoonvarna, they hold an annual mating festival, where young men and women are united under the equivocal blessing of the Burren.
So whichever way you leave this place, you will be taking with you, in your mind, a jumble of paradox and peculiarity. If the strangeness mixture has all been a little too rich for you, you can always go home via the Cliffs of Moher, a last astonishment of the Burren. There you may look down the sheer 200 feet of cliffside and see to your relief, far, far below, the very ordinary Atlantic.