A barren landscape carved by time, tradition

Walking in the Burren requires constant awareness so as not to stumble on the uneven stone. (Shannon Development) Walking in the Burren requires constant awareness so as not to stumble on the uneven stone.
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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BALLYVAUGHN, Ireland — The Burren isn’t quite the antithesis of emerald green Ireland, but it’s close. Gaelic for “a rocky place,’’ these terraced silver-purple hills in southwest Ireland crown a subterranean skeleton, a limestone labyrinth of caverns and winding passageways carved by water over thousands of years. Marked and unmarked roads weave through the hills, passing castle ruins and ancient forts as well as holy wells and penitential stations. It’s a landscape that’s barren and foreboding, yet spiritual and inviting.

A general for Oliver Cromwell, who invaded Ireland in the mid-1600s, is credited with describing the Burren as “a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.’’

If these hills could talk, oh, the stories they would tell. I needed a “land whisperer,’’ and I found one in Shane Connolly of Burren Hill Walks. A sheep and cattle farmer whose roots here go back “forever,’’ Connolly is a graduate of the National University of Ireland with a degree in archeology and a passion for sharing not only book-learned facts but also oral tradition. His farm, in Ballyvaughn, tucked in the folds of the northern Clare countryside below the appropriately named Corkscrew Hill, is adjacent to Greghan’s Castle Hotel, an Irish-Georgian manor. That’s where he picked me up for a half-day ramble up nearby Black Head, which rises above Galway Bay.

As we walked, Connolly interpreted the landscape, identifying rock forms and wildflowers, explaining turloughs (dry lakes) and stonewall construction, and relating local lore and traditions. Along the way, sheep and occasional cattle grazed nonchalantly, searching out meager clumps of grass. The pace was comfortable, but the footing required constant awareness so as not to stumble on the uneven stone, twist an ankle in a fissure, or slip on the dung, as well as agility in scrambling over and around numerous stone walls.

We moseyed along, stopping frequently as Connolly explained the geology, botany, history, and heritage of the place. In his thick brogue, he took me back more than 360 million years to when the Burren was under a warm and shallow tropical sea. Fast forward 20 million years, when the shells and skeletal remains of sea creatures formed the limestone. Tectonic movement raised the land form into a plateau, then glaciers scoured it, leaving behind the terraced hillsides that now appear paved with limestone cobbles. As water seeped down and around, the fissures deepened and widened, creating hollows and underground caves, called karsts. With each drop of rain, the erosion continues.

Human existence here has been traced back at least 6,000 years. Connolly explained that pastures and the gnarled inland forest are a reminder of how the Burren looked before man arrived, felled the trees, and turned cattle and sheep loose to graze, eroding the thin layer of topsoil.

Although much of the land is devoid of trees, between and below the rocky highlands, farmers have patched pieces of the unforgiving landscape into a quilt of green pastures stitched with stone walls. “Some of those walls are thousands of years old,’’ Connolly said.

Despite the seemingly barren fragility of the land, defiant wildflowers bloom in pockets of topsoil. More than 650 flowers, plants, and ferns grow here. My late April walk proved to be an ideal time for spying spring wildflowers, and Connolly pointed out vibrant blue gentians, edelweiss, and mountain avens, as well as early purple orchid.

As we climbed higher and higher, the views began to open up. Connamara beckoned across the waters of Galway Bay, and the Aran Islands salted the western horizon, where the bay merged with the Atlantic. It was a spectacular vantage point, so it came as no surprise to find Cathair Dhuin Irghuis, an Iron Age ring fort, capping the summit. Connolly recited the fort’s various legends, leaving me to ponder the line between fact and fable.

Burren Hill Walks, 011-353-65-7077168,, about $21 for a half-day.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at