The Burren, pronounced [burn], is a rocky landscape that stretches over a large part of Clare County and western Ireland. It is made up of large slabs (or maybe at one point a single enormous slab) of limestone, which over time eroded away to create deep fissures in the rock. Because of the permeability of the stone, life has flourished in these fissures and on top of the limestone itself, thus creating a vast landscape of fertile land, which to the naked eye, looks near uninhabitable.
Before we managed to find the Burren, we stopped on the side of the road to look at a cairn (a giant pile of stones, guys). You can see how big this rockpile is by comparing it to the full-grown horse on the left. Now, you should have perspective. Danny Burke, our archaeology instructor, thinks there may be a passage-grave inside this cairn, based on his own outside observations.
Most of the monuments in Ireland are excavated only when a road needs to be built either through or around them. That’s one of the reasons things like the cairn are still in their original form, although a properly-licensed archaeologist could obtain a license to excavate items such as this. I would personally love to see what’s in this rockpile. Hidden treasure, perhaps?
Here is some of the Burren that our group traversed today. As you can see, it’s very inconsistent in regard to the stone formations, but there is plenty of rich grass growing in and on it (as we noticed when dodging cow pats).
The Burren is also home to Neo-lithic monuments, such as this chamber tomb. As Danny explained, the tombs were used for rituals (and we believe this one used the bones of ancestors, so it also served as a bone depository). In this photo, Danny is actually standing in the central chamber, the only one still remaining.
The two stones Danny is leaning on are what archaeologists call “portal stones,” or stones that mark the entrance to tombs such as this. Beyond Danny is the ruin of what was once the ritual chamber, but the actual stones denoting it have been either stolen or broken.
Here’s Danny. He teaches the occasional class at the University of Ireland-Galway, but his primary work is in India, researching a native tribe which still builds monuments such as the ones we visited today.
In addition to visiting the Burren, we saw two medieval churches and structures I had never heard of: holy wells.
Medieval churches in Ireland are usually ruins, and the history behind that is the establishment of the Church of England (thanks, Henry VIII) and the outlawing of Catholicism. This one is still used as a graveyard, and while some of the graves date back hundreds of years, other are as recent as 2012.
Ivy grows over the entirety of one side of the ruin, and honeybees are busy collecting the pollen from the flowers. We had to dodge the bees on our way out, but no one was stung.
Although the church fell into disuse, locals still know of it as a holy place, so the inside of the building was also utilized as a burial ground. The building itself is quite large, although even I had to duck to get through the doorways.
The second church wasn’t quite as long, but it was also an active graveyard. This one had a large crypt beside it as well, a remnant of the landowners.
To give you an idea of the scale of one of these churches, here’s Sam next to the ruin. Now Sam is 6’2”, and these churches were built as two-story buildings. Think about it.
At the second church, Danny discovered old carvings. The one his hand is pointing to is of a bull. Can you see it? It took me a few tries, but eventually I spotted it. That’s one of the problems with old architecture—some of the carvings have been worn away by time.
This plant, like the ivy at the first church, has little issue with taking up residence in the stone walls. I guess, much like the people who live here, it’s just stubborn.
Moving on from the churches: the holy wells.
We found the first well through someone’s yard, actually. The Irish apparently usually assign “keepers” to the wells, and it’s a hereditary position, for the most part. This fellow had two beautiful blonde retrievers, who after deciding we weren’t intruders, wanted lots of petting and love.
This is one side of the St. Augustine holy well. The wells are pagan in origin and vaguely Christianized (not really, but the Christians tried) in that they were given a patron saint. Every well has a specific date on which a ritual is performed (a pilgrimage of sorts in which people walk a certain number of times around it and then give an offering of metal, usually coins). It’s a remnant of the Bronze Age, and this well’s celebration date is August 28th.
These are the flowers growing on the well’s side. They’re nasturtium flowers, and they’re also edible. According to Liz, “it wasn’t much at first, but it got spicy at the end.” I didn’t try them myself, and several of us were unsure about them at first, especially since we didn’t expect Danny to eat them straight off the vine.
Speaking of eating things, we found wild blackberries growing in the Burren. They were small (that’s Kaitlyn’s hand, modeling for Sam), but very sweet. It took Sam a while (“There should be another step in there between it growing and me eating it”), but we all eventually tried them.
After our trip to the Burren, we headed home. Well, most of us did, at least. If you noticed that Megan was missing, well, sadly it’s true. She’s headed out to travel all over the country to hand out her surveys to Irish people. I think right now she’s in either Limerick or Cork.
Kaitlyn got a ride with Danny to a nearby shop. Since Kaitlyn’s project is writing about the sea, Danny suggested visiting a friend of his, and also offered her a ride on his bright yellow scooter.
That just about concludes our day on the Burren. The terrain was difficult for me, but hey, I survived. And Mom (if you’re reading this), thanks for the walking stick. It came in handy, even though the tall grass ate the rubber end.