The Burren’s name derives from the Irish word boireann, meaning “stony place” – an apt description for this massive, desolate plateau that occupies most of the county’s northwest. Its northern and western reaches almost clutch the sea 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 unworldly 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 distant past, leaving relics of their inhabitation. Ancient burial practices are reflected in the abundance of Stone Age monuments, while later residents built ring forts, circular stone dwellings, during the Iron Age, many of which remain in a fine state of preservation. Most of the subsequent medieval Christian remains are scattered around the area’s more fertile fringes.
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The area’s coastal outskirts include attractive resorts such as lively Ballyvaughan and tiny Fanore, while inland are the spa town of Lisdoonvarna, famous for its matchmaking festival, and the renowned traditional music village Kilfenora; all make fine bases for investigating The Burren.
The coast road north of Ballynalackan is dramatic but desolate, sometimes 345 shrouded in the mornings by the haze of a sea-fret. The only sizeable place on the way to Ballyvaughan is the straggling street-village of FANORE which has asweeping Blue Flag beach. The Burren Riding Centre offers horseriding, including trails along the “green roads”, trekking in The Burren and beach hacks. If you fancy learning to surf, then the Aloha Surf School (www.surfschool .tv) provides all necessary equipment.
Five kilometres further on, the road rounds Black Head where you can climb up to Caheerdooneerish ring fort and gaze across Galway Bay before heading onwards to Ballyvaughan.
Roads south from Ballyvaughan lead to a wealth of ancient and some medieval sites. A kilometre or so down the R480 and off to the west is Newtown Castle, a restored sixteenth-century tower house with walls almost four metres thick, murder holes and gun loops, now part of the grounds of the Burren College of Art. Back on the R480 and a little further south, Aillwee Cave is reckoned to be two million years old. Guided tours visit caverns and bridged chasms, allowing you to marvel at weird rock formations, numerous stalag- mites and stalactites, and the hibernation chambers of a long-extinct species of brown bear.
About 3km south of the cave, and just off the eastern side of the R480, is the Gleninsheen Wedge Tomb, the best preserved of its kind in the area. Just a kilometre south from here is the Poulnabrone dolmen, the best known of The Burren’s seventy or so megalithic tombs. When excavated in 1986 the remains of some thirty people were uncovered along with several tools, utensils and items of jewellery, providing evidence that the tomb dated from around 2500 BC.
A kilometre further south is Caherconnell Stone Fort, the most substantial of The Burren’s many ancient remains. Such circular homesteads, with their dry-stone walling, were built from around the fifth century onwards; this one is some 40m in diameter with nearly four-metre-thick walls.
Continuing onwards, by the junction with the R476 is another O’Brien fortress, Leamaneh Castle, which, though long abandoned, is still in reason- able shape. Its tower dates from around 1480 and the adjoining four-storey house with its segmented windows was added in 1640 by Conor O’Brien.
From here it’s worth backtracking past Caherconnell and taking a detour along the first road east to CARRON, where Michael Cusack, a co-founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, was born and is commemorated by a monument next to the old school and by a visitor centre.