Bloom, Burren, Bloom!

INTRODUCTION

The Burren has begun to bloom. The apex of the blooming period will be mid-May to mid-June. The Burren wild flower extravaganza is one of Europe’s great annual natural history events. The grey limestone pavement landscape in winter is transformed in early summer into a mosaic of wild plants with origins in different climatic zones in the world.

 Here are five plants I found in the coastal Burren townland of Ballyryan on the 2nd of May this year.

SPRING GENTIAN

Spring Gentian (Gentiana Verna)

The unofficial symbol of the Burren region. A plant with a short stem and five brilliant blue petals. A metallic blue. They say no photograph can do full justice to the plant. Best seen with the naked eye. 

It is a rare wild flower in the north of Europe.  Spring Gentian grows in a few scattered  limestone localities in the west of Ireland.  Teesdale in England is the only other region where it is found in Northern Europe. 

The gentian is one of the earliest flowers of the year. My colleague Mary Howard recorded it for the first time this year on St Patrick’s Day – the 17th of March. 

An Illryian king, Gentiana, is credited with first identifying the medicinal use of the flower. In the past the folk belief was that death would follow if the flower were picked. It was also believed that if an individual brought the gentian indoors he or she would be struck by lightning.

COWSLIP

Cowslip (Primula veris)

The cowslip is one of three primulas which grow in the Burren and Ireland. The other two are the primrose and the false oxlip. “Slip” is an old English term for dung . Anywhere the cow lifted its tail in the past, one could find the cowslip. However, that was before the advent of agri-chemicals. The cowslip has now been eradicated from most of the fertile lowlands of Ireland due to “techno-farming”. 

The Burren  winterage land, (the land whereto the cattle are transferred from November to April each year), remains a stronghold of the cowslip thanks to the light grazing and the absence of chemicals. Cowslips on farmland are an indicator of “sympathetic” agriculture.

Bealtaine was a great agricultural festival  in Ireland with pre-Christian origins. The festival took place at the start of May and it is still celebrated in Ireland to a limited extent today. One of the many rituals that took place on Mayday in the past was the rubbing  of cows’ udders with cowslips to protect the milk.

Reference – Mac Coitir, Niall. Irish Wild Plants Myths, Legend and Folklore, The Collins Press, 2006.

COMMON SCURVYGRASS

Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia officinalis)

Common Scurvygrass is a coastal plant. It is a member of the cabbage family. The plant is rich in Vitamin C and was used by sailors in the past on long voyages.  Sailors suffered from Vitamin C deficiency due to lack of consumption of citrus fruits which would have rotted on long journeys.  The deficiency causes a disease called scurvy. Today the plant is used in herbal medicine as an antidote to skin irritation, canker sores, gum disease and nosebleeds.  

Scurvygrass is found all around the coast of Ireland –  thriving on the salty soil and the lashings of salt spray from  the sea.

 The plant’s name in Irish/Gaelic is biolartrá which translates at strand cress. Scurvygrass is small and cress-like. The cress is another plant of the cabbage family.

MOUNTAIN AVENS

Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)

This is my first sighting of the plant this year. The avens looks like a poached egg and almost always has eight petals…hence Octopetala  in its name in Latin. 

Mountain avens is of Arctic origin and is the national symbol of Iceland.  Remarkably It grows in the Burren alongside orchids originally from warmer, southern climes.  The plant has a limited distribution in Ireland and Great Britain.

The flower tends to carpet the landscape extravagantly. It was Robert Llloyd Praeger, the outstanding 20th century naturalist, who said: “He who has viewed the thousands of acres of the Arctic-alpine plant in full flower on the limestone of the Burren region of Clare, from hill-top to sea level , has seen one of the loveliest sights that Ireland has to offer”.

Reference – Praeger, Robert Lloyd. The Botanist in Ireland,  Hodges,Figgis  & Co., 1934.

BIRD’S FOOT TREFOIL

Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

“The Father of Burren botany”, Frederick Foot, first recorded bird’s foot trefoil in the 1860s. An eclectic plant and thus very widespread in the Burren – home on high ground and at sea level , on damp ground and dry…. Foot said that it is “to be met with in every direction”. 

Bird’s foot trefoil is a member of the pea family. The pea pods resemble the feet of a bird. Hence bird’s foot in English or crobh éin (bird’s foot) in Gaelic. The name is in part misnomer as the plant is not trefoil (three leaved). It is so named as three of the five leaves are most prominent. 

The lemon-coloured flowers with red streaks are a striking aspect on the landscape. One of its folk names in the U.K is bacon and eggs.

The flower provides nectar and pollen to the caterpillar of the Common Blue Butterfly and also the adult.
It is used in natural medicine as an anti-spasmodic and a sedative. It is also used as a tonic for the heart.

Words by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

ONE OF IRELAND’S RICHEST CULTURAL LANDSCAPES

: AN INTRODUCTION

Leamenagh Castle, Sunset

Leamenagh Castle

The Burren region of 350 square kilometres is home to more than 2,000 recorded monuments, protected by the National Monuments Act (1930).
“The Burren is a vast memorial to bygone cultures” are the words of the great landscape writer and mapmaker Tim Robinson. The line is from the text that accompanies Robinson’s extraordinarily detailed 1999 map, “The Burren ; a two-inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare”.

MESOLITHIC 7000-4000 BC

Two shell midden (dump) sites near Fanore beach were excavated in recent years by Michael and Clodagh Lynch of Killinaboy. Findings included hunter-gatherer stone tools and shell beads. These finds have been dated to the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period. The finds are in fact the first evidence ever of pre-farming civilisation in County Clare. This hunter-gatherer period ended with the arrival of farming in to Ireland in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period.

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Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb

NEOLITHIC 4000-2000 BC

One of the foremost icons of Neolithic Ireland is the Poulnabrone portal tomb. The bones of the interred date from 3,800 to 3,200 years BC. Poulnabrone was constructed by pioneer farming communities in the Burren. Poulnabrone is the most visited site in region, attracting more than 200,000 visitors each year. The popularity of the site is testimony of the importance of archaeology to the region’s tourism industry.
The last in the sequence of Neolithic tombs built in Ireland is the wedge tomb. More than 80 wedges tombs have been recorded in the Burren. It is an astonishing amount when one considers that there are less than 600 wedge tombs recorded in total in Ireland.

Poulawack Cairn

Poulawack Cairn

BRONZE AGE 2000-600 BC

The cult of death changed in the Bronze Age from communal to individual burial. 100s of cist (box) graves in the Burren date from this period. Many of them are covered by cairns which are large mounds of loose rock. Poulawack cist cairn enjoys a spectacular elevation position south-west of Poulabrone On excavation, ten cist graves were found within the structure.
The other widespread evidence of Bronze Age mankind in the region is the fulacht fiadh, (cooking pit of the deer or the wild one). The monuments are known as burnt mounds in the U.K. and U.S.A. The mounds were water stations where the water was boiled by hot rock. The fragmented rock was subsequently discarded around the station forming a distinctive, crescent-shaped mound. The boiling water was used by the Bronze Age farming communities for a myriad of purposes. There are more than 300 fulacht fiadh in the Burren.

Caherdoonerish Stone Fort

Caherdoonerish Fort

IRON AGE 600BC-400AD

Farming in The Burren, and Ireland in general, seems to have undergone a mysterious lull during the Iron Age as the forest re-established itself. Only a small amount of archaeological sites in the region have so far been dated to this period.

An Rath

An Rath

EARLY MEDIEVAL 400-1169 AD

The successive Early Medieval period was distinguished by very prosperous times economically with a huge upsurge in agricultural activity. Eminent archaeologist John Sheehan has identified more than 30 possible Early Medieval monastic sites in the Burren. My own favourite is St Colman’s, the only hermitage in the region. The site is set in sublime mature woodland at the base of the steepest cliff in the region. It is the only monastic site in the Burren located in the stony, “penitential” uplands. All of the other Early Medieval monastic sites are situated in the valleys with their thick cover of fertile glacial deposits over bedrock.

The political equivalent of the monastic site in this period was the ring fort. The forts were fortified farmsteads of the farming élite. This hierarchy was the great patrons of the monasteries. There are about 450 ring forts in the Burren. 

Holy wells were probably a pagan introduction to Ireland from Roman Britain, a cultural overspill. However, the Early Medieval monks seem to have readily incorporated this pre-Christian water cult in to Christianity. There are more than 50 holy wells recorded on Tim Robinson’s Burren map.

Caher Mór Gateway

Cahermore

MEDIEVAL 1169-16th CENTURY AD…AND ONWARDS

The idiosyncratic Early Medieval Irish take on Christianity concluded in the 1100s at the start of the Medieval period. Parish churches of the incoming, “experienced multi-nationals”, like the Augustinians, sprouted up as well as expansive new abbeys. Arguably the most spectacular antiquity in the Burren region is Corcomroe Abbey in Bell Harbour – a 13th century Cistercian construction in origin. 

The farming élite gradually changed abode type from ring forts to tall slender stone buildings called tower houses. There are over 20 of them in the Burren. The name “tower house” explains their twin function of defence and dwelling.

One of the finest 17th century residences in the west of Ireland was Leamaneh Castle, a gentleman’s mansion which is in fact built on to a 15th century tower house – both located at a critical southern entry point to the Burren in the past.

Ballinalacken Staircase

Ballinalacken Castle

THE WIDER CULTURAL LANDSCAPE

The wider cultural landscape in the Burren features a huge amount of other historical features. Although these features are not classified as archaeological sites, they are culturally very significant in our attempts to understand the past. Such features include the thousands of kilometres of dry stone walls, pre-Famine peasant dwellings, “lazy beds” (abandoned potato cultivation ridges), thuiles (fuel-drying stone constructions), crós (kid goat stone pens), mass rocks and much, much more.
“Human endeavour transforms the natural world to form the cultural landscape”. So said the late, great geographer Fred Aalen in the opening page of the remarkable book “Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape”. Enjoy every moment of the Burren in County Clare – one of Ireland’s richest cultural landscapes.

Corcomroe Abbey

Corcomroe Abbey

REFERENCES
“The Burren a two-inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare” Tim Robinson. Folding Landscapes. (1999).
“Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape”. Editors F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, Matthew Stout. Cork University Press. (1997).
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

It was the excellent local historian Michael Mc Mahon who first came up with the wonderful phrase “experienced multi-nationals” to describe the Augustinians. Thanks to Michael.

Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

The Second Coming of Ballycasheen

“Sometimes one really does have to wonder why some monuments get signposted and some don’t. Of the many spectacular tombs scattered around the Burren this has to be one of the worst!
It is terribly neglected and very overgrown. There is so little of the tomb to see, just a few slabs that were once the chamber”.


Description of Ballycasheen portal tomb by http://www.megalithomania.com in 2002.

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Ballycasheen Portal Tomb

INTRODUCTION

It is December 2017 and I train my binoculars through my kitchen window onto a field a couple of kilometres to the north. I can see for the first time Ballycasheen (Baile Chaisín Caisin’s place) portal tomb. The monument had been covered with blackthorn and bramble for decades. However, all changed on the 25th of November this year when a team of volunteers under the expert guidance of prehistoric archaeologist Ros O’Maolduin cut away the scrub in and around the monument.
The volunteer team is the Burren Conservation Volunteers (B.C.V). B.C.V. were set up in 2010 by the Burrenbeo Trust to answer a need for active conservation in the region. The Trust itself is a landscape charity. The Ballycasheen day was a hugely successful exercise in monument management.
B.CV. thus returned Ballycasheen in part to its former glory. I say “in part” as unfortunately the tomb is in a collapsed state with the two capstones no longer sitting spectacularly on the lateral standing stones. As a result Ballycasheen does not enjoy the “drama” of the sharply-tilted roof of the only other portal tomb in the Burren, Poulnabrone. The father of Burren archaeology, T.J. Westropp, lyrically referred to Poulnabrone as being noteworthy for ”the airy poise of its great top slab”.
Reference
 “Archaeology of the Burren. Prehistoric Forts and Dolmens in North Clare”. T.J. Westropp. Clasp Press. 1999.

MEGALITHIC TOMBS

There are 3 types of megalithic tomb associated with the Early Neolithic period in Ireland (6,000 to 5,000 years ago). They are passage, court and portal tombs. Pioneer farmers reached the Burren and Ireland about 6,000 years ago. They brought with them a new mortuary tradition – interring their special dead in big stone structures. These megaliths are also very loud statements of territory. Perhaps most importantly of all, they served as temples. The living frequented the structures in order to commune with the otherworld. 
The last in the suite of megalithic tombs is the wedge tomb, dating to the Late Neolithic period (5.000 to 4,000 years ago).

LANDSCAPE

Poulnabrone may have been a tribal boundary at the most northerly point of the Burren in Neolithic 
times.
The tomb is located on a limestone pavement plateau in the uplands. Carleton Jones argues that the location may have denoted a frontier point with Ballyvaughan valley and its virgin oak woods below to the north.
In its turn, Ballycasheen may well have been built at a critical southern entry point to the region – situated as it is between the river Fergus and Roughan hill. This gap between the hill and the river seems to have also been a sought-after location of buildings of the élite in later, historical times – the Early Medieval monastic site of Kilnaboy ; the ring fort of Caher Mór which may also date largely from the Early Medieval period and the Late Medieval Leamaneh Castle entrance.
References
 “The Burren and the Aran Islands Exploring The Archaeology” Carleton Jones. The Collins Press. 2004.
“Temples of Stone. Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland” Carleton Jones. The Heritage Council. 2007.

Roughan Hill, Sunset

The Burren Uplands

FARMING

The economic and political power of the Neolithic communities was derived from farming – the most radical ecological experiment known to mankind. The pioneer farmers in the Burren opted to exploit the limestone pavement/thin soil areas (mostly in the uplands) rather than the thick glacial deposits over limestone (largely in the valleys). They chose the former as the tree complex of hazel and Scots pine was easier to cut with the polished stone axe. (The valleys had a dense cover of oak wood). The megalithic tombs are thus concentrated in the prehistoric upland farming landscape. 

The pressure on the upland landscape of slash-and-burn and farming was heightened 3,000 years ago with a change to a wetter and windier climate. The result was a dramatic loss of soil and the exposure of more pavement in the hills. 

The rocky hills were no longer viable for all year round farming due to dearth of soil. Economic activity and human settlement switched to the valleys.as the oak was removed. The overwhelming concentration of Early Medieval (400 A.D. to 1100 A.D.) monastic sites in the Burren valleys would suggest that by this period at the latest, most of human settlement had moved from uplands to lowlands.
The limestone pavement areas are still farmed to an extent in winter. It a transhumance tradition of uncertain origin whereby some farmers transfer their stock from the valleys on to what is locally known as the “crag land”.
The tradition has been in decline over the last 50 years or so with the inevitable ecological succession of scrub. Scrub is an enemy of archaeology and that is why the BCV opted to remove it in Ballycasheen.

WHAT MAY LIE BENEATH

There are just less than 100 megalithic tombs recorded in the Burren and Poulnabrone is one of the few have been excavated. We can surmise to an extent from the Poulnabrone findings what may lie below the earth at the Ballycasheen portal.
It was Ann Lynch and a team of National Monument archaeologists who excavated in 1996-98. They found the remains of 33 individuals. Some of the remains were charred and some unburned. The team also found bones of wild and domestic animals as well as grave goods including stone and bone artefacts and a small polished stone axe.
Ann Lynch concluded from examination of the human bones that the interred had had short, physical and violent lives. The date range of the bones is about 600 years – 3800 B.C. to 3200 B.C. approximately – extremely selective burial of the dead.
Reference 
“Poulnabrone: An Early Neolithic Portal Tomb in Ireland”. Ann Lynch. Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 2014.

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Ballycasheen Slabs

MYTHOLOGY and FOLKLORE

The sign post on the road refers to the tomb in Gaelic as “Leaba”. There are still a small number of elderly people in the parish of Killinaboy who refer to certain megalithic tombs as “leabas”.
Diarmaid and Gráinne are two parts of a love triangle in a tale from the Fenian Cycle of Mythology. Many Stone Age tombs with flat roofs around Ireland were believed to be used as overnight refuges by the couple in order to hide from the pursuing warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill. These monuments were known as Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne – Diarmaid and Gráinne’s bed.
W.G. Wood Martin points out that the monuments were also linked with “aphrodisiac customs”. Martin recounts Hely Dutton’s experience related to his search for the Ballycashen monument in 1808. Dutton was visiting the monument as part of his work for the publication “A Statistical Survey of County Clare” commissioned by the R.D.S.
When Dutton asked a couple of local women directions, they indulged in an animated chat together in Gaelic. The younger one eventually undertook to accompany Dutton to the tomb on the understanding that he was a stranger to the area (not local) and that he would give her his name.
Dutton became impatient and rode off. He subsequently told another local woman of his encounter and her comment was ‘No wonder for them, for it was the custom that if she went with a stranger to Diarmaid and Gráinne’s bed, she was certainly to grant him everything he asked.’
The “leabas” were also centres of fertility ritual. Wood Martin comments that “No doubt but that from Pagan times comes the widespread notion that these “beds” were efficacious in cases of barrenness. Hely Dutton remarked that if a woman were infertile, a visit with her husband to Diarmaid and Gráinne’s bed would cure her.
References 
“A Statistical Survey of County Clare” Hely Dutton, 1808.
“Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland ; A Folklore Sketch ; A Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian Traditions” W. G. Wood-Martin, 1902.

Poulnabrone, Sunset

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb

TOURISM

The original structures of Poulnabrone and Ballycasheen each had two capstones. The only capstone surviving on lateral stones now is the one at Poulnabrone.

This massive sloping capstone explains in part why Poulnabrone attracts up to 200,000 visitors per annum (electronic counter on site). The antiquity of the monument and the accessibility of the site are the other main reasons why Poulnabrone is the most visited tourist site in the Burren. (The site is roadside on the R480, a major arterial route through the region).

From my own observations, I would find it hard to imagine Ballycasheen having any more than a couple of hundred visitors per annum. The monument’s tiny visitor numbers are explained in part by its location on a minor road ; its occlusion by scrub for decades ; its collapsed state and the displacement of its tilted roof.

EXCAVATION

Excavation of archaeological monuments in the Republic of Ireland can only be acted on with an excavation license. Under the National Monuments Acts, ownership of any archaeological object with no known owner is vested in the State. This means in effect that all archaeological findings must be transferred permanently to the National Museum of Ireland after examination. Thus, Poulnabrone is a funerary monument devoid of its dead – an empty tomb.

Only a minority of archaeological finds are actually exhibited in the National Museum’s public site in Kildare St in Dublin. The majority of objects are held in a facility in Swords, North County Dublin. The National Museum of Ireland – Central Resource Collection is in an industrial unit which was formerly the home of a Motorola electronics assembly plant. The 18,000 square metre building is the size of two football fields and houses several million archaeological objects.
There are no plans currently to excavate the Ballycasheen tomb. As only a small fraction of the region’s archaeological monuments has ever been excavated, the fate of our ancestors at Ballycasheen may be to rest in peace in their house of death.

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The removed scrub

CONCLUSION

Ballycasheen is one of only two portal tombs in the Burren. Moreover, it is one of the few Early Neolithic tombs which has been discovered in the region. It is a monument of real cultural significance in the Burren’s prehistoric landscape.
Ballycaseheen has had the good fortune to be “unveiled” again by conservationists. The second coming of the tomb means that a visit to the site is now a gem of a Burren experience. Its luck could hold out as it will never be overwhelmed by visitors and may also elude the excavators.
The turning of the year was an occasion of real spiritual significance to prehistoric farming communities. It marked the start of the journey from darkness in to light. The Ballycasheen site is a very soulful place to be on a sunny mid-winter’s day. Enjoy the holidays and the turning of the year.

 

Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

The Invisible Burren

Underground River, Doolin Cave

Underground river at Doolin Cave

One of the main features of limestone is its solubility in water. The strange shape of the Burren landscape is only one consequence of this feature, the real effect goes much deeper. Under the limestone pavements and hills exists another landscape, equally beautiful but even stranger than the one above: Caves.

Cullaun Cave

It’s a bit of a squeeze: Cullaun Cave

Glencurran Cave

Exploring Glencurran Cave

So far some 35 miles of cave passages have been surveyed but the real extend of the Burren caves is thought to be a multitude of that. Most of the caves can only be entered by experienced cavers, potholes and flash floods are only some of the dangers, but there are two caves that can be enjoyed by everybody. Aillwee Cave near Ballyvaughan and Doolin Cave between Doolin and Lisdoonvarna are open to the public and give an insight into the Burren’s underworld. The Doolin Cave or Pol an Ionain  features the Great Stalactite. This massive stalactite measures some 7 meters which makes it the biggest of its kind in the northern hemisphere.

The Great Stalactite

The Great Stalactite, Doolin Cave

Aillwee Cave was first discovered in 1940 by a local farmer but it took until 1977 until the cave had been fully explored and mapped.
Another interesting caves is Poll Na gColm on the east side of Slieve Elva. The cave entrance lies at the bottom of a funnel shaped which is wide enough to host a fully grown ash tree. Inside the cave a muttering stream has shaped narrow passages that open up into wide galleries. In places the river forms deep pools and enchanting side grottos emerge from the main passage.
The cave however is best known for its connection with some of the greatest novels of all times: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The anglicied version of Poll Na gColm is Poll NaGollum and it is thought that the cave lend its name to Gollum, one of the main characters of the story who also lived in a cave.
It is a fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was a regular visitor of the area and there have always been rumours that the Burren has inspired much of the landscape of Middle Earth. Other sources reject this but whatever the truth may be it is a nice thought that the Burren was somewhat involved in the conception of a masterpiece of literature.

Burren_Landscape_33

Poll Na gColm

Many of the caves date back to a time long before the Burren as we know it today emerged. Radioisotope data collected at Aillwee cave suggest the cave is more than 1 million years old and was already formed long before the last glaciation period which had a major impact on the surface of the Burren.

Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposiderus)

Lesser Horseshoe Bat

Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposiderus)

Lesser Horseshe Bats hibernating

Findings like human skeletal remains, pottery, oyster shells and butchered animal bones or the well known skeleton of a brown bear at Ailwee Cave, suggests that these caves have provided shelter for both animals and humans alike for a very long time. Early Christian hermits also took advantage of the Burren caves: According to legend St. Colman Mac Duagh spent seven years in a small cave at the foot of Eagle’s Rock. Even today the Burren caves provide shelter and sanctuary for wildlife, especially for wintering bats including the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

Glencurran Cave Entrance

The view from Mac Duagh’s Cave

Text & images by Carsten Krieger

Limerick, Dublin, Bologna: Tony’s Story

Hill Walking, The Burren

Tony (second from left) in his element.

I was born in Limerick city a few decades ago. I am quite proud of my birth place. My full name is Anthony Gerard Martin John Kirby. My father was extravagant when it came to naming me. His own name was Alf and I remember him being described as a “charismatic insurance salesman” in a book on the life of actor Richard Harris. My father passed away in 1977. My mother did likewise two and a half years ago at the age of 99 .
I studied French and English literature in University College Dublin in the late 1970s. I graduated without distinction but the education did give me an enduring love for words and languages. Whilst in college I happened to sit a civil service exam. I remember meeting the comic genius, the late Dermot Morgan, in the exam hall that day. He was a good friend of my cousin. I got the call to work for the state after I left college. I became a public servant. Morgan didn’t. Sometime later he became Father Ted in the eponymous and wildly successful TV comedy series.
Thankfully my public service did not stretch to licking envelopes or asking people their mothers’ maiden name . However, the job did not enthrall me either.  I finally invoked an escape clause and made good for Italy. A five year long sabbatical. I taught English as a foreign language in the medieval city of Bologna. I also spent one sublime summer in the city of Matera – a world UNESCO heritage site. Five years is the career break limit so I opted for the Irish public service again when the sabbatical expired. I returned to Dublin in 1997. I still miss Italia.
DUBLIN AGAIN
On my return to Ireland, Italian friends would visit on occasion. My visitors were keen to learn of Irish history and heritage and I was glad to guide them around town and share information with them. Therefrom came the idea of guided walking tours of Dublin city on foot in Italiano. My life as a walking tourism operator had begun. Extremely modest beginnings – I took occasional half days from the government job in high season to run the tiny enterprise. However, my love for the life as a cicerone was born. Around 2000 I met a woman called Eimer. We started a story. After a while she proposed a new life in the west of Ireland. I was to take my second and last career break from the public service.

Burren Wall, Autumn Colours
THE BURREN
We came to County Clare for the music but we stayed for lots of other reasons as well. I made a slow, uncertain start to life in the west without my permanent, pensionable job. However, I finally drummed up the confidence to launch a small rural business, Heart of Burren Walks. I became a full-time walking tourism operator. Eimer and I spent a month on the Fanore coast when we arrived in Clare. That was followed by a couple of years in the Burren interior, in the hills near the village of Carran. Home for the last nine years has been Kilnaboy. It is situated in the south-east of the Burren. I have the good fortune that the Burren National Park is located in Kilnaboy. It is one of only six National Parks in the Republic of Ireland and is magnificent walking country.
My working year extends largely from April to September. Thankfully May to August are four very busy months. April and September are so called “shoulder months”. A longer working year would be more attractive financially but might drain my energy levels. So I am quite happy with the shorter year as I can give it my very best shot.
The job is quite a privilege. My workplace is the outdoors in the Burren – a region of austere and natural beauty which is exceedingly rich in heritage.  Moreover, I meet people from all over the planet – a truly cosmopolitan job even though there is no foreign travel involved. Finally, the most exciting aspect of the work is the journey for knowledge i.e. learning new things. There is every discipline on the Burren hills from Archaeology to Zoology. It is a library without end, amen. It  is pure exciting any time I learn new things about the landscape. The jigsaw will never be complete but the thrill is joining pieces together from time to time. To paraphrase the outstanding contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella – I read the landscape with what grace I can/Not young, and not renewable, but man.
HERE AND NOW
My main interest in the region is the holy wells, sacred sites and pilgrim paths.  The Burren is a very rich penitential landscape and a lot of the archaeology of pilgrimage remains intact. I have written one book “The Burren and the Aran Islands A Walking Guide” (Collins Press ; 2009). A revised edition reached the shops this August.
Eimer and I have two sons now. They are Seanán Thokozani (7 years) and Oisín Alfonso (3 years). Eimer lived in Malawi for three years. Thokozani means “we thank you” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s two official languages. Oisín’s second name is Alfonso as form of homage to his grand dad, the charismatic insurance salesman he never met.

FOOTNOTES
1)       Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy. Matera is in the Basilicata region in the south of the country
2)      Italy has 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – more than any other country in the world. There are two sites in the Republic of Ireland – Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael), County Kerry and Brú Na Bóinne (archaeological ensemble on the river Boyne), County Meath
3)     Cicerone – a person who conducts and informs sightseers ; a tour guide. Origin – after Cicero alluding to his eloquence and erudition.
4)     The Republic of Ireland’s five other National Parks are Connemara, Wicklow, Glenveagh (Donegal), Killarney and Ballycroy (Mayo).
5)     Thomas Kinsella, poet, was born in 1928. “The integrity of his remarkable career is confirmed in the two sides of his work, the translations from the Irish language and the significant and singular achievement of his own poetry.” Maurice Harmon, Professor Emeritus, Anglo-Irish Literature, U.C.D. The Collected Poems 1956-1994 by Thomas Kinsella is published in the series Oxford Poets.
6)    Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa”. Malawian English is the country’s second official language

A Winter Solstice Day in the Burren

Clearing Fog, Mullagh More

Winter Solstice Day 2012

Over the years it had become a tradition for me to spend the winter solstice day in the Burren. The atmosphere on those dark midwinter days is quite special in the Burren. It is almost as if the landscape itself is taking a rest before the days grow longer again and the busy spring time arrives.
Unfortunately I had missed those yearly trips for the past two years so I was determined to make it this year. In addition Tony has lined up a few new stories for this blog, all that is missing are some images.

Eagle's Rock

The cliffs of  Eagle’s Rock

I started the day at Eagle’s Rock. The cliffs were shrouded in mist and fog, it was near calm and the sun tried to make an appearance through the clouds hanging over Turloughmore Mountain to the south-east. The scene was painted in the warm tones of a Burren winter: The yellow of the grasses, the rich brown of the bracken, the brownish grey of the hazel and in between the skeletal figures of lone ash trees and dark grey, almost black, stretches of limestone pavement.

Feral Goats (Capra Hircus)

Feral Goats

Rusty Back Fern (Ceterach officinarum)

Keeping it up during the winter: Rusty Back Fern

As so often I lost track of time between walking, watching and making a few images. I spent quite a while with a group of feral goats, me watching them, them watching me. These goats are descendants of farm animals possibly dating back to neolithic times. Today they are the gardeners of the Burren, keeping shrubs and other vegetation down and so making it possible for the Burren wildflowers to thrive.
The peace unfortunately was broken by people walking their dog. The dog wasn’t on a leash so it wasn’t all that surprising what happened next: Dog chasing the goats. I spare you any of my thoughts on that. All I will say is that I don’t blame the dog.
So I walked on in the footsteps of the goats across the limestone pavement and through the hazel scrub. In the end I got totally sidetracked and by the time I was back at the car it was way past midday.

Eagle's Rock

Eagle’s Rock, hazel scrub and ash tree

Burren National Park

Flooded hazel forest

A perfect midwinter day but unfortunately the images for Tony’s stories have to wait another while (sorry Tony…).

Tony and myself wish you all a very happy Christmas and a good start into the new year. See you on the other side.

Images & text: Carsten Krieger

KNOCKAUNROE TURLOUGH WALKING TRAIL

Burren Forest

The hazel woodland in summer

Orange Route start/finish: Gortlecka Cross Roads, Burren National Park, Kilnaboy.
Description: Way marked trail with orange arrows suitable for most levels of fitness. Highlights include a turlough, mature ash/hazel woodland, flower-rich grasslands and some fine views of the National Park’s iconic hill, Mullaghmore.
Distance 1.3 km (0.8 mile).
Map: The Burren – a two inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare. Folding Landscapes. Scale 1:31680 or Discovery Series Map No 51. Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 1:50 000

Common Twayblade (Listera ovata) and Common Spotted Orchid (Dact

Orchids in the ‘flower-rich grassland’

The first two fields you walk through are very rich and diverse in wildflower species and are defined as flower-rich grasslands. Horses and ponies graze in the fields in winter thus preventing the encroachment of the surrounding hazel woodland. The horses and ponies are an uncommon sight in the hills in winter as it is primarily cattle which are transferred to altitude from November to April each year. Hay may be saved on occasion in these meadows but only after the flowers have gone to seed. The fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) are two of the most spectacular flowers here in summer with their remarkable exercises in insect mimicry.

On leaving the second field you may notice a quarry – a reminder of the abandoned National Park Visitor Centre and car park project of the 1990s. Proceed along a path through woodland and pass through a metal gate into grasslands. 
If you look north-west here you will get a striking view of the iconic Mullaghmore hill. The great expanses of limestone pavement on the hill have been exposed by glaciation and over-exuberant farming in pre-history. It is ironic that the wealth of geology, flora and archaeology in the region are in part due to ancient “agri-vandalism”. The Burren is a highly paradoxical landscape brilliantly summarized in the cartographer/essayist Tim Robinson’s words “it’s (the Burren’s) austere beauty is the result of millennia of abuse”.

You enter mature hazel/ash woodland which is home to such mammals as badgers, red squirrels and pine martens. There are an estimated 70,000 badgers in Ireland. The animal’s feeding behaviour is very similar to that of the badger in Spain and Italy. Mammalians believe the badger was introduced to Ireland by prehistoric farming communities migrating northwards via the Bay of Biscay. 
The pine marten is Ireland’s most elusive land mammal. It is largely nocturnal. The marten population plummeted during the notorious 17th century deforestation program. However, its numbers are on the rise again in the west of Ireland.

Forest Path, Winter

The path through the hazel woodland in winter

You will reach a clearing in the woodland on your left hand side. In summer it may be recognizable as a dry depression with a very interesting mix of aquatic plants including purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and mudwort (Limosella aquatica). The depression fills with water in periods of high rainfall, (mainly winter). Groundwater wells up from below and a temporary lake (Knockaunroe turlough) is formed. Scarce plants nationally such as shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) and purgative buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) prosper at the turlough margins. Dragonflies and damselflies are quite common around turloughs. Ireland is home to 13 dragonfly and 11 damselfly species. Dragonflies are much faster in flight than damselflies.

You soon re-enter the woodland. Almost all the woodland along the trail was coppiced in the past. The long straight shoots of hazel are evidence of the ancient tradition.
 Coppicing is a sustainable method of woodland management which in Ireland’s case dates back to the Neolithic farmers (4000-2400 B.C.). The method exploits the ability of many species of trees to grow new shoots from their stump if cut down. Nearly all broadleaf trees will grow back when coppiced. Ash and hazel grow back very vigorously.

Coppicing was a thriving industry in the Burren in the past – producing slim poles for fencing, charcoal, thatching rods, walking sticks, stakes for hedge laying, firewood and much, much more. It fell out of fashion here in the 20th century because of labour costs and cheaper imports.

Forest Floor, The Burren

Forest floor in early spring

The Burren mosaic of limestone pavement and thin soil is evolving in to woodland because of lack of human pressure i.e. the decline of two traditional economic activities – upland farming in winter and coppicing.

The trail opens out onto species rich-grasslands. Devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) blooms in great profusion in late summer/early autumn. Its tall, purple flower heads make for a wonderful spectacle. Mullaghmore comes in to view again as you land back at the trailhead.

CONCLUSION

The orange trail is short and does not feature the region’s iconic limestone pavement. However, it is very rewarding as high points include a rare eco-system in Knockaunroe turlough and an outstanding example of mature, native woodland. Another bonus is that the trail is one of the least trafficked in the region. Happy feet!

Text: Tony Kirby / Images: Carsten Krieger