A Secret of the Burren Landscape

Ballyvaughan Valley, Autumn

The view from the R480 near Ballyvaughan

The R480 is a 16.4 kilometer long regional road stretching from Ballyvaughan in the north of the Burren to Leamaneh Castle in the south. It is the main arterial route in the Burren interior. In high season the road can be heavily trafficked. The roadside is littered with outstanding National Monuments including the ring forts An Ráth, Cahermore and Caherconnell. Ireland’s oldest known megalithic tomb Poulnabrone (5,800 years old) is also on the verge of the road. Poulnabrone attracts at least 100,000 visitors per annum.
I recently “discovered” another monument along the road – a holy well called Tobargahard. It is a magical site which seems to avoid the attention of almost everybody.

Tobergahard Holy Well

The well is surrounded by a moss covered stone wall.

Tobargahard was formerly situated in the classic Burren upland landscape of limestone pavement and thin soil. However, the monument has been hidden in recent years by the advance of hazel scrub. Scrub is advancing due to decline in farming in the uplands. The scrub may eventually occlude the well entirely from future generations. Hazel is a glorious native tree but it is an enemy of archaeology.
Tobargahard may be an Anglicisation of Tobar go hArd which means the well on high. The monument is located just above Gragan Valley which was heavily populated in the 19th century. There is a walled entrance to the well which faces the valley. The wall is now covered in moss which is thriving in the scrub.

Tobergahard Holy well

Offerings at the well

Folk medicine was widespread in the past and the belief was that the Tobargahard water cured eye ailments. I reckon that the waters of about 50% of Ireland’s 3,000 plus recorded holy wells are renowned for eye cures.
I recorded just three pilgrim offerings at the site – two religious figurines on the altar above the well and a rosary beads hung from a tree. When the wind blows, the beads swing like a pendulum.
Tobargahard is an almost abandoned sacred site, a secret of the Burren landscape, a haven of tranquility.

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

An Organic Burren Walk

Lough Avolla Valley, Spring

A rare experience in Ireland – a looped, waymarked walk on an organic farm. A fabulous Burren hike uniformly praised in the reviews on the National Trails site irishtrails.ie. Trail highlights include Belted Galloway cattle, woodland, limestone pavement, a lake, stunning views of parts of Counties Clare and Tipperary and the silence of manual labour. Directions:  Coming from Corofin, take the R476 in the direction of Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna. Drive 3 kilometres from Corofin until you reach the village of Kilnaboy. Take the right turn onto the L1112 opposite Kilnaboy’s former post office. Drive 5 kilometres down this road until you reach a crossroads. Park at the lay-by on the right just before the crossroads. A display panel at the lay-by contains information regarding the natural heritage of the area. Distance 6 km (3.7 miles). Time 3 hours at an easy pace. Grade Moderate. No dogs please – not even on leads.

Poulnalour Forest Path

A hazel gate on the farm

(1) The Gortlecka crossroads is a few meters from the lay-by. Go to the crossroads and turn left. You are now walking along an unsurfaced road. 13 hectares of the rocky land to your right is grazed in winter by cattle as part of the Burren Farming for Conservation program. The livestock clearly do not have enough grass to survive but their diet is supplemented by supplementary feed. In the past native breeds such as shorthorns or Aberdeen Angus would have been the favoured cattle in the Burren. However, market forces have meant that the majority of cattle in the region are now continental breeds such as Charolais and Limousin.
(2) You come to a junction having walked about one kilometer from the crossroads. Turn right here into a farm lane. About 400 meters along the lane you will pass a large open pen for goats. Goat and sheep rearing were widespread in the Burren in the 19th century. However, latterly cattle production is dominant. In fact there may be as little as ten goat farmers left in the entire region. Kid goat meat known in Gaelic as mionán was a a great spring dish in the Burren in the past. I know of only two eateries now in the Burren where you can enjoy the delicacy. The goats here are raised for both meat and excellent farmhouse cheese.


The Avolla Farm goats

(3) Turn right as indicated just after the pen. You will soon come to a haven on the left of the trail with spring water gushing out of the rock. Although the spring has been accorded the status of holy well by some of late, it is debatable whether or not the spring was venerated in the past. Be that as it may the site has a flux of visitors who believe in the therapeutic value of the water. There is fulachta fiadh within a few meters of the spring. Nearby are stone structures (minus roofs) which functioned as sweat lodges in the past. The boiling water from the fulachta fiadh would have been brought to the sweat houses and people would thus have rid their bodies of toxins.

Avalla Holy Well

The site of the spring and fulachta fiadh

(4) You reach a spectacular rising platform of limestone pavement. The words “crazy pavement” come readily to mind. Limestone pavement is rare and precious internationally. The Burren is the most extensive limestone pavement region in Europe. The stone is known locally as the “warm stone” as it absorbs heat in spring/ summer and releases it in autumn/winter. Limestone is the bedrock in the case of 50% of the land mass of Ireland. However, it is only in the Burren and a very small number of other localities in Ireland that the soil been removed and the bedrock exposed. Cross the pavement, walk across a field and you soon pass a tall drystone structure. The structure is not to be confused with archaeological monuments as it is quite a recent construction.
(5) Veer right and walk alongside the steep cliffs (on your left). The classic topography of the Burren hills is terrace and cliff.  Horizontal lines of weakness in the rock were eroded by water.The rock was loosened and thereafter it was removed by glaciers thus leaving us this highly distinctive stepped landform. The steep cliffs are part of Glasgeivnagh hill. The summit of Glasgeivnagh is a plateau with a dense concentration of cairns.
With your back to the cliffs, the views are breathtaking. The Slieve Bernagh hill range is to the south-east near the village of Killaloe. The Slieve Felim range, which straddles parts of Counties Limerick and Tipperary, is beyond the Slieve Bernagh range.


The view over the Burren National Park and beyond

(6)  Having walked less than a kilometer along the cliff face, you begin the descent through scrub and pasture. Cattle, sheep and goats are raised on the farm. The end result is sublime beef, lamb, kid goat meat and goat’s cheese products. The family also grows fruit and vegetables for domestic consumption. Farming in Ireland has largely become much more specific and intense in the last three decades as it has been transformed by subsidy-driven European Union farm policy.  However, the Jeuken’s holding remains a steadfastly traditional Irish farm with an eclectic range of activities and produce. Moreover, the traditional low intensity farming regime means that the holding is very rich in bio-diversity.
(7) When crossing a rocky, rugged stretch of the trail, look both left and right and you will see rows of unusually small fields of indeterminate age. These fields are a joy to behold as they remind one of the traditional Irish field type prior to the modernization of farming. Most fields in Ireland are now far larger in size as the bulldozer has made one big field out of several smaller fields. Most subsistence agriculture in Ireland has now been replaced by farming dictated by market and technological forces. There is a steep drop where a wooden bannister has been added to aid the descent. This area is known as “the staircase”.

Lough Avalla, Midsummer Morning

Lough Avolla

(8) You will pass through some sublime Atlantic hazel woodland with a floor rich in primitive plant communities. Having descended for about a kilometer, you approach the shores of Lough Avolla. The small lake is very deep – up to 30 meters. Vegetation has colonized a large part of the former surface of the lake. Lough Avolla has long been home to eels and sticklebacks. They have been joined recently by introduced trout and perch. Walk around the lake, pass the jetty and then turn left as indicated.
(9) The path will take you uphill a little where you can enjoy one last glimpse of the farmstead. There are very few looped walking trails in Ireland situated on living working farms. This trail is all the more special as it passes through an organic farm. In Ireland only 1.2% of the land is organic and thus Ireland is near bottom of the EU league for organic farming.
(10) You reach the farm lane again. Walk along it till you meet the unsurfaced road. Turn left here. The unsurfaced road leads you back to Gortlecka crossroads. Turn right at the crossroads. The trailhead and lay-by is on your left hand side.

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

A House of Death in the West

Drumacoo Church and Mausoleum

Church (left) and Mausoleum (right) at Drumacoo

A remarkable sight in the west – a house of death dwarfing a house of prayer. The roofless church on the left of the photos has Early Medieval (400-1100 A.D.) origins. It is dedicated to a saintess St Sourney.

On the other hand the 19th century mausoleum was constructed by Arthur St George to house his wife Lady Harriet St George. (By the way the word mausoleum comes from the name of the enormous marble tomb which was built for the remains of Mausolos, a pre-Christian Greek king. That mausoleum was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).

The church and mausoleum are located in Drumacoo townland – a couple of miles from the shores of Galway Bay between Kilcolgan and Ballindereen in County Galway. The Burren hills are in the background to the south. The mausoleum enjoys inter visibility with the St George’s 18th century mansion Tyrone House. The mausoleum is in Gothic revival style whereas the mansion is now in ruins.

The Drumacoo site is extremely interesting – it also includes the deserted village of Drumacoo and the holy well of St Sourney.

Drumacoo Deserted Village

Drumacoo Deserted Village

Deserted Village at Drumacoo

I visited this Thursday morning and the site was drowned in winter sunlight. Moreover I was really lucky to bump into a local authority on Drumacoo history. This kind man told me his great grandfather worked as coachman for the St Georges. The St George family would invite the tenants to some of the gatherings in the mansion. The local man considered them to be decent landlords.

The English poet laureate John Betjeman (1906-1984) referred to the mausoleum in the last lines of his poem “Ireland With Emily”:

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum,
Sings its own seablown Te Deum,
In and out the slipping slates

The mausoleum and the mansion were once strong statements of the St George’s supremacy in south-west Galway. Next time I visit Drumacoo, I hope to see the interior of the “fantastic mausoleum”.

Tyrone House

Tyrone House

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

Hang out your brightest Colours

Mac Duagh's Well, Kinvara

“Its branches drip with tatters.
It seems held down with pleas.
Over fields it might
be a monster disturbed in a story,
rustling its rags in unease”.

From the poem “West Cork”
from “Collected” by Seán Dunne, Gallery Press 2005.

Mac Duagh's Well, Kinvara

The tree festooned with ribbons (image above) is known as a rag tree. It is associated with the nearby holy well of St Colman Mac Duagh.

The tree and well are about a kilometre north of the coastal village of Kinvara on the N67 road to Galway city. The site attracts few visitors unlike Dún Guaire medieval castle which is only a few hundred metres away.

This stretch of road also forms part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Wild Atlantic Way (Irish: Slí an Atlantaigh Fhiáin) is a tourism trail on the west coast of Ireland. It was launched in February 2014. 10 million euros was spent by the Irish government in 2014 in the design and marketing of the Way. The trail is 2,500 kilometres long making it the world’s longest defined coastal touring route.

Mac Duagh's Well, Kinvara

In the past rags were torn from their clothes by ailing pilgrims, dipped in the holy well water, rubbed on the ailing part of the body and then tied to the rag tree. The rag was the symbol of the ailment of the pilgrim. The pilgrim believed that the tree would spirit away his/her ailment. Folk medicine á la grande.

During 1842-43 Thomas L. Cooke wrote a series of articles for the Galway Vindicator newspaper on the area around New Quay in north Clare. Cooke was underwhelmed by the unofficial religion practiced by the peasantry at St Colman Mac Duagh’s well and tree. In his article Subterranean River at Pouloshe and Well at Tubbermacduagh, he refers to the pilgrims’ “over-ardent devotion”
The site also features in the Philip Dixon Hardy’s book Holy Wells of Ireland (1836). The book is a robust attack on the holy well tradition from an elitist standpoint.

Cooke’s articles and Dixon Hardy’s book are fascinating reads and remain important for their historical insights.

The modern pilgrim is now draping the tree in Kinvara with ribbons rather than rags. Some conservationists have misgivings about this modern “ritual” and regard it as littering. Others argue that it is a case of tradition in constant state of transition. I must say I find the subject complex. Perhaps when you hang out your brightest colours, all is not black and white.

Mac Duagh's Well, Kinvara

Note : A scrapbook of Cooke’s Galway Vindicator articles entitled Autumnal Rambles about New Quay is available on the wonderful Clare County Library website.

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

A Burren Moment: 22. December 2009

Mullagh More, Winter

Ireland and especially its western shores are known for its mild winters but from time to time the weather plays havoc. The winter of 2009/2010 was such a time. Ireland experienced several weeks of sub zero temperatures, ice and snow. Even the Burren with its limestone storage heater that usually keeps frost well away froze over and became a winter wonderland.

Lough Bunny, Hoar Frost

Beasts in the hills in winter

Cattle on Mullagh More

A cow grazing about 100 metres above sea level in a landscape which is a mosaic of bare limestone and thin soil. Clearly there is not enough grass for the livestock to survive and that is why the farmer must tend to the flock every so often with supplementary feed.

The Burren is the only region in Europe where livestock are transferred to the uplands in winter. This farming regime is known as reverse transhumance. The dominant soil type in the Burren hills is rendzina and it is resistant to destruction by the cattle. This is the main reason why the out wintering of the cattle at altitude takes place in the region.

Cattle in the Burren Uplands, Winter

The cattle could not graze in the valleys in winter as they would tear up the soil. Thus some Burren farmers opt to put their cattle indoors for the winter whereas others persist with the ancient transhumance tradition.

As I walk the Burren hills in winter, it is joy to come across the livestock. They must be happy beasts as they are outdoors all year round. Moreover, science has now concluded the hill cattle fullfil a critical cultural role. By grazing the hills in winter, they slow down the advance of scrub (mainly hazel) which would otherwise overwhelm the limestone pavement and archaeology. The scrub also out shades the Burren speciality flowers in spring. Studies have concluded that the livestock are optimum landscape managers. A true equilibrium is reached between man and nature thanks to this very unusual farming regime. Long may the tradition continue.

As I write sub-zero temperatures persist. Limpid days and bitterly cold evenings.

Turlough, Winter

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger