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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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