Fridays for Future

CKP_Landscape_Clare_06012014-2

Tomorrow, Friday 20th September, will see the start of a week long global protest against the inactivity of governments to act against climate change. My son got involved in the Fridays for Future movement, which was started a bit over a year ago by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, during the summer and is trying his best to get the message out. If you are on Instagram check out jonahtheclimateactivist.

As part of my work I have been involved with conservation groups for many years. Progress was always slow and success little but right now it feels we have reached a crossroad and there is just no time left for slow progress and little steps. Over the past 100 years, which is not even a blink in Earth’s history, we have changed this planet beyond recognition. We destroyed habitats, polluted the land and the oceans, changed the atmosphere and triggered an event we still don’t fully understand. We are not only witnessing a changing climate, we are also in the middle of a mass extinction event of a global scale. And still we are living to the rule of political and personal agendas and short sighted egotism.

Loop Head

A few weeks ago my son and me attended the launch of the Irish Climate Action Plan 2019 in Limerick. It was a not completely unexpected but nevertheless shocking experience in the wake of which I wrote this letter to Ireland’s minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton:

Dear Minister,

My 14 year old son and myself attended the launch and discussion of the Climate Action Plan 2019 at Tait House in Limerick on 6th September. We were both hopeful to engage and witness a meaningful discussion on the problems Ireland and the rest of the world are facing and what everybody, including the Irish government, could do about it.

Unfortunately as so often in the political arena the event turned into a farce and left not only my son and me but most, if not all, of the attendees utterly frustrated and disillusioned. My son’s first words, close to tears, after we had left Tait House were: “We are all screwed.”

Minister Bruton, on your website you state “A transformation in Communications, Climate Action and the Environment will define this century. We either lead or we follow. I am determined that we aim to become leaders exploiting the opportunities of the technological revolution and a sustainable society. We have a lot of ground to make up. I hope we can engage every citizen in the challenge.” However during the meeting at Tait House it was hard to believe that these sentences came from you. While the attending citizens were engaged, concerned and critical, you came across as the absolute opposite. Answering to the majority of the questions and comments directed at you with “We will look into it in the future.”, “This is not my responsibility.” and “There isn’t endless money available.” is the behaviour that unfortunately more and more people expect from a career politician and shows not only a lack of respect for the people that elected you into your position but also a shocking ignorance of the situation.

“We will look into it in the future.” will be too late. Climate change, plastic pollution and habitat destruction is happening now, this very moment. I have been living in Ireland for 17 years and changes in weather patterns, nature and wildlife have become obvious, especially over the past 6 years. Overall it has become windier, winters have become wetter with more frequent extreme weather events like spot flooding, prolonged dry spells and violent storms. Insect populations have noticeably declined. For example some 10 years ago it was easy to find the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth on ragwort, the flowers were covered with the black and orange striped animals. I have always let a part of my garden grow wild and for the past 2 years I haven’t seen one caterpillar despite having a lot of flowering ragwort. The curlew, one of Ireland’s most enigmatic birds, is following the corncrake into extinction due to habitat loss caused mainly by modern farming practise. The list could go on and all of this is happening now and needs to be addressed now. Not in the future.

“This is not my responsibility.” is simply not acceptable coming from the person with the title Minister for Communication, Climate Action and Environment. I understand that the workload is enormous and that it will take a number of individuals and organisations to make the changes necessary but it is your job to oversee these changes and take responsibility. If you, the Minister for Communication, Climate Action and Environment, doesn’t feel responsible then who will and how can you expect the citizens of Ireland to take responsibility and make changes?

“There isn’t endless money available.” is a phrase that is always heard when it comes to environmental issues or pay issues related to nurses, gardai and other frontline occupations. Surprisingly I never heard it when comes to ministers’ pay rises and expenses and building projects that go over budget. Be this as it may some changes can actually be made without additional cost to the state: Stop mowing road verges and roundabout islands and declare them a protected wildflower habitat. Ban the use of pesticides and herbicides for private households. Bring in legislation that reduces plastic packaging. Not every fruit or vegetable needs to be wrapped up and there are also alternatives like cardboard and biodegradable materials. Ban double packaging (e.g. cardboard box wrapped in plastic) and force retailers to take back packaging for recycling (the latter has been a law in Germany for almost 20 years and has helped reducing packaging). Introduce a deposit system for plastic bottles and cans like it is standard in other countries. Many citizens would support this but these kind of changes have to come from government level. Ireland has led the way some years ago with introducing the smoking ban, so why is it a problem now to lead the way?

I am also sure that many citizens, like myself, would opt for hybrid or electric cars, install solar panels and green heating systems, but simply can’t afford it despite government grants. Ireland might be a rich country like you mentioned during the event, but most of its people aren’t. Why not make green cars more affordable like for example Norway does? Why not allow people interest free loans to transform their homes to green energy and accept any extra electricity that these private homes put back into the grid as repayment for these loans?

Finally what shocked me the most was this statement you gave during the event: “Ireland is and will be for a long time dependent on fossil fuels.” This very much contradicts the statement on your website mentioned earlier. There are numerous studies that suggest Ireland is in a unique position to be a leading producer and exporter of green energy through wave and tidal applications. However the development of these energy sources isn’t properly supported by the state. To my knowledge a testing site in Galway Bay lies mainly idle and other proposed sites off the Mayo and Clare coast haven’t been developed.

As I said at the beginning, the event at Tait House and your attitude towards the problems we are facing has left not only me desperate and frustrated. Climate change, plastic pollution and habitat destruction are problems bigger than the time span to the next election but as long as people like yourself keep handling these issues in the usual ignorant and short sighted political way we are indeed all screwed.

Kind regards,

Carsten Krieger

Not unexpected I didn’t get a reply.

Also not unexpected the ministry of Communications, Climate Action and Environment confirmed that some aspects of the Climate Action Plan 2019 are unrealistic and won’t be met.

Also not unexpected… we are screwed unless we take action ourselves and protesting is one of the actions we can take.

Please support #WeekForFuture 20. – 27. September 2019 across Ireland and across the world.

The Perfect Storm, Loop Head

 

#weekforfuture #climatechange #fridaysforfuture

 

 

Between the Tides, Part 1

 

Ross

Evening light and incoming tide at the cove.

I am standing on the cliff top overlooking the small cove. Its western end is protected by towering rock sheets that, over a few million years, have been raised to an almost vertical position. Parts of the sheets have been torn open more recently by the forces of the Atlantic Ocean and now a small sea cave extends into the rock. The eastern end of the cove seems to have been tortured considerably more by the waters of the Atlantic. Low lying rock platforms are overlooked by narrow rock towers and twisted cliffs. Caves,  tunnels, blow holes and deep pools have been sculpted into these cliffs. The petrified remains of sand volcanoes and ripples that flowing water left on the bottom of an ancient river bed reveal the ancient origins of the rock.

A path and an artificial ramp, built for the filming of the Hollywood classic Ryan’s Daughter, lead to the bottom of the cove. Here it becomes clear that the cliffs that encircle the head of the cove are not made of solid rock but consist of clay and rocks of various sizes. Lumps of clay at the bottom of the cove and sagging parts of the cliff top state the obvious: These soft cliffs are being eroded away with every spell of rain and every gust of wind that comes in from the north Atlantic. Just below the cliffs the eastern half of the cove is covered with a boulder beach. Hundreds of hefty rocks, rounded and smoothed by water, cover the underlying rock platforms that stretch out into the bay and become visible where the boulder beach ends. On the other side of the cove the boulders are missing and sculpted and terraced rock dominates the scene. In the far eastern corner the Atlantic has managed to drill a canal into the rock that disappears under the soft cliffs und underlying rock only to reappear a few meters inland where a sinkhole has formed.

The rock platforms in the center of the cove are covered in seaweeds and dotted with rock pools of different size and depth. Massive rocks dislodged from the cliffs at the entrance of the bay and thrown onto the shore are a brutal reminder of the violent storms that hit this coast on a regular basis. It is a place that never fails to amaze me. First it’s only a kaleidoscope of colours, shapes and textures, beautiful in its own right. A closer look reveals a microcosmos of life and death, struggle and survival. It is Ireland’s most fascinating habitat: The rocky shore.

I have been visiting this particular cove for almost a decade and have been watching its inhabitants going about their daily business. All the images in this and the following posts have been made on this little stretch of rock, between the tides

Ross

Rough seas at the cove.

If there is one truly wild place left in Ireland it is its coast. Ireland boasts over 3000 kilometers of coastline, the majority of which is made of rock, mainly shale, sandstone and limestone. This rock comes in a variety of shapes. The most eye-catching of those are the sheer cliffs that rise vertically out of the sea, can reach heights of several hundred meters and in places have been sculpted into pillars, arches and caves. As a habitat these rock faces are home to a variety of seabirds. Over the summer months these colonies with many thousand individuals transform the rock into a busy bird metropolis. In autumn the birds leave and the cliffs return to their quiet and barren state. Other varieties of the rocky shore however are keeping busy all year round. Where the rock is gently sloping into the sea or low lying rock platforms are regularly engulfed and released by the tides life is teeming under and above the water. These kind of rocky shores are one of the most crowded habitats imaginable. Especially the intertidal zone hosts a staggering variety of plants and animals with a population density comparable to the tropical rainforest.

Ross

A rocky shore still life.

This is an ever changing and rough environment full of challenges. The first challenge the rocky shore inhabitants face is the power of the waves when they meet the shore. The force of this wave power depends on a number of factors like the depth of offshore water, fetch (the expanse of open water before it meets a shoreline), aspect (the direction the shore faces), and position (the layout of coastal features). The worst case scenario in Ireland is a west or north facing shore without any protecting headland. The vast extend and the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean combined with regular low pressure systems can create massive waves that can hit the shore with a power of up to 30 tons/square meter. On the other end of the scale are the rocky shores of the east coast, ideally situated inside a bay which is protected by headlands or a reef. The variations between these two extremes of an exposed and a sheltered rocky shore are of course numerous. The prevailing fauna and flora has adapted to these variations and has come up with tailormade and very interesting solutions to avoid being crushed to death on the rocks or being swept away by waves.

An even greater danger than crashing waves however comes with the tides. Twice each day the inhabitants of any rocky shore are being exposed to sun and wind and then being covered again by seawater. The movement of the seawater is of course mainly caused by the moon with the further away sun lending a helping hand. The gravitational forces of the moon and sun pull on our planet’s oceans and move these vast amounts of water. Roughly twice each month, when the moon is full or new and aligned with the sun, spring tides occour. At spring tide’s high water is higher and low water is lower than the remainder of the month and subsequently a wider area of the shore is exposed at low tide and covered at high tide. The spring tides are at their greatest at the equinoxes in March and September and at their weakest at the solstices in June and December. The ‘spring’ in spring tide has nothing to do with the season but has its origin in the old Anglo-Saxon language where the word springam meant ‘to rise’. The rest of the month the moon and sun sit at approximately right angles and their gravitational forces oppose each other causing smaller tides known as neap tides.

Barnacles

Barnacles exposed at low tide.

Most rocky shore dwellers are built for life under water, they breathe through gills and the concentration of their internal fluids is the same as that of the seawater surrounding them. Water can pass freely in and out and all is good as long as the plant or animal is immersed in water. The moment the plant or animal is emersed it loses water through evaporation and is in danger of dying from dehydration and, if it is not able to extract oxygen from the air, suffocation. The latter obviously doesn’t apply to plants. Those however face another problem: The plants of the intertidal zone, the seaweeds, can only photosynthesize when they are covered with water. Yet another problem that comes with immersion and emersion are temperature fluctuations. Under water the temperature is more or less constant no matter the time of day or year. Out of the water however temperatures can reach boiling point on a dark rock surface on a clear summer day or can go below freezing in winter.

Rocky Shore

A collection of seaweeds on the middle shore.

Ross

A sunlit rockpool.

One solution to the problem of dehydration, and the one that most rocky shore inhabitants capable of locomotion use, is to hide under seaweed, in rock crevices or rock pools, anywhere some moisture and shade remain after the tide has gone out and wait for the water to return. The safety of a rock pool is however deceptive. Variations in water salinity can be substantial. Average sea water salinity along Ireland’s shores is 3.5%. In rock pools this can rise to around 9% when wind and high air temperatures increase evaporation or drop to around 0.5% when rain or run-off from nearby fields add freshwater to the pool. Osmoconformer, animals like the acorn barnacle or common mussel that can control their internal fluids, are able to cope with these fluctuations. For stenohaline animals like anemones that have no control over their internal fluids, this can be lethal. An anemone stranded in a pool with decreasing salinity will involuntarily take on water and eventually burst.

Ross

Beadlet anemones in a rock pool.

Another solution to the dehydration problem is having a shell. A shell protects from evaporation and the space between the body and the shell, known as mantle cavity, can be used to store water which keeps the body moist and is a source of oxygen. Seaweeds unfortunately have no protection mechanisms against temperature fluctuations and evaporation and simply have to cope with the fact. Some do this better than others, the channel wrack for example can tolerate 95% of water loss and fully recover after 20 minutes immersion.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

Images & Text Copyright by Carsten Krieger

Ireland isn’t Green…

Hay Meadow

Species rich Hay Meadow in the Burren National Park.

I came across this on Instagram @irelandisntgreen. It is one of those stories that just leaves you scratching your head wondering what is going on.

The person who runs this Instagram page was cycling the Waterford Greenway and noticed a consistent strip of dead vegetation on both sides of the Greenway and bigger patches around signposts and rest areas where weedkiller had obviously been used. After being confronted Waterford County Council supplied this information (taken from the Ireland Isn’t Green Instagram page):

1. The whole length of the Greenway was sprayed to a width of 300mm. The Greenway is 46 km long. Both sides were sprayed.
2. The Greenway is sprayed along the verges as little as possible but it is seen as necessary to stop vegetation going onto the Greenway and impeding users.
3. Strimming of verges is not a viable option.
4. There is an environmental policy in place for the Greenway and the importance of wild flowers and pollinators is part of that.
5. The Council are planning to install information boards to tell visitors about the flora of the Greenway.
6. It’s not known what type of weedkiller was used.

It is obvious that policies and actions don’t match and unfortunately this is only one example of many that can be found across the whole country. It is a positive to have environmental policies in place but unless those policies are followed accordingly by actions those policies are useless.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Undisturbed roadside with Purple Loosestrife and Honeysuckle in West Clare and managed fields in the background.

In this particular case I would like to know the reasons why it is thought spraying is necessary in the first place. The Greenway is frequented by cyclists and walkers neither of which would be impacted by tall grasses and wildflowers at the road margins. Over the past few decades road margins, boundary- and field-walls have become a major refuge for those wildflowers that once had been part of the species rich hay meadow flora. Yet instead of protecting this habitat it is being strimmed and sprayed into oblivion under the ‘health and safety’ pretext. I understand that in some cases it is actually necessary to keep vegetation under control, e.g. road junctions, but in most scenarios the strimming and spraying is done under the now ill informed tradition to keep things tidy.

Ireland has declared a Climate Emergency, environmental policies are in place and most people are aware that we are at the threshold of destroying what is left of the native flora and fauna and the countryside that goes with it. What must happen now is actually changing habits and behaviour. But this not only has to happen in everybody’s household and garden, government and county councils must lead the way.

Red Clover (Trifolium Pratense)

Red Clover in my own, rather unmanaged, garden.

 

Images & text Copyright by Carsten Krieger

Another New Beginning

Lough Bunny

Lough Bunny

After a one year hiatus I have decided to pick up the pieces and try to make this blog work by myself. Burren Tales will become Nature Tales although many of the stories will still take place in the limestone karst of the Burren.

While the Burren is one of Ireland’s foremost nature spots, it is only one of many. There is the nearby Shannon Estuary or the wild mountain areas of the south-west, the wide blanket bogs of the west and the raised bogs of the midlands to name but a few.

I will also merge Nature Tales with my more photography related blog Ireland in Pictures so hopefully I will manage to put out regular posts in the future.

The first story is almost ready to be revealed so watch this space.

Carsten

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron at the Shannon Estuary

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.

Burren_Heritage_70

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