The Burren: Heart of Stone

3rd March 2010
Pól Ó Conghaile

The Burren is more moonscape than landscape.

Dissolving limestone, swallow holes, dints, grykes and a wind that would slice you in two – even its name sounds bleak. But take a closer look.

The place is home to Ireland’s oldest perfumery. It’s spotted with forts and famine villages, and a location site for much of Father Ted. Shortly, an explosion of flowers will turn bare stone into a patchwork quilt.

Far from austere, the Burren is teeming with life.

I was there most recently filming with No Frontiers, the RTE travel show (the item airs this March 7th). Prevailing winds had bent the hedges and trees into haircuts worthy of Elvis. The rain fell sideways. And then the sun shone.

One of the first things we did was take on of Tony Kirby’s Burren walking tours (see Heart of Burren Walks for more on Tony).

The burren is the largest limestone pavement area in Europe, Kirby explained. “The sea receeded and left this muddy bed… the limestone is the compacted remains of plants and animals.”

We walked on Abbey Hill, named for the nearby Cistercian Abbey ‘Santa Maria de la Pietra Fertilis’. Literally, Mary of the fertile rock. Come springtime, I learned, Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean flowers literally fizzle up through the carbonic fissures.

“That’s the whole paradox of the Burren. The fertile rock.”

Kirby himself left a job in the civil service (“It was driving me crazy”), and later a walking tour business in Dublin, to move here with wife several years ago.

“I decided to reinvent myself,” he told me. “The permanent, pensionable job was a thing of the past.”

Too few people slow down to appreciate the Burren, he believes. Buses come trundling through, daytrippers, people catching fleeting glimpses from car windows.

“It’s like a chicken run for a lot of them… I think coach tours will die off a little bit in the next 20 or 20 years. People booking independently, they don’t want to be hemmed in, stopping off for paddywhackery.”

It’s strange to learn, in this context, that the Burren’s time is limited too. It will be here long after we’re gone, long after Kirby, of course, but it won’t be here forever.

“The Burren is dissolving,” he says. “So they reckon in two to three million years, all of the limestone hills will be gone.”