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Embracing a land's heart of stone

With its rock outcroppings and walls, the Burren, a 100-square-mile landscape in County Clare, can seem stark. But in this case, looks are deceiving.

June 15, 2003|Marguerite McGlinn | Times Staff Writer

Lisdoonvarna, Ireland — WE walked through fields of flowers -- masses of wild geraniums, goldenrod and daisies -- to begin our Abbey Hill climb. Once we had cleared the meadow, our guide, Shane Connolly, stopped and assembled our group for a brief orientation.

Connolly, a wiry young County Clare farmer, has degrees in archeology and Irish history. When's he's not tending his farm and cattle, he guides hikers through the strange and interesting limestone landscape of the Burren, which covers more than 100 square miles along the Atlantic Coast in northern County Clare.

My husband, Tom, and I visited the region last August; I was soaking up local color for a mystery novel I'm writing. We had driven through the Burren on other visits to Ireland -- it's on the way to the Cliffs of Moher, the most famous tourist spot in the area -- and had noticed the odd beauty of the land. We didn't know that the rockscape broods over a past that reaches into prehistory and even legend.

But Connolly had studied the past and the present of the Burren as well as its folklore. I knew we were in good hands when he assembled our group of nine hikers on a promontory. He pointed his walking stick in various directions, locating us in place and time.

"You are in the kingdom of Thomond, the ancient barony of the Burren, the province of Munster and the county of Clare. Fifty-three degrees latitude, 9 degrees west of Greenwich, England." He pointed to land that stretched into the distance behind the nearer hills and mountains. "The great central plain of Ireland and, farther east, Stoke-on-Trent in England. Westward, the open Atlantic, then Hudson Bay in Canada."

Across Galway Bay we could see the mountains of Connemara -- and in the near distance was a Martello tower guarding the entrance to Galway Bay. Martello towers, squat fortifications built by the English during the Napoleonic Wars, dot the coast of Ireland.

Connolly told us that "Burren" derives from the Irish word for "stony place." It is an apt name. Shiny, silver limestone extends in all directions, creating high hills, cliffs and terraces. At the edge of Clare, the Burren dips back into the sea, its natural home, and resurfaces to create the Aran Islands, which are west of Clare.

Limestone makes the land do strange things. Because of the stone's porous quality, water disappears into underground rivers and floods a network of subterranean caves. Occasional heavy rains fill up the underground system and cause turloughs -- temporary lakes -- to form.

Wildflowers are the second miracle of the Burren. Connolly knew them all and delivered a mix of botany and folklore in the most offhanded way. There were wild thyme, St. John's wort, harebell and eyebright. Hidden here and there we found tiny orchids. One was called "O'Kelly's orchid," named for a botanist from Ballyvaughan, the nearest town and Connolly's home.

We even saw mountain aven, which usually grows only in alpine regions. Like other alpine plants found here, Connolly said, it was brought to this area over land bridges that disappeared when the last glacial period ended. The odd mix of flora interests botanists and flower enthusiasts like me. A small limestone terrace can host plants from alpine regions along with Mediterranean species. As expected, alkaline-loving plants flourish in the Burren, but so do acid-loving plants, which find shelter in small pockets of peat that the wind supplies. The flowers fill tiny cracks and large fissures in the limestone.

From a distance the hills may look barren, but they are not. As a matter of fact, the Cistercian monks called Corcomroe Abbey, their church here, "St. Mary of the Fertile Rocks." When we turned away from the sea, we could see the abbey's ruins in the valley below.

A day of hiking, a night at pubs

On our descent from Abbey Hill, Connolly showed us St. Patrick's Well, which he said was holy. He told us that holy wells have Christian associations, but most are thought to have been sacred for pre-Christian people as well. He pointed out engravings on the wall of the well: a shamrock, cross and harp were carved into the rough stone, and an effigy of a saint, probably taken from an early Celtic church, had been affixed to the limestone. Connolly said, "You take something from the well and you leave something behind." He reached below eye level and came up holding a millennium cup, a St. Patrick prayer card and a medal of St. Teresa. He replaced the well offerings before leading us down the hill.

We ended our five-hour hike on a famine road. A humble stone-and-gravel byway, the road was a government project that provided work -- and relief -- to those suffering in the Great Famine that began in 1846. Irish poet Eavan Boland, a Dubliner born in 1944, wrote of a famine road: "Where they died, there the road ended and ends still." Indeed, the road did seem to come out of nowhere and end just as abruptly.

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