The Burren is renowned for its remarkable assemblage of plants and animals, and over 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found there. The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment.
The region supports many rare Irish species, some of which are only found in this area. Others occur in similar karst areas in western Ireland. Notable plants include Festuca indigesta seen in 1949 and Arenaria norvegica identified only once, in 1961. Two of the 24 types of Taraxacum found here are “practically unique to the Burren”. 23 of the 28 types of orchids found in Ireland grow in the Burren, including unique forms such as Dactylorhiza fuchsii subsp. okellyi.
The grikes (crevices in the limestone) provide moist shelter, supporting a wide range of plants including dwarf shrubs. Where the surface of the limestone pavement is shattered into gravel many of the hardier Arctic or alpine plants can be found, while when the limestone pavement is covered by a thin layer of soil patches of grass are seen, interspersed with herbaceous plants. Among the flowers recorded from the Burren is the spring gentian, an alpine plant with bright blue flowers that are used as a symbol for the area by the national tourist board, Failte Ireland. The Irish orchid (Neotinea intacta) and bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) also occur there. The area sports 22 species of orchids and numerous other flowers such as Anacamptis pyramidalis, Platanthera chlorantha, Neotinea maculata and Dryas octopetala. Another prominent presence in limestone grikes are around 24 types of fern, such as the Mediterranean Adiantum capillus-veneris.
The area is notable for the unusually close vicinity of both plants that hate lime and those that do well on it. Acid-loving plants such as Calluna grow well on patches of acidic peat that effectively isolates them from the underlying basic limestone.
Of the more than 30 species of butterflies and moths found in Ireland only two are not present in the Burren. Notable insects present in the Burren include the butterflies the pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne), brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae), marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) and wood white (Leptidea sinapis); the moths, the Burren green (Calamia tridens, which is only present in Ireland in this area), Irish annulet (Gnophos dumetata) and transparent burnet (Zygaena purpuralis); the hoverfly Doros profuges and the water-beetle Ochthebius nilssoni. This last species is known from just five sites in the world, its type locality in northern Sweden and four marl lakes in The Burren.
The Burren is one of the main breeding areas in Ireland of the European pine marten. Also present are badgers, foxes and stoats. The hillsides of the Burren also host herds of feral goats.
All seven species of bats present in Ireland can be found in The Burren.
Otters live along the coast, as do grey seals. Porpoises, dolphins and basking sharks can be spotted off Black Head and various sections of the Cliffs of Moher.
A wide range of bird species are also found in the Burren, including crows and ravens, peregrine falcons, kestrels, various gulls, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, puffins and shags.
Pollen analysis indicates that in the Mesolithic period of 8000 to 7000 BC The Burren looked completely different from today, with most of the uplands covered in a mixture of deciduous, pine and yew trees. No clear evidence of Mesolithic settlements or camp sites in the area has yet been discovered. At the limits of the region, near Lake Inchiquin and at the so-called “Doolin Axe Factory”, stone artifacts have been discovered that may be Mesolithic in origin. However, by the Neolithic, c. 4000 BC, settlers had clearly arrived and began changing the landscape through deforestation, likely by overgrazing and burning, and the building of stone walls. These people also constructed Megalithic sites like the portal tomb known as Poulnabrone dolmen and the court tombs at Teergonean (near Doolin) and Ballyganner (near Noughaval). Overall, there are around 70 megalithic tombs in the Burren area, more than half of all of these structures found in Clare.
The most numerous type of prehistoric structure (apart from stone walls) in The Burren is the late-Neolithic/early-Bronze Age wedge tomb, mostly dated to the period 2500 to 2000 BC. It accounts for around 90% of the region’s megalithic tombs. Many examples of these are found on Roughan Hill near Kilnaboy, including those at Parknabinnia and Creevagh. Others are located at Gleninsheen and Berneens (Rathborney) and Poulaphuca (Carran). Large stone cairns on many hills, such as the Poulawack Cairn, also date from this period.
The economy at that time was likely based on pastoral farming in fairly small groups. As is still done today, the cattle were moved in a reverse of the usual seasonal pattern: cattle are moved to the uplands in the winter, allowing year round grazing.
Evidence of Beaker pottery was found on Roughan Hill, but in general few signs of the actual settlements of the Neolithic people have been found. This may be due to the fact that their structures were lightly built (from wood or other non-permanent materials).
During the Bronze Age, locals also built many Fulachtai fiadh, remains of more than 300 survive in the region. Their exact function is still debated, but they probably served as places where water was heated by fire, either for cooking, brewing or bathing purposes.
However, in contrast to the quantity of archaeological evidence found, the population of The Burren likely declined noticeably between the late Neolithic and the end of the Bronze Age. This was likely largely due to a shift in the climate, possibly related to the volcanic eruption known as “Hekla 4”. Around the end of the 3rd millennium BC temperatures dropped and the climate became wetter. Heavy rainfall combined with previous clearing activity to cause serious soil erosion in the uplands. Evidence suggests that much of the soil cover over the limestone karst was in fact removed during the Middle and Late Bronze Age. This reduction in the area of fertile land put pressure on population numbers and probably increased conflicts over scarce resources. Building of new stone walls largely came to an end – there is a gap in documented building between the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age and early Christian periods. By the end of the Bronze Age, the uplands were largely depopulated.
Nevertheless, like the Mooghaun North Hoard found near Newmarket-on-Fergus, the discovery of a golden Bronze Age gorget in Gleninsheen townland indicates the (at least temporary) local presence of a late Bronze Age society that was rich, mobile and well-connected via trade networks with other regions.
Like in many places of Ireland, datable Iron Age sites are rare in The Burren. This may be due to the use of dwellings that did not leave durable traces (wooden buildings or even tents). Some of the extant ráths, cashels or cahers may actually have Iron Age origins. However, few have been excavated and those that have been the subject of research, like Cahercommaun, Caherconnel, Cahermore or Ballyallaban, are thought to be early Medieval or later in origin. The large enigmatic enclosure of Turlough Hill (see Oughtmama) may be Iron Age or earlier. Definite regional findings from this era are limited to a few bronze horse bridles discovered near Corofin and at Ballyalla (Kilshanny).
Tomb in the sanctuary of Corcomroe Abbey with effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Thomond
In the Iron Age and early Medieval times, the region was controlled by a family or tribe known as the Corco Modhruadh, meaning “seed” or “people of Modhruadh”. They were one of dozens of minor tribes in Ireland at that time, which occupied a discrete area (tuath) and were joined by a common bloodline or origin myths. By the time Christianity arrived locally, their territory had shrunk somewhat, encompassing what later became the Baronies of Burren and Corcomroe as well as some parts of Inchiquin barony.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, the region appears to have been ruled from the Aran Islands by the Eóganacht Árann, a minor branch of the Eóganacht dynasty of Munster.
The history of these years is uncertain, but after the decline of the Eóganacht Árann the local Corco Modhruadh likely fell under the control of the Uí Fiachrach Aidhne, a tribe from what is now southern Galway, who prospered in the 7th century. The local tribes were then probably subjects of the Eóganacht Locha Léin until their influence declined in the early 9th century. Whether the Corco Modhruadh still existed as a distinct group at that point is uncertain, as they and their neighbours Corcu Baiscind may have been assimilated into or conquered by the Déisi Tuisceart of eastern Clare, who won a major battle against the Corco Modhruadh in 744. By the 9th century, the Corco Modhruadh had been driven into the Burren uplands.
The Burren area is notable for the presence of several potential or likely “early” (i.e. pre-12th-century) ecclesiastical or monastic sites. These include Kilfenora, Kilnaboy, Temple Cronan and the churches of Oughtmama. A broader definition of The Burren would also include Dysert O’Dea Monastery near Corofin and Kilmacduagh. The large number of extant cashels, almost 500 of which have been identified in The Burren (out of around 45,000 in Ireland), also indicates the presence of a sizeable (early) medieval population that supported and used these churches.
At the end of the first millennium, the Dál gCais expanded into the region, against the resistance of the incumbent Uí Lochlainn and O’Conor families. The later regionally dominant O’Brien dynasty traced its origins to them. Evidence of Viking activity in the region is scant. They settled at Limerick, but in the Burren only a few artifacts of Scandinavian design have been found, centred mostly on Cahercommaun, which apparently was a major producer of wool at the time. A Viking arrowhead was found at the ringfort and a Viking hollow-bead necklace (likely dating from 820 to 850 AD) was discovered in nearby Glencurran Cave.
Either at the end of the 12th or early in the 13th century, Cistercian monks came to the area and established Sancta Maria de Petra Fertili, now known as Corcomroe Abbey.
In the 12th century, the Corco Modhruadh/Corcomroe territory was made into the newly created Diocese of Kilfenora, of 13 parishes, and the church at Kilfenora became a cathedral.
At some point around the 12th century, the territory of “Corcomroe” was divided in two for admistrative purposes: Corco Modhruadh Iartharach (“Western Corcomroe”) and Corco Modhruadh Oirthearach (“Eastern Corcomroe”), also known as Boireann which in the late 16th century became the English administrative Baronies of Corcomroe and Burren, respectively.
The end of the Medieval period was a difficult era for people in the area. Like much of Europe, the region suffered from the Great Famine (1315-7) and the Black Death. In addition, infighting between the Gaelic lords contributed to a socio-economic decline of the region. This was also reflected in a regional hiatus in large construction projects during the 13th and most of the 14th century.
For a long-time the Anglo-Norman incursions into Ireland had little direct impact on the region. As late as at the Battle of Dysert O’Dea in 1318 some of the local clans allied to defeat a Norman army led by Richard de Clare. The people and their rulers thus continued to live in fortified houses, often inside the cashels, mostly retaining their Gaelic culture. One example of this are the Brehon law schools of the O’Davorans at Cahermacnaghten or the MacClancys at Doolin.
Only in the 15th and 16th centuries did the tower houses as exemplified today by places like Newtown Castle, Shanmuckinish Castle, Doonagore Castle or Ballinalacken Castle become widespread. Norman-type castles, such as the one built at Quin, were absent in the Burren. Westropp counted the remains of around 70 tower houses in the Baronies of Inchiquin, Corcomroe and Burren, with 21 of them located in the latter. Only around half of those 21 survive to any height in the 21st century. The distribution of the tower houses indicates that they were built close to the barony borders, which also represented the boundaries of the territories controlled by clans or families. 11 of the 21 tower houses in the Barony of Burren lie within 1 km of its borders.
The O’Loughlin (Ó Lochlainn) clan ruled Boireann down to the mid-17th century from their chief residence at Gregans Castle (the tower house, not the house of the same name). The chief of the family was known in later times as the ‘Prince of Burren’ and clan members were buried in the family tomb near the altar of Corcomroe Abbey. Their kinsmen, the O’Conor (Ó Conchubhair), clan ruled Corco Modhruadh Iartharach from Dough Castle near Liscannor. The villages and towns found within the medieval territory of Boireann include Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughan, New Quay (Newquay) / Burrin (Burren), Noughaval, Bealaclugga (Bellharbour), Carron and Fanore / Craggagh.
Both clans were eventually subjects of the O’Briens, the rulers of Thomond. Especially in the southwest, the O’Briens sometimes extended their direct influence, taking over houses and territories for themselves. They controlled the castles at Dromoland and Leamaneh and later became the Barons Inchiquin.
The Burren has a long history of traditional Irish music. It is particularly known for the “West Clare Style” of concertina playing, and music festivals in Doolin and Corofin. The area also has a long history as a source of artistic inspiration, and has hosted a number of art galleries.
The Burren has inspired many non-fiction books, often accompanied by extensive illustration of the landscape. A series of detective fiction novels, written by Cora Harrison, features the Burren’s brehon judge (fictional) in the early 1500s, when the area still existed as a distinct Gaelic administration.
The leading economic activities in the Burren are agriculture and tourism.
The Burren has a reputation beyond Ireland, and, most notably with the Cliffs of Moher, but also with the major show caves, dolmens such as at Poulnabrone and other prehistoric sites, and centres of cultural activity, attracts tourists from a wide range of countries. There are a range of hotels, hostels, bed and breakfast facilities, and other accommodation providers.
Tourism presents some challenges in such an environmentally sensitive area, as it creates mostly seasonal employment, results in a large share of local houses being used only in the summer, and puts additional strain on environmental resources, thus exacerbating the effect of a significant increase in the number of houses in some areas during the 1990s and 2000s. This has been a thread in the development and preservation activities previously discussed, and has driven the growth of local ecotourism, and the “Leave No Trace” local campaigns. Concerns have also arisen about the level of day-tourism, especially by coaches, as opposed to overnight-staying tourists, who generate significantly more revenue.
Ecotourism in the Burren
Ecotourism is an important factor in The Burren, with many organisations involved, including the Burren Ecotourism Network. A key goal is to deal with the challenge of protecting the vulnerable landscape, while at the same time having it provide a fair income for the local inhabitants and allowing it to cope with increased visitor numbers. Sustainable ecotourism and independent “‘Ecotourism Certification” for companies are intended to deal with those conflicting demands.
A Burren Food Trail was launched in 2013, and has more than 20 members offering hospitality, and / or food and drink products. The trail won the Irish prize in the European Destination of Excellence – Tourism and Local Gastronomy competition in 2015. In association with the food trail events such as a Slow Food festival and a Food Fayre are organised. The Food Fayre, part of the Burrenbeo-coordinated Winterage Festival around the October public holiday weekend, and run by the Burren Ecotourism Network and the Burren Food Trail team, reached its sixth year in 2017.
Due to climate and landscape, and techniques evolved over thousands of years, the Burren has a history as a productive agricultural landscape. Arable farming is limited, and the main animals kept are cattle and goats.
As summarized by local landscape organisation, the Burrenbeo Trust, the traditional local system of cattle husbandry “involves exploiting the unusual attributes afforded by the region’s limestone geology. Up until quite recently, hardy native breeds of beef cattle were used to graze upland grasslands between the months of October and April, requiring scarcely any dietary supplement prior to their removal to finishing grass elsewhere.” Thus the agricultural methods used but also protected the landscape.
Since the 20th century the spread of intensive farming techniques (including sometimes heavy use of nitrate fertilisers) along with the possibilities offered by heavy equipment to transform limestone pavement into pasture has posed new challenges for the ecosystem and its diversity. Research conducted in the 1990s suggests that by the end of that decade the area of limestone pavement had halved since pre-Famine times, c. 1840, while from the 1970s to the 1990s alone, about 4% of pavements were converted into pasture or covered by roads.
Despite the intensification of agriculture on the uplands, population numbers fell from around 4,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to roughly 2,500 by the time of the 1991 Census, before rising once more. The number of farmers fell by 8% in the 1990s and average farm size increased to 100 hectares (250 acres) by 2001.
A particular issue arose from the increasing spread of brush, notably hazel, but also blackthorn and hawthorn. These colonised more of the limestone area as a result of reduced grazing by cattle and goats. The increasing industrialization of agriculture and the introduction of different breeds of cattle led to shifts in cattle-raising practices – away from winter grazing, which kept down new growth, and towards supplementary feeding. In addition, in the past saplings were often pulled from fields by hand to maintain grazing areas. Trees also used to be harvested for firewood, hazel rods were used for thatching as well as for fence- and basket-making. As these practices ceased, the brush advanced. This notably reduces biodiversity in the affected areas.
In response to under-grazing, loss of husbandry and land management traditions, and abandonment and consolidation of farms, the BurrenLIFE program, coordinated by the geopark, launched a new sustainable farming initiative. This began with twenty farms, representative of the diversity of local agriculture, for each of which a specific plan of costed actions was devised. After refinement, the initiative was extended to 320 farmers over two phases, and another 130 are expected to join a final phase. Typical recommendations enacted included scrub clearance, restoration of drystone walls, reduction in silage usage and a return to winter grazing.
For the past decades, the government and private groups have attempted to square the demands of local farmers, tourists and the environment. In particular, sometimes outdated or leaky septic tanks used by rural houses have contributed to the damage done to groundwater by agricultural practices. In a limestone environment, the use of percolation and septic tanks may in fact not be a viable alternative to sewage treatment. However, this is still lacking in much of the area. The sewage of the village of Ballyvaughan, for example, is still pumped untreated into the sea.
Community and local authority programs have been launched over decades, notably a County Council initiative of the mid-2000s, which became Burren Connect in 2006, and led, in 2011, to the geopark, which in turn secured funding for the Geopark LIFE program. The Burrenbeo Trust, Burren Ecotourism Network and Burren Way Committee are other examples.
Most of the Burren is today designated as a Special Area of Conservation, including almost all upland, and much of the lowland and northern shore areas. There are also designated Areas of Scientific Interest and Natural Heritage Areas.
The Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark, formed in 2011 on the basis of earlier community and local authority work, is part of the Global Geoparks Network (GGN) and recognised by UNESCO since that year. Encompassing an expansively defined Burren, including the Cliffs of Moher, it is managed by the Clare County Council and supported by Failte Ireland and the Geological Survey of Ireland. The boundary of the Geopark extends from the vicinity of New Quay on Galway Bay, southeast to the Tubber area, then southwest to Corrofin then roughly west towards Doolin and includes the coastal strip containing the Cliffs of Moher. The geopark supports education and community engagement and sustainable tourism and other development, and employs a full-time geologist, Dr. Eamon N. Doyle.
The Burren National Park is one of six National Parks in the country. Taking in a modest sampling of the southeastern Burren, about 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres), it is made up of land purchased by the Irish government to be set aside for conservation purposes. After a prolonged controversy (see Mullaghmore and the Burren Action Group), the planned construction of a visitor centre was shelved. The National Park currently has an information point at Corofin. It is also associated with the preservation area at nearby Dromore Wood.
Sport and Leisure
The Burren’s many limestone cliffs, particularly the sea-cliffs at Ailladie, are popular with rock-climbers. For cavers, there are a number of charted caves in the area, notably Pollnagollum. Doolin is a popular “base camp” for cavers, and is home to one of the two main cave-rescue stores of the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation.
The Burren is popular with walkers and trails include the Burren Way, often taken over a five day period, and the Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk of 18 kilometres (11 mi).
The Burren also has a range of local Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, soccer clubs and other sporting groups. While the landscape is challenging for maintenance of golf clubs, there are facilities near Gort and Lahinch.
This article uses material from the Wikipedia article “The Burren”, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.