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Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

I climbed Mullaghmore hill  (200 m) in the Burren National Park this Monday morning with a group of high school students from Quebec. Even though we were subject to heavy bursts of rain, we had a really memorable hike. On our descent I stole a moment to take a shot of a yew tree growing on one of Mullaghmore’s cliffs.

Yew tree in Burren National Park 300x225 10 FACTS WORTH KNOWING ABOUT THE YEW TREE

Yew tree in Burren National Park.

The moment prompted me to write ten facts worth knowing about the yew tree…………….

1) Ireland is home to only three native conifer species – the yew (Taxus baccata), juniper (Juniperus communis) and the scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

2) Paclitaxel is a naturally occurring chemical in the bark of the yew. It is used to treat cancers including ovarian, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer among others.

3) Yew wood is very strong and flexible. It is probably the best regarded wood growing in Ireland today. Yew furniture commands a high price!

4) Yew is known as or iúr in the Irish language. Examples of place names inspired by the yew are Maigh Eó (Mayo) the plain of the yew and Tír an Iúr (Terenure) land of the Yew.

5) The yew tree was revered in pre-Christian Ireland. It is deeply symbolic. The poisonous leaves represent death. The really hard wood is a symbol of eternity. Moreover, as the tree is very long-living , it is also a symbol of the afterlife.

6) The tree is cultivated in 100s of Irish and British churchyards. There is theory and controversy as to why the yew is associated with sacred sites.

7) Ireland’s only native yew wood is in Reenadinna Wood in Killarney National Park.

8) The yew can reach 20 metres in height and live for 1000s of years.

9) The cattle in the Burren uplands avoid the tree because of its toxicity but it is grazed by feral goats.

10) The tree grows mostly at bonsai levels in the Burren hills. It will grow more expansively only in places where it has shelter from the strong westerly winds.

Hazel and whitethorn understorey with ash canopy in the Burren uplands 300x225 10 FACTS WORTH KNOWING ABOUT THE YEW TREE

Hazel and whitethorn understorey with ash canopy in the Burren uplands.

Other tree species that grow in the famous limestone uplands of the Burren include whitethorn (Crataegus monogyna) , blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) , hazel (Corylus avellana), birch (Betula), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), whitebeam (Sorbus ), holly (Ilex aquifolium), alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus), purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica),  rowan/mountain ash (Sorbus aria), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), aspen (Populus tremula), spindle (Euonymus europaeus) and many species of willow (Salix ).

Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmaid?  What shall we do without wood?


Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Cast a cold eye
On Life on Death
Horseman, pass by!
From Under Ben Bulben by William Butler Yeats (1939).


Rock Art in the Burren – The Poulawack Horses.

Rock art is a worldwide phenomenon. It is the realisation of artistic pieces on natural stone.

Rock art in Ireland has Mesolithic origins (7000-4000 B.C.) though only a couple of art works from this period have been thus far recorded west of the river Shannon.

A piece of rock art stopped me in my tracks in the Burren yesterday. The piece is located in the townland of Poulawack on the R480 between Leamnaneh castle and Ballyvaughan village.

It features two horsemen riding out.

I have no date for the work and can only surmise that it may have been inspired by the legend of the wild horses in the cave in the bordering townland of Kilcorney.

Fairy horses are said to have come out of the cave, and left descendants in the Kilcorney valley.

The Poulawack art piece is known as a petroglyph. It is an engraving made by battering a hammerstone against rock.

horse another angle 300x225 THE POULAWACK HORSES

The Poulawack horses from another angle.

A small body of rock art has been recorded in County Clare.

The Poulawack piece is probably the most visible in the county as it is etched on a rock face overlooking a regional road.

Steal a glance the next time you pass by the horsemen.


Thursday, February 19th, 2015

A rare experience in Ireland – a looped, waymarked walk on an organic farm. A fabulous Burren hike uniformly praised in the reviews on the National Trails site

Trail highlights include Belted Galloway cattle, woodland, limestone pavement, a lake, stunning views of parts of Counties Clare and Tipperaery and the silence of manual labour.

 Directions:  Coming from Corofin, take the R476 in the direction of Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna. Drive 3 kilometres from Corofin until you reach the village of Kilnaboy. Take the right turn onto the L1112 opposite Kilnaboy’s former post office. Drive 5 kilometres down this road until you reach a crossroads. Park at the lay-by on the right just before the crossroads. A display panel at the lay-by contains information regarding the natural heritage of the area.

Distance 6 km (3.7 miles). Time 3 hours at an easy pace. Grade Moderate.

No dogs please – not even on leads.

4 A young trekker negotiates the crazy pavement. 300x225 AN ORGANIC BURREN WALK

A young hiker on the Avalla trail.


(1) The Gortlecka crossroads is a few meters from the lay-by. Go to the crossroads and turn left. You are now walking along an unsurfaced road. 13 hectares of the rocky land to your right is grazed in winter by cattle as part of the Burren Farming for Conservation program. The livestock clearly do not have enough grass to survive but their diet is supplemented by supplementary feed. In the past native breeds such as shorthorns or Aberdeen Angus would have been the favoured cattle in the Burren. However, market forces have meant that the majority of cattle in the region are now continental breeds such as Charolais and Limousin.

(2) You come to a junction having walked about one kilometre from the crossroads. Turn right here into a farm lane. About 400 meters along the lane you will pass a large open pen for goats. Goat and sheep rearing were widespread in the Burren in the 19th century. However, latterly cattle production is dominant. In fact there may be as little as ten goat farmers left in the entire region. Kid goat meat known in Gaelic as mionán was a a great spring dish in the Burren in the past. I know of only two eateries now in the Burren where you can enjoy the delicacy. The goats here are raised for both meat and excellent farmhouse cheese.

 (3) Turn right as indicated just after the pen. You will soon come to a haven on the left of the trail with spring water gushing out of the rock. Although the spring has been accorded the status of holy well by some of late, it is debatable whether or not the spring was venerated in the past. Be that as it may the site has a flux of visitors who believe in the therapeutic value of the water. There is fulachta fiadh within a few meters of the spring. Nearby are stone structures (minus roofs) which functioned as sweat lodges in the past. The boiling water from the fulachta fiadh would have been brought to the sweat houses and people would thus have rid their bodies of toxins.

Site of spring and fulachta fiadh1 300x225 AN ORGANIC BURREN WALK

Site of spring and fulachta fiadh.

(4) You reach a spectacular rising platform of limestone pavement. The words “crazy pavement” come readily to mind. Limestone pavement is rare and precious internationally. The Burren is the most extensive limestone pavement region in Europe. The stone is known locally as the “warm stone” as it absorbs heat in spring/ summer and releases it in autumn/winter. Limestone is the bedrock in the case of 50% of the land mass of Ireland. However, it is only in the Burren and a very small number of other localities in Ireland that the soil been removed and the bedrock exposed. Cross the pavement, walk across a field and you soon pass a tall drystone structure. The structure is not to be confused with archaeological monuments as it is quite a recent construction.

(5) Veer right and walk alongside the steep cliffs (on your left). The classic topography of the Burren hills is terrace and cliff.  Horizontal lines of weakness in the rock were eroded by water.The rock was loosened and thereafter it was removed by glaciers thus leaving us this highly distinctive stepped landform. The steep cliffs are part of Glasgeivnagh hill. The summit of Glasgeivnagh is a plateau with a dense concentration of cairns.
With your back to the cliffs, the views are breathtaking. The Slieve Bernagh hill range is to the south-east near the village of Killaloe. The Slieve Felim range, which straddles parts of Counties Limerick and Tipperaery, is beyond the Slieve Bernagh range.

Walking sticks and cat at Lough Avalla farm.1 300x225 AN ORGANIC BURREN WALK

Walking sticks and cat at Lough Avalla farm.


(6)  Having walked less than a kilometer along the cliff face, you begin the descent through scrub and pasture. Cattle, sheep and goats are raised on the farm. The end result is sublime beef, lamb, kid goat meat and goat’s cheese products. The family also grows fruit and vegetables for domestic consumption. Farming in Ireland has largely become much more specific and intense in the last three decades as it has been transformed by subsidy-driven European Union farm policy.  However, the Jeuken’s holding remains a steadfastly traditional Irish farm with an eclectic range of activities and produce. Moreover, the traditional low intensity farming regime means that the holding is very rich in bio-diversity.

(7) When crossing a rocky, rugged stretch of the trail, look both left and right and you will see rows of unusually small fields of indeterminate age. These fields are a joy to behold as they remind one of the traditional Irish field type prior to the modernisation of farming. Most fields in Irealnd are now far larger in size as the bulldozer has made one big field out of several smaller fields. Most subsistence agriculture in Ireland has now been replaced by farming dictated by market and technological forces. There is a steep drop where a wooden bannister has been added to aid the descent. This area is known as “the staircase”.

An unusual Burren sight these days a hazel gate.1 300x225 AN ORGANIC BURREN WALK

Wise ways – a hazel gate on the farm.

(8) You will pass through some sublime Atlantic hazel woodland with a floor rich in primitive plant communities. Having descended for about a kilometre, you approach the shores of Lough Avolla. The small lake is very deep – up to 30 meters. Vegetation has colonised a large part of the former surface of the lake. Lough Avolla has long been home to eels and sticklebacks. They have been joined recently by introduced trout and perch. Walk around the lake, pass the jetty and then turn left as indicated.

(9) The path will take you uphill a little where you can enjoy one last glimpse of the farmstead. There are very few looped walking trails in Ireland situated on living working farms. This trail is all the more special as it passes through an organic farm. In Ireland only 1.2% of the land is organic and thus Ireland is near bottom of the EU league for organic farming.

(10) You reach the farm lane again. Walk along it till you meet the unsurfaced road. Turn left here. The unsurfaced road leads you back to Gortlecka crossroads. Turn right at the crossroads. The trailhead and lay-by is on your left hand side.







Sunday, February 15th, 2015

The R480 is a 16.4 kilometre long regional road stretching from Ballyvaughan in the north of the Burren to Leamaneh Castle in the south. It is the main arterial route in the Burren interior. In high season the road can be heavily trafficked.

 The roadside is littered with outstanding National Monuments including the ring forts An Ráth, Cahermore and Caherconnell. Ireland’s oldest known megalithic tomb Poulnabrone (5,800 years old) is also on the verge of the road. Poulnabrone attracts at least 100,000 visitors per annum.

 I recently “discovered” another monument along the road – a holy well called Tobargahard. It is a magical site which seems to avoid the attention of almost everybody.


Votive offerings on altar above holy well. 225x300 A SECRET OF THE BURREN LANDSCAPE

Votive offerings on altar above holy well.

Tobargahard was formerly situated in the classic Burren upland landscape of limestone pavement and thin soil. However, the monument has been hidden in recent years by the advance of hazel scrub. Scrub is advancing due to decline in farming in the uplands. The scrub may eventually occlude the well entirely from future generations. Hazel is a glorious native tree but it is an enemy of archaeology.

Tobargahard may be an Anglicisation of Tobar go hArd which means the well on high. The monument is located just above Gragan Valley which was heavily populated in the 19th century. There is a walled entrance to the well which faces the valley. The wall is now covered in moss which is thriving in the scrub.

Rosary beads hanging from hazel tree at holy well Tobargahard. 225x300 A SECRET OF THE BURREN LANDSCAPE

Rosary beads hanging from hazel tree at holy well Tobargahard.

Folk medicine was widespread in the past and the belief was that the Tobargahard water cured eye ailments. I reckon that the waters of about 50% of Ireland’s 3,000 plus recorded holy wells are renowned for eye cures.

 I recorded just three pilgrim offerings at the site – two religious figurines on the altar above the well and a rosary beads hung from a tree. When the wind blows, the beads swing like a pendulum.

Tobargahard is an almost abandoned sacred site, a secret of the Burren landscape, a haven of tranquility.


Friday, January 30th, 2015

Its branches drip with tatters.
It seems held down with pleas.
Over fields it might
be a monster disturbed in a story,
rustling its rags in unease.

From the poem West Cork 
from Collected by Seán Dunne, Gallery Press 2005.

The tree in the photograph festooned with ribbons is known a rag tree. It is associated with the nearby holy well of St Colman Mac Duagh. The tree and well are about a kilometre north of the coastal village of Kinvara on the N67 road to Galway city. The site attracts few visitors unlike Dún Guaire medieval castle which is only a few hundred metres away.


Rag tree. Wild Atlantic way. Kinvara, County Galway.

This stretch of road also forms part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Wild Atlantic Way (Irish: Slí an Atlantaigh Fhiáin) is a tourism trail on the west coast of Ireland. It was launched in February 2014. 10 million euros was spent by the Irish government in 2014 in the design and marketing of the Way. The trail is 2,500 kilometres long making it the world’s longest defined coastal touring route.

In the past rags were torn from their clothes by ailing pilgrims, dipped in the holy well water and then tied to the rag tree. The rag was the symbol of the ailment of the pilgrim. The pilgrim believed that the tree would spirit away his/her ailment. Folk medicine á la grande.


“A neat cross of stone was erected in front of the well opposite the high road, and still remains there.” Thomas L.Cooke, 19th century writer.

During 1842-43 Thomas L. Cooke wrote a series of articles for the Galway Vindicator newspaper on the area around New Quay in north Clare. Cooke was underwhelmed by the unofficial religion practiced by the peasantry at St Colman Mac Duagh’s well and tree. In his article Subterranean River at Pouloshe and Well at Tubbermacduagh, he refers to the pilgrims’ “over-ardent devotion”
The site also features in the Philip Dixon Hardy’s book Holy Wells of Ireland (1836). The book is a robust attack on the holy well tradition from an elitist standpoint.

Cooke’s articles and Dixon Hardy’s book are fascinating reads and remain important for their historical insights.


Etched in stone – the name of the holy well.

The modern pilgrim is now draping the tree in Kinvara with ribbons rather than rags. Some conservationists have misgivings about this modern “ritual” and regard it as littering. Others argue that it is a case of tradition in constant state of transition. I must say I find the subject complex. Perhaps when you hang out your brightest colours, all is not black and white.

Note : A scrapbook of Cooke’s Galway Vindicator articles entitled Autumnal Rambles about New Quay is available on the wonderful Clare County Library website


Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Rockvale House in ruins and ivy advancing.

Rockvale House is situated in the town land of Rockvale in the parish of Kilkeedy. It is in the east of the Burren about a mile from the main Corofin to Gort road. The house was built in the 18th century for the Darcys of Galway. They were wealthy, aristocratic landowners.

The house is Georgian or neo-classical in style and enjoys a beautiful situation. It is located beside a watercourse which links Lough Bunny to the south with Lough Coole in Coole Park to the north. The dwelling would also have enjoyed stunning views of the Burren hills to the west.


Chimney stack.

The Darcys left for Ballinasloe in the mid-1800s. During the early 1900s the house was re-invented for a short period as a Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C) barracks. The R.I.C. was the unpopular British police force in Ireland from 1814 to 1922. After the barracks was abandoned by the police, the interior was subsequently ransacked.

The house features in Hugh L. Weir’s book Houses of Clare.  Published by Ballinkella Press, Whitegate, Co. Clare 1986.


A view of the East Burren wetlands from within the house.

These photographs were taken by yours truly on Sunday 4th  January 2015. It was a rare day for life in Ireland – a sublime, sunny winter’s day.
Rockvale House is noble and lonesome; beautiful and desolate.


Looking west towards Slieve Carran in the Burren.

Reference : The Paris of Kilkeedy A Local History compiled by Frank Brew. First published by Frank Brew, Tubber, County Clare 1998.


Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

CKP Landscape 14102014 1 300x200 PILGRIMAGE IN THE VALLEY   GLENCOLMCILLE, CARRAN. Part two.
St Colmcille’s Holy Well, Glencolmcille, Carran.

St Colmcille’s holy well is situated at the end of a short lane on the road between Glencolmcille and Kinvara. The lane is prone to flooding. In living memory, if the lane were flooded on pattern day 9th June, wooden planks were laid down in order to ensure access to the well. 

The ensemble of water, well house and cross are known locally as “the oratory”.
There was a blessed or rag tree on site up to about 50 years ago. It has been described to me as “a big, round hawthorn tree”. On pattern day an image of Colmcille was nailed to the bark of the tree. The turas or rounding ritual included walking in a clockwise fashion “by the whitethorn tree, around the mound, around the oratory and using the stepping stones to cross the stream”. Pilgrims prayed as they rounded and they carried 5 counting stones and each time a round was completed a stone was left at the base of the tree. When the fifth stone was laid down, the pilgrim knew his/her praying ritual was done.

The tree was cut down by a “newcomer” about fifty years ago. He was a timber fuel merchant and was not aware of the spiritual significance of the tree.

The well water was believed to cure eye ailments. Visitors would rub their eyes with water or fill bottles with water and take them away.
Eye-wells are easily the most common holy well type in Ireland.  Gary R Varner is a U.S. lecturer and writer on folklore and early religions. In his book Sacred Wells, Varner says “One reason that eyes were a constant worry in the past with many eye-wells drawing large groups of pilgrims is that commoners did not receive sufficient Vitamin A in their diets, resulting in xerophthalmia.”

A forward thinking ex-priest Brian Mooney attempted to revive the pattern day. Mass was said on site on the 9th June on two successive years but the revival was short-lived. Brian is a Kilkee-based poet who founded the Burren Perfumery in this parish of Carran in the late 1960s. It is Ireland’s oldest working perfumery.
Moreover, Brian co-founded the group The Clare Pilgrim Way in 2011.  The group is documenting a pilgrim route linking ancient monastic sites, holy places and cultural centres around County Clare and a small section of South Galway.

The only votive offering on site on my last visit this autumn was a set of rosary beads.

  • Gary Varner’s book Sacred Wells was first published by Algora Publishing in 2009.

  • Xerophthalmia is characterised by pathologic dryness of the conjunctiva and cornea.  If untreated, it can lead to corneal ulceration and ultimately to blindness.

  • The Clare Pilgrim Way website is

  • Sources for this piece are natives of Glencolmcille.

CKP Landscape Burren 09012013 3 300x200 PILGRIMAGE IN THE VALLEY   GLENCOLMCILLE, CARRAN. Part two.

Penintential Stations, Fahee South, Carran.

Penitential cairns are dry stone constructions and are usually not more than 2 metres in height. The cairns are cylindrical or square in shape and some of them have pillar stones at their summit. All cairns may have had pillar stones in the past. None of the Burren cairns have been dated. However, some of the cairns associated with the monastic site on Inishmurray Island, County Sligo have been dated to the Early Medieval period (400-1100 A.D.). The cairns are intrinsically linked to centres of pilgrimage and have been recorded for example at Struel Wells (a set of four holy wells) in Downpatrick, County Down and St Mac Duagh’s island in County Galway.

There are two impressive complexes of penitential cairns associated with the Glencolmcille pilgrimage tradition. One complex is on high ground above Glencolmcille valley, about one kilometre east of St Colmcille’s holy well in the townland of Fahee North. There are at least ten cairns on site. The largest cairn is elongated and has a number of peaks of stacked stones on it. A priest called Father Lee wrote that as part of the all-night vigil at St Colmcille’s well, “people climbed to the top of Glencolmcille Mountain where they counted their rounds by placing a stone on a mound there”. The quotation is from an essay Father Lee contributed to the sublime local publication “The Parish of Kilkeedy A Local History” compiled by Frank Brew and published in 1998. The ritual described by Father Lee may help explain the extravagant size and shape of the largest cairn in Fahee North. Unfortunately otherwise I know of nobody locally who can recall any customs related to the cairns. Pilgrims may have prayed as they circled the cairns as part of their repentance of sins.
The second complex is located about 0.5 kilometres north of the well and consists of at least twenty cairns. The scale of the monumentalisation of the Glencolmcille landscape with cairns suggest that the valley was a significant place of pilgrimage in the past.

Sources :
The Parish of Kilkeedy compiled by Frank Brew ; published by Frank Brew.
Inishmurray – Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape by Jerry O’Sullivan and Tomás O’Carragáin ; published by The Collins Press.


Race course site, Turloughmore.

The geography of the pattern day celebration is quite interesting. The secular activity (the races and the fair) was concentrated in the townland of Turloughmore whereas the ritual sites are all located in Glencolmcille. In fact not alone did the religious and secular take place in different townlands but also in different parishes and dioceses.

The site of the racecourse was a flood plain which has undergone reclamation works in modern times. The course was 4.5 miles in length and anti-clockwise in direction.

It crossed the avenue in the image above on two occasions during each race.
The Gaelic aristocrats, the O’Briens of Leamaneh, had previously owned a race course in Coad, Kilnaboy. Coad course was closed and a race course was subsequently opened by the O’Briens at their newly acquired lands in Turloughmore towards the end of the 17th century. The seat of power of the O’Briens in this area in the late medieval period was the castle or tower house in Glencolmcille. The ruins of the castle lie one kilometre west of the holy well on the road to Kinvara.

The races at Turloughmore took place on pattern day, 9th June. People made their way to the races after the spiritual duties had concluded at the holy well. The race day was renowned and attracted people from as far away as Connemara. Apart from the sporting event, the day was a hive of commercial and social activity also. The informal economy on the race day revolved largely around the sale of food and drink from “pop-up” outlets in tents.
The milder past times of singing, dancing and courting took place in the earlier hours. However, those who revelled hardest, stayed longest and the latter part of the day was noted for individual score-settling and faction fighting – some of which was drink-induced.

St Brigid’s Well at Liscannor and Tobar Eidne (St Enda’s Well) in Barna, County Galway are examples of other pilgrim sites in the extended region which featured horse racing on the pattern day. The main festival at St Brigid’s well took place on the last Sunday of July as opposed to the Saint’s feast day (1st February). The strand at Lahinch served as the race course.  The calendar of events at Liscannor/Lahinch was the same as that at Glencolmcille/Turloughmore i.e. a vigil of prayer and penance at the holy well on the eve of the pattern day followed by some merriment. On the pattern day morning, the pilgrims would decamp to the race course site for a day of socialising and merriment.  The St Brigid festival has survived to this day albeit in a modern form at Liscannor. Mass is celebrated each year at the holy well on 15th August (The Feast of the Assumption).

Horse racing died out at Turloughmore in the late 1800s. The race day was valiantly revived for one year in 1946 by a local parish committee. The poster for the event included the race card. A framed edition of the poster hangs in Walsh’s pub in the Square in Gort.

Sources :
The Parish of Kilkeedy compiled by Frank Brew ; published by Frank Brew.
The Festival of Lughnasa by Máire Mac Neill ; published by Comhairle Bhéaloideas Eireann, U.C.D.

CKP Landscape 14102014 4 300x200 PILGRIMAGE IN THE VALLEY   GLENCOLMCILLE, CARRAN. Part two.

House in Turloughmore. Room in house formerly used by R.I.C. to detain faction fighters.

Faction fighting in Ireland was an 18th and 19th century rural tradition of largely recreational, clan-based violence which took place at occasions of popular assembly like fairs, weddings, funerals, markets, wakes, race meetings and pattern days.
The cudgel was the most common weapon in the melees with blackthorn being the most favoured wood. However, the “ash plant” was most popular at the fights at Turloughmore as the ash tree grows abundantly in the area. A local person recalls his father telling him of the cudgels being seasoned over the winter in the chimney in order to make the wood harder in texture for combat!

Fights at Turloughmore took place at a more advanced stage of the race day and some of the violence was drink-induced. Liberal quantities of beer and poitín were sold by the traders in their tents.

The 19th century police force in Ireland was the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.). As the police barracks in the Turloughmore locale was too distant from the race course, the constabulary rented a room in the house of a local family on pattern/race day. The room was used by the police as a temporary detention point/cooling-off station for some of the faction fighting  ”hotheads”.

Faction fighting had largely died out in Ireland by the second half of the 19th century in the overall context of the decline of rural traditions. However, there is living memory of faction fighting taking place on pattern day at Turloughmore up to the 1920s. This latter fighting is said to have been caused by land disputes.

Most of the 19th century church and lay élite were hostile to popular agrarian tradition including pattern days.  Faction fighting was regarded as quite barbarous. The most famous 19th century written expression of élite hostility towards pattern days is the book The Holy Wells of Ireland by Philip Dixon Hardy – writer, publisher and member of the Dublin Protestant élite. Despite the prejudices of the author, the work remains an extremely important eye-witness account of the religious practices of the rural poor in Ireland in the 1800s.



Tuesday, October 21st, 2014


View of Glencolmclle valley from Fahee North.

The first of two blogs.


Gleann Cholm Cille. Glencolmcille. The valley of Colmcille is known locally as “Glan”. It is a fertile valley in the north east of the Burren characterised today by improved grasslands and a sparse population.  The valley is enclosed by the region’s distinctive rocky uplands. Glencolmcille served as the most important eastern routeway into the Burren dating back to medieval times at least.

The former medieval parish of Glencolmcille has long since been subsumed into the parish of Carran. The population of the parish of Carran in 1837 was 1045 inhabitants (County Clare A History and Topography. Samuel Lewis 1837). Carran is now home to a mere 106 inhabitants (2011 census). The main reason for the depopulation is the Great Hunger (1845-49). Death and emigration were no strangers to the valley of Glencolmcille in the 19th century.

In the 1800s, over 85% of the Burren population lived in houses of 4th classification i.e. prevalently one-roomed mud cabins (census of 1841). As these pre-famine dwellings were mostly of perishable materials, very little evidence of pre-famine peasant settlement survives in the wider Burren region or the Glencolmcille valley in particular.

“Casual adherence to Catholic practice and retention of Celtic rituals” was the religious expression of the rural poor in the 19th century in County Clare according to Anne Mc Mahon in her outstanding essay The Rural Poor in Clare before the Great Famine (The Other Clare vol.34).
The high point of the religious year in Glencolmcille was the 9th of June – the pattern (patron) day of Colmcille. Proceedings would initiate on St Colmcille’s eve on the 8th of June with the fair in Turloughmore, a bordering townland to the east of Glencolmcille. The fair was followed by an all-night vigil at the holy well. Pilgrimage continued into St Colmcille’s day. The focus switched to Turloughmore later in the day where the main draw was the horse racing. People travelled from as far as Connemara for the 8th/9th June festivities suggesting the “Glan” pilgrimage was of regional (as opposed to local) significance.



St Colmcille. Photo courtesy of Louise Nugent, Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.


Colmcille is a 6th century Irish saint who is credited with establishing several monasteries in Ireland as well as the monastery on the island of Iona in the Hebrides in Scotland. Offshore islands have long had an aura for pilgrims. Colmcille is considered to be one of the pioneers of island pilgrimage through his choice of Iona as the capital of a network of monasteries in Ireland and Britain. He is one of the three most significant Irish saints – the other two being Patrick and Brigid.

The 17th century Franciscan friar and historian John Colgan compiled a list of over 60 churches dedicated to Colmcille.  There are two church/holy well sites in North Clare named after Colmcille – one at Crumlin, Fanore and the other at Glencolmcille, Carran. It is highly unlikely that Colmcille ever visited County Clare. These two sites were most probably dedicated to him through cult diffusion. The saint’s feast day 9th June  is still celebrated at some Colmcille sites in Ireland including Inis Mór ;  Durrow, County Offaly and Glencolmcille, County Donegal.


Sacred Stone. Fingers of the Saint.


The church ruins and monastic site are located in a field east of the holy well. A sacred stone is located in the field boundary on the left hand side of the road a couple of hundred meters east of the entrance to the monastic site. No folk belief survives regarding the stone although a local source maintains that the stone’s original position was beside the cross at the entrance to the field with the church ruins. The stone would have been the subject of ritual in pilgrimage in the valley. Perhaps a short prayer was recited and the fingers of the pilgrim were placed in the impressions in the rock.

The sacred stone is known as an imprint site – impressions primarily in stone left by high profile figures in the landscape. Such figures include Buddha, Jesus Christ and an enormous array of saints. Janet and Colin Bord are the authors of a book on imprint sites entitled Footprints in Stone: The Significance of Foot- and Hand-prints and Other Imprints Left by Early Men, Giants, Heroes, Devils, Saints, Animals, Ghosts, Witches, Fairies and Monsters (Heart of Albion Press 2004). The Bords live in North Wales where they run a picture library devoted to rural Britain, prehistoric sites and strange phenomena. They have written more than 20 books since their first successful joint venture, Mysterious Britain, published in 1972. Janet is currently writing a book on all holy wells in Wales with a saint dedication. I wish her well with this radical project.

The most famous imprint site in the Burren is Bóthar na Miasa near St Colman’s Hermitage, Carran where St Colmán Mac Duagh is ascribed the Easter Miracle. However, the most common type of imprint site in the region is the bullaun – small depression(s) natural or otherwise in the landscape. Two depressions at the Kilmoon (Lisdoonvarna) ecclesiastical site are known as St Brigid’s knees. The most renowned international example of saint’s fingers is in a cave at Sennai in India where the doubting Apostle Thomas is believed to have left his mark.


Base of cross with recess for relic of Colmcille.


An undecorated, fragmentary cross is located at the entrance to the field in which the church ruins are located. Archaeologist Carleton Jones reckons that the cross is of a Late Medieval date (Medieval period – late 12th century to early 16th century). The cross itself and part of the shaft have been removed and their fate is not known.

There is a small recess in the base of the cross. Such recesses housed relics in the past and are known as relicavities. Several crosses in Ireland feature relicavities – the most notable being St Patrick’s Cross in the cathedral in Cashel. Surviving oral narrative in the valley suggests that the relic housed in the recess was St Colmcille’s missal. A missal is a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year.

Relics were often paraded during pattern days and cures via the relics were sold to the pilgrims. Relics have been the subject of trade, theft, damage and loss. The fate of Saint Colmcille’s missal is unknown. St Colmcille’s most famous book relic is the Cathach (“the battler”) a late 6th century Psalter. A psalter is the Book of Psalms, a book of the bible with religious verses. The Cathach was used a talisman in battle by the O’Donnell clan in Donegal.


Church ruins. Whereabouts of saint’s bed within ruins now unknown.


“The bed of the saint, formed of stones, is still preserved as a relic. Some brass coins have been dug up here”. (County Clare A History and Topography by Samuel Lewis. First published 1837 as part of A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland). Lewis is referring to the saint’s bed in the church ruin. The church ruins probably date to the 12th century. However, the original church on site was probably of an Early Medieval date (400-110 A.D.). It would have been at the core of a monastic site. Lewis is making a valuable reference to a ritual monument which no longer survives.

The most famous saint’s bed in the Burren is that of St Colman Mac Duagh at his hermitage at Eagle’s Rock. The bed in that case is a cave. However, the bed in the region which most appropriates to St Colmcille’s is that of Caimín at the latter’s ecclesiastical site at Caherminnaun West about a mile north-west of Kilfenora. Etienne Rynne describes the bed in Kilcameen church as “a hollow area partially flanked by large stones”. “Lying down in this, head to the east and feet to the west, the supplicant finishes the ritual with the recital of nine Ave Marias”. If this ritual were performed along with ritual and prayer at the nearby holy well on certain days, the pilgrim would get the cure for sore eyes. (Etienne Rynne ; North Munster Antiquarian Journal ; 1970 ; number 58).

Tomás O Carragáin co-authored Monks and Pilgrims in an Atlantic Landscape with Jerry O’Sullivan (Collins Press 2008). O Carragáin argues therein that the material heritage of ecclesiastical sites was used by the church in Early Medieval times to communicate important ideas to the pilgrims. The saint’s fingers, missal and bed at Glencolmcille may thus be seen as strong ideological statements.  They helped the church to convey important messages to the flock regarding the sanctity of the space and the story of the saint. O Carragáin describes this phenomenon as “the spatialisation of charisma”. Amen to that!


To be continued. The next blog will focus on the holy well, penitential stations, racecourse, fair and faction fighting at Glencomcille.

Míle buíochas to the acclaimed landscape photographer, Carsten Krieger, for agreeing to act as blog photographer.



Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Bob Gibbons is a renowned botanist and nature tour leader.  His stunning book Wildflower Wonders of the World was published by New Holland Publishers in 2011. In the book Gibbons profiles what he considers to be the top 50 botanical sites on earth. The Burren in County Clare features. Gibbons includes the Burren in the top 50 for two reasons – 1) the sheer abundance of flowers and 2) the unique combination of plants from different habitats and climatic zones in the world co-mingling together. In 2012 Gibbons led a flower walk in the Burren. At one point he came across the Irish orchid (Neotinia maculata) and Spring gentian (Gentiana verna) growing centimetres apart. Gibbons proclaimed to the group that the Burren was the only region in the world where these two species co-mingle.


“The Burren is s strange and wonderful place, full of contradictions” Bob Gibbons

Another botanical giant at our shoulders is Belfast man Charles Ernest Nelson (born 1951). He was formerly senior research botanist at the National Botanical Gardens in Dublin. Nelson is the author of more than twenty books. His magnum opus on the Burren flora is called The Burren A Companion to the Wildflowers of an Irish Limestone Wilderness. Published originally in 1991 by Samton Ltd Dublin for the Burren Conservancy. I think the publication is now out of print but copies are available to buy on-line. Nelson also wrote Wild Plants of the Burren and the Aran Islands (Collins Press) – first published 1999. It is the definitive Burren flower pocket guide. The wholly accessible book features 136 Burren plants. Nelson now lives in West Norfolk in England and spends some time each year in his old farmhouse in Lanzarote.

Mary Angela Keane is an historical geographer and has lived in Lisdoonvarna for more than fifty years. She is the author of the book The Burren - designed and produced by Jarrold Publishing, Norwich (2001). I attended a lecture of Mary Angela’s back in 2005. It took place in O’Donoghue’s pub in Fanore as part of the Burren Wildlife Symposium (now no more). I recall that Keane excellently highlighted five reasons why the Burren is of enduring botanical fascination. The reasons are as follows -

Unique combination of wild flowers – the Arctic/Alpine/Mediterranean mix. The Burren is one of the few regions in Europe which supports this very strange wild flower mélange.

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Mountain Avens (Dryas Octopetala). Arctic species. Illustration by Carles Casasin, Ballyvaughan.

Sheer abundance of native species. For example the “primula extravaganza” in spring is a sight to behold. There is a particular abundance of primroses (Primula vulgaris). However, cowslips (Primula veris) are widespread also. This latter flower is now scarce in the lowlands of Ireland due to industrialisation of farming. The extensive primula mosaic is completed by the False Oxlip (Primula x polyantha), an uncommon flower elsewhere in Ireland.


False oxlip (Primula x polyantha). A hybrid of the primrose and the cowslip.

Lime lovers and acid lovers. Acid lovers are a bizarre sight in the great calcareous Burren landscape. Their presence is explained by the fact that there are ghettoes of acidic soil in the region which support calcifuge (lime-hating) plants. The most obvious acid lovers are ling/common heather (Calluna vulgaris) and bell heather (Erica cinerea). Other acid lovers present in the region include St John’s wort, slender (Hypericum pulchrum) and the spectacular bitter vetch (Lathyrus montanus).

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Bittter Vetch (Lathyrus linifolius). Found on peaty mounds in the Burren.

Scarce flowers that made it. Some common flowers not present. Hoary Rock-rose (Helianthemum canum) grows grows in abundance in the Burren whilst it is very scarce in Great Britain. The more common Helianthemum, Common Rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium), is widespread in Britain but is absent from the Burren.

Hoary rockrose.Helianthemum canum.500. 300x226 WILD FLOWER WONDER OF THE WORLD

Hoary rockrose (Helianthemum canum). More abundant in the Burren and Inis Mór than anywhere else in the world.

Montane flora growing at sea level. The arctic Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) and the alpine Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) are normally found at altitude. However in the Burren, these species can grow from sea level right up to the highest points of the hills.


Spring gentian (Gentiana verna). Alpine plant growing at sea level in the Burren.

It is late September 2014 as I write this blog. It will surely be recorded here as one of the sunniest Septembers since records began. It is time now to say goodbye to Ireland and Britain’s last orchid of the year, Autumn Lady’s tresses (Spiranthes spiralis). This orchid is not easy to spot – its average height is between only 3 and 15 centimetres. However, Autumn Lady’s tresses is a thing of beauty with white and green flowers – spirally arranged and very fragrant. The flowers are pollinated by bumble bees. The species is almost confined to Europe in the world and its status is near threatened. The biggest threat comes from agri-chemicals.


Autumn Lady’s tresses. (Spiranthes spiralis). The last of the 23 orchids in the region to bloom each year. Photo by Mary Howard, Fanore.

The Burren uplands are largely free of such fertilisers ensuring that the region remains a kind host to this very attractive plant. One of the many vernacular names for Autumn Lady’s Tresses is Sweet Ballocks – no less! Testicles are invoked as orchids’ tubers and their erect fleshy stems have a likeness to the male genitalia. In fact the word orchid comes from the Greek word for testicle – orkhis.

The Burren is in bloom all year round but when Autumn Lady’s tresses disappears, it will be arrivederci to the orchid family till next spring. Slán magairlíní. (Good bye orchids).



Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014


I was born in Limerick city a few decades ago. I am quite proud of my birth place. My full name is Anthony Gerard Martin John Kirby. My father was extravagant when it came to naming me. His own name was Alf and I remember him being described as a “charismatic insurance salesman” in a book on the life of actor Richard Harris. My father passed away in 1977. My mother is still fighting the good fight at 98 years of age.



May 2009. Kilfenora. Book launch evening.


I studied French and English literature in University College Dublin in the late 1970s. I graduated without distinction but the education did give me an enduring love for words and languages. Whilst in college I happened to sit a civil service exam. I remember meeting the comic genius, the late Dermot Morgan, in the exam hall that day. He was a good friend of my cousin. I got the call to work for the state after I left college. I became a public servant. Morgan didn’t. Sometime later he became Father Ted in the eponymous and wildly successful TV comedy series.

Thankfully my public service did not stretch to licking envelopes or asking people their mothers’ maiden name . However, the job did not enthral me either.  I finally invoked an escape clause and made good for Italy. A five year long sabbatical. I taught English as a foreign language in the medieval city of Bologna. I also spent one sublime summer in the city of Matera – a world UNESCO heritage site. Five years is the career break limit so I opted for the Irish public service again when the sabbatical expired. I returned to Dublin in 1997. I still miss Italia.

Walking sticks and cat at Lough Avolla farm. 300x225 ITS THE STORY OF MY LIFE

Walking for a living. Local hazel walking sticks.


On my return to Ireland, Italian friends would visit on occasion. My visitors were keen to learn of Irish history and heritage and I was glad to guide them around town and share information with them. Therefrom came the idea of guided walking tours of Dublin city on foot in Italiano. My life as a walking tourism operator had begun. Extremely modest beginnings – I took occasional half days from the government job in high season to run the tiny enterprise. However, my love for the life as a cicerone was born. Around 2000 I met a woman called Eimer. We started a story. After a while she proposed a new life in the west of Ireland. I was to take my second and last career break from the public service.


Burren National Park from the air


We came to County Clare for the music but we stayed for lots of other reasons as well. I made a slow, uncertain start to life in the west without my permanent, pensionable job. However, I finally drummed up the confidence to launch a small rural business, Heart of Burren Walks. I became a full-time walking tourism operator. Eimer and I spent a month on the Fanore coast when we arrived in Clare. That was followed by a couple of years in the Burren interior, in the hills near the village of Carran. Home for the last nine years has been Kilnaboy. It is situated in the south-east of the Burren. I have the good fortune that the Burren National Park is located in Kilnaboy. It is one of only six National Parks in the Republic of Ireland and is magnificent walking country.

My working year extends largely from April to September. Thankfully May to August are four very busy months. April and September are so called “shoulder months”. A longer working year would be more attractive financially but might drain my energy levels. So I am quite happy with the shorter year as I can give it my very best shot.

The job is quite a privilege. My workplace is the outdoors in the Burren – a region of austere and natural beauty which is exceedingly rich in heritage.  Moreover, I meet people from all over the planet – a truly cosmopolitan job even though there is no foreign travel involved. Finally, the most exciting aspect of the work is the journey for knowledge i.e. learning new things. There is every discipline on the Burren hills from Archaeology to Zoology. It is a library without end, amen. It  is pure exciting any time I learn new things about the landscape. The jigsaw will never be complete but the thrill is joining pieces together from time to time. To paraphrase the outstanding contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella – I read the landscape with what grace I can/Not young, and not renewable, but man.

4 A young trekker negotiates the crazy pavement. 300x225 ITS THE STORY OF MY LIFE

My son Seanán out on the cragland.


My main interest in the region is the holy wells, sacred sites and pilgrim paths.  The Burren is a very rich penitential landscape and a lot of the archaeology of pilgrimage remains intact. I have written one book “The Burren and the Aran Islands A Walking Guide” (Collins Press ; 2009). A revised edition reached the shops this August.

Eimer and I have two sons now. They are Seanán Thokozani (7 years) and Oisín Alfonso (3 years). Eimer lived in Malawi for three years. Thokozani means “we thank you” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s two official languages. Oisín’s second name is Alfonso as form of homage to his grand dad, the charismatic insurance salesman he never met.

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Home in winter in Kilnaboy.


1)       Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy. Matera is in the Basilicata region in the south of the country

2)      Italy has 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – more than any other country in the world. There are two sites in the Republic of Ireland – Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael), County Kerry and Brú Na Bóinne (archaeological ensemble on the river Boyne), County Meath

3)     Cicerone – a person who conducts and informs sightseers ; a tour guide. Origin – after Cicero alluding to his eloquence and erudition.

4)     The Republic of Ireland’s five other National Parks are Connemara, Wicklow, Glenveagh (Donegal), Killarney and Ballycroy (Mayo).

5)     Thomas Kinsella, poet, was born in 1928. “The integrity of his remarkable career is confirmed in the two sides of his work, the translations from the Irish language and the significant and singular achievement of his own poetry.” Maurice Harmon, Professor Emeritus, Anglo-Irish Literature, U.C.D. The Collected Poems 1956-1994 by Thomas Kinsella is published in the series Oxford Poets.

6)    Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa”. Malawian English is the country’s second official language