Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category


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 fragment are known locally as “the oratory”. The cross fragment was originally part of the cross in the church site 0.5 kilometre to the south east of the well. (See previous blog – section “The Saint’s Missal”).
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 are now located at the well house. The removal of the cross probably signifies the greater importance attached to the holy well site in more recent times.

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.

7. Mountain Aven Bog Road 233x300 WILD FLOWER WONDER OF THE WORLD

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).

Bittter Vetch 500 210x300 WILD FLOWER WONDER OF THE WORLD

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


Thursday, July 24th, 2014

‘Like an antique flasher in the wind Spreading your overcoat to screen A frantic dropwort’ Michael Longley, ‘Cloud Orchid’ (2011)

Start/finish: Follow signposts from Carran village for the Burren Perfumery. Pass the perfumery and proceed for 10 kilometres. You will reach the entrance to the Slieve Carran Nature Reserve. Park here. The yellow trail is in the Burren National Park opposite the Reserve entrance

Description: Mostly worn path with some rugged limestone terrain. The least well known and least used way marked trail in the Burren National Park. Woodland, scrub grassland and limestone pavement. A gem of stroll – far from the Mardi Gras! A sublime Burren walk.

Distance :  2 km (1.2 miles).

Map: The Burrena two inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare. Folding Landscapes, 1:31680 or Discovery Series Map No 52 Ordnance Survey of Ireland. 1:50 000.

After the walk : Excellent eating options in Carran from April to September – the Burren perfumery and Cassidy’s pub There are a number of fine eateries/cafés in Kinvara open all year round.

19th century routeway now part of Yellow Trail 300x225 A BURREN WALK. YELLOW TRAIL IN CARRAN.

19th century routeway now part of Yellow Trail.

SUSTAINABLE FARMING Pass through the stile across the road from the Nature Reserve entrance. You have entered a 45 hectare mosaic of limestone pavement and grasslands which is farmed through the Burren Farming for Conservation Program (BFCP ; formerly Burren Life program). The program is based in Carran village and is Ireland’s first major farming for conservation initiative. 2013 outcomes have been very impressive. Over €1.114m was allocated to Burren farmers during the year through BFCP by the Department of Agriculture. In 2013 the farmers co-funded over 1,250 separate tasks in the 160 participating farms in order to improve the biodiversity of each farm. Tasks included removal of scrub, protection of water sources, repair of stone walls and restoration of damaged habitats. Cattle graze the uplands in winter. The effect of the winter grazing (reverse transhumance) is quite spectacular in spring as the area is transformed into a wildflower-rich habitat. The Burren is the only region in Europe where livestock are transferred to altitude in winter.

DROPWORT Proceed along a worn path in a south-westerly direction until you reach a dry stone wall. Walk alongside the wall in a due east direction. Dropwort blooms here from May to September. It is a relative of meadow sweet though its flowers are unscented. Plant lovers get quite excited when they come across dropwort in the Burren as its distribution in Ireland is very limited. In fact it can only be found in the east of the Burren, east Clare and south-east Galway.

3 Léim an Phúca Beag and Léim an Phúca Mór. 300x225 A BURREN WALK. YELLOW TRAIL IN CARRAN.

Léim an Phúca Beag and Léim an Phúca Mór

LEIM AN PHUCA The trail changes from worn path to an old unsurfaced road. The road was built about 150 years ago in order to link two minor roads. The hill range in the background as you look down the road is Turloughmore. You will see two distinct depressions at the summit – Léim an Phúca Beag (Small Fairy Leap) and Léim an Phúca Mór (Big Fairy Leap). The Púca was a both a benign and malign spirit. On occasion he inspired terror in rural folk in the past. There is copious scrub at either side of the trail. You may notice a dry stone wall cutting through the scrub on your left. The wall would suggest that the area was used for rough grazing for livestock in the past. However, once the land was abandoned, rank vegetation and scrub (primarily hazel) took over. Scrub is defined as vegetation less than 5 meters in height. The ecological succession is invariably true woodland.

4 Spindle overhanging Yellow Trail. 300x225 A BURREN WALK. YELLOW TRAIL IN CARRAN.

Spindle on Yellow Trail

SPINDLE You will pass under a spindle tree which arches across the trail. The lime-loving spindle is usually no more than a shrubby tree but this particular specimen has reached lofty heights. The pink fruits with their orange seeds are a real spectacle in autumn. The tree is poisonous to humans and livestock but birds do eat the fruit without any ill effects. A few holly trees intersperse the hazel scrub also. The fruit of the holly is not very nice to taste but it is harmless. Only the female hollies bear the fruit. An occasional ash tree may also be seen towering over the scrub. This is the start of the climax vegetation as the Burren uplands progressively cedes to hazel-ash woodland with the decline of the ancient transhumance tradition.

5 The slow worm a limbless reptile is a fairly recent introduction to the Burren. 300x224 A BURREN WALK. YELLOW TRAIL IN CARRAN.

Slow worm, a limbless reptile.

LIZARD/SLOW WORM As you approach the minor road, the scrub gives way to grasslands. Soon the trail will veer north-east as you start walking back towards the trailhead at the Nature Reserve entrance. You walk through an area of rough pasture – a patchwork of grass margins and limestone outcrop. You may be lucky to come across the common lizard basking on the rocks here in summer. When its body temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius, the lizard tends to go hunting for invertebrates. The lizard is not more than 18 centimetres in length. It is Ireland’s only native reptile and is also the most northerly reptile in the world as it can be found inside the Arctic Circle. There is actually one more reptile in the Burren and that is the non-native slow worm – a legless lizard. It was illegally introduced here from Britain about 25 years ago. There were never snakes in Ireland even though St Patrick (a strong brand!) is credited with exterminating them.

BIRDS The landscape changes again to scrub. Woodcock are found in damp scrub and woodland in the Burren. It is a big bird with a pronounced bill. Woodcock, the similar-looking snipe and pheasant are sought after game birds in the shooting season in winter in the Burren. All three birds need hanging for up to five days before cooking. The Burren is of international renown for its geology, flora and archaeology. However, the birdlife is impressive also. Almost 100 species of birds have been recorded in the Burren uplands. The uplands provide a rich mosaic of bird habitats including unimproved grasslands, freshwater bodies, cliffs, mature woodland, scrub and coast. You are pretty certain to hear the cuckoo here in spring as the Burren remains one of the bird’s most important strongholds in Ireland.

NOSTOC You emerge from the scrub to a rough grazing area of grass and limestone outcrop. Some of the solutions in the limestone are home to a primitive plant called nostoc. After rainfall the plant swells up into an unusual looking gelatinous mess! Nostoc likes damp/aquatic habitats and grows here in the water-filled solutions in the rock. It was so enigmatic in the past, it gloried in names such as witches’ butter or star jelly. Nostoc has no roots but is able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.

LOOKING WEST The sheer cliffs of Slieve Carran dominate the landscape to the west. The cliffs are known as Eagle’s Rock in homage to the eagle which would have nested here prior to its persecution by man. There are two excellent eagle re-introduction programs taking place at the moment in Ireland – the golden eagle (County Donegal and white tailed eagle (County Kerry). Both programs are enjoying success. The cliffs are part of the Slieve Carran Nature Reserve (145.5 hectares). Nature reserves are areas important to wildlife which are protected under Ministerial order. Most reserves like this one are owned by the state.

THE END Walk along the dry stone wall until you reach the stile. Go through the stile and cross the road to the trailhead at the Nature Reserve entrance. This minor road served as a critical entry point to the Burren from the north-east in the past. The route way is situated in a pass between the hills of Turloughmore and Slieve Carran. It comes as no surprise that this ancient routeway has three important regional pilgrimage sites along it – St Colman’s Hermitage, Keelhilla ; St Fachtna’s holy well and penitential stations, Coskeam and Temple Cronan in Termon. Go in peace!


Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Holy wells in Ireland have been frequented primarily for three reasons – folk medicine, pilgrimage and popular assembly. Thus the sites have been regarded as fulfilling important medicinal, spiritual and social needs.  About fifty holy wells are located in the Burren region, as defined by Tim Robinson’s map of which eleven lie within the parish of Carran in the north-east of the Burren.

Holy wells and penitential cairns were the primary focus of ritual in pilgrimage in Early Medieval Ireland (400-1200 A.D.). The north-east of the Burren is home to a large number of not just wells but cairns also.

Moreover, there are three pilgrimage sites located along the pass through the hills of Slieve Carran and Turloughmore: Temple Cronan, St Colman Mac Duagh’s Hermitage and St Fachtna’s Holy Well.


Votive.offerings. Holy Well. Temple Cronan.

Temple Cronan, Termon
St Cronan’s well lies  at the base of a cliff thus making the turas (praying rounds) around the monument impossible.  To facilitate the ritual a circular penitential space was “constructed” contiguous with the well. A collapsed penitential station is at the centre of the space.

A second holy well is situated about 25 metres north-east of St Cronan’s Well. The second well is known as the Eye Well and is now covered over.  Both wells were associated with cures for eye ailments.

Temple Cronan is also home to two reliquary slab shrines.  No more than ten such shrines survive in Ireland. The shrines would have housed either primary (bones) or secondary (book, belt, bell, crozier) relics of St Cronan. The shrines indicate that the site was important for medieval pilgrimage.


St Colman Mac Duagh’s holy well, Keelhilla, Carran

St Colman MacDuagh’s Heritage, Keelhilla
Temple Cronan and Mac Duagh’s Hermitage are both probably of Early Medieval origin and are thus contemporaneous.  In the former case the monks chose the monastic site; in the latter St Colman opted for a hermitic existence.

A stream runs through the hermitage. St Colman’s well house encloses a space that was dug below the water line to ensure an almost constant pool of water within.  The water is believed to cure back and eye ailments.

The hermitage is a Lughnasa site and would have been a place of pilgrimage, popular assembly or harvest celebration on the last Sunday in July. Ritual would have been performed at the well, two outdoor altars, a bullaun stone and St Colman’s bed in the cave.  However, it is not just the core of the hermitage which has been monumentalised for pilgrimage purposes as there are also a number of holy wells and altars in the wider area. Oral narrative suggests there was a camino between the hermitage and the monastic site of Kilmacduagh, the distance between the two being about 9 miles.


Penitential stations. St Fachtna’s holy well site. Coskeam.

St Fachtna’s Holy Well, Coskeam
The holy well is situated in an oval void in the rock. This particular hollow was probably selected because it never dries up (it is 0.8m deep). St Fachtna’s is also an eye well.

Nine dry-stone penitential cairns lie in a line a short distance to the south-west of the well. They are an impressive sight, the tallest cairn being 2 metres tall.

While penitential cairns in the Burren have not been dated, cairns on Inishmurray Island, County Sligo have been scientifically dated to Early Medieval times. Cairns were the subject of prayer rounds in the search for remittance of punishment for sins.

There are a number of other cairn complexes in the north-east of the region. Two are linked to the holy well of St Colmcille in the valley of Glencolmcille.  Postgraduate archaeology students from NUI Galway have studied some of them; their excellent study contends that St Cronan’s, St Colman Mac Duagh’s, St Fachtna’s and St Colmcille’s are all components of one dynamic, interdependent pilgrimage station.

The very high concentration of penitential archaeology in the north-east of the Burren makes it one of Ireland’s finest surviving pilgrimage landscapes.

Buíochas to Dr David Drew (hydrology) & Dr Stefan Bergh, Department of Archaeology, N.U.I. Galway. This article first appeared in the Burren Insight magazine 2014 edition.



Wednesday, June 11th, 2014


The Burren National Park is one of six national parks in the Republic of Ireland. It is the smallest one (1,500 hectares). The Park is located in the parishes of Kilnaboy and Carran. There are seven excellent way marked trails in the Park. The Green Arrow Trail (Nature Trail) is a looped 1.5 kilometer walk. There are a wide variety of flower habitats along the trail as well as excellent views of Mullaghmore hill (200m) and Lough Gealáin (part lake, part turlough). A free shuttle bus service operates from the National Park Information Centre in Corofin from May to August inclusive. Here goes the trail in greater detail…………..


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Cowslip extravaganza. Species-rich grasslands. Spring.

(1) Park at the lay-by just before Gortlecka cross road Kilnaboy. Turn right at the cross road on to the minor road known as the Crag Road. Walk on for about 150 meters and then turn left through a gap in the wall with green arrow.  If you look to your right about twenty meters along the trail, you will see the former site of the proposed Burren National Park visitor centre. The centre was the subject of a prolonged socio-environmental dispute and works ended at the early phase of construction. The Burren National Parks and Wildlife Service now operates a visitor centre in the nearby village of Corofin.
Seeds of the shrub gorse managed to establish themselves during the building phase. They are believed to have slipped in with transported top soil. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is currently conducting an eradication program. Gorse is a native shrub but it will out-compete more delicate plants in the Burren if left unchecked.


(2) Stroll on for another 20 meters, look left and you will get a wide vista of some of the Burren’s rocky uplands in the distance. However, the advance of young hazel at the expense of the limestone pavement and thin soils is manifest also. The scrub is overwhelming the pavement, the Burren speciality flowers and the archaeological monuments. The scrub advance is due to the decline of the ancient tradition of out-wintering the livestock in the hills. It is indeed ironic that lack of pressure by man on the natural world in the Burren hills is leading to the loss of the region’s internationally renowned heritage.
Ther has been some scrub removal in the foreground by the National Parks. It is an exercise in ecological restoration as the Parks are hoping that the Burren wildflower mélange will re-establish itself. The program is meeting with some success as the Arctic wonder, the mountain avens, has begun to bloom again along the margins of the trail.


 (3) You soon descend sharply into a hazel/ash woodland. You have now entered a doline which is a funnel-shaped hollow formed by the collapse of superficial cave systems. The ash is the climax vegetation here and you can see it towering above the hazel understorey. The richness and diversity of the primitive plant communities creates a magical atmosphere. The ferns, mosses, lichens and liverworts here are part of a botanical group known as cryptograms as it was not clear in the past how they reproduced in the absence of flowers and seeds.


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Coral fossils and the dark-red helleborine. Summer.

(4) You emerge to walk along a stony path. Go through a gap in a dry stone wall. It is well worth pausing at the erratic on the right of the trail as it serves as an outstanding viewing point of the “troika” of dramatically buckled National Park hills to the north east. Knockanes is to the left, Slieve Rua is in the centre and Mullaghmore is to the right. The limestone rocks in this area contain plenty of fossilised coral. This particular order of corals is colonial in that it lives in colonies. The skeletons you see fell to the ocean floor and compacted with calcium carbonate deposits from the sea water, and thus the limestone was formed in the carboniferous period, between 300 and 350 million years ago.


(5) You cross a meadow and enter woodland again. Helleborines are mainly woodland orchids and the broad-leaved helleborine can be seen along the path here in autumn as it prefers the brighter areas of the woodland. The Burren is home to 22 of the national total of 27 orchid species. This is a remarkable number when you consider that the region makes up less that 1% of the land mass of Ireland. The broad-leaved helleborine is pollinated by wasps. Fermentation of the nectar in the flowers may produce ethanol with the result that some wasps may even get ‘drunk’!


(6) You emerge from the woodland and as you move along the trail there is limestone pavement to your right. A venture onto the pavement is well worth while as it will afford you wonderful views of the National Park and beyond. The icon of the National Park, the buckled Mullaghmore hill, is to the north-east and the Slieve Aughty range of hills is to the east. One of the Aughty peaks Maghera is home to a prominent national TV/radio transmitter. Moylussa (532m) is to the south-west of Maghera and is County Clare’s highest point.

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A view from the Nature Trail. Winter.


(7) You enter hazel woodland again. You will soon see a ruin of a stone house on the right hand side of the trail. It is a pre-famine dwelling. Even though there was huge pressure on the Burren uplands prior to the 19th century Great Famine, there was only about one person per square mile living here. Conversely there up to 200 people per square mile living in the fertile lowlands. Most of the houses of the destitute in the valleys were made of perishable materials and have not survived. So the pre-famine stone builiding legacy of the Burren uplands is significant culturally. The population of his townland Gortlecka 81 in 1841. By 1851 there were only 11 people left living here. Note the way in which the hazel is overwhelming the dwelling. If the hazel goes unchecked it will permanently damage the structure and eventually occlude it from future generations. This area would have been rough pasture in the 19th century. However, the hazel has advanced latterly with the decline of cattle grazing in these hills in winter.


(8) Pass through a wooden gate. You have now entered a very important wildflower habitat internationally. The habitat is known as species-rich grasslands. Essentially you are walking through a hay meadow where cattle graze in winter only. Crucially the meadow has not been subject to reclamation or fertilisation. A staggering quarter of all of Ireland’s remaining species-rich grasslands are in the small Burren region. The meadow is just a tiny part of the wider Burren’s designated Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under European Union law. Most the SAC’s are in the hills where the prime conservation areas are located.


9 Winter scene on green trail looking towards Mullaghmore. 300x225 A BURREN NATIONAL PARK WALK

Belted Galloways with Mullaghmore in background. Winter.

(9) A path has been cut through the meadow to facilitate the trail. Some of the flower species you will spot in this elysian field in spring/summer include primrose, cowslip, false oxlip, yellow rattle, kanpweeds, devil’s bit scabious and various orchid species.  Alternatively, if you are walking here in autumn/winter you may well have the good fortune to come across an unusual cattle breed, belted galloways. They are black in colour with a conspicuous white belt. Most of them are bred for beef production and the beef is of high, marbled quality. They are associated with the Galloway region in south-west Scotland and they are ideally suited to the Burren uplands in the bleak mid-winter. The “belties” have two coats – the outer wone sheds the rain and the inner one provides not only insulation but waterproofing also.  There less than 10,000 “belties” in the world. They have a critical role in the ecology of this meadow as they naturally fertilise it. Moreover By grazing here in the winter months, they ensure that the meadow does not cede to scrub. When they leave for the spring/summer land, the meadow is transformed into an intoxicating mix of wildflower species.


(10) Veer right towards the end of the meadow. Pyramidal orchids flower here around July each year. Having strolled through a gap in a wall, your path cuts through some hazel scrub. You emerge at the Crag Road. Turn right, then left at the crossroad ; the car parking area is on your left hand side.




Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Lazy Beds Potato Cultivation Ridges The Burren1 300x225 THE BURREN AND THE GREAT FAMINE

"Lazy Beds" Potato Cultivation Ridges Kilnaboy in the Burren


“An Gorta Mór” or the Great Famine of 1845-49 is probably the most intense episode in the 9,000 year old story of mankind in Ireland.  Interestingly it is commonly referred to as “the Famine” even though Ireland had been serially struck by famines in the 17th and 18th centuries. One such famine , that of 1739-41, claimed the lives of  400,000 people out of a population of 2 million.
By the 1840s, 3 million rural poor in Ireland were dependent on a monoculture diet of potatoes. The island’s population then was just over 8 million. Meat and cereal were produced in abundance but were mostly exported to Great Britain. In 1845 the potato was attacked by a fungus and the crop failed for six pestilential years. The authorities could have slowed down the export of food to alleviate the crisis. Instead they opted to continue the exportation. In a three month period at the end of 1845, 160,000 cattle, sheep and pigs were exported along with significant amounts of wheat, barley and oats. The result was catastrophic – 1 million died as a result of the famine and a further 2 million emigrated in the two decades after the disaster.
The Great Famine was the biggest humanitarian crisis of 19th century European history. The eminent historian Joe Lee has described the famine as “the greatest single peacetime tragedy since the [14th century] Black Death”. Historical geographer Kevin Whelan has highlighted the geo-political context of the tragedy i.e. it occurred in the richest, most powerful country in the world then, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The cause of the famine is much disputed in Ireland today with some arguing that it was a natural disaster exacerbated by a monoculture diet. Others vigorously challenge the orthodoxy of this view and apportion blame to the administration with its shameless policy of profit before people. Moreover the latter group points out that the government interpreted the Famine as an act of God and saw no connection between its laissez-faire economic model and the unfolding crisis.

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Pre-famine chapel and sibín in the Burren uplands


County Clare was one of the counties most affected by the Famine. According to the census of 1841 the population of the county stood at 260,000 people. The 2011 census records just over 117,000 residents in Clare. There was severe population collapse in the county during the Famine and in the decades thereafter.
The Burren region in North Clare witnessed huge suffering as the vast majority of its population was rural poor. The same 1841 census recorded that 85% of the houses in the Burren were fourth-class defined as “all mud cabins having only one room”.
The Burren population was mostly concentrated in the valleys where up to 400 people per square mile lived. Only one person per square mile lived in the rocky uplands. Ironically pre-famine dwellings survive in greater numbers in the hills today as they tended to be built of the more durable material of stone.
Other physical evidence of the tragedy is the abandoned potato cultivation ridges known also as “lazy beds”. Potatoes were cultivated by laying them on the surface (bed) and covering them with earth from a trench on either side of the bed. The trenches served as excellent drainage.
Moreover a number of Famine relief roads survive in the Burren. A public works scheme was launched across Ireland in March 1846. Starving people worked on public projects such as roadbuilding.  Their wages would then allow them to buy food. The scheme was a failure for a myriad of reasons. The relief roads in the region are monuments to the administration’s abject response to the crisis.
The poor in the Burren and the Aran Islands had a double blow in the 19th century as they experienced a fuel “famine”as well as a food famine. Both regions were devoid of turf whilst any wood available would have been mercilessly exploited. Desperate peasants resorted to drying cow pats and even woody stems of plants in order to survive.  Fuel was needed for cooking so it was very much a survival resource.
Thuiles were used to dry cow pats in the Burren hills. They are ingenious dry-stone constructions within which the pats were placed. The thuiles would permit the drying effects of the wind whilst excluding most of the rain. Many examples of this vernacular monument can still be found in the Burren uplands.
The “lazy beds”, pre-famine dwellings, relief roads and thuiles make the Burren a fascinating Famine landscape. They serve as potent reminders of our greatest social calamity.

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"A thuile. Fuel drying station. Roof no longer survives.

If I had a dime for every time I have been asked this question over the years, I would be a wealthy man! The vast majority of the population had no recourse to fish during the Famine for a myriad of reasons – the abject poverty ;  the rocky, inhospitable nature of most of the coastline ; the unreliable weather and the smallness of the fishing craft. In some cases fishermen sold their equipment to buy food – a resounding vote of no confidence in the fish’s role in staving off the starvation.


*As part of wider reform proposals, The Department of Education is currently considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject for the Junior Certificate exam cycle for pupils in the age range 12-15 years. The matter is proving controversial.

*The charity Healthy Food for All has said that official figures indicate that 10% of the population of the Republic of Ireland (450,000 people) live in food poverty. Food poverty is defined as the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability and access to food with related impacts on health, culture and social participation

*The poet Eavan Boland will be 70 in September. Poetry Review has described her as “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century.’ Her poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited is a visceral, lyrical condemnation of the policy of putting starving people to work on building roads during the Famine.

*The artist Deidre O’Mahony will give a talk at the X-PO community hub in Kilnaboy on Thursday the 20th of February at 8.00 pm. The talk is entitled Heroes of the Potato Revolution and will focus on some of the individuals worldwide who have changed our perception of the potato. Deirdre is the founder of the X-PO.  Her SPUD project (2013) was a collaboration with local farmers exploring issues such as food security and sustainability. Admission is free and all are welcome.  More information 087 292 54 87.

The Cause of Ireland. Liz Curtis. Beyond the Pale Publications.
Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Editors Crowley, Smyth and Murphy. Cork University Press.