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The SCHOOL at the EDGE of the OCEAN

Thursday, October 1st, 2015


I retreat with my family 2 to 3 times a year to the very west of the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry – to the sparsely populated, Irish-speaking parish of Dún Chaoin. The parish and indeed the entire peninsula is of outstanding natural beauty and is exceedingly rich in heritage.

DSCN1311 224x300 The SCHOOL at the EDGE of the OCEAN

An Fear Marbh, one of the Blasket islands, as seen from Siúlóid na Cille.

Dún Chaoin has become a home from home for us. We get the opportunity to use our Irish in an everyday context. We stare a bit at the deserted Blasket Islands. Our kids’ favourite island is An Fear Marbh – translated as The Dead Man but known in English as The Sleeping Giant….and we always get to walk the sublime 5 kilometre coastal loop of Siúlóid na Cille (The Church Walk). The vestiges of the fictional school of Kirrary from the film Ryan’s Daughter are along the trail. Our family walk along Siúlóid na Cille earlier this year inspired this modest blog.

DSCN1319 300x225 The SCHOOL at the EDGE of the OCEAN

My wife Eimer and sons Seanán and Oisín on Siúlóid Na Cille.


Ryan’s Daughter is a 1970 romantic drama film directed by David Lean. The film stars Robert Mitchum, Sarah Miles,Trevor Howard, Leo Mc Kern and the people of Corca Dhuibhne (the Dingle Peninsula) amongst others. It lasts a whopping 206 minutes.

Ryan’s Daughter was harshly panned by critics. The Time Out Film Guide described the film as “an awe-inspiringly tedious lump of soggy romanticism”

It is however worth pointing out that the film enjoyed significant box office success. It grossed almost 31 million dollars in 1970 making it the 8th highest grossing film of that year. Moreover Ryan’s Daughter received 2 Academy Awards whilst it also caused a generation of movie goers to fall in love with Ireland – entranced as they were by the astonishing film backdrop of the West Kerry landscape. .

The film was set in the fictional town of Kirrary located in the real-life parish of Dún Chaoin. All that remains now of the specially constructed town is the cobblestones. The set was removed shortly after filming as the stakeholders, local and otherwise, could not agree a plan for its conservation.

DSCN1313 300x225 The SCHOOL at the EDGE of the OCEAN

In jeopardy – an important piece of Ireland’s cinematic history.


Apart from the cobblestones, the only other surviving physical evidence of the film set is Kirrary National School located right at the edge of the Atlantic in the same parish. The building has suffered neglect for the past 45 years and its decline was accentuated by violent storms earlier this year. Remedial works since then have involved removing what was left of the roof.

The building is owned privately and its future is most uncertain. The most wonderful epilogue to Ryan’s Daughter would be a sustainable community-based plan for the school. It is after all an important landmark in the cinematic heritage of Ireland.

DSCN1317 300x225 The SCHOOL at the EDGE of the OCEAN

St Gobnait – stone head by Cliodhna Cussen.


Another excellent cultural highlight on the trail is the most westerly holy well on the mainland of Ireland. The well is dedicated to the Early Christian female saint Gobnait. Her feast day is 11/12 February and it is still celebrated by large crowds in Ballyvourney, County Cork where Gobnait is believed to be buried.

There are humble offerings to the saint within the well house. A beautiful piece of stone art also features. It is an artistic representation of Gobnait by the renowned sculptress Cliodhna Cussen. Cliodhna also carved the statue of St Patrick at the holy well/pilgrimage site of Mám Ean in Connemara. She is the mother of Rónán, Rossa and Colm – all members of the folk/world music group Kila.

Sin an méid. (That’s it).


Sunday, August 30th, 2015


Limestone pavement in Kilnaboy.

The Gaelic placename An Bhoireann has been phonetically anglicised to the Burren. An Bhoireann means a place of rock and thus the place name hints at the geological importance of the region. And so it is – The Burren is home to a rare and precious landform called karst. Karst is a landscape where the rock (usually though not always limestone) has been exposed to the atmosphere and is being chemically dissolved by rainwater. The Burren is home to 18,000 hectares of limestone pavement. (The U.K. has 3,000 hectares of pavement). As so much of the bedrock of the planet is exposed here, it is no wonder that the Burren can claim to be one of the most distinctive landscapes in Europe.

Early Purple Orchids Turlough margin Burren National Park. 300x225 THE BURREN   AN UBER RICH HERITAGE LANDSCAPE

Early Purple Orchids – at the margins of a turlough, Burren National Park.

The region is of international significance also in terms of wildflowers. 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. This Arctic/Alpine/Mediterranean mélange attracts visitors from all over the world in the blooming season.


Cruach an tSláin. Prehistoric fort on limestone outcrop, Ballyryan, south of Fanore

The Burren is also an exceedingly rich cultural landscape. Whilst there are approximately 2,000 recorded archaeological monuments in the region, it is estimated that there are up to 2,000 unrecorded monuments thus making the Burren one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the north-west of Europe. The renowned Connemara-based cartographer and essayist Tim Robinson has described the region as being “a vast memorial to bygone cultures”. The oldest finds date from the Mesolithic period (7000-4000 B.C.).

Cattle outwintering on Black Head. 300x225 THE BURREN   AN UBER RICH HERITAGE LANDSCAPE

Low impact farming in the hills in winter.

Whilst the geology, botany and archaeology have been celebrated for decades, it is only in very recent times that the region’s remarkable agricultural heritage has been recognised. The Burren is the only region in the cool temperate world where livestock are transferred to altitude in winter (“reverse transhumance”). Science has now concluded that this low-intensity farming régime has an intrinsic link to the region’s wealth of heritage. The cattle manage the montane landscape perfectly by eating ultra-competitive grasses. Moreover, they naturally fertilise the soil with their droppings and lastly they also slow down the advance of scrub. The out wintering cattle are true guardians of the region’s heritage!

30 of Ireland’s 32 butterfly species. 70 of Ireland’s 72 land snail species. 700 of Ireland’s 1,000 wild flowers. 75 of Ireland’s 512 Stone Age wedge tombs. 18,000 hectares of a rare global land form. Rich and varied wild life. One of the scarcest creatures in the world that we know of – a black water beetle with white spots Octhebius Nilssonii …and on it goes…

In a world that is constantly trending towards monoculture, the Burren stands proudly as an oasis of heritage and diversity of life. Tar chugainn go bhfeice sibh. Come and see.

Heritage Tourism Bird Watchers Burren National Park 300x225 THE BURREN   AN UBER RICH HERITAGE LANDSCAPE

Heritage Tourism. Birders. National Park.


1. A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a natural area or structure which is recognized as being of international importance and therefore deserving special protection.The Burren is one of seven sites on an Irish Government Tentative List (2010) of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are currently only two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Republic of Ireland – Skellig Michael (County Kerry) and Brú na Bóinne (County Meath).

2. In 2011 the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher were awarded the designation of UNESCO Geopark. The status is accorded by UNESCO to sites worldwide which are considered to be of universal geological significance.

 3. The main environmental designation in the Burren is Special Area of Conservation (S.A.C.). S.A.C. sites are internationally important for threatened habitats and species. They form a unique network of legally protected areas across the 28 member state of the European Union. Over 30 square kilometres of land in the Burren is designated S.A.C. The total area of the Burren is 360 square kilometres.

 4. The Burren LIFE Farming Project was selected by the Member States of the European Union as one of the top 6 “Best of the Best” LIFE Nature projects out of 59 projects assessed in 2010. This is the highest level of international recognition that it is possible for a LIFE Nature project to achieve within the framework of the EU LIFE Programme. The Burren LIFE Project has been superseded by the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme.





Sunday, June 7th, 2015

‘The Burren’s austere beauty is the result of millenia of abuse’ Tim Robinson (1999).

Mullaghmore hill. The geological icon of the Burren. 300x225 ORANGE WALKING ROUTE   BURREN NATIONAL PARK

Mullaghmore hill. The geological icon of the Burren.

Start/finish  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.

Description High quality looped, way marked trail suitable for most levels of fitness.

Highlights a turlough, mature ash/hazel woodland, species-rich grasslands and some fine views of the National Park’s iconic hill, Mullaghmore.

Distance 1.3 km (0.8 mile).

Maps The Burren – a two inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare.  Folding Landscapes. Scale 1:31680 or Discovery Series Map No 51. Ordnance Survey of Ireland. 1:50 000


Burren gate in the National Park.

(1) Enter field by a metal gate at lay-by. The gate was inserted quite recently though the gate design is traditional Burren style. The Burren Farming for Conservation Program has been responsible for the installation of 444 traditional Burren-style gates in the region in the first three years of the program operation (2010-2012).
The smallest geographical unit in Ireland is the townland. There are more than 61,000 townlands on the island of Ireland. This one is called Knockaunroe – an anglicisation of the Gaelic place name Cnocán Rua which translates as small red hill.


Horses on the trail.

 (2) You soon walk through a gap in a wall and enter a second field. Both fields are very rich and diverse in wildflower species and are defined as species-rich grasslands.  Horses and ponies graze in this area. This is quite unusual as it is primarily cattle which out winter in the uplands.
There are no chemicals applied here and that is one of the reasons why the fields are so diverse in plant life. Hay may be saved in these meadows but only after the flowers have gone to seed. The fly orchid (orchis insectifera) and the bee orchid (orchis apifera) are two of the most spectacular flowers in summer with their remarkable exercises in insect mimicry.

 (3) The trail veers right. Walk through a second metal gate. If you look left here you will get a striking view of the iconic Mullaghmore hill. The great expanses of limestone on the hill have been exposed by glaciation and over-exuberant farming in pre-history. It is ironic that the wealth of geology, flora and archaeology in the region are in part due to ancient agri-vandalism. Thus the Burren is a highly paradoxical landscape brilliantly summarized in the cartographer/essayist Tim Robinson’s few words “its (the Burren’s) austere beauty is the result of millenia of abuse”.

Pine Marten Irelands most elusive mammal. 300x216 ORANGE WALKING ROUTE   BURREN NATIONAL PARK

Pine Marten. Ireland’s most elusive mammal.

 (4) You will soon enter hazel scrub which is home to such mammals as badgers (meles meles), red squirrels (sciurus vulgaris) and pine martens (martes martes). There are an estimated 70,000 badgers in Ireland. The animal’s feeding behaviour is very similar to that of the badger in Spain and Italy. Mammalians believe the badger was introduced to Ireland by prehistoric farming communities migrating northwards via the Bay of Biscay.
The pine marten is Ireland’s most elusive land mammal. It is largely nocturnal. I have spotted it only twice in the last ten years! The marten population plummeted during the notorious 17th century deforestation program. However, its numbers are on the rise again in the west of Ireland.

A lone swan on the turlough. 300x225 ORANGE WALKING ROUTE   BURREN NATIONAL PARK

A lone swan on the turlough.

 (5) You emerge from the scrub. There is a large metal installation on the right of the trail. Continue along a wide path though the scrub until you reach an open area to your left. This area becomes flooded in periods of high rainfall as groundwater wells up from below and a temporary water body (Knockaunroe turlough) is formed.
Scarce plants nationally such as shrubby cinquefoil (potentilla fruticosa)and purgative buckthorn (rhamnus cathartica) prosper at the turlough margins. Purple loosestrife (lythrum salicaria)and water mint (mentha aquatica) are evident on the turlough floor when the water disappears underground.
Dragonflies (odonata anisoptera) and damselflies (0d0nata zygoptera)are readily observed hereabouts. Ireland is home to 13 dragonfly and 11 damselfly species. Dragonflies are much faster in flight than damselflies.

The common frog. Irelands only frog species.1 300x225 ORANGE WALKING ROUTE   BURREN NATIONAL PARK

The common frog. Ireland’s only frog species.

 (6) Resume your path through the scrub. The common frog (rana temporaria) is a regular sight along the trail and is another indicator of the rich biodiversity of the Burren uplands. It is one of only three amphibians in Ireland – the other two being the natterjack toad (bufo calamita) and the newt (triturus vulgaris). The frog is adept at changing its colour as a camouflage mechanism. Otters (lutra lutra), foxes (vulpes vulpes) and grey herons (ardea cinerea) in the Burren all include the frog in their diets. The dry stone walls within the scrub suggest that this land was formerly rough pasture. Once the pasture was abandoned, the ecological succession was scrub.

 (7) The trail opens out onto species rich-grasslands. Devil’s bit scabious (succisa pratensis) blooms in these meadows in late summers/early autumn. Its tall, purple flowerheads in profusion make for a wonderful spectacle. Mullaghmore comes in to view again and the lay-by/trailhead is on your left hand side.


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.