Destinations, Ireland

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren

September 16, 2012
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Phew – the car is fine. Jason got it repaired this morning – it took no more than 30 minutes and only cost 30 Euro. The rim was bent, not cracked as I’d originally worried, so it just needed to be hammered back into place. There was a puncture in the back left tire, so the mechanic patched that up, too. (Bless his heart, he answered my panicked call to his all-hours number at close to midnight the previous night, which, while posted on his website, he apparently doesn’t get many calls at – it sounded like it was his home phone.) Now that we’re paying more attention, there are a lot of signs for “tyre repair” and safety checks alongside the roads here. Looks like issues with potholes and bushes are pretty common, which, while not a complete relief, at least makes us feel a little better.

We had another amazing breakfast at the B&B and consulted with our hosts on the best path to take. They gave us some great tips for restaurants and sights to see along the way, and we were off.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

Cereal, eggs, fruit, toast from homemade bread, and delicious tea. I think I like B&Bs!

We were planning to take a winding path and make a full day of the drive through what’s known as the Burren: first heading down south and passing a monastic ruin, then back up north past an ancient ring fort and tomb, and finally south again along the coast for a scenic waterfront drive, ending up inDoolin, a sleepy fishing village close to the Cliffs of Moher, for the evening. The Burren is a sizeable region south of Galway and east of Doolin known for its starkly beautiful landscapes.

At first, our drive took us through farm country and didn’t seem much different than the scenery before. We stopped briefly in Kinvarra, about 30 minutes south of Galway, to check out Dunguaire Castle. They hold evening banquets here, but we chose to take pictures of the outside (going inside cost money, and we still had a lot of driving to do.)

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

There was a treacherous walk around the outside of the castle, which is elevated and only had a very narrow, rocky, muddy, and otherwise unsanctioned footpath. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have risked it with my knees. There were a few close calls, but nothing too serious (and I’d have only landed in brambles, no falling off a cliff or anything.)

From there, we drove through Gort toward Corofin. About halfway between the two is a little visited monastic ruin known as Kilmacduagh. It dates back to the 7th century. It was completely deserted, and due to it being less popular, the only way to get the key opening the monastery buildings themselves is to ask the groundskeeper, whose house is across the street. We didn’t want to bother him (or her), so we stuck to the outside.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

The Kilmacduagh monastic ruins

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

I have no idea why so few people visit, as it was absolutely spectacular – possibly one of my favorite ruins so far. It’s quite extensive, with the tallest round tower in all of Ireland. Some speculate that the tower is where the monks would take shelter in case of an attack. However, other theories contest this, given the towers are not easily defensible positions against, say, Vikings who are probably somewhat experienced in smoking people out of various places, towers included. In any case, the door is what appears to be a window several meters up from the ground – it’s believed that there used to be a wooden staircase, or potentially a ladder. There were three other buildings, one surrounded in part by a cemetery whose headstones (those which weren’t too weather-worn to be readable, that is) dated back to about the mid-1800s.

(Sidenote: I haven’t been to many cemeteries in general, so I might be wrong on this point, but one unique thing I’ve noticed about Irish cemeteries so far is that many of the graves have a good sized rectangular area – anywhere from 2’ x 4’ or larger – which are at the very least filled with dirt and bounded by pavers or wood. Some are planted with flowers, others filled with sparkling stones. It’s very interesting.)

The only sounds were the wind whistling eerily between the headstones and the occasional bleat of a sheep from the pasture next door. It was a really fantastic stop, and I’d recommend it to anyone who drives through the Burren. One of the amazing things about Ireland really is that you can just be driving along the road and see an ancient ruin in someone’s backyard or pasture; you might drive into a town right amidst more modern structures there will be a medieval tower or church.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

One of the Kilmacduagh monk towers

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

The farmers driving by may have wondered why I was photographing their sheep instead of the ruins right next door.

We continued on to Corofin, which is southwest of Gort and the most southerly point of our drive. The original plan was to get lunch there and visitDysert O’Dea, a 15th centurycastle and church (complete with a 12th century high cross). Unfortunately, we’d spent a lot of time photographing Kilmacduagh, so we could only stop for lunch. I wouldn’t recommend Corofin as a lunch spot unless you really want to see Dysert O’Dea (you know it’s a bit dire when you ask a local where is good to eat for lunch and she grimaces, shrugs, and then says, “Well, over there, I guess… [long pause] …maybe stick with whatever’s on special.”)

Right then. Onward to the north. This is where the landscape began to change drastically. The drive up until this point had been fairly similar to some of the other legs of our journey – lots of farmland. At first, the fields became rockier. As we continued on, rolling hills gave way to rocky outcroppings; the barrenness of the Burren had begun to set in.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

We paused momentarily at the Burren Perfumery, an oasis of pungent flowers and herbs in this place of increasing sparsity.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

Flowers along the perfumery path

They use all of the botanicals in the garden to create their natural products, from fragrant lotions to soaps, bath salts, and perfume. A quick stroll in the herb garden (and perhaps a longer stroll in the gift shop) later, we continued on.

As we climbed in altitude, the world became a broad expanse of pitted limestone with huge views of the surrounding land. Living here would be very harsh; it’s a place where few, if any, crops would grow.

What’s great about this drive is how close things are to each other. We stopped briefly at Caherconnell Fort, which is a “fort” in the sense that prehistoric peoples and their livestock lived inside its walls for safety from as early as the 6th century.

Speaking of which, the walls here are incredible. Hundreds of years ago – sometimes even longer – people broke the bedrock down into smaller pieces. It was necessary to expose the soil so crops could actually be grown. The result of generations of this harsh, backbreaking work is vast expanses of rock walls all across the Irish landscape.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

One of the many rock walls in the Burren

The stones are stacked every which way – on the vertical and diagonal just as often as on the horizontal. Now imagine thousands of these walls stretching across the landscape – up and down hills, on the sides of mountains. They form a variegated stone patchwork across the land. Just consider the amount of work – generations of thankless toil – it would have taken to clear the land and build them.

Just up the road is the sight I was most excited about for this drive: Poulnabrone Dolmen, a Neolithic portal tomb where archaeological excavations found almost 30 bodies had been buried. It’s not large, but surrounded by a vast expanse of pitted limestone as well as its age, it really is quite amazing.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

Poulnabrone Dolmen from afar; note the pitted landscape.

Ireland Day 6, Part 1: Galway to Doolin via the Burren | Destinations Ireland

Driving the Burren a day after Connemara makes it clear Ireland is a place of contrasts. Connemara is a vibrantly green place, beautiful in its lush wildness. The Burren is untamed in its bleakness. It appears unlivable, and, yet, some people did live here, as is evidenced by Caherconnell Fort and Poulnabrone Dolmen. Both places are separated by only about 150 km, and still manage to be wholly different.

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