Monday, November 9, 2009

The Burren

Resized_HPIM3523 We passed by this glass saint in a box near the Cliffs.  She was St. Bridget and, nearby, was her well.  I took a photo since St. Bridget’s day is February 2nd, my birthday.  It is the day of Candlemas – associated with the blessing of the candles for the year and the purification of the Virgin Mary and of Imbolc, the Celtic first day of spring.  Of course, it is also what those in the US refer to as Groundhog’s Day – but this is only a modern evolution of Imbolc.  The ancient celebration was associated with the first stirrings of spring.  This day was also associated with candles and fire, to symbolize the growing power of the returning sun.  In ancient literature ( it was a snake that would rise from the ground at Imbolc to forsee the weather.

Substitute a groundhog and throw in some European lore (see: if you are interested) and you’ve got our Groundhog Day.  One of my most vivid memories, as a child, was when, in second grade, my teacher made me go out on the playground and see if I could see my shadow.   I was totally humiliated and again, wonder what this adult was thinking – a great educational opportunity or what? It turns out that this little shrine is actually a located next to a sacred well, one of the four most famous of these in the entire country.  For thousands of years, people have been coming to this location to pray and have used the waters for healing.  There is an entire ritual connected to visiting the well to ensure healing.  If you want to read more about that see:  It seems likely that Saint Bridgit, a Catholic saint, was a creation of the early Christian teachers.  People think this since her festival day and her symbols (fire/healing) match the Celtic Goddess Brigid.  It made it easier for people to transition to a new religion if they were permitted to keep worshipping the same Goddesses and retain their old traditions.  Just add the word “Saint” and there you go!   This process “that treats mythological accounts as a reflection of actual historical events shaped by retelling and traditional mores”  ( is called euhemerimization.  That’s my new word for the week, folks.  I wish I had stopped for a moment, left a rag to ritualistically rot, and gotten a vial of the holy water to send home to my mothResized_HPIM3532er.  You never know, right? 

We were exhausted and this was the day we had to head back across the country for our Halloween festivities.  We decided to skip Galway City and inResized_HPIM3527stead visit the Burren.(  The Burren is a 250km region in the corner of County Kerry that is known as a karst landscape.  This means it was formed by the dissolution of layers upon layers of limestone, leaving an almost alien looking landscape with crevasses, sinkholes and dolines.  Our first stop was at the Burren Center, to get more information.  Naturally, it was closed for the season – curses!  We still had fun visiting the local village of Kilfenora that had the Kilfenora Cathedral (   It was built in 1189 on the ruins of an earlier monastery and was actually home to not just a bishop, but the Pope at that time.   

WResized_HPIM3531e actually diResized_HPIM3536d not enter into one cathedral or church (unless it was a ruin) during our 8 days here.  It seems they were all locked tight.  This is very different than in France, where all the larger or famous places are usually open to the public.   We passed some churches on Sunday and cars were lined up for a kilometer around them – these people definitely are still active in their faith.  The Kilfenora Cathedral seemed like it was a ruin – but still not open to the public.  We peeked in through the windows to see some of the cool decorated crosses inside.  I later learned that the cross is actually known as the Doorty Cross and is one of the most famous of all the crosses found because of the intracacy and detail of its carvings.  It seems there is tons of debate over what these symbols meant and by whom and when they were carved.

( )Whatever the symbolism, I always enjoy wandering around gravestones.  This cemetery is still active and I really liked some of the more modern monuments which still, obviously, were influenced by traditional Celtic art.  We wandered a bit further to see the another, much larger High Cross. Ireland is famous for these giant high crosses and I guess they were placed this way so people for miles around would be able to see where to gather for worship.

We wandered on, heading,Resized_HPIM3538 we hoped, for some Megalithic tombs and forts and another ruined shell of a castle.  This one was called the Leahmaneh castle and was built between the 15th and 17th centuries.  I highlight this photo because it gives you some idea of the way the signs are – here we have signs pointing toward town names, monuments and hotels, all jumbled together.  I am very grateful I read fast and I naturally read English.  The fast reading skill has always come in handy, but it was particularly useful in Ireland.    I used to read 50 or 60 books each summer and I remember, once, a friends’ parent questioned my ability to actually read as fast as I said I did.  I was insulted and told her I could easily read the book that happened to be in the back seat on the way to where ever we were going (about an hour away).  I settled in to do just that, although the book, belonging to my friends’ brother, was on the subject of football, not my usual top pick.  Afterwards, the parent started quizzing me on the content of the book. I easily answered questions about the plot and main characters but then, exasperated, he started opening the book to random pages and asking questions like. ‘What was the score during halftime of the third game?’ and ‘Were the locker rooms located to the left or right of the bleachers when they played against the Tigers?’  Obviously, I was stumped and they pounced upon this as proof of my decResized_HPIM3543eit: “See, I knew you couldn’t possibly read that fast!”  Looking back, I wonder what was going on in the mind of this adult.  Did they or one of their kids have a hard time reading?  Was I being very obnoxious and bragging (not unlikely) and they wanted to teach me a lesson?  Hmm….

After about 15 minutes we spied this church on the side of the road and decided to take a look.  Resized_HPIM3544 André pulled the van over and, pretty quickly, felt it begin to sink.  We managed to get out – but not without leaving a considerable hole in the turf!  Luckily there was a legible information sign to read.  Turns out that these are the ruins of Carron Church, which was built around 1200 and was the largest of all the parishes in Clare until the 16th century.  There is a small hill of rocks, or cairn, to theResized_HPIM3546 south of the church and local tradition dictated that coffins had to be carried around the cairn before internment in the church yard.  I love hearing about such traditions.  In ancient times cairns were used to Resized_HPIM3548 hold the cremated remains of bones.  That would be thousands of years ago.  But, somehow, even  thousands of years later, people still remember these hills as sacred spaces having to do with death. Seems like the local citizens in this neighborhood still consider it a sacred place and have even started burying people inside the ruined walls of the church – we saw tombstones as recent as the 1980’s.  It is permitted, as long as they promise to keep the place tidy.  See the placard, right – I know it is hard to read, but hey, haven’t you figured out that is the way Irish signs are yet? I wonder how they enforce this rule, what if the owners of the plot are all dead?  And what kind of punishment can they give?  “Hey, what are you in for?”  “Murder.”  “How ‘bout you?” “Oh, me? I forgot to mow grannie’s plot….”

We continued onResized_HPIM3568 hoping to see Caherconnell Stone Fort, a particularly well preserved ancient ring fort.  We got theResized_HPIM3560re a few minutes before 10am.  The sign said it was open until the end of October from 10 to 5pm.  We checked our calendar (Oct 30th) and waited around, but it didn’t open – total bummer.  It seemed so unfair that we weren’t allowed to just walk up to it and have a look.  I mean, this thing has been there for about 1500 to 2000 years – the people that own the property didn’t build it so why not leave it open for you to walk past freely?  Fortunately the next stop, the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb, even older at 5500 years, approximately, was open for us to visit. It was windy and rainy and we were just about the only people there – which let us get some amazing photos. This is the oldest man made thing I’d ever seen.  I mean, I think of Stonehenge and the pyramids as old, but this predates those Resized_HPIM3561by about 1000 and 2000 years, respectively.  It is Resized_HPIM3567called a portal tomb because it has two tall stones flanking the entrance to a chamber whose floor is a single, large, capstone.  This capstone sits on top of a cairn of rocks containing  the remains of ancient peoples.  The name, translated, literally means the Hill of Sorrows.  Archeological excavations showed there were the remains of about 40 people within the tomb, and it is believed that bodies, at this time, were left after death to rot in the elements.  Then, when only bones remained, they were either placed directly into the tombs or cremated and then placed within.  People did not live to be very old, most dying either as children or in their late 20’s or early 30’s.    There are about 70 other dolmens in this region, proving there must have been quite a thriving community here at one time.   We were inspired by the tomb, of course, but even better was the chance to scramble around the limestone rocks of the Burren. It reminded us, a bit, of the malroches we visited last fall.  It really is quite an amazing geological phenomenon. The placard said that, in the times when the dolmen was built, the landscape was quite different, with more greenery and trees.  Indeed, much of the Burren looks nothing like this, but seems to be covered in green turf.  In fact, they still have to allow cows to graze here regularly to keep the overgrowth from taking over.  It is amazing that plants can grow and thrive inbetween the grikes and clints of the limestone pavement, but indeed, there is an amazing variety of plants growing here and it is known for its incredible wildflowers (too bad we came in the fall since I have a hard time believing it!).    As one raiding soldier once said ( “This is a country, where there is not water enough to drown a man; wood enough to hang one; nor earth enough to bury him.”    

Resized_HPIM3559 Resized_HPIM3562 Resized_HPIM3563

I hope you can get an idea, from the pictures, of what the poet below meant:

“Where full in front spreads bleak and wild

Grey Burren’s rocks, all shattered piled

Rugged and rough and drear and lone

A weary waste of barren stone.”

Resized_HPIM3564 Resized_HPIM3565 Resized_HPIM3566

Resized_HPIM3575We left the Burren, passing this unidentified but cool looking ruin on the way, Resized_HPIM3577and headed towards Athenry. We had originally planned to visit the city of Galway – but decided it would be too much to do in one day.  We wResized_HPIM3578ere hoping to see Athenry Castle – since we hadn’t yet found a castle that wasn’t a ruin and I had researched this one as a good one to visit ahead of time.

Well, when we got there, it was pouring rain.  I was happy we were in a camper van because we just got  in the back and made our lunch until the torrential downpour let up a bit.  Then we headed, happily, over to the castle, walking past the remains of a city gate from when the entire town was walled.   Athenry was a very cute town, I especially liked their elaborately artistic drain covers.  It’s little details like this that I love to find when traveling around.

Finally, wResized_HPIM3582e reached the castle to find it was open, every day that week, except (you’ve guessed it)Resized_HPIM3580 today.  Today just happened to be Friday, the only day they don’t have tours.  Instead we were happy to find a playground.  We haven’t seen many of these in the country and we theorize it might be due to their clearly depressed economy or, perhaps, because it rains so much the playground is not much fun.  Our kids didn’t mind getting wet though, and across the street there was yet another ruined church to peek at.    Actually it was the Athenry Priory and, in fact, the first Dominican Priory ever Resized_HPIM3591built in Ireland within city walls.  It was in use from Resized_HPIM3584 about 1200 to 1652 when Cromwellian soldiers invaded and wrecked the building.  This one was also blocked off from us walking around inside, Resized_HPIM3594

but I shot a few photos through the ruined windows.  We then walked around through the town one last time, finding another charity shop (where I got a copy of Angela’s Ashes, seemed like it would be an appropriate choice) and then heading back to the van.  We drove a couple more hours and made it to the only other open campground in the country besides Tralee in Dublin by about 6:30pm.  Luckily for us, André is getting to be a more confident driver, and the roads going across in the middle of Ireland (though not great) are not quite as wretched as those we took on the way over.  In fact, there were some real two-lane divided highways!



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