The unique lunar landscape of the Burren Region in north Clare has been likened to walking on the surface of the moon. However, you do not have to be an astronaut to experience the solemn grandeur of the Burren limestone region, which extends over 100 square miles and has many unusual features that make it unique. Its geology, flora, caves, archaeology, and history set it apart as a place of great mystery and beauty.
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The Burren Centre in Kilfenora and the Burren eXposure in Ballyvaughan help explain the mysteries of the Burren, the meaning of which is ‘ place of stone’). It’s a world-renowned karst limestone region with its gently sloping carboniferous landscape broadly dissected by numerous joints, which run north to south.
The limestone formed from the shells of sea creatures at the bottom of shallow seas 300 million years ago, when Ireland occupied a place at the latitude of Egypt today. Intense glaciation, the most recent one being fifteen thousand years ago, scraped the limestone further. As the ice cap moved across the Burren, it carried huge amounts of debris, soil, and rock in its path and these were dropped off as it melted, forming some of the most unusual and interesting features in the area.
Water quickly percolates through the surface rock to underground streams, leaving the surface dry. Only one river, the Caher, runs overland reaching the sea at Fanore. The few lakes or grassy hollows, called turloughs, can vanish suddenly when the water table sinks. The 17th century Cromwellian General Edmund Ludlow dismissed the Burren as “yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”
Changing light and clouds and the reflective rock turn the Burren into a panorama of dancing lights and brilliant colours. The rocks store heat that allows grass to grow all year round. In the Burren, hillsides are warmer than the valleys in winter, the reverse of what happens elsewhere.
In recognition of the importance of the Burren landscape to Ireland, the area has been designated a national park by the government. The Burren is home to 1100 species of plants out of the 1400 in Ireland as a whole. Flowers and plants that are usually found thousands of miles apart or only on obscure rock ledges on top of mountains are located here. It is the only place in Europe where Mediterranean and Arctic alpine plants grow together in perfect harmony, dappling the grey rock with patches of yellow, magenta, and blue.
Botanists from all over the world come to the Burren at all times of the year to study the rare plants and flowers as the Burren is never out of bloom. In May and early June visitors to the Burren will find acre after acre of orchids growing wild. The creamy flowers of the mountain avens, rare in Britain and Ireland, cover many tens of square miles here. Beside them are the scarlet of the bloody cranesbills and the cool sky blue of spring gentians.
In the autumn and winter there are rare ferns and mosses growing in abundance, and in the spring and summer exotic flora thrive in full bloom. Rare flowers include lady’s tresses (spiranthes spiralis), bee orchids (ophrys apifera), fly orchids (ophrys muscifera), Irish orchids (neotinia maculata), pyramidal orchids (anacamptis pyramidalis), lesser butterfly orchids (platanthera bifolia), fragrant orchids (gymnadenia conopsia), and the dactylorhiza genus of orchids: dactylorhiza cruenta, dactylorhiza majalis, and dactylorhiza fuchsii.
Beneath the surface of the Burren is an underworld of disappearing streams, hidden caves, and closed depressions. Some fifty kilometres of chartered cave systems delight the potholer in the Burren region. However, these are active caves and not for the uninitiated. Guided potholing trips into some of these caves can be arranged through the Burren Outdoor Education Centre.
For the less adventurous who want to experience the Burren’s underworld, the Aillwee Cave, near the fishing village of Ballyvaughan in the heart of the Burren, has been developed as a superb show-cave for visitors to explore the underworld in complete safety. The story of this cave goes back millions of years to the Ice Age. The cave was formed by a great underground river that seeped through the rocks, dissolving away the limestone and eventually forming large chambers. After the ice melted, the cave became dry, and the slow growth began of the huge stalactites and stalagmites, which can be seen in the cave today.
For visitors who enjoy walking or hiking, the Burren landscape has a sign-posted walking route called "The Burren Way", running between Lahinch and Ballyvaughan. The route is 45kms long and traverses both the shale and limestone pavements of the Burren and offers walkers many panoramic and memorable vistas.
At the Burren Centre in Kilfenora "A Walk Through Time" takes the visitor through a series of vignettes, slides, artefacts, and information panels exploring the geology and geography of the area, including the rich diversity of Burren flora and fauna and the history of man in his landscape. Burren eXposure in Ballyvaughan comprises an elaborate audio-visual presentation: synchronized large scale slide panoramas with soundscapes in three specially created environments.
Tel. 0 657 088030
Email: Burren Centre
Open: mid March-end May, 10am-5pm; June-end Aug, 9:30am-5.30pm; Sep-end Oct, 10am-5pm
Web: Burren Centre
Tel. 0 657 077277
Burren Outdoor Education Centre
Tel. 0 656 828107
Tel. 0 657 077036
Web: Aillwee Cave
Information courtesy Shannon Development; edited by Barbara Ballard