So it’s Sunday. Very little is open on a Sunday. You can’t even buy wine (in the supermarket) – they rope it off!
Our first port of call is to find an ATM – Chris is hard coded to panic when he doesn’t have cash on him. In this world of plastic, Lord knows why – I only panic when I don’t have cash for coffee, but even that can be circumvented by friendly barristas. It’s harder than it sounds as this area of the country is notoriously free of ATMs so we have to travel a little way off our path to find a town with one.
Mission accomplished, we navigate back to the start of our day – our aim is to visit The Burren, an area on the west coast of Ireland, famous for it geological uniqueness. More on that later.
We start at Kilfenora, slightly inland and hit the local tourist information. Aside from its geological uniqueness, The Burren is rich in pre-Christian ruins, from stone forts and a burial cairns through to megalithic tombs and tower houses.
As Chris is learning the finer points of a road trip through The Burren, I make friends with a local donkey. He’s a glossy brown under the few remnants of his winter coat and happily accepts pats. I think he’s quite used to it, as there is step at the gate so that children can reach him. We stop for lunch nearby and I go back afterwards to offer him a slice of my soda bread, but he’s disinterested. Not so the jackdaws, a local black and grey bird. They swoop down and polish it off. I go back for a second try, with a carrot. Talk about popular choice – it’s polished off in two bites. I might have imagined it, but I think he winked “thanks”. There may have been a hint of a smile too.
We also see a local church, Kilemora Cathedral and High Cross with ruins from the 5th century. The old part of the church is now covered with a glass roof in an attempt to preserve what’s left – it has 5 crosses from that early time, carved in deep relief with
religious scenes and symbols.
We then head north along a key local road that highlights the best of The Burren. We see Leamaneh castle, a tower house, no longer open to the public. Built in the 1400s, it stands in ruins in a field.
The first stop is the stone fort of Caherconnell, also a current archeological dig. This fort is well detailed and we learn that it was built in the 10th or 11th century, and occupied until the 1400s. The stone fort is circular, similar but smaller to the one we saw on the
island. We learn more about this one – that it housed a number of families, each in a thatched stone hut, that they had a stable area for their flock, a burial site and a fabulously preserved BBQ pit (recently excavated). All of these were housed inside the fort, with a few supporting families of lessor stature housed in huts outside the fort, along with an underground storage area for grain and the like. The first “walk in” pantry it would seem.
We are also on a working farm, just in time to see the sheep dog display. There are three dogs, two sheepdogs that are smaller, short haired versions of our beloved Cass, and a cattle dog who looks like a skinnier Cass. She is Sally and is15, and the younger ones are 3 and 1, Rose and Lee. Each dog is first trained to voice, and then to a set of whistles unique to each dog: to come around, go forward, back up, stop, sit, lay down, and come away. Essentially, left, right, drive, go back and stop. The dogs work alone and in groups, and can hear and obey the whistle beyond where the eye can see them.
When working a team, the farmer needs to keep the pattern of herding instructions in his head, as he’s issuing instructions to dogs he can’t see (he can just see the herd move in the distance). We see a demonstration in separating sheep, herding them together, then apart, then over fences, through gates and back together again. We then see a similar display with young cows. You can tell the dogs love it. They are just a joy to watch and I am thrilled to have seen them at work. Neither the sheep or cows are distressed – they seem to take the direction with a resigned patience.
The farmer is a character. He waits until the Spanish tourists (who need a translator) leave and then gives us a further run down. We learn that his family has worked this farm for 400 years, and that he has worked the farm since he was 16. It takes 3 years to train a dog, and once trained they are worth €5,000 – €6,000. It takes much longer to train a handler. We learn that sheep dogs will never bite the sheep and can be trusted alone with the flock, out of sight. Cattle dogs on the other hand will bite and can’t be trusted with sheep out of sight. We learn that sheep dogs will try to free trapped or snagged sheep, but if they can’t, they will stand and bark until the farmer comes – it’s the only time they bark. We learn that they only show the young dogs, as they still make mistakes and it makes the crowds laugh. When they showed the older dogs, they were flawless and the crowd watched silently. We learn that the ram’s horns are curled over his eyes so that he is protected from barbs in the bushes they graze from. The sheep are pretty, with black velvety legs and faces and creamy coats. The ram is magnificently horned and huge. He’s clearly boss of the flock.
There is no intensive farming here. This is how farming should be, with respect for the land, it’s history and the animals on it.
Back on the road, our next stop is Poulnabrone Dolmen, a megalithic tomb, set atop a burial cairn. This is the most famous of the tombs and appears on many of the tourist brochures for the area. It’s 4,000 years old and very pleasing to the eye. It’s made from stone slabs, in the perfect shape of pi and quite extraordinarily preserved, given how long its stood in the elements.
It’s here too, that the landscape of The Burren is exposed in all its stony glory. What makes it unique is its history and its flora. A combination of water, rock, geological force and time has left a 10 square mile landscape of stone, limestone to be precise. Glaciers have carved across its wake over two Ice Ages, not only carving the stone but also dropping boulders in their wake. Above, the mild acid in rain has slowly but determinedly drilled pot holes and crevices on the surface and formed a network of caves, Europe’s most extensive, underneath. Algae dried in the crevices, and along with bug parts and bunny marbles, created a soil that supports the greatest diversity of plants in Ireland. The plant life is unique. You don’t have to be a botanist to see it – wild orchids flower alongside of all types of grasses. Local wild flowers are here in profusion, and amazingly, so are ferns and plants more often found in the Mediterranean. Everything is miniature as otherwise it’s razed by the local wild goats.
The floral history here dates back to when Ireland was part of the large land mass, located near the equator. We also learn that this same geology resurfaces in the Aran Islands, but without the flora. It explains all the stone we saw there. Another reason for the almost totally denuded environment is that the trees were felled by the first human inhabitants 6,000 years ago, speeding up the erosion of the area. If so, it’s a stark foretelling of what earth might look like 6,000 years hence.
Our next sight/site is a sink hole – a 30 foot deep depression of a collapsed cave. It looks a if a giant has pressed a thumb into the earth.
As we make our way up the hills, we can see two very contrasting landscapes – the lush green patchwork of farmland in the valley and the total denuded, now almost terraced, rock mountain. It almost doesn’t look real. Quite alien.
We stop in Ballyvaughan, which is on the beach and ponder where we will prop for the night. I make friends with a very gentle friendly horse who thinks the grass is much nicer on my side of the fence than his (he munches happily from my hand). In the end Chris decides to re-track south along the sea to see an area we missed in the search for an ATM, but we go further than planned as the road is tiny and there is no place to turn.
A bit traumatised by the thought of driving endlessly without turning, we finally turn, go back to give my horse a carrot (a very popular decision…he bolts over when he spots it) and settle for the night.
It’s been a big day.