Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Burren Magic

Tiny alpine flowers splash across a cracked limestone vista, seemingly misplaced. Above hang clouds, as leaden as the rock; heavy and looming like the sturdy boulders deposited by ice-age flows. These erratics, from an age forgotten, sit solemnly keeping watch over the waves. They are eerily familiar, akin to the faces of Easter Island. 

There are few places like the Burren. With Galway Bay caressing the northern shores and the Atlantic’s unpredictable weather-fronts lambasting the west coast, this karst land is one of the largest in Europe. Renowned poets such as Seamus Heaney have found inspiration here and the late John O’Donohue, author of the touching Anam Cara (‘soul friend’), hailed from this region of Ireland, in fair County Clare. 

Having spent several years engrossed in astrological studies my supporting passion, creative writing, patiently took the passenger’s seat. But a recent stirring in my soul (and in my oracle cards) began to urge this interest back behind the steering wheel of my journey of life. At this point, my good friend synchronicity brought a writing workshop into my awareness. Disregarding my trepidation and embracing the zest of my inner child, I promptly enrolled on the course and soon found myself transported to this haven for a prolonged weekend muse.

On our first outing we venture to a point known as Black Head, which contrary to the name is awash with a spectrum of pastel shades. Sudden winds whip across the smooth slabs giving rise to goose bumps like the strewn boulder streaks - Nature’s attempt at constructing cahers perhaps, the Irish word for stone-fort. Sharp pillars sporadically protrude from the deep fissures in the limestone rock, carved by erosion, recalling images of Neolithic standing stones imprinted with coral fossils now drifted far from home. The skies change again. Like clumps of chalk, clouds billow gently overhead throwing playful shadows that tumble aimlessly down terraced hills, akin to the network of walls that attempt to establish some form of structure. An alien feel grips the senses in this unusual environment, which many have described as a ‘lunar landscape’. Tufts of grass find places to grow, too, where spiralled shells lie and subtle scents flow, from white dryas and ferns and a fine sea-salt taste riding the air. Other flora from as far as the Arctic and Mediterranean find a home away from home here. The vibrancy of their colours blossom among ashen clints, like a pick-and-mix bouquet; mesmerising inky blues of rare Spring Gentians play with the deep yellow of the peculiar Bird’s Foot Trefoil contrasted with bleached-white Mountain Avens. Bird songs of plovers and gulls set the perfect soundtrack to this natural splendour, a call of Mother Earth, enchanting the senses to explore the mystery of Her bounty here by the coast.

A nudge back from the shore, a distinct chill is in the air. We travel upwards where a solid breeze rushes over the limestone-speckled mountains, but fails to sway the unwavering dolmen of Poulnabrone. Excavations in the 1980’s revealed the ritual burial remains of more than twenty adults and six children here, as well as a Bronze Age newborn, perhaps marking this portal tomb a focus for ceremony during the Celtic period. Rising robustly from millennia past, its slant is gentle, facing due North and pointing heavenward, perhaps directing the old souls to the stars. Imposing, yet illusive, it appears to hover over the chambered ‘pool of sorrows’ where bones rest with ancient trinkets, pottery and quartz crystals, holding precious memories and inspiring ballads of nostalgia to drift on high. There is no trace of the modest oval cairn that once surrounded these sturdy slabs, its gravel mound having crumbled back to the Earth. It is rumoured to be the most visited dolmen in Ireland, its true purpose and age challenging the imagination of all who ponder its presence.

Down to the Valley of the Ivy, cast in sun, stands a dominating tower where rock doves cry, a sort of Irish obelisk. Wall-mounted turrets sweep out in circular formation, perhaps where watchful eyes once kept lookout, while meagre gaps allay my inquisitiveness by permitting a partial glimpse of the vacant interior. This is Gleninagh Castle, constructed for the O’Loughlin family and occupied until 1890. It is all that remains of this centuries old limestone abode, once heavily populated before the great famine. Unruffled bovines now stroll on the surrounding marshy meadow, like guardians of the ruins, guarding their own with siren moos and looking out over a modest mound of silvery pebbles to a sea that claimed souls long ago. Fresh dung odours the air, slightly off-putting, yet nearby three-cornered leek teases the tongue - more appealing! Ash branches, holding prayers of healing, drape over the stagnant waters of the nearby Holy Cross Well, almost concealed by nature and one of many such founts to be found in the area. This one claims to restore sight to those denied the visual allure of Gleninagh. 

On another day we set out again with modest writing pads and pens ready to take ‘nibble notes’ of the sites we explore. Further inland this time, encircled by Glenamana - the fertile valley, swallows dart and jackdaws glide from striking stone arches that rise from the limestone. This is Corcomroe, later acquiring the moniker ‘Sancta Maria de Petra Fertili’ – Saint Mary of the Fertile Rock. There is a placid peace about the abbey, apparently founded in 1194 CE by Donal O’Brien the then King of Limerick and constructed between 1205 and 1210.  But its remnants, we learn, are immersed in myth. A solitary starling sits on high calling me towards a complex of Celtic crosses, marking budding shrines. Like Alice in Wonderland I crouch and creep through shrinking doorways where a labyrinth of transepts and tombs are unveiled. The chapels are home to carvings of intriguing dragons’ heads and the frozen faces of monks, who stare out from pillars leading up to a stone-vaulted roof. Elsewhere botanical motifs embellish the careful stonework, reflecting the Burren plant life. Legend tells of murdered masons, whose treasured designs were laid to rest here after the completion of the building, intended to prevent any replication of its unique construction. Cattle cries in the distance seem to lament their loss and the heart and soul feels truly captured by these Cistercian ruins.

Winding on, through jarring twists and turns, we dip over the rim of a polje. This depression in the land surrounded by hills unexpectedly reveals Carron turlough, left from a long winter. These magical ‘dry lakes’ disappear in warmer climes but we are blessed to catch its swamping of the grasslands, like an oasis or playground for Lir’s brood, the whooper swan. White-fronted geese can also be found here and not far off we encounter the enchanting call of a cuckoo. With recent concerns aired about the birds decline, it is a pleasure to gaze upon one here. I take a mental note to consult my bird omens back home, curious of its symbolism.

Next on our itinerary is a visit to a more recent attraction but one that equally invigorates the senses. Trundling down a rutted road, bordered by thickets, we emerge under an awning of ancient trees and the comforting patter of gentle rain. Here sits the Burren Perfumery, where the cordial owners rightly take pride in their selection of natural cosmetics and pampering products. They are free from harmful ingredients such as sodium lauryl sulphate and instead wisely utilise the native plants, inspired by their venerable medicinal properties, to create the Burren Botanicals range. A resident tabby weaves about our legs, meow-ing a welcome, and every step seems to encounter a new, enticing scent from the woody bases of moss and lichens to fresh citrus and sweet lavender and thyme. On sunnier days the herb garden is ideal for relaxing and enjoying the aesthetics and aromas, while the neighbouring tea room promises homemade soups and breads, organic cakes and pies and cheeses and salads from local suppliers. Before departing I treat myself to one of the unisex colognes, spellbound by its recipe of sea freshness and saccharine tang.

On our final evening we take a mystery tour and stop by a random roadside spot, wondering what more there is to see. Through the Burren jungle of treacherous shrubs that cleverly conceal a secret pathway, to a lost crinoid tomb, we carefully side step and leap over grass-covered grykes. Wild geraniums and orchids hide among edible plants such as the silverweed and miniature blackthorn and elderberry trees. Then, a tempting and timeless expanse opens up suddenly and a childlike excitement compels me to run and fly over the acres of Sheshymore. Ivy creeps out from where trembling webs bridge the gaps in the rock, housing patient arachnids. Winds whisper in my ear of stories untold here. Time is no more. It is a space to ponder the meaning of a short life that measured against the layers of limestone feels suddenly insignificant. But as I sit and stare out across the apparent remoteness, breathing in the air that lacks any kind of definite scent, I do not feel vacant or empty, or lonesome. There is a gentle comfort, a personal contentment that is reachable without searching and shared without speaking. To the west, cracks appear in the thick clouds like the scores of channels and flutes on the limestone floor. A sliver of blue breaks through. Hope. 

The elements of this landscape mingle endlessly and offer much to the creative mind, from the furtive depths of its countless wells. We learn to expand and refine our senses to truly merge with the milieu and back in the tranquil village of Ballyvaughan we attempt to convey our experiences with originality, now aware of lazy narrative. Bringing our weekend to a close, I decide to share a reading with my fellow creative companions. Having searched fruitlessly for John O’Donohue’s book of poems, entitled Conamara Blues, I happened by its iridescent cover in the local tourist shop and on the final page felt inspired by the Burren Prayer. It summed up our shared experiences perfectly. 

The Burren can be many things; a weekend respite, a spiritual retreat or perhaps just a memorable stop on a ‘passing through’ trip – but one that will surely linger in the mind and soul. I leave feeling touched and spirited, taking home an inner peace and a desire to return some day soon. With such diversity and history, any who visit this unfamiliar paradise shall be pleasantly spoilt and find the soul richly nourished.

Upon my arrival home the bird oracle refreshes my memory and with an impish grin my cuckoo curiosity is gratified: “comfort, renewed help, fortune and gain.”

For those who may be interested in a Burren writing workshop, contact Paul Clements for more information by email: clementsrp@googlemail.com or telephone: 044 2890 641105.