The Burren- Ireland’s Stony Wilderness

The Burren’s stony landscape is a fragile environment threatened by both too much and too little human attention. Every year, thousands of people hike the Burren’s rocky paths and marvel at the stone relics of its ancient inhabitants. And as small farms continue to dwindle, leaving too few sheep and cattle to graze between the rocks, scrub plants invade and displace native species, that once protected the Burren from wind and rain.

The very name Ireland evokes a postcard image of soft, intensely green countryside—so what is this harsh limestone scree doing there? It’s as weird as if you had just stepped onto the moon. The name “Burren” comes from the Irish word boirreann, which means “a rocky place”— what an understatement.

The coach tours that overrun the Cliffs of Moher trundle through here, too, but most day-trippers merely stare out the windows at the Burren and move on. It’s one thing to drive along corkscrewing R480 between Corofin and Ballyvaughan through the heart of the landscape, and another thing entirely to get out of your car and hike along portions of the 42km (26-mile) Burren Way footpath signposted from Ballyvaughan to Liscannor. These massive sheets of rock and jagged boulders quickly reveal caves, deep hidden potholes, and even tiny lakes and rushing streams. It even has its own terminology—the deep cracks riven in the rock are known as “grikes,” the chunks of rock between them as “clints.”

And then you’ve got to look even closer. The Burren is a botanical freak, one of the few places on the earth where alpine, arctic, and Mediterranean plants thrive side by side, clinging stubbornly to whatever soil they find in this uniquely cool, moist, bright coastal climate. There is always something blooming here, even in winter, from fern and moss to orchids, rock roses, milkwort, wild thyme, geraniums, violets, and fuchsia. The blue spring gentian— normally an alpine species—is so common, it’s the region’s unofficial mascot. Some species are relics of the warmer climate this region knew before the last ice age; others are descendants of seeds dropped by the same glaciers that grooved and striated the karst so dramatically.

Close as it is to western Ireland’s most popular tourist sites, the Burren could easily be overrun by tourists, and locals have had to fight off proposals for car parks and attractions. It seems hypocritical to keep out visitors altogether, though, for the Burren is hardly untouched by man. It’s been inhabited since megalithic times, as the wealth of dolmens, wedge tombs, and ring forts attest. Cattle and sheep grazed for centuries on the stubborn tufts of grass between the rocks, but as farms were abandoned during the famine, hazel scrub quickly invaded, and the naked stone lay open to pelting Irish rains and scouring winds.

A wide swath bordered by Corofin, Lahinch, Lisdoonvarna, Ballyvaughn, and Boston has been designated the Burren National Park, but don’t expect an official entrance or acres of parking lot. The Burren is already paved by nature—why add to that?