Friday, June 4, 2010

Day 10: The Burren

Today we explored one of the strangest landscapes that I've ever encountered—the Burren ("place of stone"). This vast expanse of limestone pavements not only contains a variety of wonderful flowers that inhabit the cracks and crannies (a natural rock garden), but also an extensive array of human artifacts ranging from holy wells to tombs to forts and beyond.

Our trip took us first to St. Brigid's Well—one of the fanciest holy wells that I've seen. In this case, the faithful leave behind items left by deceased loved ones. It is a haunting place, but also a beautiful one.

Next it was on to Kilfenora, home of the Burren Visitor Center and the so-called "City of the Crosses"—a monastery that included more high crosses in a single location than anywhere else in Ireland, as well as a selection of tomb slabs and other stonework.

The visitor center does a nice job of discussing the geography, ecology, and history of the Burren. Displays take one back in time, while explaining through reproductions of artifacts, audio-visuals, and still displays about relevant stories.

Once finished with the visitor center, I opted to run down the street while the others found lunch. My goal? Another holy well. This one is considerably less fancy than St. Brigid's, but is more typical of Irish holy wells.

I even made a new friend along the way. I'll call her Eloise.

The next stop was Caherconnell Stone Fort. When I first started coming here in 2002, I was totally unaware that this fort was even here. Today it has an elaborate visitor's center, a guided walk, a cafe and gift shop, and a wicked big parking lot.

The fort is what is classed as a "ring fort"—basically a large wall around a series of family dwellings. Such forts are exceedingly common, especially in the Burren. This one is especially well preserved.

Over the past two years, archaeologists conducted an excavation of a site just outside the walls of the fort. What they found is evidently unique in Ireland and includes human remains, various artifacts, and quite a lot more. New since last year, they now have a little computer terminal that allows you to see some of the artifacts.

As I say, the Burren consists of limestone pavements, glacial erratics, and various monuments. Poulnabrone dolmen is one of the most famous neolithic monuments and the area right around it offered students a chance to see some of the topography and flora of the area.

Dolmens are also referred to as "portal tombs." Remains were placed under the large capstone. When the site was excavated in the mid-1980s, scientists found no less than 33 separate humans represented at this one site.

While I don't think that I photographed one of the rare ones, the Burren is home to a range of plants ranging from sub-tropical orchids to alpine plants, to flowers that actually should be growing in Ireland. They hang on in the little cracks showing remarkable fortitude.

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