Big ideas in the Burren . . .
. . . and some small ones, too. The people of this ancient landscape are blending old skills with new to revitalise the community
Melissa Jeuken on her father’s farm, near Mullaghmeen, overlooking Mullaghmore. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Carl Fahy of Galway Bay Bagels with his wife Martina at the Flaggy Shore, New Quay. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Burren conservation volunteers clearing scrub. Photograph: Brendan Dunford
Conor McGrady, dean Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Frank O’Grady, who runs Farm Heritage Tours, at a cathair on his farm, in Carron. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Brendan Dunford of the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Mountain avens on the Burren landscape. Photograph: Brendan Dunford
Harry Jeuken with his BueLingo cattle, on his farm, near Mullaghmeen. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
When the Burren College of Art recently announced a new Dean of Possibilities no one batted an eyelid. Why not a dean of possibilities? In a land as old as the Burren, every possibility eventually becomes reality.
There’s a movement growing in the area of people reimagining new roles for themselves in this age-old environment. A backward-looking sense of forward planning. Farmers turning into tour guides, software developers becoming bakers: an experiment in social engineering.
The art college was founded 20 years ago in the courtyard of a 16th-century castle by a local man, Michael Greene, who saw it as a natural continuation of the learning tradition established by the old Brehon and Bardic schools of the 6th century and the monastic settlement of Corcomroe. Since then they’ve lured hundreds of, mainly American, artists from their city studios to “the rugged strangeness of this rocky place”. They are now experimenting with the idea of becoming a hothouse for creative thinking: mixing artists with lawyers, scientists and business people to challenge them and spark new potentials.
A hothouse of any sort in the Burren may seem a strange idea but they cite the Bauhaus school in Germany in the 1920s and Black Mountain College in North Carolina as inspirations – small, remote art institutions that had profound impacts on society.
The idea is to take people from one discipline, shake them up and redirect them. Most particularly, the Burren College of Art (burrencollege.ie) is keen to pry artists from the unhealthy introspection that pervades much of the art world and encourage them to contribute to society. Many others in the locality happen to be doing likewise.
Rory O’Shaughnessy, a stone mason visits schools to teach children how to carve bows and arrows from hazel, using shards of slate as arrowheads. He then makes them take aim at a basketball hoop, imagining it’s a deer up on a hill and if they miss it they won’t get dinner. The idea is to instil in them the skills of their hunter-gather ancestors. O’Shaughnessy claims his people have been here for two thousand years, so those ancestors are just like old cousins.
He works with Burrenbeo (burrenbeo.com), an organisation developing the idea of the Burren as a “heritage boot camp or Gaeltacht”, with locals providing immersive courses in the geology, archaeology, ecology and culture of the area. The Burren is a “learning landscape”, they say, the ultimate outdoor classroom. The concept of a heritage Gaeltacht might be considered pie-in-sky elsewhere, but the Burren could actually pull it off.
Burrenbeo have already been running a 20-week ecology programme in schools for a decade and 900 children have received certificates of Burren expertise, proving among other things that they can shoot a home-made arrow at a deer if required.
The weekly farmer’s markets of Kinvara and Ballyvaughan is like a vice den for these new imaginative free-thinkers. There are hawthorn-ketchup makers, bagel bakers, creative book-binders and the usual scattering of cheese and vegetable sellers selling their wares, and not just to an affluent elite or other blazing-eyed social pioneers, but to regular locals, while trad musicians play, as if honouring the indigenousness of the food with local tunes.
At the Kinvara market there’s an imposing septuagenarian selling bags of herbs who looks for all the world like a reincarnation of Biddie Early, the notorious necromancer of east Clare. This it turns out is Granny Fahy – mother of some the area’s most radical social entrepreneurs. Her family have farmed at New Quay by the Flaggy Shore for 160 years and for centuries before they farmed land nearby. Her bundles of wild leaves are grown by her sons Colm and Donnacha, who have a thriving organic vegetable business.