Stranger in a strange land
GO WALK: LENNY ANTONELLItakes a ramble through the empty lunar landscape of the east Burren
DO HILLWALKERS SHUN the Burren? We tend to think the only hiking destinations around these parts are in Connemara or Mayo. Sure there’s no mountains in the Burren. But walking here is unlike anywhere in Ireland – the wildlife-rich limestone is the perfect antidote to our other soggy brown hills.
The tour buses head west towards the Cliffs of Moher, but I went east instead to 326m Slieve Carran, known for its steep cliffs. A warren of tiny boreens criss-crosses the bare limestone landscape, and there’s barely a house. Just try giving directions out here. “Never have you been in stranger country,” Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote of this part of the Burren.
I set out from the car park at Slieve Carran and followed the trail through a gate. Those seeking a relaxed casual ramble can take the 2.5km looped walk that circles through limestone pavement, hazel woodland and wildflower-rich grassland in a section of Burren National Park. It also visits the oratory and cave at the base of the cliff, said to have been a 7th century hermitage for St Colman Mac Duagh. With its moss-covered woodland and clear spring, it’s quite the retreat.
But I veered off the trail and up the hill left of the cliffs. This was trickier than it looked: hazel thicket blocked my path, and when I found a way through I had to scramble up a wall of rock. Soon the going got easier. Hares darted up the mountain. Early purple orchids and spring gentians were in bloom, and the strange lunar ridge of the Turloughmore hills to the east dominated my view.
I ducked under a wire fence, and over a dry stone wall that I followed northeast above the cliffs until I spotted the giant cairn on the summit to the west. Once there, I could see the mountains of Connemara across Galway Bay, and east into the Slieve Aughty hills.
I once tried to make a loop down from the summit north of the cliffs to the limestone pavement and car park below. But I was blocked by a mix of hazel thicket, farmland and steep ground, and I emerged bruised from dense scrubland. “There is a way down there, but you really have to know where you’re going,” a walker I met on top said. If you want to go back to the car park from the summit, best return the way you came. This time I ventured deeper into the grey hills, heading for a stone wall running northwest to the next hill. A herd of wild goats saw me and scurried. The going got tough as the grass vanished, and I skipped over deep fissures in the limestone. I spotted mossy carpet and thought it would make easier terrain; instead my leg plunged a metre down a crevice hidden below.