Walking the Burren in Co Clare is a beautiful odyssey through a stony place
Tradition has it that in the 18th century the ancient fort of Caheranardurrish was both a penal chapel and a shebeen
All other rivers bar the Caher flow through the extensive cave systems beneath my feet, which invariably has me thinking of the Burren as a giant swiss cheese
At the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon recently, I found I’d forgotten to bring my teddy bear and so couldn’t get to sleep. I’m joking, of course – Teddy was safely beside me but I still couldn’t sleep. So I reached for Helen Fairbairn’s excellent walking guide to Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way and began to browse. A walk through the Burren promising limestone pavements, archaeological sites and fine coastal views caught my eye. I resolved this would be my challenge for tomorrow.
Neither bright nor early the following day I made my way from the start at St Patrick’s Church in Fanore. It was up a valley that is referred to locally as the Khyber Pass, with the Caher – the only river that manages the considerable accomplishment of remaining on the surface of the porous Burren – gurgling happily on my left. All other rivers flow through the extensive cave systems beneath my feet, which invariably has me thinking of the Burren as a giant swiss cheese.
The guidebook indicated I go left at a road junction. And so I followed the Burren Way, which conveyed me uphill to the ancient stone fort of Caheranardurrish. Tradition holds that in the 18th century this served incongruously as both an illegal penal chapel and an equally unlawful shebeen.
From here I struck out northwest across an expansive upland plateau towards the prominent eminence of Gleninagh Mountain, scrambling over several stone walls enroute. Views unfurled over a great empty landscape that seemed so beautifully sculpted by nature as it fell away towards Galway Bay and Connemara beyond.
This had me reflecting that the unrelieved emptiness of the Burren must seem, to the uninitiated, a skeletal landscape filled with nothingness, while it discreetly hides a rich treasury of complex flora. Depending on the time of year: mountain avens, beautifully delicate orchids, bloody cranesbills and, of course, the startlingly blue flowers of the ephemeral spring gentian stand out in outrageously colourful contrast to the grey limestone.
Beyond Gleninagh several small cliffs had to be descended with caution. Then it was upwards again to the summit known locally as Dobhach Bhrainin, which offers one of the best possible viewing points for the Aran Islands. Sitting there in a great silence, my thoughts turned to the timeless durability and permanence of this stony place born over 300 million years ago in tropical seas. This contrasts so starkly with human transience and triviality – the lifespan of a mayfly compared with an oak.
Dragging myself away, I followed Fairbairn’s directions through a great jumble of rock until I came upon another ancient fort – Caherdooneerish. Here early farmers took advantage of abundant limestone and the security of a high place to build a large edifice to protect both themselves and their livestock. The guidebook helpfully informed me that the great outer walls are 4m high and, incredibly, that this is just one of 400 such ring forts scattered across the Burren.
A little beyond I tagged left, as bidden, on one of the ubiquitous green roads originally built to facilitate the movement of livestock. Eventually this conceded to a gravel path leading to the R477 and the short ramble back to St Patrick’s Church. Teddy or no Teddy, I felt I would sleep well on the coming night.
Directions: From Ballyvaghan follow the R477 west around Black Head. Take the first left in Fanore to reach St Patrick’s Church.
Suitability: Reasonably demanding route involving some easy scrambling, with navigation skills necessary in mist.
Map: Discovery Series, sheet 51.
Time: 4.5 hours.