On the central western coast of Ireland is a land of prehistoric beauty.
It's a rugged place, characterized by slabs of limestone scored with swirling
testaments to millennia of glacial activity and erosion. At first glance, it's
wild and stark, but this unique landscape is anything but barren. It teems with
plant and animal life, and harbors the ghosts of human habitation that belie its current relative isolation. Physical scientists of every stripe -- geologists,
botanists, zoologists, anthropologists -- scour the 200 square miles known as
"The Burren" to unlock its secrets.
Cliffs Of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher, jutting some 700 nearly vertical feet over the Atlantic
Ocean and stretching for five miles of scenic beauty just off a major highway,
are one of Ireland's premiere attractions. And, indeed, they merit a visit. But
they are merely a gatekeeper for The Burren, that land of magic and mystery, or
"land of the fertile rock."
The cliffs are easily accessible for most travelers visiting the central
Atlantic coast. They are an hour or so northwest of Limerick/Shannon, and just
over half an hour from Ennis. The drive from Galway is about an hour and a
half, but includes many scenic treasures en route.
Human Habitation, Agriculture
Human habitation of The Burren has occurred for millennia. Approximately 75
recognizable "wedge tombs" are scattered throughout the region in
various states of preservation. These tombs are thought to date to Neolithic
times, some 6,000 years ago. Hundreds of ring forts are also located here, as
well as tower foundations, church sites, and a variety of gravesite structures.
Given the rough and rocky appearance of the surface of The Burren today,
it's hard to believe that the area was, and is, steeped in agricultural
activity. In centuries past, intensive agricultural practices, including
cultivation of the soils and overgrazing by livestock, contributed to the
depletion of the soils that once covered the rocky "moonscape" of
today. Yet the area is still utilized, with an ever-intensifying attention to
sustainability, by overwintering stock.
Poulnabrone ("Poll na Bron" in the Gaelic form), or "portal
tomb," at the Burren in County Clare is one of the world's best-known and
most visited dolmens. It is estimated to be 4,500 years old, which places it at
the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of Ireland's Bronze Age.
A short walk from the parking area takes you through a landscape of swirling
patterns etched in the exposed limestone, where you can glimpse the flora and
unique characteristics of the greater Burren.
The Burren is located in County Clare. The city of Ennis lies to the
southeast, and the metropolis of Galway is just to the north. Within or
adjacent to the Burren, the towns of Ennistymon, Ballyvaughn, Lisdoonvarna,and
Kinvarra are among those well accustomed to accommodating tourists.
Sally O'Neal is an Irish lass (by heritage) who lives in the Pacific
Northwestern United States. She visited Ireland, including the Cliffs of Moher
and the Poulnabrone Tomb on The Burren in May of 2009.