As I stand on the boulder-laden shore at Black Head the only sounds are the soft murmur of the wind, the gentle lapping of waves and the occasional squawk of a solitary gull. They are scarcely discernible since the sound that registers most strongly with me is a deep, penetrating, timeless silence.
I look northwards across Galway Bay towards Connemara. I have in my hand a rounded chunk of weather-beaten rock no larger than a tennis ball that I had picked up from under my feet. It is granite; and I might argue that it does not belong here. For this place is a vast expanse of limestone. Everything about this unique and vulnerable region of north Clare is an expression of limestone. It is limestone, gryke fissured and fossil rich, that is the bedrock of the Burren landscape.
So what is this granite pebble doing here? It is, like me, a visitor, an interloper, perhaps a disturber of the peace. It has travelled from Connemara, brought during the ice age and deposited by a retreating glacier some fifteen thousand years ago.
There are many much larger chunks of Connemara granite spread across the Burren. Alongside them, in even greater profusion, stands an explosion of large and grotesquely shaped limestone boulders. Collectively these rugged, motionless giants are known as erratics. They contribute much to the character of the area. They have defied its storms, become rooted in the land and earned the right to settle here. To my mind they have a craggy, resourceful sense of belonging about them. It is a quality that I cannot claim. I have come to the Burren in springtime as a first time visitor, not to merely pass through in the manner of the casual tourist in a hurry, but to absorb as best I can the enchantment and the strangeness of this magical place.
Clouds gather and part again sanctioning intermittent glimpses of late afternoon sunshine. My presence may have unsettled them, for it seems as if they are sizing me up, taunting me, considering whether to brighten into welcoming sunlight or to scare me off with a deluge of angry rain.
They soften, and in response the landscape smiles its greeting to me. All around there are large pallid grey slabs of limestone reflecting a soft light; and weathered limestone boulders with some granites sprinkled among them. In the middle distance a dry stone wall is the only visible evidence of any human contribution to the scene. Yet it is the expanse of limestone pavement underfoot that commands the attention of my eye.
I begin to look more closely and with a sense of expectation, for these slabs or clints as they are called, support tufts of rough grass and some intriguing plant life. I spot clumps of primroses, the first of many I was to see over the next few days; then a small unobtrusive flowering of saxifrage. This is rare in Ireland and one of the Burren’s special delights. It is my good fortune to arrive in springtime to see it in bloom. But even more astounding is the abundance of plant life in the fissures – the grykes – between the clints. Even my untrained eye can recognize a jungle in miniature, a profusion of colourful growth shielded from winter harshness in these steep sided miniature gorges. It is here, among an exuberance of fern leaves, that I see my first tiny, bright blue spring gentians – the signature plant of the Burren – and closely packed sea pinks, bell heathers and delicate creamy petalled, yellow centred mountain avens.
Here, too, I come across a pale brown fungus, resembling a human ear in both shape and size. This, I believe, is the Jew’s ear fungus which takes its name from the story that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree, on which this species is often found. It is one of few fungi able to withstand freezing temperatures. Is it, I wonder, a potential disturber of the peace?
Overnight rain unsettles the intense quiet and returns with a raging violence in mid morning as our small group visit the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb. This early and distinctive expression of the human presence in the Burren lies in a treeless, exposed upland site. I am soaked through and through in less than fifteen minutes. This is the Burren in angry mood, reminding me, perhaps, that I am an interloper, possibly a disturber of the peace.
The storm passes quickly. Yet it sharpens my admiration for the gritty resourcefulness of those Neolithic people laid to rest at this site some six thousand years ago. They, too, might once have been interlopers but, like the ice borne granite wanderers from Connemara, they came to stay, to settle and to belong. I imagine them as a sturdy people, respectful of the indigenous flora and of the changing moods and sounds of the place to which they had come – its intense mysterious silences, its spring song of twittering wagtails and yellowhammers, its clattery raging winter storms.
Here, too, the limestone clints dominate and, nestling among them in a gryke, a sturdy stemmed purple orchid rewards my inquisitive gaze. It stands alone. I see several more of them. Statuesque and distinctive they, too, stand alone amid the ubiquitous ivy, ferns and primroses. They epitomise a spirit of survival, as if drawing sustenance from the bones in the ancient burial ground over which they seem to keep silent vigil.
Remarkably, there are twenty four catalogued species of orchid in the Burren. With patience and good fortune it would be possible to see, for example, a pure white orchid – a Burren speciality – or a common spotted orchid or a flecked marsh orchid or a dark red one. They, together with the gentians and mountain avens, crown a multi-coloured extravagance of over six hundred alpine and arctic flowering species that carpet the landscape. Their survival, fostered by the micro climate in the grykes, is an environmental wonder. This is a fragile ecosystem that demands our understanding and respect. There is no place here for casual interlopers, careless urbanites or other disturbers of the peace.
These thoughts were still with me when, on a new and brighter day, our group visited the roofless stone structure of Corcomroe Abbey. The site, dating back to 1200AD, was established by the Cistercian order in a fertile valley overlooking what is now Bell Harbour. I imagine that the impact of the monks on the indigenous druidic population might have been both radical and substantial. They would have encountered a people imbued with a pre-Christian spirituality, inclined towards gratitude for the earth, the natural environment and the cycle of the seasons. Reverence for these things was woven into their nature. Perhaps, when the abbey first became established, the influence of the monks would have been unsettling. They were at that stage, mere visitors, interlopers, maybe even disturbers of the peace.
Yet they brought with them new skills in agriculture and animal husbandry; and a new spirituality to which these ruins bear eloquent testimony. They had their own uniqueness, and they won their own right to meld into this place and to contribute their own reverential silence to a place already rich in silence and spiritually intense.
The abbey is not merely a relic of the past, for within its walls are recent headstones where fresh flowers have been laid. As I reflect on these ruins and the soft cloud cover watching over them, I imagine a colony of diligent, unworldly monks gathering for silent devotion after a day of labour in field and workshop with, perhaps, a single voice intoning a late evening office. In such a context Gregorian chant would not be out of place and it was an enriching experience to hear one of our small group give eloquent expression to it.
Just beyond the west door of the abbey stands a solitary hawthorn tree in full bloom, its white blossoms exalting in the soft morning light. There are several other single hawthorns near at hand, all in bloom, and a greater abundance of hardwood trees than elsewhere in the Burren. Livestock, too, are more abundant, the valley able to support grazing cattle, sheep, horses and some feral goats. Evidently the monks had recognised right from the start that this was a prime sheltered site, and it comes as no surprise that the abbey was named after “Our Lady of the Fertile Rocks.”
By contrast, far inland, above the tree line and unsignposted, lies the exposed, barren limestone plateau of Sheshymore. If I thought the slabs at Black Head were visually striking, they must still yield precedence to this flat and fractured other-worldly landscape. It is characterised by an extensive criss-crossed network of grykes and large flat platforms stretching almost to the edge of the flat horizon. Here and there a few individual woody hawthorns stretch out from within the grykes, and soggy rough grasses soften the edges of the clints.
It was our good fortune not only to find this place, but to do so on a bright day with only well dispersed fluffy white clouds overhead. The clints glisten in the sunshine, bestowing a silvery sheen that complements the unexpected warmth of the exposed rock surfaces. The effect is breathtaking, inducing in me a sense of my own insignificance. This would be a good place for pilgrimage, for solitary meditation and for the nurturing of personal humility. Its naked wildness compels an urge to stand motionless, barefoot and resolute like a human erratic abandoned by a retreating glacier. Its impact runs deep, rendering me speechless. I dare not disturb the peace.
I envisage its character in winter as bleak, inhospitable, at times eerily silent, at others ravaged by an aggressive, howling wind. This is real Burren – rocky, uncompromising – yet, to me, sacred, and fragile in environmental terms. It must have challenged the resolve of the early inhabitants. I feel sure they knew this place, for it lies only a short distance from Poulnabrone. They endured. They stood up to this landscape, respected it and ultimately became a human manifestation of its nature.
So it might well have been with successive inhabitants. Those who live in this place today come across as natural inheritors, imbued with a natural patience, resolution and warmth. In our characterful hotel in the coastal village of Ballyvaughan, the softly welcoming turf fire chimes with the quiet graciousness, courtesy and self evident sincerity which greeted us. It is the same in O’Loclainn’s tiny pub, its ageless character encapsulated by a sign on the outside wall advertising Player’s Navy Cut Cigarettes.
Inside it is standing room only and I feel privileged simply to watch and listen to a quietly spoken, rugged population at ease with itself. The feeling of warmth is tangible. Almost without realising it we had slowed down to the pace of the land, engaged with its human sounds and embraced its welcome. This is today’s world, Burren style, with no neon lights, no high street shops, no disturbers of the peace.
Some indefinable quality about the people persuades me that they care about the land they have inherited. Among their number are some five hundred farming families. That is not as many as a generation ago; but these are people wedded to a sense of place. My impression is that they belong to the Burren rather than the Burren belonging to them. They care for its fragility. Their practice of hill grazing and avoidance of artificial herbicides respects the limestone pavements, limits the encroachment of scrub and sustains the wealth of wild flora. There is a partnership here between man and nature that, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s words, would “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
To blend into this place and absorb its riches requires us to become uncluttered, to lay aside everyday city dweller scepticism, suppress the ego and submit to its mystery. This is a nourishing place, its undisturbed timelessness yielding up a visible expression of something divine. Here, if we are willing to be receptive to it, is a remedy for much of today’s widespread spiritual hunger.
The sounds and the sensations of intense quiet and of howling winds command the landscape. Yet it still nourishes gentle blue spring gentians; and its people seem entirely reconciled to these conditions. They present to us a natural equilibrium that embraces both an internal and an external peace so often absent from our fast moving, acquisitive modern mind set.
There is a quality about this place that is captured in one of the highest and noblest expressions of human art. I am thinking of the closing section of the Agnus Dei from Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis. In the setting of the words dona nobis pacem (grant us peace) there is a mood of rapt resignation. At this stage in Beethoven’s life he was almost completely deaf and in a state of abstraction from the mundane world. The resulting music is unmistakably visionary and “beyond.” It pleads for inner and outer peace. There is a deep sense of the divine about it. So it is, also, with the Burren. In this place the divine is present in nature at its most unsullied. As we tread its limestone pavements we can come face to face with a higher consciousness.
Beyond this, the strain that Beethoven’s word setting imposes on the choral voices captures the harshness of life and landscape for the first inhabitants of this place. There is an unearthly essence and a hard won serenity about it that is mysterious, capable of assuaging human guilt, and conducive to an intensity of inner enrichment.
All of this is composed into the Burren landscape. The earth shattering sound of Beethoven’s deafness proclaims the same message as the silence of the Burren. It pleads that we should not disturb the peace. It holds out hope – perhaps not certainty; but if we reach out to the heart of the Burren we can grasp that it has the same pleading urgency about it to intercede on our behalf.
That is the magic and the mystery of this place. To truly experience these things, to yearn for inner and outer peace and to hear the sound of the Burren is to embrace its message for our age.
18 September 2009