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In Search Of The Burren

Contributor:
Sabine Schneider
Sabine Schneider
Carrowmore
Carrowmore
Cliffs of Moher
Beware of falling off cliff
The Burren
Treacherous walking

We’re flying Germanwings from Cologne to Dublin. This airline deserves a special mention because it provides seats like loungers and the knee space of business-class flights. No comparison to the claustrophobic herrings-in-a-tin experience on our flight from Auckland to Frankfurt with Emirates - complete with what seemed to be fifteen stopovers, bruised knees and armrests that have left permanent indents in my hips.

Budget traveling on European public transport is hard work. Without the help of butler and maid it is grueling business, and having no privacy is the worst part of it. Everyone looks on while you eat a sandwich or take your socks off. Even hitching up your trousers becomes a public spectacle. But at least they have a public transport system to speak of and in true Kiwi fashion the travel companions are determined to make our eight-day Irish adventure a memorable one – whichever way.

In the early 1990s I traveled on my own on a cycling tour through the Burren in County Clare, and ever since I’ve been longing to go back to see if my magical memories match the reality of this new-and-economically-improved Ireland.

The capital Dublin is a large metropolis that looks only marginally different from every other big European city. There is a distinct lack of street signs and benches to rest on. We find out later that this is an Irish plot to get back at tourists who clog town centres, heritage sites and spots of formerly outstanding natural beauty.

My feet are hurting when we arrive at the bus station and I briefly doubt our decision to travel on public transport. We have half an hour to kill so I sit on a ledge of yellow tiles watching people arrive in waves and wash into town. Others form orderly queues to get away.

Loudspeakers warn frequently not to leave baggage unattended. One young man frantically rummages in his open suitcase while pushing it along with the slowly meandering queue. Once done, he sets the wardrobe-size case upright and disappears. Only seconds later a security guard arrives and drags the suitcase to the back of the line. Another few seconds and the young man returns, panicking for his luggage. He spots the guard with his belongings and is in for a lecture when he approaches. Security is a serious business these days – not just at international airports, but also at Dublin bus station.

Our bus to Sligo on the western side of the fair isle hasn’t arrived, and it’s coffee time with a capital C. I ask my travel companions to keep a close eye on my bags and go in search of stimulating brew.

In a coffee bar I get my first brush with modern Ireland. A very young woman with spiky hair gives a bored “next” and I step forward.

“One large cappuccino and two large lattes to take away,” I tell her.

She busies herself and seconds later shoves two enormous paper cups across the counter.

“Where’s the third?”

“What third?”

I like her accent.

She gives me that growly teenager look.

“I wanted a large cappuccino and two large lattes,” I say patiently.

“You should have said so.”

“I did. Could I have the third, please?”

“A cappuccino?”

“If these are the lattes.”

“What?”

I point to the rapidly cooling cups, “Well, if there’s latte in these cups I’d like you to make the cappuccino.”

“Large?”

“Yes, please.”

“Whatever!” She rolls her eyes at the obstinate old bag who demands coffee in a coffee bar.

I get my third cup, pay a price I could have got a small car for and manoeuvre them to my companions. We take a sip and look at each other. The cups contain hot milk with a faint coffee taste. The cappuccino milk is slightly stronger and I regret the fact that I didn’t order it. Oh, well, we sigh, when in Rome... (If only we WERE in Rome!) The Irish, after all, are a nation of tea drinkers.

The bus is grubby and we don’t want to relax our heads or arms or anything. But soon we’re acclimatised and snuggle into the germs. It’s a pleasant three-and-a-half hour, gently undulating ride. Rain, and windows that seem to have received countless kisses from departing lovers wearing heavy make up make it hard to look at the emerald countryside Ireland is so famous for.

Because it’s peak season we had booked the Sligo hostel months ago. Relieved to be on our feet again we set out from the bus station, clutching an instruction sheet “How to get to your hostel”, which we follow by the letter. “Turn right at the third traffic light”, say the directions. Only, after the second traffic light the road goes ever on and on and disappears in the distance without other lights in sight. Our backpacks seem heavier each minute. We walk about 180 miles before we arrive at the hostel. Following our ramblings on a city map, we are told later that the instructions are meant for travelers who arrive by car. We could have walked to the hostel in 15 minutes. Why then, we demand to know, do the instructions start at the bus station?

We share a female-only dorm with seven others. The atmosphere reminds me of midnight parties with peach schnapps and fags at rare school outings. We’re booked in for two nights, so we make ourselves as comfortable as is possible on the bits of MDF that pose as bunk beds. The mattresses are comfortable if you don’t count my backside hanging over the edge. No, I’m exaggerating. It’s only my knees sticking out.

The kitchen is well equipped and I immediately start cooking a proper meal with salad and all. Salad, by the way, seems to be an optional part of Irish meals. As are vegetables or, in fact, anything that could contain vitamins. No wonder – if you had to part with two bucks for a carrot you might loose the taste for it quite quickly, too. Everybody piles on meat and potatoes with gravy. I like that a lot, but today I crave fresh veggies, cooked to the point, and salad with a light balsamic dressing. For the price I pay for the tiny bag of seasonal greens I could have bought a batch on Waiheke.

Anyway, we’re hanging out for our first Guinness experience, so we wash up double quick and go out, braving the howling wind and horizontal rain to find a pub.

So far, the locals have been friendly enough. Only occasionally we get a grumpy look that says “Why don’t you just go away and annoy somebody else? Bloody tourists.” But otherwise the Irish are a patient, laid-back lot. Even on the roads we’ve come across only one case of road rage. On one of these windy country roads that are too narrow for one car, let alone two, we meet a woman who comes screeching round a corner on two wheels. When we don’t drive into the ditch at once to make way for her, she honks her horn furiously and snarls at us through the window. Of course, she could be an American tourist, but for some reason we believe she must be Irish. Maybe the red hair?

The Guinness tastes nice, but gives me a headache. And it makes me snore. I snore anyway, so I’m glad I’ve done the good deed and handed out ear plugs to my fellow dorm mates. Some glare at me, some gracefully accept the plugs and smile in their various languages. That night everyone snores and I lie awake, feeling foolish.

In the morning, one of the travel companions sets out on shank’s pony to visit the Stones of Carrowmore, which is the oldest of all megalithic sites in Ireland, older than Stonehenge, older than the Egyptian pyramids. I only take one look out into the rain and decide to stay at the hostel. Those stones have been there for eons and will be there long after I’m dust, so one day sooner or later, if ever, won’t make a difference. At least not to them.

When she comes back later we go out to find a bank that will exchange our travelers cheques. I can’t recommend them at all and have completely forgotten why I got them in the first place. Stupid things. All they do is give you a headache. Nobody wants to change them and everybody wants to bite a huge chunk out of them. Anyway. While I’m patiently queuing with a thousand other people my travel companion is having a laughing fit in the little waiting area in the corner. She screams and waves her arms and simply can’t get over herself. When I enquire about the occasion she picks herself up and blinded by tears of joy she drags me to one of the seats where someone must have spent considerable time and effort clipping his or her toenails. All the not-so-little offcuts are spread out on the floor in front of a blue couch – neatly distributed in a half circle. I want to spontaneously combust, but manage to just crack a smile.

Back at the hostel, the travelers we meet are mostly from Europe. The elsewhere so familiar sight of Asian faces is missing. We hear a lot of French, Spanish and Italian. Germans, of course, are everywhere. They are tourists, but also pose as Irisher-than-the-Irish musicians and authentic Gaelic dancers. In this respect, Ireland is almost like the German countryside. Go to a parish fair in an obscure Irish village and the woman who sells original Aran sweaters is sure to answer your questions in a heavy German accent. “Yess, zey are all hant mate. By mee.”

From Sligo we take another grimy bus to Galway. The rain has set in and a real Irish woman tells us chirpily that it won’t stop any time soon. “Lovely weather it is. Might stay like this for a while now. Get yourselves an umbrella.” Which is the best advice we’ll get during our nine-week European expedition.

In Galway we try to book a hostel – in vain. It is the height of summer, so every bed is snapped up by hoards of other tourists. What are they doing here? Couldn’t they’ve gone somewhere else? We decide it’s best to move more quickly to our final destination – Carron in the Burren in county Clare.

The young woman at the Galway information centre is very friendly. Yes, we can have a family room in our preferred hostel in Carron – from Sunday. Today is Friday.

She hands me the phone and says “Speak to himself.”

I’m momentarily flummoxed. Who is himself?

Precious toll-call seconds pass until it dawns on me that the owner of the hostel is on the phone.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” he says politely, “I’ll ring Julianne. She’s only, wait, my mother is the forth, fifth, yes, six houses down the road. She has a Bed and Breakfast. She will put you up. I’m sure she’ll give you a good price, so you don’t have to worry about the money. On Sunday you can move to the hostel. There now.”

At least this is what I think he said.

I nod into the phone. I don’t know what I’ve agreed to but I have a good feeling.

We’re told there’s no way to get to Carron by public transport, which settles my secret desire for a car I’ve been harbouring for a good damp while.

Since it has been raining steadily we abandon our plan to hire bikes and cycle through the Burren. Instead, we get a car and stay dry. It causes a fair bit of friction among the travel companions. One had been looking forward to biking and doesn’t like to deviate from original plans. But that’s serendipity, I say to her. Go with the flow. If it rains and you haven’t got enough wet-weather gear you have to make sure you don’t get pneumonia or other nasties. So we hire a car for a week that is surprisingly cheap. It only costs the equivalent of a small South Sea island. I’m happy – and stay dry.

It seems possible that we will reach our final destination, the Burren, after all.

Wedge tombs, dolmen, stone circles, portal tombs, standing stones, medieval churches and Sheila-Na-Gigs – the Burren is a Mecca for historians, geologists, botanists and bird lovers alike.

Boireann – Burren – is the Gaelic expression for a stony place. Situated south of Galway, its southern border runs along a line drawn roughly between the famous Cliffs of Moher in the West and Corrofin in the East. From afar, the landscape of the Burren looks like grey-green patches, dotted with the colours of wild flowers and bordered by lovingly arranged stone walls – quite unlike anything found elsewhere in the world.

Close up, the slow traveler will see that the landscape is aptly named: The Burren is dominated by stones. Over thousands of years they have been ploughed out of fields and made into low walls, houses, churches, stables, bridges – every man-made structure conceivable has their characteristic slate-grey colour.

Over-grazing and deforestation has left the ground almost without top soil. Instead, solid rock with deep fissures and crevices make for treacherous off-path walking. We wonder how anything can grow in such a seemingly hostile environment and read in the excellent Burren map by TD Robinson that wind and rain constantly transport traces of soil into the holes where consequently wild flowers, ferns and mosses sprout, fed by underground water deposits. The unusual growing conditions see plants side by side normally found in quite different locations: Alpine plants, such as gentian, and meadow dwellers, such as cranes bill and meadowsweet grow right next to wild orchids, valerian and arctic ferns. My herbalist’s heart rejoices. I love wild flowers so I spend a good part of my time in the Burren flat on my stomach looking at the tiny beauties and taking photos.

The air smells of honey.

In tourist brochures the small village of Carron is called a “walker’s paradise” and “the heart of the Burren”. It is, as we find out, a very good place from which to start our Burren exploration.

We’re eager to make the most of our involuntary B&B experience. Our host in Magouhy House in Carron is Julianne O’Loughlin, a middle-aged Irish woman whose ancestors have been in these parts for generations. Her parents had emigrated to Canada when she was still a child, but she returned to her roots later in life. She has soulful eyes and entertains us with dry humour and funny questions: I will make more coffee, no? You want more toast, yes? She knows every single restaurant that is worth its salt in the whole of the Burren (and possibly beyond) and is also a source of local folklore. We’re fascinated to hear that she plays the traditional Irish accordion and also dances in a group.

Our room is spotless with an en suite, and we enjoy that little bit of privacy. What we don’t know yet is that every faint noise you might make in your bedroom or bathroom can be heard clearly in the dining room below.

Breakfast is a hit with the meat eaters in our group: Bacon and sausage, toast and eggs, all cooked to perfection and accompanied by jams and juices, fruit and cereal, gallons of coffee and tea – you want more, no? Everything you can come up with when prompted “breakfast” is on the table. Having cooked our morning meal Julianne watches us tuck in. Leaning against the doorframe she looks at us for a long moment and dreamily rubs her ample décolleté. Finally she says “You’re interesting women”, which makes us feel good, so we eat a bit more. Then she chats to us, assuring that she doesn’t normally do this. We don’t mind because we like her stories – and her food.

We stay two days before moving to the hostel down the road from Magouhy House. Julianne waves goodbye.

Clare’s Rock, Carron’s only hostel, is a spacious place with newish buildings housing family rooms. Although I loved Magouhy House and Julianne I like the hostel better than a B&B: It combines the privacy of a B&B with the freedom to eat and cook whenever, whatever you like. And it’s cheaper, too.

We share the Burren with thousands of tourists who all want to experience the same Irish rain. Appropriately, one of the travel companions says “The rain feels more damp here.” I agree and lean back in the car, wriggling my warm and dry toes. I think of what might have been if we’d hired the bikes, but quickly abandon the thought.

The car takes us all over the walker’s paradise. The mysterious town of Kilfenora seems to follow us everywhere we drive. Emerging from a single-lane road, thinking we’re miles away, we pop out in Kilfenora. Believing we’re close to Ennistimon, after a roundabout journey on grassy gravel paths, we come out in Kilfenora. Desperate for a road sign, we spot one in the distance. It points to – Kilfenora. Where else would one want to go!

Kilfenora is a picturesque town with a tourist office that doubles as Burren Museum. We pay an admission fee (only an arm and a leg) and are ushered through a door that leads to a gloomy room with glassed-in displays lining the walls. One of them looks like the abandoned playground of a demented baby giant: Crude replicas of prehistoric ocean dwellers dangle from the ceiling. They have large teeth and mean eyes. The background is painted in the psychedelic colours of a bygone era. Small faded plastic flowers represent local flora. But not all presentations are sad. Others contain life-size men with spears and matted hair hunting a huge bloody-mouthed bear. In a nearby display women clad in fur and grass are doing the dishes. Or stirring the soup. Or nursing the babies. Or whatever the men who designed the exhibition thought women ought to have been doing in those days.

Suddenly, a girl opens a door in the wall, blinding us with light. “You can come back here later,” she says mercilessly, and herds us into another room where a DVD starts almost immediately. The film is suitably accompanied by traditional Irish music, which makes me want to cry although the pictures are of bouncing fox puppies and birds flitting in and out of rushing waters. This 15-minute film praising the beauty of the Burren is at the same time grand and quaint – something I believe only the Irish can pull off.

It’s still raining outside, so we’re not in a hurry to leave Kilfenora.

There’s a souvenir shop opposite the visitor’s centre. It is named after the infamous Maire Rua of nearby Leamaneagh Castle. The owner of the shop is the knowledgeable Nora O’Gorman. While rummaging and hunting for keepsakes and pressies we ask her a thousand questions: Who is Maire Rua, why is she depicted with a knife between her teeth, where is the nearest stone circle, is there another Sheila-Na-Gig in the area? And so forth. Nora patiently answers, and when she doesn’t know the answer straight away, she employs the help of maps and locals who pop in and chat, using the shop as shelter from the elements. We decide that Nora is more useful than the girl in the visitor’s centre who just repeats words from the brochure we’d already read. Thank goodness there are things we like in the shop so we’re not just browsing and asking, but also buying loads to make it worth Nora’s while.

Of course, now you want to know who the heck is Maire Rua. She was the young wife of the master of Leamaneagh Castle close to Carron. In the 16th century, they ruled over a large part of the Burren. When her husband dies soon after their marriage, she vows to keep the land for herself and her two young sons. So she marries again, but this husband dies, too, leaving her with five more children. Meanwhile, Cromwell’s men are seizing Irish lands, but Maire Rua vows again to keep her land. In her best clothes she rides into the enemy’s garrison and demands to speak to the leader. He grants her wish to be married to any of his captains, admiring her chutzpah. Not quite unexpectedly, her captain dies soon after arriving at the castle. She demands another, and another … until none wants to marry no more. As the story goes on it becomes more bloody by the minute and in the end it is all too apparent why Maire Rua is depicted with a knife between her ruby-red lips.

The next morning, the whole world switches from black and white to Kodachrome: The sun has come out.

We decide it’s time to drive to the famous Cliffs of Moher. Controversially, they’ve been touristified a few years back, so instead of a jumble of cars and people running around falling off the cliffs, there is now law and order. And money to be made. Fair enough, I say. Ireland has long enough been the poor house of Europe.

We are funneled into a car park the size of Lake Taupo and part with no more than a few pieces of silver. Fortunately, the fee includes the entrance to the cliff area.

We march in an orderly procession with hordes of tourists like us: Strangers to the place, clad in not too clean clothes and not too sensible shoes. Strapped around ample middles hang the various paraphernalia tourists think might come in handy: Camera, water bottle, light lunch, maps, brochures, compass and the kitchen sink. Regrettably, we don’t have a compass, but we have umbrellas, which we packed even on this fine day.

The cliffs are as promised in the brochures - impressively high. Rising more than 200 metres above sea level they offer a breathtaking view out to the Atlantic ocean. As soon as we can escape the procession we wander about freely and are amused by the many signs warning people not to jump over the high rail and fall off the cliff. Surely nobody would do such a daft thing. But we learn that, in spite of the blatant signs, several people fall to their death each year – some intentionally, but most out of plain stupidity and a complete disregard for the people who have to risk their own life to retrieve bodies or rescue the idiots.

Consulting our map for the next recommended site we find a holy well that is said to cure toothaches. Not that our teeth are aching, but one never knows what’s around the corner. The well is clearly marked on the map, but we can’t find it anywhere. It might be hidden in some farmer’s paddock (his or her family completely free of toothaches in all eternity), so we abandon the search.

Instead, we drive to the famous Burren Perfumery. Again we’re seated in front of a screen. Guides or presenters obviously are a thing of the past. Instead, everyone is instantly put to sleep by one of those informative DVDs with soothing music. The herb garden is small, but houses a good selection of medicinal and culinary herbs. The perfumery also has a still where a perfume maker shows how essential oils are produced, which we’re interested to see. Unfortunately the still is closed when we arrive. The perfume shop, however, is open, but a look at the price of a bar of soap makes us turn on our heels. We’re content with cheap wash’n’shine.

The Burren is a magic place with a calming effect. Here, the story of someone waking up only to find a hundred years have passed seems entirely possible. It starts bucketing down and the Kodachrome show is over. We don’t mind because we have to leave the stony place tomorrow.

On our bus journey back we pine for the clean car and admire the locals’ complete lack of fashion. We’ve blended in so well we could almost have passed for Irish women. If it wasn’t for the accent...

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