The Burren (Boireann, "great rock") is a large area of northern County Clare, in the west of Ireland, with karst landscape - a great bare limestone sheet sculpted by water action. Part of it is The Burren National Park, and part is The Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark. The area is loosely defined, with no park perimeters, entry fees or permits. To the west, the Aran Islands are the geological continuation of the Burren, but are not included here.
- There's nothing so grand as a town here.
- 1 Doolin together with Lisdoonvarna has the most facilities. There isn't a village nucleus, but a scattering of little communities. As it's on the coast it's the closest to the Cliffs of Moher, which stretch all the way south towards Lahinch
- 2 Ballyvaughan on Galway Bay is close to the sights of north Burren, such as Aillwee Caves.
- 3 Kilfenora is a tiny place and short on accommodation, but it's the most central for this area.
During Cromwell's campaign in Ireland, his local commander Edmund Ludlow said of the Burren "It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him." Those they were harrying were "tories" - bandits and guerrillas allied to the Royalist cause, before that word became a political description. Yet Ludlow went on to commend the local cattle that grazed on flowers and grass hidden in the limestone clefts. The clints and grykes of the Burren are its yang and yin.
The limestone was laid down in a bed 800 m thick in the early Carboniferous Age 325 million years ago. It was later overlain by shale and sandstone, but this was scoured away by glaciers in the late Quaternary Period. The last scouring ended 10,000 years ago, geologically quite recent, so most sculpting of the landscape began after that last thaw. A thin soil persisted until Neolithic times, then was lost to deforestation and overgrazing. This has led to a pavement-like landscape, with the "clints" being the bare, roughly rectangular rocks, and the "grykes" the clefts between, which retain soil and vegetation. Streams can't run above ground across this terrain, they plunge below to flow through caves. Farmers therefore lack water except in the polje - craters a km or more in diameter that trap water and become grassland; these have been created by pre-glacial rivers. Here and there lie "erratics", huge boulders of non-local material such as granite dumped by the glaciers.
The limestone terrain supports many rare plants including orchids, butterflies, the elusive pine marten, and feral goats. It's hardly the country for dairy farming, agriculturally what it's best for is growing rocks.
Get in & around
Bus 350 follows the coast from Galway six times a day via Kinvarra, Ballyvaughan, Fanore, Lisdoonvarna, Doolin, Cliffs of Moher, Liscannor, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Corofin and Inagh to Ennis. So coming from Dublin by road or rail, it's quicker to travel to Galway then take the bus south, than to travel via Limerick and Ennis and go north. However from Shannon Airport, head first for Ennis.
Inland across the Burren, buses run about as often as Shrove Tuesday coincides with an eclipse. You need a car: Shannon airport and Galway city are the best bets.
- 1 Cliffs of Moher stretch for 14 km south of Doolin towards Liscannor, but their high point of 214 m is midway, by the visitor centre and O'Brien's Tower. They're shale and sandstone from repeated river deposition 320 million years ago, now eroding into sea stacks such as the 67 m Branaunmore. Bird life includes Atlantic puffins and razorbills.
- 2 Doolin Cave is a show cave with a remarkable 7.2 m stalactite - but that's all, the cave is otherwise undecorated.
- 3 Aillwee Caves south of Ballyvaughan are more extensive show caves. Watch out for the bear.
- 4 Corcomroe Abbey east of Ballyvaughan is the ruin of an early 13th century Cistercian monastery. The Romanesque church is roofless but otherwise in good condition, with fine carvings, and the tomb of a medieval king.
- 5 Poulnabrone dolmen south of Ballyvaughan is one of the most impressive in Ireland. Three portal stones support a massive capstone - originally they would all have been covered by an earth mound. The remains of 33 adults were found here, dating to 3200-3800 BC.
- 6 Caherconnell Stone Fort looks utterly prehistoric, but this sturdy limestone ring-fort was occupied from 10th-13th C AD.
- 7 Carran area is dotted with dolmens. 3 km south is the stone fort of Cahercommaun, inhabited in the 8th and 9th centuries.
- Kilfenora has a tiny cathedral built circa 1198, with high crosses.
- Caves for cavers: lots for serious cavers to explore (eg near Doolin), beyond the tourist show caves.
- Scuba diving eg off Black Head. You'll need to be experienced in dry-suit diving, and self-sufficient as the Ballyvaughan Diving Centre has closed down.
- Look up your Irish Ancestors in the Genealogy Centre in Corofin south of Kilfenora.
- Bring plenty cash, many places don't take cards, and there's a dearth of ATMs.
- See Callan for The Burren Perfumery and Ballyvaughan for the Farmers Market.
- See Lisdoonvarna for The Burren Smokehouse.
Eat, drink & sleep
- See the village listings, Doolin and Ballyvaughan have the most. Self-catering cottages are dotted about everywhere, usually let by the week.
- Usual hazards: road traffic, and occasional theft from vehicles, is the main risk.
- The hard limestone rocks make for mud-free walking, a delight in Ireland, but it means that trails are indistinct, and the sea mist can roll in suddenly. Beware cliff edges even inland let alone on the rugged coast.