The Burren is one of Ireland’s most fascinating landscapes. It is a remarkable area justly famous for its limestone scenery, the abundance and diversity of its archaeological monuments, and the richness of its flora.
The sweeping limestone plateau is bounded on the north and west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the south and east by an invisible line roughly from Doolin to Kilfenora to New Quay on the shores of Galway Bay.
Originating from the Irish or Gaelic word ‘Boireann’ meaning a rocky place, the Burren boasts a unique environment with an unusual lack of soil cover, yet an abundance of exposed limestone pavement and nutrient-rich floral species.
The 260 square kilometers / 100 square miles is a little paradise for geologists, archaeologists, botanists, cave explorers, and walkers.
The Burren was formed during the Carboniferous period, between 360 and 320 million years ago. This area was the bed of a great sea. Its waters filled with tiny shelled creatures and coral which as they died, sank to the bottom. Aeons later mud and shale were dumped on top of the layer of a shell, crushing it and forming limestone rock.
The huge limestone pavements, called ‘clints’ are broken up by vertical fissures called ‘grikes’. These have allowed rainwater to drain through and carve out an extensive system of underground caves.
Since limestone is very high in nutrients, plants flourished here, and after the last Ice Age, these hills would have been covered in hazel scrub, pine, and yew trees. Later, oak, ash, and elm replaced them. It wasn’t erosion that removed the trees but humans, arriving around 5000 years ago and clearing the tops of the hills for farms, defense, and places of worship. The earliest signs of humans are the huge dolmens dating back to 3000BC.
While few trees manage to grow here now, other plants thrive. The Burren is a unique botanical environment in which Mediterranean and Alpine plants rare to Ireland grow side by side. Among the blue gentians, rock roses and mountain avens are 22 varieties of orchids.
The Burren is also one of the best places in Ireland for butterflies, with 28 species found in the area.