The Burren takes its name from the Irish word ‘bhoireann’ meaning, ‘a stony place’ or ‘a rocky place’, which is a good description for this 350 sq kilometres limestone plateau in North Clare. The rough, intriguing and attractive landscape was formed 320 million years ago under a tropical sea. Later it was shaped by ice and hard weather. The Aran Islands were formerly part of the Burren. They were detached from the region when sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age (circa 10,000 years ago). The term karst is defined as a landscape formed from the chemical dissolution by rainwater of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. Karst is a rare and precious land form. The Burren is home to one of the biggest karst landscapes in Europe.
The many wedge tombs and megalithic tombs are evidence that people have been living in the Burren for more than 5000 years. One of the more famous megalithic tombs, the portal dolmen at Poulnabrone, dates back to around 2,500 BC. ‘Dolmen’ is Breton for ‘table’, which is what a dolmen looks like – a large capstone on two or three standing stones. The findings at Poulnabrone showed a hard physical life with a coarse diet for people at that time.
Surface streams and rivers disappear underground as they cross from the shale to the limestone karst, and because of this the area underneath the limestone contains a huge network of caves.
In the 1640’s one of Oliver Cromwell’s generals famously described it as ‘a savage land,
yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him’. While few trees manage to survive here other plants thrive. In fact the Burren is
a plant lover’s paradise. From May to August the warmth the limestone radiates combined with the shelter plants receive in the fissures in the rocks mean that Alpine plants and plants from as farsouth as the Mediterranean flourish side by side. There are many rare and protected plants growing here. In fact 1100 out of the 1400 species of plants found in Ireland as a whole are found in the Buren.
The wildlife is rich, mostly smaller animals, but if you are lucky you may spot one of the big herds of feral goats, as well as badgers, foxes, hares, stoats or even a pine marten. The Burren is one of the best places in Ireland for butterflies with 28 species found in the area. Many birds are found along the coast, such as Razorbills, Guillemots and Puffins. The sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and the kestrel Falco tinnunculus are the Burren’s two most common birds of prey
The character and the colour of the Burren changes with the light, weather and the season – the rocks look steel grey sometimes, other times have a purple hue. In 2011 the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher were awarded the designation of UNESCO Geopark. The status is accorded by UNESCO to sites worldwide which are considered to be of universal geological significance. There are two other Global Geoparks on the island of Ireland – Copper Coast (Waterford) and Marble Arch Caves (Cavan and Fermanagh).