The Burren Experience

Dunguaire CastlePhoto: Norma Scheibe
Dunguaire Castle
Photo: Norma Scheibe

“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…. and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
Cromwellian general, Edmund Ludlow (1617-1692).

Welcome to contains information on a variety of subjects, including Celtic myth and legend, archaeology, folklore, art, poetry, snippets of times past from old newspapers and a wide range of links from diverse sources. The comes from – Kinvara, Co. Galway,”gateway” to the Burren region.

The Burren is a landscape of swirling limestone and subterranean caves that run for miles through ungovernable soil and unforgiving terrain. Its wilderness of dips and hollows hold rocks that could take the leg out from under you, or crush you to oblivion if you’re not careful. Those same grykes and crannies shelter the most succulent of grass and the most exotic of plants. It can look as dry as a bone, yet conceals within itself springs of the purest and most refreshing waters. Bleak in aspect, shelter is attainable for those familiar with its eccentricities. The region also contains a rich archaeological heritage which dates to pre-christian times. Its flora is unique and intriguing, encouraged to flourish through a long-established tradition of land-management.
The Burren is a place of contradictions, and no small amount of magic. You could lose yourself there, and you might well enjoy the experience.


Kinvara – Seat of Kings

The Legend of The Flight of the Dishes

Burren Karst
Burren Karst

The Burren plateau is situated in the north-west of County Clare in west of Ireland.   Its name comes from the Gaelic word for “stony place”.

This area is bounded to the west and north by the Atlantic Ocean and the southern shores of Galway Bay, respectively. The southern boundary (from Corofin, to Kilfenora, to Lisdoonvarna, to the coast at Doolin), is where its limestone passes beneath younger rocks composed of shale and sandstone. To the east of the plateau lie the Gort-Kinvarra lowlands. It’s approximately 360 square kilometres in size and just over 300 metres above sea level at its highest point (Slieve Elva is 345 metres). To the west of the Burren lie the Aran Islands which were almost certainly linked to the Burren at some point.

Kinvara (also spelled Kinvarra) is nestled on the coast road, leading to the Burren.  If you’re travelling from the direction of Kilcolgan, (along the N67) prepare yourself for a surprise!

At Foy’s hill, just before the village the road dips.  It passes over the culvert by the holy wells of Tobarmacduagh and squeezes between two thatched cottages on the next rise. Just beyond,  Dunguaire Castle comes into view. It is an imposing sight, set, as it is, on a small hill surrounded by water on three sides.  Though small, it presents itself with strength and grace,  pleasantly startling the unwary traveller.  600 metres beyond the Dunguaire lies a car park.   The car park is on the left hand side of the road beside the thatched cottages. Dunguaire is a short stroll away.



Though nestled between shore and sea, fresh water was no problem for those who lived in Kinvara in times past. The three wells of Tobermacduagh provided sufficient for all.  The wells are still relatively intact and are marked by a stone cross.
They are recorded in the National Monument Service Record Database.
GA113-010002 identifies the stone cross at Tobermacduagh which is situated at the entrance to the site. The cross dates to 1820.

Tobarmacduagh crossGA113-01001 relates to the three wells at Tobermacduagh and is recorded as a Ritual Site. The cross and associated wells are situated at the base of Foy’s Hill in Dunguaire East not far from the shoreline. The site is framed by a small road leading from the N67 and lies within metres of both roads.

Tobermacduagh is carefully constructed. The wells are modified natural springs, framed with stone and capped. The capstone of two of the wells remain intact. A tree has encroached on the third, which may have been capped at some time. While the site itself is in need of attention, the construction of the wells in this manner has ensured their survival. Close by are the sites of Doansheedy Fort, Rath Durlais Promontory Fort and Dunguaire Castle.

Gateway to the Burren
Gateway to the Burren

Tobermacduagh is a unique site. This is due to the number of wells at the site, the possible duration of their use and their proximity to the Royal Seat of Rath Durlais Promontory Fort.

Holy wells in Ireland are generally single structures. While sites containing two or more wells exist (e,g, Killrossanty; Castlekeeran, The Well of the White Cow in Tara, and St. Augustine’s at Lough Atailia (two of the wells at the latter are no longer in existence), such sites are the exception rather than the rule. Tobermacduagh is the only surviving site with a series of associated wells in the Kinvara area. Though the Tobermacduagh cross dates to 1820, the date of these wells is unknown. Their antiquity can only be hypothesized. In this respect a number of factors can be considered towards providing a tentative date, the first being the history of Kinvara itself.

The Archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of Kinvara townland was first recorded in the Book of Lecan (c 15th Century). In it Kinvara is identified as the site of a battle fought by Finn MacCumhaill. Tales of Finn MacCumhaill and the Fianna, The Children of Lir etc. were drawn from the oral traditions of Pre-Christian origin and recorded by scribes during the Early Christian and Medieval periods. Mention of Kinvara therefore highlights the   region as one of significance within a Pre-Christian oral tradition.

In addition to this, Kinvara was recognised as the seat of five Kings of Connaught.  They were – Colman Mac Cobhtaig, Loigseach Mac Colmain, Guaire Mac Colmain, Muirchertach Nar Mac Guaire an Fergal Mac Arthgal.

Autumn Photo: Norma Scheibe
Photo: Norma Scheibe


The selection of a Royal Seat was not arbitrary. The chosen site had to fulfill a number of criteria. It had to be easily defended yet accessible for resources, food and fresh water being primary among them.

For pre-Christian Celts water was not just a basic of human life. Its source, its springs, rivers and wells held spiritual significance. It is arguably no coincidence that Tobermacduagh is situated scarcely 500 metres from Rath Durlais, the Royal Seat of Guaire.

Celtic tradition incorporated great reverence for the number three or multiples thereof. For example, Irish Triads occur in the Yellow Book of Lecan (end of 14th Century), The Book of Hiii Maine (14th Centure) and the Book of Lecan (15th Century). These Triads draw from sources of Pre-Christian oral tradition. Early Christian missionaries were aware of the reverence. pagan Ireland held for water sources. The Triad system was also recognised and adapted by Christian missionaries in their conversion of the pagan Celts and used to explain the Holy Trinity of Christian belief. When they sought to Christianise Ireland they adapted, adopted and absorbed Celtic pagan beliefs within their Christian framework. The importance of these sites within a pagan context was translated to a Christian one by commemorating the springs and wells to Saints, which is why so many Holy Wells exist in Ireland. In the process of transferral they retained their significance to the Celtic tribes while their ritual function evolved to embrace the new Christian belief system.
It is highly likely that Tobarmacduagh is not the original name of these wells at this site.Their approach was ingenious as it combined the Celtic reverence for water with the triplism common to Celtic oral tradition. The Holy Trinity was explained as ‘the well of the three streams’, while Christ was ‘the Salmon of the three wells’

Through their proximity alone the three wells of Tobermacduagh exemplify an accessible concept of the Holy Trinity.

Taking the above into account Tobermacduagh is potentially of considerable archaeological and historical significance. Its close association with Rath Durlais and Doansheedy fort highlights it as a site of possible ritual significance in a pagan celtic context. The presence of a cross at the site demonstrates the integration and fusing of two belief systems, Celtic and Christian. It can only be surmised when this changeover was effected and how long the site was in use prior to this.

The BurrenPhoto: Norma Scheibe
The Burren
Photo: Norma Scheibe Norma lives and works in Kinvara, Co. Galway – Gateway to the Burren.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comWeathering of softer portions of the flat crags of the Burren and of the fossils within them, have created numerous strange and oddly familiar shapes in the landscape.  One set in particular has inspired the legend of the ‘Flight of the Dishes’.  These dish-like hollows can be seen below the hermitage of St. Colman MacDuagh, at the ‘Cliff of the Eagle’ in Kinallia.  The marks look like the footprints of men and animals, including horses. The Story begins in Kinvara, during the 7th Century.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from

One Productions, Dublin, created the video below for Burren Connect ‘highlighting its vast treasure-house of culture, based on a rich history spanning the centuries.  Among the Burren attractions are golden artifacts, burial sites, megalithic tombs, castles and stone-walled barns, all part of a legacy written in stone’.

A trip through the Burren leads to Doolin – and its caves – potholer heaven.  Clodagh Finn lists these caves as one of the 8 places to see in Ireland before you die ( 23rd February, 2013).  In her own words;

It feels as if you are descending into a mythical underworld as you take the 120 steps down into the water-hewn depths of Doolin Cave in Co Clare, but nothing can really prepare you for the surprise of coming face to face with the largest stalactite in the Northern Hemisphere.

It was rediscovered in 1952 by potholers JM Dickenson and Brian Varley. Speechless, they tiptoed around it, afraid the vibration of their voices would shatter this majestic 24ft specimen that was “poised like the veritable sword of Damocles”.

Thankfully, there is no need to worry about that as conservation and safety are big considerations during the 50-minute tours of the cave, which start again at weekends from today. They will run daily from March 17.

For more on the cave, its visitor centre and the nearby nature trail, see If you want to make a weekend of it, sample some excellent smoked fish at the Burren Smokehouse ( or try some scuba diving in the Atlantic –


– See more at:

Pol an Ionain

The cave Clodagh Finn writes about is Pol an Ionain (or Poll an Ionain)

The hundred square mile limestone “desert” of the Burren   more active stream caves than any other part of Ireland.  More than thirty five miles of cave passages have been examined and surveyed. The typical Clare cave is a long winding passage, usually higher than it is wide with a stream on the floor of the cave.

Poll-an-Ionain (Doolin Cave) is near Lisdoonvarna and has been open to the public since 2006.

Pollnagollum Cave, on the eastern side of Slieve Elva, has a number of passages and tributaries, that capture the water streams off Slieve Elva. It can be explored to a distance of  nearly seven miles. Pollnagollum is in the townland of Caherbullog. Entrance to the cave is by means of a wide funnel-shaped hole about a hundred feet deep.  An opening in the rock leads into a dropping passage called the Gunman’s Cave. Both shaft and cave bring lead to the main stream passage below. In places pools are deep and along the way side grottoes open off the main passage.  These contain formations of stalactite and stalagmite.

If this has tempted you to visit, check out the link on this page to the Burrenbeo Trust website – it’s extremely interesting and informative and it offers tips and guidelines on how to enjoy your time in the Burren, without disturbing its natural beauty.  The natural environment should be left like that, natural, untarnished, undisturbed, and there are numerous ways we can lessen our mark on the landscape.  You can learn more about this, and archaeology, agriculture, ecology, landscape, flora  and fauna.  Fundamentally, please do not disturb – your great-great-grand/children/nieces/nephews/cousins may want to visit.

The video above features Dolores Keane with De Dannan performing ‘Galway Bay’ a song by Francis A Fahy (1854 – 1935) a native of Kinvara.  During his lifetime he wrote songs whose lyrics were heartfelt and evocative.  He is best known for songs such as The Queen of Connemara and The Old Plaid Shawl.

Francis Fahy was born in Kinvara on the 29th of September, and was one of a family of 17 – “a very brisk cordial neat little man. Seems a king among his own people and what more does any man want,” so said W.B. Yeats of him.
Francis father, Thomas, came from the Burren and his mother Celia was born near Gort. He left Kinvara at  19 years of age to work in the civil service in London.  While there he joined the Irish Revival Movement and was one of the principal founders of the Irish Literary Society, whose members included WB Yeats and Douglas Hyde.  Fahy also became the first president of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in London. In 1889, Francis came back to Ireland for a visit and met his future wife, Agnes Duff from Limerick. He dedicated his poem Maid of Garryowen, to her. They married in 1891.

Francis and Agnes lived in Clapham, London, and had four children, all boys. Dermot (one of his sons) unveiled the commemorative plaque at Fahy’s place of birth in Kinvara in 1967. It now operates as a restaurant called The Tide full in.

He published two volumes of poetry and songs and wrote books for children and co-wrote Ireland in London.


12 thoughts on “The Burren Experience

  1. Hello Brigid, I am a writer from Philadelphia finishing the final chapters of my first novel, which take place in the Burren. I wish I would have found your blog sooner. I was wondering if you could lead me to information on the lore of the Little People, or the Si. I was in the Burren in 2009, stayed in Doolin, what an enchanting place. If my roots (and grandchildren) weren’t in Philly, I’d be moved to relocate. Coincidently, we have a Tir na nOg Irish Pub in downtown Philly. I can be reached on my blog or Thank you, and you have a wonderful blog.


    1. Hi Jim – thanks for visiting and for your kind comments – the Burren truly is unique – changing from minute to hour to day/week/month – I love the place! Stories of the Si or Shee vary from place to place, Lady Gregory collected tales from the Gort and South Galway region which (if memory serves) can be accessed through Project Gutenberg (online). The best of luck with your novel – I look forward to reading it.
      Best wishes.


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