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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020
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The widowed Máire Rua married Cromwell's junior officer to keep her Burren house

Plus: The tomb effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Munster, who was killed in a battle in 1267.

IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.

In this edition we go on a day trip to explore some of the historical highlights at the heart of the Burren in County Clare.

The Burren is undeniably one of Ireland’s most iconic places. It’s stony, almost otherworldly, grey landscape has inspired many writers and commentators throughout history.

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Some, like John Betjeman in his poem ‘Ireland with Emily’ tried to convey a sense of the mystique of the barren landscape of the Burren:

‘stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place.
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron spotted . . .’

Whilst others found a sort of sinister malevolence in its barrenness, like one of Cromwell’s officers Edmund Ludlowe, who famously described it as; ‘… a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him’.

The Burren, whose name comes from Boireann, meaning ‘rocky place’, is the finest example of a karstic landscape in Ireland. To the casual observer, the Burren may appear as a desolate landscape, but this vast limestone plateau contains one of the most diverse natural flora in Europe, and it is a truly beautiful and unique place that has attracted settlers for millennia.

These settlers have all left their mark on the landscape, and the Burren has an incredible density of archaeological and historical sites.

We took a day trip around the centre portion of the Burren to visit just a sample of its wealth of heritage sites.

Kilfenora

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We began our day in the village of Kilfenora, where we visited the cathedral with its impressive high crosses and medieval sculpture. Kilfenora had the largest known collection of high crosses in Ireland, with at least seven recorded. Of these, five are still in Kilfenora, one is thought to have been lost or destroyed, and another is on display in St. Flannan’s Cathedral in Killaloe.

Perhaps the most famous example of the Kilfenora crosses, Doorty’s Cross (pictured), is thought to date to the 12th century. It is named after a family who used part of it as a tombstone until it was recognised for its historical significance and re-erected.

At the centre of the cross you can clearly see a depiction of a Bishop, along with unusual and unique carvings.

Inside the cathedral you can see some of the other crosses, as well as an abundance of ornate medieval sculpture. In a field nearby, approximately 200m to the west of the cathedral, you can see another large high cross that is also thought to date to the 12th century.

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From Kilfenora we travelled east along the R476, stopping briefly at the imposing remains of Leamaneh Castle (pictured).

This was originally constructed as a tower house in the late 15th century by Turlough O’Brien. He built it at a vital junction at the beginning of the ancient routeway that traverses the Burren from north-south.

In around 1648, Conor O’Brien and his wife Mary McMahon (known as Máire Rua for her flame-red hair), constructed this palatial four-storey fortified house in the fashion of the time.

Conor O’Brien did not live long to enjoy his stately home, he was killed in 1651, fighting Cromwell’s forces under Ludlowe. His widow Máire Rua, fearing that the newly built Leamaneh would be confiscated by the victorious Cromwellian forces, swiftly [and shrewdly] married one of Cromwell’s junior officers to protect her assets.

Unfortunately, the entrance to the castle is restricted due to the precarious condition of the walls, but it is certainly worth stopping to see this grand and somewhat forlorn looking building from the roadside, you’ll find it at co-ordinates 52.986958, -9.139910.

Caherconnell Fort

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At Leamaneh we turned left and headed north on the R480 towards Caherconnell Fort.

This was once a large high-status farmstead known as a cashel or caher. It was enclosed by large drystone walls. An ongoing series of archaeological excavations are revealing a wealth of fascinating facts about the lives of the people who lived at Caherconnell.

It appears that the site was first occupied over a thousand years ago, in the late-tenth century, but it continued to be an important place for centuries after it was first constructed, with evidence of occupation up to the early seventeenth century.

From later historical sources, it is likely that Caherconnell was the home of the ancestors of the O’Loughlin family. For opening hours and entry fees please visit here.

This season’s excavation has just ended, but you can discover more about the exciting dig from the excavation team’s Facebook Page.

Poulnabrone Dolmen

From Caherconnell we continued a short distance north on the R480 to the iconic Poulnabrone Dolmen.

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This famous portal tomb dates back to the time of Ireland’s first farmers around 5,000 years ago. When excavated by archaeologists in the 1980s Poulnabrone began to reveal its secrets. The remains of at least 21 individuals were discovered.

When the remains were analysed, it was found that only one of the people interred lived beyond the age of 40. The teeth of the children showed evidence of illness or malnutrition, and one of the adult males had the tip of a flint arrowhead embedded in their hipbone suggesting a violent death as there was no trace on the bones of healing or infection.

Personal possessions buried with the dead included a polished stone axe, stone beads, crystals, flint tools and fragments of pottery.

Interestingly it seems that Poulnabrone was not the original burial place for these remains (which dated from 3,800–3,200 BC). It appears from the archaeological evidence that these individuals had been originally buried elsewhere and reburied at Poulnabrone some time around 3000 BC.

Poulnabrone is well signposted with a carpark at co-ordinates 53.046929, -9.140867. It can be extremely busy, so I highly recommend visiting early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the crowds.

Corcomroe Abbey

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From Poulnabrone, we continued north towards Ballyvaghan. From Ballyvaghan we travelled east on the N67. At Bell Harbour, we took the right turn and then a left onto a backroad, following the signs to Corcomroe Abbey. A fantastic medieval site, Corcomroe was a large and sprawling Cistercian Abbey founded in around 1195.

Amongst the many amazing medieval architectural features and sculptures, lies the tomb effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Munster, who was killed in a battle in 1267.

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Despite the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a small community of monks resided at Corcomroe into the seventeenth century. You’ll find it at co-ordinates 53.126489, -9.054239.

Templecronan

Leaving Corcomroe, we turned left onto the L1016 and then right onto the L1014 and travelled southwards towards the village of Carron.

Just before we reached the village, we turned left following signs for Templecronan and continued to the end of the boreen. From the small carpark (at co-ordinates 53.047253, -9.062336), we followed the marked route to Templecronan, the evocative ruins of an ancient monastery.

This was one of the real highlights for me, as the church and its unusual shrine are located in a small hollow and it has a really peaceful and serene atmosphere.

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It is thought that the monastery was originally founded by St. Cronan in the seventh century, though the unusual stone church that stands today has features from a number of medieval periods, with its adaption and modification showing its continued importance as a place of worship throughout the medieval period.

The unusual shrine (in the foreground of the picture) possibly housed the remains of an early saint, perhaps Cronan himself.

As the resting place of holy men, the monastery of Templecronan became an important place of pilgrimage by the 12th century.

Cahercommaun

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Leaving Templecronan, we went to visit the spectacularly situated Cahercommaun, a large stone fort that perches dramatically at the edge of a cliff overlooking a steep valley. Cahercommaun bears a striking resemblance to Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór, with its complex of defensive walls and utilisation of the natural topography. It really is a stunning location.

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To get there, travel to Carron and continue south on the L1014. Take the first left and continue on this road. Keep left and stay on this road.

You will eventually come to a yellow house with a small boreen to the side signed for Cahercommaun at co-ordinates 53.009950, -9.081712. There is a 15-minute walk along a well-made path.

Unfortunately at the site you can see the remnants of a defunct wooden walkway that is marked unsafe to use. This doesn’t prevent access to the site however, and I still highly recommend a visit.

Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb

After Cahercommaun, we continued southwards and we stopped at Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb (pictured).

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Wedge tombs are the most numerous of Ireland’s megalithic tomb types. They tend to date to around 2400–2000 BC, at a time of the end of the Neolithic and dawn of the Bronze Age. There are a number of wedge tombs in the Burren, of which Parknabinnia is possibly the best example.

This is just a very small selection of the incredible wealth of heritage sites that the Burren has to offer. As well as the sites I have mentioned, you can experience the Aillwee Caves, the Burren Centre at Kilfenora and lots more! It really is a special place, and I am planning another visit before the end of the September. If I have missed any of your favourite places in the Burren please do let me know by leaving a comment below.

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Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog  where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website abartaheritage.ie, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

More: One of Ireland’s best medieval castles was the scene of a bitter showdown between two brothers

Read: One of Ireland’s best high crosses is 1,200 years old and hidden in a small Kildare village >

Related: Ireland’s largest Norman castle was built by a womaniser who ended up being decapitated >  

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