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Great Irish Drives

12 Great Irish Drives: Explore the otherworldly Burren - and the land that inspired Tolkien

You can even fit in a visit to the cave that some say inspired the creation of Gollum.

For summer 2019, we are partnering with Allianz to bring you 12 Great Irish Drives: the most amazing road trips in the country. Whether it’s with friends, family or by yourself these trips should give you the courage to get in the car and go explore.

This week, Paul Wilson heads for the Burren, taking in Galway, Bunratty Castle and awe-inspiring views along the Caher Bridge.

  • Name: The Burren Drive. Find a full map of the region here.
  • Where: Co Clare
  • The route: From Galway to Ballyvaughan, then Poulnabrone Dolmen, Carron, and The Ballyallaban Road. From there, head onward to Sheshymore, the Burren National Park, and Bunratty Castle, which takes you back to Galway. 
  • What makes it one of Ireland’s Great Drives? Swap lush greenery for stark stone landscapes. The region inspired Tolkien, and it might inspire you too.
  • Photo opportunities: Poulnabrone Dolmen is worth a visit for the Insta-friendly photos, but Sheshymore is where you’ll get those authentic Burren snaps you’ll remember from school geography books.
  • Hidden gems: Caher Bridge Garden, for blooming flowers and blazing colour. Poll na gColm – if you can find it! –where some believe Tolkien found inspiration for Gollum.
  • If you’re feeling courageous: The Ballyallaban Hill road, where the annual hill climb for the Galway Motor Club takes place.
  • Journey time: 3 hrs, approx. 

WITH ITS STONE-COVERED landscape, there’s an almost lunar feel to the Burren.

The district captures the essence of northern Co Clare, which travel writer Paul Clements described in his essay collection Burren Country as having “an air of calmness”. The drive takes you by kilometres of ancient stone walls, with plenty of other incredible views in between.

To start, leave Galway’s cobbled streets and alleys and join the N6 to Ballinderreen. Between Kilcolgan and Kinvara you’re not quite in Clare, but here the hills of the Burren first emerge – reach Ballyvaughan and you’re there.

O’Loclainn’s Irish Whiskey Bar, is a treat for non-drivers, but the Ballyvaughan Tea Rooms are where you’ll find your slap-up lunch, and tables laden with sponge cakes, scones, brownies, and fresh bread.

First though, washed by the Atlantic on the west coast, you’ll find The Cistercian Abbey at Corcomroe in the valley of Glennamannagh. It’s a place of reflection and tranquility.

On the N67, between Ballyvaughan and Lisdoonvarna, you’ll find the winding road of Corkscrew Hill. Take a detour to Fanore for Carl Wright’s remarkable garden at Caher Bridge; snowdrops, hosta, daffodils, crocosmia and day lilies blossom in phantasms of colour.

Inland on the R480, Aillwee Cave is one of the oldest in Ireland; an underground tour meanders through cavern, chasm and thundering waterfall. Poulnabrone Dolmen is a massive portal tomb. Desolate and high up, it’s the second most-visited location in the Burren after the Cliffs of Moher.

shutterstock_505341346 Poulnabrone Dolmen at sunrise Shutterstock Shutterstock

Three standing stones support a capstone; it’s a place of a history and a zillion photos. At Carron you’ll find Cassidy’s Pub and one of the biggest ‘turloughs’ or disappearing lakes in Ireland. This elusive creature inhabiting the landscape appears and disappears, seemingly at will (or rainfall). Further south, the oldest known evidence of human activity in Ireland, the bones of a bear, at Alice and Gwendoline Cave, were unearthed.

At Ballyallaban Hill, the annual hill climb for the Galway Motor Club winds through hairpins and corners. From Alice and Gwendoline, it runs for three kilometres to Lisgoogan.

At Sheshymore, find grykes, pitted and hollowed fissures in the ‘limestone pavements’ that epitomise the Burren.

shutterstock_1122434363 (1) Flowers at The Burren National Park Shutterstock Shutterstock

Wild garlic, among other species, grows at Burren National Park. South, from Tubber, you’ll find Bunratty Castle on the River Raite. From here head north back to Galway via Coole Park. It’s the location of Yeats’ ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’.

For literature fans, ‘The Autograph Tree’ holds the bark-enshrined signatures of Yeats, Edward Martyn, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge and Seán O’Casey. At Gort, further north to Galway, Yeats lived at Thoor Ballylee, also known as Yeats’ Tower.

The R353 leads to Slieve Aughty, blanket bog and Poolagoona. According to the Burren Tolkien Society, the area is believed by peers of JRR Tolkien to have been a “considerable influence” on the author’s creation of Middle Earth. He visited the area frequently during the early 1950s, before the publication of The Fellowship Of The Ring in 1954.

Perhaps it’s at Poll na gColm, the longest cave in Ireland, where Gollum may have crawled in the dark – a question to mull over on your journey back to Galway.

More Great Irish Drives: Take the Healy Pass from Cork into Kerry for spectacular mountain views>

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