The beauty of Ireland is something you experience with all your senses, but an area that stole my heart during a trip in September 2003, is the Burren, a unique limestone region on the west coast of Ireland. Its name derives from bhoireann (Gaelic) and it means 'a rocky place'. The Burren area extends some 40 km from east to west and about 32 km from north to south.
The Burren is a gently sloping carboniferous limestone landscape, broadly dissected by numerous joints running north to south. It is the youngest landscape in Europe and has suffered intense glaciation, the last of which occurred as recently as about 18,000 years ago. The limestone is an organic sedimentary rock laid down millions of years ago in a shallow warm sea, and is the result of marine plants and animals dying and accumulating in horizontal beds on the sea floor. Proof of these warm conditions are easy to find in the clearly identifiable fossils of corals.
To the west of the Burren, the Aran Islands are an extension of the main plateau in many respects, and for long periods during the recent geological past were almost certainly linked to the Burren by dry land.
The limestone dissapears into the sea towards the west from Galway Bay, re-appearing as the Aran Islands. Arriving in Kilronan on the late afternoon ferry at Inis Mor (biggest of the three islands), I was surprised by the feeling of travelling back in time by almost 20 years. The best way to explore is on foot or by bicycle and we chose the latter because of the little time we had left before dark.
The landscape of rocks and grass took my breath away (and the uphill cycling!) as we got on to the second hill and overlooked Dun Eochla. This prehistoric fort was built in a circular shape and on top of the 3,5 meter wide walls, about 5 meters high, one has a spectacular view of the surrounding area and, with just the sound of the wind from the Atlantic Ocean, one experiences complete peace and a feeling of arriving at a place of rest.
We went on to the north western side of the island following the narrow roads between the rock walls. Our day of exploring ended in a small village where horses and cattle were hiding behind the high walls next to the white-washed houses, from the cold evening wind. From a distance we could see Dun Aengus just as the last daylight faded over the island. Hungry, we returned to Kilronan but had no luck in getting supper from any of the pubs on a Sunday evening so went back to our hostel, to find a well equipped kitchen. There we sat down and talked to two women from Israel till late that evening.
The next morning, stiff from cycling over the rough terrain and kilometres up and down hills, we took a 35 minute race to Dun Aengus, the most famous of the prehistoric forts on the islands. It lies on the north western side of Inis Mor, right on the edge of the 100m high cliffs. Built in an oval with one side ending on the cliffs, we saw the sun rise over Inis Mor.
An interesting aspect of Dun Aengus is the massive stone Chevaux de Frise (this indicates a defensive system based on using slabs of stone or wood planted in the ground to make access difficult, especially for horses) that extends all around the third line of walls.
But the question remains of who built it and why? Archaeologists and historians have no definite answers to these and other questions. With no water supplies or evidence of dwellings, this was hardly a place to stay over. Estimates of its date of construction range from a few centuries B.C. to the eighth or ninth century AD. Its builders - were they perhaps the legendary Fir Bolgs or perhaps the Danes? According to mythology, Aengus, son of the god Dagda and the goddess Boann, was King of the Fir Bolg (men of the sacks), a Celtic tribe who settled on Aran and constructed these forts for protecting themselves from the inhabitants of the "continent".
Whatever you choose to believe, these forts are real and with all the questions remaining it was time to leave. This mysterious moonscape evoked strange feelings of sadness as we turned to go. Looking back at the disappearing landscape from the ferry heading for Galway Bay, I knew that someday I'd have to come back for a longer stay.