An intriguing contradiction to the verdant lushness for which Ireland is lauded, the stark limestone plateau known as the Burren spreads across 140 square miles of County Clare on the west coast, the largest such plateau in western Europe. Its scarred surface is said to be the product of moving glaciers and erosion, and scientists believe it was once the floor of a tropical sea, as evidenced by fossils of coral and sea urchins found in its strata. But what really makes the desolate plain unique is what lies closer to the surface: an ecosystem that contains both Arctic and sub-tropical plant life: more than 700 varieties of flowers taking root in rock crevices, blooming into orchids, rock roses, Mountain Avens, Gentian, Cranesbill to name a few. 28 Species of butterflies flit around them, and in winter the hills are actually warmer than the valleys thanks to the porous limestone that is also responsible for an extensive cave system and streams underground. (Aillwee Cave in the fishing village of Ballyvaughan is the only entry to this underground open to the public.)
What is often described as an eerie moonscape is nonetheless the benefactor of many early fort dwellings, churches, an abbey, and the famous Stone Age Poulnabrone Dolmen, a standing tomb circa 2500 BC.
Associated folklore includes the Legend of Bothar na Mias (Road of the Dishes), an account of a 6th century hermit named St. Colman living in the Burren, who after a severe Lenten fast, had nothing to eat on Easter Day. At exactly the same time in nearby Kinvara, good king Guaire Aidhne sat down to a sumptuous meal, exclaiming that such a feast should rather be enjoyed by true servants of God who had no food.
No sooner were the words uttered than all the dishes rose from the table and were carried by invisible hands out of the castle. The king and his entire court mounted horses and followed to see the dishes eventually set before lone St. Colman. In his amazement, the king was unable to move, as if the hooves of his horse were stuck fast in the rocks. It is only when St. Colman finished his meal that the King and his people were permitted to partake in the feast themselves. (It is said that the royal hoof prints can still be seen on “The Road of Dishes” in Kinvara.)
Perhaps this legend is a befitting sketch of the Burren itself: austerity and bounty joined in unexpected ways—and warmth found in the unlikeliest of places.