We are fortunate to live in Galway and to have the Burren within shouting distance. Some 15,000 hectares of a unique landscape that miraculously contain all the major habitats found on this island.
Its limestone pavements, pock-marked and sharp as daggers, chissled by centuries of frost and rain, give way to islands of deep grass, woods of entangled hazel, holly and ash, opening out into small lakes, streams, ferns, and surprisingly cliffs. An echo throws back your shout with alarming familiarity.
In winter, in a tradition that has lasted at least 6,000 years, farmers who live and thrive among this strangely fertile land, drive their cattle up to the warm limestone ‘fields’ (the rock retains its Summer heat ), in a natural rhythm of farming and biodiversity working hand in hand. Many of the impressive stone-walled settlements found there are older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. A recent blow-in was Corcomroe Abbey in the late 12th century.
There is probably no better way to explore this rewarding landscape, which is a National Park of conservation, and public access, than by walking. Just in time for our New Year resolutions comes a highly recommended guide by three men who share their enjoyment and sense of discovery in their book Our Burren Walks, by Patrick McGinley, Tim O’Connell, and Eddie Joyce, a gift at €15.
They outline 12 walks, none of them difficult, and all offering extraordinary views and opportunities to see many of the wild flowers, nurtured among the warm limestone, that attract visitors from all over Europe.
If it is spectacle you want then you and your family can marvel at the sight of the Cliffs of Moher as you set out from Doolin, on a path which in places runs along its edge. Leave your car at Doolin and follow the marked trail ‘clearly identified’ where it ‘brought us close enough to the Cliff edges to enjoy the full impact of the height of these sheer cliffs with the Atlantic pounding away at the base.’
At that height you are almost level with the gulls and gannets ‘their shrieks and screams filling the air, sharing the drama of their continuous pursuit of food in the rich waters below …’ Off to the right the walker can see Inis Oírr, the easternmost of the Aran Islands on the entrance to Galway Bay. It is totally exhilarating.
Along the trail you may see wild Navelwort (or Pennywort ) which is edible, and a clump of Sea Pink with its intense pink colour contrasting with the sea below. A good turning point on the walk is the visitor centre, one of Ireland’s most popular attractions, where picnic tables offer a welcome rest. Returning along the trail again the view of the cliffs is spectacular, and this time O’Connor’s gastro-pub in Doolin offers warmth and great food. A welcome reward after that adventure.
Other walks include Fanore to Black Head Green Road (easy ), the Green road to Abbey Hill (spectacular ) the Flaggy Shore (easy ), the Carran Termon loop (a hill walk ), and the challenging Mullaghmore hill walk that you may for a moment think you are moon walking so strange is the layered landscape.
Apart from the wild flowers, all of which are illustrated in the book, the Burren offers worthwhile attractions such as the Burren Perfumery, offering organic perfumes, cosmetics and soaps many made from wild flowers, the Gort River Walk along the town’s winding river, and for those who feel they deserve a treat, there is the Hazel Mountain Chocolate Factory and Shop that somehow every child in Ireland knows how to find.
Stories from past generations
In the 1930s Irish schoolchildren were tasked with asking their oldest relatives and neighbours about stories and superstitions from times past, so that ordinary people’s lives could be preserved and celebrated.
It was a brilliant idea. What those schoolchildren wrote in their copybooks resulted in the National Folklore Archive’s Schools’ Collection, a fascinating insight into the ways and imaginations of past generations.
John Creedon has selected the best of them, in his An Irish Folklore Treasury, beautifully illustrated by Brian Gallagher (on sale €25 ).
There are incredible stories of self-sufficiency from an era where everything was homemade. The main meal of the day for the peasant countryman was flour, milk and potatoes. Soap and candles were made by hand. There are delightful memories of childhoods spent outdoors, gathering nuts and berries, playing Tig, and fishing, and how folk remedies, miraculous medals, healers, holy wells, and pilgrimages kept people healthy. Given our weather, it is easy to understand why the ancient people’s of Northern Europe marked the passing of midwinter. Evergreen plants were considered special. Holly and ivy were brought indoors to ward off evil and as a symbol that life endured , even when much of nature was dead or dormant.
The Druids regarded mistletoe, which flowers in winter, as a symbol of life and fertility. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is another nod to reproduction. Soon Spring would emerge and the sap would rise again.
On St Stephen’s Day young men, boys and girls gathered together in small bands and went from house to house singing the wren song, sometimes with a wren in a decorated cage:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds.
St Stephen’s Day, she was caught in the furze,
Although she is little her family is great.
Rise up landlady, and give us a ‘TRATE’
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us a ‘trate’ and let us be gone.
The ‘Missing Friends’ of Killure.
One of the great Irish newspapers in Boston, the Boston Pilot, included a regular column looking for missing relatives or friends among the Irish community. The ‘Missing Friends’ series became a standing feature of the paper, and today a surprising eight volumes of missing Irish people from 1831 - 1920 have been published, and are available at the County Library, Island House, Galway. What happened to all these people? Here is a typical example: ‘March 16 1878, Timothy Fahey, native of Ahascragh, Co Galway, who left Ireland 22 years ago, and lived in Brighton, Mass. for 18 years. He went with his mother last January to Fond du Lac, Wis., and was returning home with her, but accidently missed her at Chicago and has not been heard from. He is 32 years old, sandy hair, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and cannot read. Any person knowing his address will oblige his mother by writing to her (address included ) and a $20 reward offered for information.
All the missing people from the East Galway parish of Killure-Kilgerrill, which appeared in the Boston Pilot are included in an extraordinary family history and genealogy of the people of that parish, with its 14 townlands, as well as near-by neighbourhoods, now available in a large book format.
An emigration article tracks the progress of 150 people who departed for America between 1884 and 1932. But a major thrust of the book, a veritable Bible of information, is on the families of the parish - 40 in all, which covers their history from earliest records right up to the 1970s.
The book provides an invaluable documented genealogical record, of the area, photographs of the people, and a proud legacy for present and future generations.
The Killure Heritage Group are to be congratulated on this magnificent achievement. Copies of the book, costing €25., from [email protected], or local bookshops.
A Star is born….
Orson Welles - considered to be among the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time, actually learned some of his craft when he washed up in Galway in August 1931.
It appears he was a troubled teenager of 16 years, who had inherited money following the death of his parents some years previously. He arrived in Galway Bay on board the liner SS Baltic, and expecting to find Galwegians living in huts was surprised to find a busy town and some interesting people.
He had heard about the famous writer Padraic O Conaire, who had died some years previously, and was intrigued that O Conaire had travelled the roads of Connemara on a donkey and cart writing about all he saw and encountered. By chance he met Padraic’s brother Isaac, who was intrigued to hear that Orson wanted to follow Padraic’s footsteps and helped him buy a cart and a donkey and the young man set out on his adventure.
This extraordinary story is taken from the latest St Patrick’s Magazine, edited by historian William Henry, which for the past 50 years has been published every Christmas, and contains a number of unusual and interesting stories many supplied by people of the East city parish. Contributors include Peter Rabbitt, Jacqueline O’ Brien, Peadar O’ Dowd, Brendan McGowan, Marita Silke, Liam Ferrie, Dáire Crowe, Tom Kenny, Lisa Henry, and Maeve Rabbitt. Quite a gathering of literary stock!
Orson named the donkey ‘Sheeog’, slept in the open by turf fires if the weather permitted. William Henry believes that those must have been somewhat lonely and strange days for an American boy at the time. But it is said that wandering through Connemara brought him healing from whatever it was he was running away from. He eventually reached Clifden, sold his donkey and cart and headed back to Galway by train.
He was a new man. He visited the Aran Islands, learned Irish dancing and enjoyed his time there.
When Orson came back to Galway, he visited the Taibhdhearc theatre, became friends with one of the actors, went to Dublin and the Gate Theatre, where he introduced himself to it founders, Michael MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards. They were astonished at the confidence of the good-looking Orson who introduced himself as the ‘Star of the New York theatre!’
He was immediately given the lead part in an historical romantic play, and received a standing ovation on its opening night. The rest, as they say, really really is history.
No adult Christmas stocking should not be without Ken Bruen’s latest Galway-Noir Callous. It rattles along with the most ghastly murders, delivered in a style which has all the grace of a rapid-fire sub-machine gun. And it all happens in Galway.