Winter in The Burren: A Portal into Ireland’s Soul

I live in one of the most beautiful and inspiring areas of the planet, The Burren, but the speedy pace of modern life sometimes makes me forget how truly lucky I am, the mobile tones, a twit has come, Likes and Hearts, the dreaded Christmas adds…so I decided to write a Blog about my favourite things to do in The Burren during the winter, perhaps to remind myself to get out of the office and breath the untamed air of the Wild Atlantic.

Waves crashing, dramatic cliffs and water Falls, the stillness of grey lawn Limestone rocks and silence, above all silence disturbed only by my own thoughts, the Burren is most beautiful in the winter. Having lived here for 9 years I think I pretty much know all the corners and curves, all the paths and Fairy Forts, Wrong! There is always more to discover, so I call on Spiritual Guide Pius Murray from Coisceim Anama, which is Irish for “Footstep of the Soul”. A Coisceim Anama Inspirational Walk allows you to take a step back from the stresses and strains of modern life. You are given the opportunity to slow things down, take things one step at a time and awaken the senses. You are invited to walk with others of like mind, visit sacred sites, reconnect with nature and the landscape, a landscape that has a connection with our ancestors. You are given the freedom to breathe, observe, listen, touch, be silent, reflect, process “stuff”, quieten your mind, be present in the NOW and feel grounded. Pius walks are as unpredictable as the Wild Atlantic waves, no walk is the same as the last or the next, you might get lost or find yourself, it is the closest thing to Freedom I have ever felt.

After a long morning with Pius I head to Lisdoonvarna, the town of LOVE, best known for the Matchmaking Festival in September and now a Meca for Foodies thanks to the marvellous Peter and Birgitta Curtin. Birgitta runs the Burren Smokehouse, set up in 1989 it has a visitor centre above the production facility where you can get a tasting of their Burren smoked salmon. A DVD presentation can be watched about the smoking process (free of charge) – available in English, German, French, Italian and Dutch. You can discover mosaics inside and outside the shop, and look at the first kiln they used when they set up the Smokehouse. I like knowing where my food comes from, call me crazy but I do not believe the large supermarket chains have my health’s interest at heart, so after visiting Birgitta I walk up the road for a chat, a pint and a plate of the finest locally sourced ingredients at the Roadside Tavern, owned by the best story teller I know, Peter Curtin. The Roadside Tavern has been a legendary venue for traditional music for well over a 100 years with many well-known names entertaining the patrons including Christy Moore, Davy Spillane, Tommy Peoples, the Fureys, Seán Tyrrell, Christy Barry, Micko Russel, Mickaleen Conlon, Paul Dooley, Sharon Shannon and many more. My husband calls it “Aladin’s Cave” you will definitely get in but sometimes you will find it impossible to get out!

After a day spent above ground my next pit stop is usually the Caves, and those we have in abundance!! The Burren is Ireland’s most important cave area. This strange hundred square mile limestone “desert”, where only one river reaches the sea by an over ground course, has more active stream caves than any other part of Ireland. Over 35 miles of cave passages have actually been surveyed, but rather than joining the Caving club I like to stick to those Caves that are “Visitor” friendly, I was never much of an adrenaline seeker! Starting in Ballyvaughan I head to Aillwee Cave where Nuala Mulqueeny and her experienced staff welcome you to the dramatic underworld of this unique landscape.  The tour consists of a 35 minute guided walk through beautiful caverns, over bridged chasms, under weird formations and alongside the thunderous waterfall which sometimes gently sprays unsuspecting visitor. I marvel at the frozen waterfall and explore the hibernation chambers of the long extinct brown bears, I have always loved bears! Coming back to ground level you can not but stop at the Farmshop and taste their delicious Burren Gold Cheese, this wonderful cheese has won numerous Gold and Silver Medals at various national and international cheese fairs
with its firm textured Gouda style cheese and a rich creamy taste.

I drive the coastal route from Ballyvaughan to Doolin, stopping at Blackhead point and Fanore beach munching on my Burren Gold Cheese while the clouds change the tones of Grey rocks into intense purples. On a lucky day I might even get to see Dusty the Dolphin splashing along the coast, maybe he is looking for some cheese, but it is too good to share!

I arrive to Doolin Cave and realised I have missed the tour, unlucky, tours depart every hour on the hour, but after the initial disappointment I realise there is also a Nature Trail above the cave and all of a sudden I am immerse on the intense colour of it’s wild flower meadows, I happily walk along this 1 Km trail followed by their resident rare and miniature breeds of cattle, sheep, goats and chickens. A quick cup of tea with a scone at the Cave Café and it is time for the next tour. From the moment you descend over 80ft into the first tunnel, with your guide, you will enter a world carved by water. Donning your hard hat, you will follow the rough-hewn route of the early explorers who first discovered the cave. When you enter the stunning, cathedral-like dome that houses the huge stalactite, you will be briefly plunged into a world of primitive darkness. Then, in a flash, you will be awed as the subtly-lit stalactite appears before you. And, far below, a magical stream carries to the hills outside, the water that carved the primeval world around you.

“Scrambling over boulders, we stood speechless in a large chamber…………. As our lamps circled this great hall we picked out a gigantic stalactite… is really majestic and poised like a veritable sword of Damocles…With our headlamps inadequately lighting this huge formation, we tip-toed, believe it or not, not daring to speak lest the first voices ever to sound in this hall since the beginning of time should cause it to shatter”

Description by Varley and Dickenson when they discovered the Great Stalactite in 1952

While in Doolin you can not but visit the quirky pubs and listen to some traditional Irish music, but it is too early yet so I take a left after the Church and visit award winning designer-maker knitwear brand Ekotree and it’s owner Diarmuid. The Ekotree studio is Ireland’s only knitwear visitor centre & working knitwear studio where visitors get a thorough insight into the daily workings of a designer-maker knitwear studio. Ekotree ranges are inspired by Ireland’s west coast, especially the Burren landscape, the continuously changing light, and landscape patterns. After a chat with Diarmuid I can not resist but to wrap a warm cashmere shawl around my shoulders and head out again into the windy shores of Doolin Village. It is Monday evening so I head to Fitzpatrick’s Bar at Hotel Doolin for the Wild Atlantic Monday Sessions, an intimate music session with renowned musicians, great tunes and a special vibe. Fitzpatrick’s Bar is as much a part of the vibrant experience of Doolin as it is of the hotel itself. With its polished panelling, natural stone and open fire it offers a calm and relaxed setting during the day while at night it transforms into a lively bar with entertainment. One cannot visit Fitzpatrick’s Bar without tasting their very own Dooliner Beer, a creamy, smooth traditional Irish red ale brewed specifically for them by master brewer Cuilan Loughnane.

After two days reconnecting with the land, the sea, the underground and my inner self I am ready to lock myself again in the office, it has to be done, we all have bills to pay, but I am one of the lucky ones, there is so much more to do, even after 9 years I continue to find new experiences to feed my mind in The Burren, the Portal to the Soul of Ireland.

Tips: If visiting from abroad travel to Shannon Airport, it is just 45 minutes away by car, and choose your Accommodation wisely, visit to find accommodation providers that belong to the Burren Ecotourism Network, with a great Irish Welcome and a commitment to promote responsible tourism that conserves the Environment and improves the well-being of local people.

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