Culture and History

Culture, history and traditions of the Burren

‘The land spoke of itself and its history in its placenames’

Thomas J Westropp

Thomas J. Westropp, the father of Irish archaeology photographed in his beloved Burren country

The Burren has long had an ancient standing as a centre of learning.

Here, the limestone hills and plateaux shelter the remains of Cahermacnaughten and its once great Brehon law school held under the auspices of the O’Davorens.

Cahermacnaughten was the Harvard or Yale of the old Gaelic order right up to the seventeenth century.

This school possessed a very large collection of early Irish legal texts. The most famous of these, known as Egerton 88, is in the British Museum.

Sheela-na-Gig

Sheela-na-Gig, Kilnaboy church. Its ugly demeanour, its bulging eyes and its exposed genitalia, set this female exhibitionist apart. Similar stone-carved figures appeared on European pilgrimage routes as a warning against lust.

The Burren is where the Four Masters came for the seal of approval from the ollaimhe (historians) at their Kilkeedy School, and where the Bardic School of Ó Dálaigh in Finavarra was held.

Under the old Brehon system of society, such was the respect for learning that the ollamh or professor, held equal rank to a king or bishop.

The wealth of the Burren’s folklore is inspired not just by its monumental surrounds but by the learning environment created by these schools.

Thomas J. Westropp, the father of Irish archaeology has recorded many of the bountiful myths and legends of the region, and collections from the lifeworks of Westropp are proudly displayed at the Burren Centre.

It is perhaps a natural follow-on then that the Burren has also produced some brilliant scholars, musicians, innovators and leaders.

County Clare as a physical entity is distinct and island like. Its people formed an insular community more so than any other in Ireland, protective of its traditions and of its kinship.

John Philip Holland

John Philip Holland, (1841-1914), inventor of the submarine. Upon leaving his native Burren country for the USA, Holland initially hoped to use his invention in a covert naval war against Britain’s powerful fleet. His submarine project was called the great ‘salt water enterprise’. Holland told Thomas Edison that submarines would serve to end naval warfare because they were so lethal. The great Doolin musician, Micho Russell sang of Holland:
Come all you young Irishmen who walk upon the land,
There are feats indeed, and fairy creeds, that you might understand:
There is one of them that comes to mind, the likes was never seen,
He was John Philip Holland who invented the submarine.

However as Ireland entered into its modern history, the people of the Burren were also shaped by social, economic and political forces.

The grievances which had led to the 1799 north Clare uprising had remained, and continued to trouble both the Burren and the county until Irish independence from Britain.

Clare was badly scarred by the Great Irish Famine of the mid nineteenth century.

In a devastating ten year period, almost 50,000 people died of famine and disease, 40,000 of these in the workhouses, with the local Ennistymon workhouse being amongst the most notorious.

Another temporary workhouse was opened in Kilfenora.

Bishop Fallon, the last bishop of Kilfenora wrote ‘let us thus avoid death in a country teeming with abundance of all kind of eatables except the potato, the wretched stable of the worst fed peasantry in Europe.’

Another 40,000 fled Clare during this apocalypse, most emigrating to the hope of America.

It is therefore noteworthy that it was a son of the Burren, Michael Cusack, born in Black 1847 who was to become the first leader of the Gaelic revival, and founder of the world’s largest amateur sporting and cultural organisation, the Gaelic Athletic Association.

By his act of preservation of the Burren traditions his people passed on to him, Cusack saved the national sport of hurling for those hundreds of thousands who today throng the playing fields of Ireland and the world, including its annual All-Ireland final showcase in Europe’s finest stadium, Croke Park, Dublin.