Beautiful Burren

FOR most of the year The Burren is more moonscape than landscape.

Walking through its gnarly karstic formations, I wouldn’t be surprised to find an astronaut poring over its clints and grykes; the odd abandoned moon buggy or American flag. The porridgy layers of rock, the supreme barrenness, the shades of grey — all exude a weird, lunar quality.

Come May, however, everything changes. The National Park is electrified as the most unlikely splashes of wildflowers burst through its limestone beds.

As a phenomenon, I think it ranks right up there with the cherry blossoms in Washington DC, or the shock of spring flowers that revolutionises South Africa’s Namaqualand.

It’s the best time to visit.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Strange as it seems, this corner of Clare once lay at the bottom of a tropical ocean. The Burren’s limestone dates back some 340 million years — it was formed from the skeletal remains of marine organisms in those warm, shallow waters.

Millions of years of geological, glacial, human and other influences went on to shape the landscape into what we see today, with the wildflowers arriving courtesy of seeds borne over the centuries from Alpine, Arctic and Mediterranean climes.

It’s like God’s own rock garden: the product of millions of years greeting you as you wind in from Galway, Ennis or the Atlantic Coast. The rock is riddled with orchids, gentians and rock-roses. A recent research project quoted by the Burrenbeo Trust (burrenbeo.com) even found 45 species per square metre in some samples.

THE ROOMS

If you’re looking to splash-out in the Burren, or a romantic retreat miles removed from the real world, look no further than Gregan’s Castle (065-7077005; gregans.ie).

Simon and Freddie Haden’s country house hotel is a beautifully-judged bolthole, with impeccable antiques, art and flowers adding polish to a relaxing series of rooms and gardens. It’s luxury without pomp, and three nights’ B&B are currently bundled with two six-course dinners and a half-day’s guided walk with local farmer Shane Connolly for €420pp.

Another hideaway worth a look is Mount Vernon (065-7078126; mountvernon.ie), the seaside cottage Lady Gregory once bought for her son, Robert. Yeats is thought to have visited (Robert Gregory inspired his poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’), and other guests included Synge, Shaw and George Russell — a veritable who’s who of the Literary Revival.

B&B is available from €95pp in the Hidden Ireland property, with comfortable, well-appointed rooms overlooking the garden or Flaggy Shore. I got chatting with American and British visitors over a few slices of toast with wildflower honey at breakfast, and was amazed to hear them compare the Burren to Hawaii, Madagascar and Tenerife.

Finally, the four-star Old Ground Hotel in Ennis (065 682-8127; flynnhotels.com) has a May Bank holiday weekend special including two night’s B&B with dinner on one evening and a ticket to the Story of the Beatles at the Glór Theatre. Rates start from €165pp.

THE FOOD

Flowers aren’t the only things blooming in the Burren right now. Clare’s food scene has been quietly building a reputation for itself too, with hotly rated restaurants like The Wild Honey Inn, The Lodge at Doonbeg and Naughton’s of Kilkee drawing from a quality stock of local cheeses, seafood, pork and farmers’ markets that seems to grow by the year.

“It’s very much the West Cork of the West Coast,” says John McKenna, who features five Clare restaurants in the latest edition of The 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland. “There are some incredibly dynamic people who make their ideas work superbly, in a tangential way.”

The coming weeks see the Burren’s Slow Food Festival (slowfoodclare.com; May 17-19), the launch of a new Food Trail, and a new weekly food series running Mondays from Apr 22, through to October. Organised by the Burren Ecotourism Network (burrenecotourism.com), the series has businesses pairing local food with cultural experiences — on May 13, for example, you can visit Lisdoonvarna’s Burren Smokehouse for a rare guided tour and several tastes of salmon, trout and mackerel, smoked by Brigitta Curtin herself.

If you do splash on a stay at Gregan’s Castle (“it may be the best of the country houses,” McKenna says), book at least one dinner at the Dining Room.

Mickael Viljanen may have built the best restaurant in the Burren, but since his departure to The Greenhouse in Dublin, David Hurley has continued the refined and imaginative treatments of Burren lamb, Atlantic fish, local farmhouse cheeses and so much more. Three courses cost €55pp.

WHAT TO DO

Wildflower season coincides with the Burren in Bloom festival (burreninbloom.com; May 2 — Jun 4), a series of illustrated talks and organised walks throughout the landscape.

The festival’s aim is to give an understanding and appreciation of the Burren and its formation, and with the weather easing up (in theory, at least), it’s the perfect opportunity to tag along on guided walks marking International Dawn Chorus Day (May 5), for example, or using solar, land and plant navigation (May 11). Most walks last between two and three hours, with a fee of €5pp payable on the day — though you should book in advance.

There are several events turning kids on to nature’s rock stars, too. The Burrenbeo Trust is leading a young explorer’s outing to the Slieve Carron Nature Reserve at 11am on May 25, for example, and there’s a family fun event in Doolin on May 18th.

Beyond the wildlife, the Burren squirrels away some 500 ring forts, 75 wedge tombs, and hundreds of ancient cooking sites (fulachta fiadh). Somewhat surreally, it’s also home to Ireland’s oldest perfumery. The Burren Perfumery (www. burrenperfumery.com) was founded by Sadie Chowan 40 years ago, and visitors are welcome to wander through the gardens, chat to staff in their workshops or browse the shop. Perfumes, creams, balms and soap are all handmade on site using natural ingredients. The tearooms have just opened, too.

ANYTHING TO ADD

If Glenquin House looks familiar, that’s because it is.

Back in the 1990s, many of the exterior scenes for Father Ted were filmed in the Burren. Remember the Holy Stone of Clonrichert? The Very Dark Caves, where Ted meets Richard Wilson? Or Fr Noel Furlong’s caravan? All are found in these parts.

Best of all, however, is Craggy Island parochial house itself.

Glenquin (fathertedshouse .com) looks exactly like it did in the sitcom all those years ago, and its owners, Sheryl and Pat McCormack, recently bowed to the inevitable and began serving tea to visitors.

Scones and chats are thrown in at €10pp.

Go on, go on …

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