Ireland: The Burren’s ancient, austere landscape is the stuff of literary inspiration

You arrive with a blank page, take in the breathtaking views, go on long rambles, and leave with a novel. Inspiration will come as easy as making the morning cup of coffee.

New Delhi | Published: May 10, 2015 1:00 am
With its caves and ravines, The Burren is classic guerrilla territory and once  gave refuge to 17th century Irish rebels (Source: Thinkstock Images) With its caves and ravines, The Burren is classic guerrilla territory and once
gave refuge to 17th century Irish rebels (Source: Thinkstock Images)

By Jaideep Unudurti

Every writer has a recurring fantasy. She could finish that novel if only there weren’t so many distractions. There is always a special place — a cabin in the woods, a library that accepts lodgers, a genteel hotel past its prime — that the writer’s imagination flees to. And in that itinerary of the imagination, the cottage in the hills ranks highest. You arrive with a blank page, take in the breathtaking views, go on long rambles, and leave with a novel. Inspiration will come as easy as making the morning cup of coffee.

If this logic holds true, then the hills of Ireland should be a particularly fertile place — for the Emerald Isle is a country of writers, as its four Nobel literature laureates attest.

I’m on a visit organised by Failte Ireland and we are headed to an ancient region known as The Burren. John Betjeman’s verse Stony seaboard, far and foreign/Stony hills poured over space/Stony outcrop of the Burren/Stones in every fertile place/Little fields with boulders dotted/Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted/Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds/Where a Stone Age people breeds/The last of Europe’s stone age race correctly identifies the defining feature of the Burren: it is full of stones.

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The Burren is in County Clare, on the Atlantic coast, which means I take a two-hour drive from Dublin. At a crossroads, emerge the fractured ruins of Leameneh Castle. Its history reads like something out of a Tarantino movie, with a lead character called “Red Mary”, a femme fatale with three husbands.

The shattered hulk also stands testament to The Burren’s status. As a badland it was the refuge of rebels whenever an invader arrived. The most brutal were the English under Cromwell in 1649.

The broken land with its caves and ravines is classic guerrilla territory, and the Irish rebels retreated here to continue the struggle, much like Rana Pratap as the Mughals invaded the plains. It was in these battles that General Ludlow said of the Burren that “it is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him”.
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But the austere savagery of the landscape has also inspired writers. Up north, the coastline has become famous as the principal shooting location for The Game of Thrones series.

But it is here that a claim has been made for the canonical swords-and-sorcery epic in the Western tradition —the Lord of the Rings. The “Master of Middle-earth”, however, did not repair here for inspiration.

JRR Tolkien worked as an external examiner on English literature for the National University in Galway and used to come once a year to correct exam papers. He became friends with another professor in the English department and the two took long walks in the Burren.
There is a geological feature, including an underground lake called Pol na Gollum (or Cave of Gollum), which fans take as a key piece of evidence that Middle-Earth, at least partly, is descended from here.

However, it seems that this search for influences is rather like looking into the palantir, things are not what they seem. Tolkien was a regular between 1949 and 1959 but the original manuscripts of “LotR” was composed certainly well before that.

A more definite connection is with the William Hope Hodgson, one of the original masters of occult fiction.

Hodgson spent some time in Ardrahan, which is just north of Clare as a child. He must have drawn on these boyhood memories in his The House on the Borderlands, a key work in the genre of “cosmic terror”. It is set in wild wastes, which recall the vistas of the Burren, speckled with stone forts and mystery-haunted ruins.
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As we drive, I notice that almost every house has a paddock in the back with horses. And every village has a green for playing hurling, the national sport of Ireland. Hurling is an ancient sport going back 3,000 years. It has been called a combination of “hockey, the egg-and-spoon race and murder”.

It is on one of the hurling greens that I notice the walls traversing the low hills in all directions. Whatever can they be enclosing, I wonder, as I take in the barren slopes. Our guide explains — they are “penny walls” or famine walls to be more accurate. During the great famine of 1849, an estimated 1 million Irish died, and another million had to flee, more than half the total population. The English colonial overlords instituted a kind of primitive NREGA: instead of disbursing food to the starving masses, they made them work. They were made to build pointless walls and at the end of day which they would be paid a penny. The penny walls suture a wound that hasn’t stopped bleeding, running up and down the hills as far as the eye can see.
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Soon we meet Tony Kirby, an experienced guide who has been conducting walks for more than a decade now. Kirby opens the boot of his car and hands out stout walking sticks. He points to the hill directly in front us, “it look like a collapsed wedding cake, doesn’t it?”

The hills are streaked with the lines of excavated strata, as if a proud God chose this land to show off his creation. Kirby explains that we are walking through what is known as Karst topography, “the bedrock of the planet is exposed here,” he says.

The landscape is a unique artistic collaboration between the earth and the sky. The ground is covered with limestone but rainwater with its acid is slowly eating these away leaving incredible patterns — a labyrinth imposed by heaven.

The Burren is also a sacred landscape, with over 2,000 monuments. There are dolmens and standing stones everywhere, testament to the Age of the Druids.
As Kirby says, “the heart of the Burren is the heart of Ireland”.

Jaideep Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad

PEAK SEASON: This summer, leave the city behind and step into a comfort zone. The hills are alive with birdsong, the air is crisp and the flowers are in bloom. In this special issue, we bring you destinations where you can learn to be still

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