The Burren is a limestone plateau in north County Clare, Ireland, dominated by karst landscape. It measures at least 250 square kilometers. This extraordinary region is rich in natural and cultural attractions. Traveling via the Wild Atlantic Way, along the rocky coast of the Atlantic Ocean, through the limestone desert interspersed with the green hills and valleys, you have the impression of traveling in time and space. In a moment you are back to the Neolithic Era, in the other you are crossing the gate to the world of fantasy full of Little People, Feries and other amazing creatures well known from the J.R.R. Tolkien works.
The name Burren comes from the Gaelic and means a rocky place. Historically, the name referred to the Barony of Burren situated in north-west County Clare. Geographically, the name has a wider meaning. The area lies between Galway Bay on the north, the Atlantic coast on the west and a line drawn through Doolin, Kilfenora, Gort and Kinvara. However, outside this area you can also find the limestone features, but not as frequently and concentrated.
The Burren is the youngest landscape in Europe and has suffered intense glaciation. The last one occurred about 10 000 years ago. You can find here almost all typical limestone landforms, like underground rivers, swallow holes, glacial erratics, caves, clints, grykes and closed depressions. The limestone is an organic sedimentary rock laid down millions of years ago in a shallow warm sea, it is the result of marine plants and animals dying and accumulating in horizontal beds on the sea floor.
The first people to arrive in the Burren were hunters and fishermen who moved into animal husbandry with the keeping of cattle, sheep and goats. From the results of research and archaeological excavations a lot of information has been gathered about the life and death of these early settlers. There are numerous monuments and tombs dated to the Neolithic Era from, ca. 4000 – 3000 BC. The tombs of the first farmers, widely known as megaliths, are impressive monuments over the graves of their dead.
The Burren is also well known for the remains of over twenty churches constructed between the 6th and 12th centuries. These are evidences of the spread of Christianity in this region and traces of stay of the early Irish missionaries, like St. Colman and St. Cronan, who laboured in this remote area. Most of these churches are of architectural interest and in most cases their patrons and founders being known and revered.
The Corcomroe Abbey is one of these remains, sited among the grey hills and valleys of the Burren. It is best known for its lonely situation. The abbey acquired the name of Sancta Maria de Petra Fertili (St. Mary of the Fertile Rock) which reflects the fertile nature of the Burren lands. It has been built in the 12th century and used by the Cistercian community for the next 400 years.
In a countryside like the County Clare, isolated from the rest of the country by the river Shannon, with so many visible remains of the past and an extraordinary landscape that stimulates imagination, the folklore was rich and survived over the centuries maintained by the Gaelic language. It has left many material and immaterial traces in the landscape and in the literature.
Recently it turned out that the magical landscape of the Burren may have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to bring to life the Middle-earth – the central continent of the Earth in Tolkien’s imagined mythological past. The term is equivalent to the term Miðgarðr from Norse mythology, describing the human-inhabited world. In ancient Germanic mythology, the world of Men is known by several names, such as Midgard, Middenheim, Manaheim, and Middengeard. The Old English word middangeard descends from an earlier Germanic word, transliterated to modern English as Midgard.
Tolkien’s world famous works, like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, take place entirely in Middle-earth. J.R.R. Tolkien worked as an external examiner to National University Galway in the 40s and 50s of the XX century. Galway, the most central port on the West Coast in the sheltered eastern corner of Galway Bay, located between County Galway in the province of Connacht to the north and the Burren in County Clare in the province of Munster to the south, was a great starting point for exploring the surrounding area.
It is said by the locals that Tolkien would often take trips to the lunar-like landscape of the Burren. When you consider that Tolkien was visiting the Burren around the same time that he was writing The Lord of The Rings, it is easy to see how the stark beauty of this region might have inspired him. The landscape here is certainly unusual, and for a fantasy author such as Tolkien it must have been magnetic.
Amongst the craggy fissures and creeping woods of the Burren there is a cave called Pol na Gollum (Hole of Gollum). The Gollum’s character is essential to the entire plot of The Lord of The Rings. Did Tolkien get the name for this miserable creature from this cave? Furthermore, Gollum in The Lord of The Rings had a distinctive gurgling cough, and at the mouth of this cave the chirps and calls of rock doves echo and transform into a similar guttural sound.
Thanks to Peter Curtin, the owner of The Roadside Tavern pub in County Clare and a member of The Burren Society Tolkien Symposium, it has been accepted that one of the most iconic authors of the fantasy literature – J.R.R. Tolkien, was influenced by the magic of the incredible place of the Burren while writing his most famous work.