I have been to the Burren area in Co. Clare and Co. Galway a number of times. Initially I was addicted to the prehistoric tombs most popularly recognized by the example of Poulnabrone, one of Ireland’s most photographed dolmens.
Then I found a book at a used book store.
“Forgotten Stones: Ancient Church Sites of the Burren and Environs” by Averil Swinfen was published in 1992. It is a collection of photographs and sketches of the tiny and not-so-tiny churches of the Burren region. Each entry includes a short story of the site, with as much information as the author could find in old manuscripts, church records, and local stories.
I have been slowly collecting a series of photographs and sketches from this list for a comparison, with a casual eye to someday working up a follow-up study of the same subject, so we can see how the sites are faring twenty years later.
Visiting the Sites… Large and Small
The larger sites are easily visited, well-signed, and free to enter. This list includes Corcomroe also known as St. Mary’s of the Fertile Rock; Dysert O’Dea, with a serene arch of carved faces, round tower, and high cross; Kilfenora with a large collection of high crosses; and Kilmacduagh, a large monastic complex of buildings just over the border in Galway.
Many sites are quite lovely, though less well-known, and easily accessed from main roads around the Burren. Most have a small pull-aside for a few cars. This list includes sites such as Kilnaboy with its Sheela-na-Gig; Romanesque Rath with its stone carvings, and view of the surrounding countryside; Carron with a nearby bronze age cairn; picturesque Noughaval with an ancient cross and friendly cat; Drumacreehy near Ballyvaughan; and the easily accessed Kilonaghan on the main coast road not far from Fanore Beach.
There are also some gems, further off the beaten track, but well worth hunting down. Kilcorney is a beautiful site, deep in the heart of the Burren, off a side road north of Kilfenora. The stunning Oughtmama churches are on private property but can be accessed if you take a walking tour offered by local “Burren Wild” tours.
The Hunt Continues
I still have some to find. I have not yet tracked down Sladoo or Killina, and I have not yet heard the bells of the sunken church of Kilstapheen, lost in Liscannor Bay during an earthquake on the day before the Feast of St. Patrick around 800AD.
I have documented about half of the small churches in the “Forgotten Stones” book, plus others nearby such as Kilmurray-Ibrickane. Many times I have found out how to access sites by asking my B&B hosts or showing my well-worn book and my sketches at a pub or teashop.
Often, as you plan a trip to Ireland, you aim to get to as many places as possible in the time allotted. You can barely take a breath as you pass by the most beautiful landscape in the world while sitting in your tour bus. The Burren drags me in as often as it can, and like many places in Ireland, there is so much more to see when you stop to look around.
Submitted by Karen J. Newhouse. Her Ireland-inspired artwork can be found at CapallGlas Studio.