The craggy Burren is filled with ring forts.
Sometime between 1175 and 1195 a group of Cistercian monks settled in the valley on the southwestern side of Ireland’s Burren. With a perceptive genius they called their new church, Sancta Maria de petra Fertilis — St. Mary of the Fertile Rock. Who ever thought of the name clearly grasped the central feature of the remarkable landscape and the dramatic contrast that the Burren presents.
Gregan’s Castle Hotel flower beds defy the stony Burren.
I note these contrasts while sipping merlot before the freshly caught Atlantic salmon is served for the evening meal at Gregans Castle. I peer out the alcove windows as the light dabbles across the landscape, the sun bullying open a spot to shine through before the clouds close in again by winds buffed over from Galway Bay to the north . The Burren is an area of ancient limestone hills, bald and treeless, but not lifeless. Each changing ray of sun highlights a different precipice or bluff in the mid-distance. An artist would do well here.
A guide is recommended to discover the Burren ring forts.
The Burren is a region that show us the bare limestone mountains and sheltered valleys of pasture land, clear streams cutting down the sides of gently sloping hills, and rivers that emerge from subterranean beds, rocky cliffs, overhanging the Atlantic Ocean, and rolling sandhills, and almost limitless horizons, where the sudden display of this shifting light provides us with this description from the naturalist, W.H. Hudson:
Gregan’s Castle Hotel is in the heart of the Burren.
“The nature of the soil and shadow can be breathtaking. The Burren is a special place in County Clare, with distinctive qualities and eccentricities; it possesses a personality that makes an immediate impression on all who encounter it, be they 12 century monks or 20th century travelers. And for those who have lived here for the last thousand years, the effect of the landscape on the way of life is incalculable, it is undeniable . . . it expresses this point of the absence or presence of running water, of hills, rooks, woods, open spaces, every feature of the landscape, the open spaces; every feature of the of the landscape, the vegetative and animal life — everything is in fact that what we see, hear, smell, and feel — enters not into the body only, but the soul, and helps to shape and colour it.”
Ancient monoliths dot the Burren landscape.
The Burren seems to flow into the Atlantic.
The name Burren is derived from bhoireann,which is Celtic for a stony place. The stone in question is mainly carboniferous limestone, the porous qualities of which, when brought into contact with the molding and later melting Pleistocene ice-sheets, have resulted in the characteristic bare, fissured pavements that are such a notable feature of the landscape.
The Aillwee Cave is the largest
in the Burren and in Ireland.
Rain falling on such a surface does not drain easily, but slips through the soluble rock, scooping out caves and forming underground rivers and lakes. The entire region is dotted with springs, shallow holes, and sudden depressions, especially in valleys close to the regular level of the water underground. You need a guide to hike the Burren. At times of heavy, persistent rainfall, temporary lakes known as turloughs rise to cover areas normally used as pasture land. The Burren caves are the most extensive in Ireland; some have been explored, but many more remain to challenge the intrepid speleologist. Almost all, however, are dangerous to the amateur. For those who wish to experience the pleasure of caving, without the dangers, Aillwee Cave , discovered in 1944 and now open to the public is a splendid alternative.
The Burren is a wild expanse of solitude, like the Cliffs of Mohar.
Another example of the contrasts of the Burren is provided by the presence, side-by-side, of two distinct botanical types — the arctic/alpine plants, such as the mountain avens and the gentian and the Mediterranean orchid and the maidenhair fern. The purity of the air is shown through the presence of many types of lichens, such as lungwort and Parmeliella, always the first organisms to disappear when pollution invades an area.
Past and Present.
Make Gregan’s Castle Hotel your Burren base lodge.
Of all the contrasts, the most dramatic is undoubtedly the least evident — that between the Burren as it is now and the Burren as it was long ago. To the casual visitor, what characterizes the landscape now? First, it is the starkness of the mountains and the emptiness of the limestone uplands and plateaus. Then would follow the drystone walls that snake up the sides of the mountains and hills and across the level plains and valleys. And finally the ruined houses, some in clusters and others seen in the distance as isolated dots along the hillsides. The prevailing impression, at least initially, is of a landscape scraped bare. It is an impression of course that a deeper familiarity with the Burren dispels or at least modifies. But there is something of the truth in it. And this element of truth points to the contrast.
The Castle is a comfort
after a day hike.
Evidence now indicates strongly that the existing Burren landscape is not the work of nature, but the result of human habitation. Originally, the Burren was densely forested, with pine and yew the dominate trees, and the areas now exposed were covered with topsoil. In the course of many centuries large scale forest clearance made the land available for grazing and later for farming. But the constant action of the wind on the cleared areas of light soil led in time to erosion. The heavy use of land by a large population completed the process, resulting in exhaustion of the soil.
The other aspect of the past is the profusion of archaeological remains. and sites and monuments of antiquity. It is important to realize that this is precisely what they are — remnants of the past. When the visitor looks at Poulnabrone, the magnificent Portal Dolmen that has become such a potent symbol of Irelands past you are seeing what remains. Just like that other remnant of the Irish past — The Ring Fort, many of these structures have the power to impress us even in their ruined state, others are little more than shallow circular embankments, lying in fields or submerged in a thicket of brambles. Imagination is required. Look at the existing landscape, at the walls, the mysterious square, and circular stone enclosures, at the megalithic tombs, at the art hewn and stone ring forts, at the churches and the castles and houses. These are the constant reminders of the remains. Imagine the great forest spread out far and wide, the stone huts within the farmsteads within the ring — forests, cattle herding, celebrations at festivals. That is the magic and imagination of the Burren.
Irish whiskey or Irish coffee in the Corkscrew Bar.
I am greeted at Gregans Castle Hotel with a Guinness, of course, by owner Simon P. Haden, managing director, and present owner of his family’s business in the heart of the Burren, just south of the seaside village of Ballyvaughan.
A great place for a cool Guinness.
Simon’s family has been rolling out the carpet for over thirty years to guests that have discovered this wonderful property at the foot of the Corkscrew Hills, a Burren treasure trove for botanists, and explorers, and even bicyclists. A group of bikers are bending the elbow in the small lounge that overlooks the grounds of the castle hotel with the limestone Burren in the distance. Famous past guests have discovered Simon’s quiet retreat, including Jerry Garcia, Sharon Stone, Kathleen Turner, and Ewan McGregor.
The Castle dining room overlooks the lovely gardens.
Rhubarb with Custard
Fennel and Meringue.
Gregans Castle is really an 18th century country house, with the real Gregans Castle located across the small paved road, which is a historic edifice open as a museum for a few hours each day. Simon’s Gregans Castle offers humble hospitality, comfortable bedrooms, lots of hot water, and bountiful views of gardens and woodlands.
Lahinch, Doonbeg, and Gort Golf Clubs, and The Cliffs of Moher are all nearby. The Burren is an excellent location for walking and cycling and has many interesting marked routes. Gregans Castle also caters for special events such as small weddings and family gatherings. Both Shannon and Galway Airports are within an hour of the hotel.
The privately owned original Gregans Castle is a very interesting tower house of the 15/16th century that was reconstructed from the rubble by the civil engineer owner, who gives me an excellent guided tour. “It is a tax write off,” he grins, and each day the castle has to be open to the public for a few hours as mandated by the tax laws of Ireland.
This tower house was the former residence of the chief of the Loghlens, Prince of Burren. Up to the end of the 16th century The Burren was known as the Barony of Gragans. O’Loughlen was proprietor of Gregans in 1641, but was dispossessed in the Cromwellian Settlement which followed in 1654.
The unique Martyn Suite.
However the lands did not leave the O’Loughlen family. In 1632. Turlough O’Loughlen married Alice Martyn, daughter of George Martyn (Mayor of Galway 1632-1633), and it was their son, George Oge, using the name Martyn, to whom the lands were granted. The Martyn family eventually moved across the road, probably enticed by the view, to a two story house, where the hotel now stands. An early member of the Martyn family is recorded as having been killed at the infamous Battle of Aughrim in 1691 at the end of the Jacobite wars. Later the family was prominent in the legal profession and lived mainly in Dublin. The house at Gregans was retained as a summer retreat in later years and most of the 2000 acres of land were subleted. In 1866, after contracting a most profitable marriage, Capt. John Gregory Martyn J.P., came to live permanently at Gregans. Capt. Martyn was a supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell and Home Rule for Ireland. At that time the house was the scene of grand social events and gatherings.
After John’s death, his son Francis Florence Martyn remained at Gregans and farmed a much reduced estate. During these times of economic depression, the house fell into some disrepair and the unmarried Frank, died in 1956. In fact, in the 1940s, Frank even tried his hand at innkeeping and obtained a bar license. After his demise, his housekeeper, Miss Crowe, continued to live in the house and eventually, the trustees sold the house for conversion to a hotel. The oldest surviving feature of the house is the kitchen fireplace with family crest keystone in what is now The Martyn Suite.
A superb Junior Suite.
In 1967 the house opened as Gregans Castle Hotel and in 1976, it was purchased by Peter and Moira Haden. Following extensive restorations and upgrading, it is now run by their son Simon, along with his lovely wife.
There are four categories of rooms and suites in Gregans Castle Hotel. Each bedroom and suite is individually and exquisitely decorated in a relaxing country house style. Some have their own private garden area.
These are more generous in size than the classic rooms and each have a well defined seating area. Bathrooms are more lavishly appointed. Some Superior rooms have king sized beds while others have twin beds. My Superior room overlooked the gardens with an excellent view of the rocky ridges.
These rooms are the obvious next step up from the Superior rooms with greater size and appointments. They are furnished to the same high standards.
These cosy and comfortable rooms are decorated in a traditional country house manner. Some have twin beds while others have a queen bed.
These are the largest and most luxurious suites, each with their own private sitting room. The Galway Bay Suite has a magnificent view of the Burren mountains and looks across Galway Bay . The O’Loughlen Suite has a door leading out into the beautiful gardens. The Martyn Suite, with it’s four poster bed and carved cut stone fireplace is in the most historic part of the building in what was originally Frank Martyn’s kitchen. It also has it’s own private garden.
A cozy Castle nook.
Gregans Castle Hotel is situated on the N67 road, 3.5 miles south of Ballyvaughan and 7 miles north of Lisdoonvarna. If you match yourself up at the annual match making festival in Lisdoonvarna every September, I can’t think of a more romantic setting in the Burren for a marriage or honeymoon than Gregans Castle Hotel.
You don’t have to take my word that Gregans Castle Hotel in the Burren is a western County Clare classic, because it is highly honored worldwide with these kudos:
Failte Ireland (Irish Tourist Board) Four Star Hotel
Member of Best Loved Hotels of The World
RAC Blue Ribbon Award
Member of Ireland ‘s Blue Book
RAC Restaurant Award
Gilbeys Gold Medal Award for Excellence
Recommended by Johansens Country House Guide, Frommers, Karen Brown’s Guide, Fodors, Georgina Campbell ‘s Guide
Automobile Association Top 200 Hotels in Britain & Ireland
Automobile Association Red Star Hotel with two Rosettes for Good Food by The Good Hotel Guide and The Good Food Guide
Member of Great Houses, Castles, and Gardens of Ireland
An Irish Hotels Federation Quality Employer since 1998
Gregan;s Castle Hotel
Ballyvaughan, County Clare, Ireland
Tel: 353 65 707 7005
Fax: 353 65 707 7111
The Cliffs of Mohar are in the Burren near the Castle.
The best way to see the Burren is with a guided walk. It is not recommend to explore the region without a guide because of the numerous sinkholes and rough terrain. The guides know the way. Check out Burren Walks at www.burrenwalks.com To get in shape before a walk, visit Burren Yoga at www.burrenyoga.com
Aillwee Cave — the largest cave in the Burren and in Ireland, is located south of the small seaside village of Ballyvaughn. Expert guides are informative on the leisurely 30 minute tour through the beautiful caverns, over bridged chasms, under weird formations, and alongside the thunderous waterfall, which sprays guests with gentle mists.
The wonders are not all above ground.
Marvel at the frozen waterfall and explore the hibernation chambers of long extinct brown bears (ursos arctos). The guides bring you safely to the outside world where you can shop and browse through the craft stores in the award winning complex that guards the entrance to the Burren underground. The kitchen utilizes the freshness of the local eatables. Have a glass of wine on the terrace with views of Galway Bay in the distance. Climb the rocky slopes of the Burren above the cave to see the spring gentian or mountain avena blooming in profusion. Or catch a glimpse of the ravens wheeling above the cave. Stroll in the canopied woods or the Cave’s Garden Centre, which has a selection of trees, shrubs, and plants. Watch cheese being made in the dairy and sample the finished product. Take home some fudge, jams, chutneys, and pickles prepared in the farm kitchen.
Open daily in July and August from 10 a.m., with the last tour at 5:50 p.m. Open by appointment in December.
The Burren Perfumery
Carron, County Clare, Ireland
Fax: 353 65 7089200
The Burren Perfumery and Floral Centre is Ireland’s first perfumery. Open daily with free admission; Sip an Earl Grey’s in the tea room. The Burren Perfumery was established over 30 years ago in a remote location in the Burren. The Burren is one of the most unique floral landscapes in the world. The distillation room is where essential oils are extracted from flowers using a traditional still before they are hand blended to create the unique fragrances and body care line. The fragrances produced at the Perfumery are the famous “Man of Aran”, “Llaun”, and “Found & Fraoch”. There is a wide range of organic aromatherapy products, including 100% plant extract oils, gels, and hand made soaps. Visit the unique audio visual presentation and photographic exhibition. Relax in the herb garden and tea rooms which serve organic local produce from the Burren.
The Burren Centre.
Kilfenora, County Clare
Tel: 065 7088030
Fax: 065 7088102
Open Mid March – October
It is a walk through time. View films tracing the history and unique environment of the Burren with comprehensive exhibitions. Visit the St. Fachnan’s 11th century Cathedral and medieval high crosses nearby. Listen to narratives from internationally renowned natives of the area. Relax in the tea room or craft shop.
— By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine. Photos courtesy of Gregan’s Castle Hotel.