The Burren is one of the most fascinating and lovely parts of Ireland, a huge limestone plateau with numerous megalithic remains and a protected habitat where many rare plants and flowers grow.
It can look like a barren and stony wasteland in places, but don’t be mislead. It’s a place full of history, with a fascinating geology, a paradise for botanists and very much a living and evolving place.
Anyone who has the opportunity should make a point of touring this area slowly, as a quick glimpse means you miss a lot of what it has to offer.
Lough Gealain, The Burren by sunafterrain
Notes on the Tour Route
The tour starts at Kinvara, a short drive from Galway City, and makes a big figure of 8 around the Burren and back to Kinvara again.
If you are not returning to Galway, we have a suggestion for an alternative end to the itinerary that will take you on to Ennis instead.
The distance travelled makes this somewhat longer than the itineraries usually suggested for touring the Burren, it will fill a long day, but we believe it’s worth it because it really does let you take in all the high points, and more, in a one go. It doesn’t feel at all like an onerous drive, because there are so many stops and because the driving is through such magnificent surroundings.
One Day or Two?
It would be easy, and enjoyable, to split this tour over two days. The Burren reveals its depths and its character to those who take the time to explore it more slowly. If you have 2 days, do as far as Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher the first day, and contine the tour the following day, perhaps taking a guided walking tour for half of that day.
If you have only a short time, don’t even try to do the whole tour. Pick out the section that interests you most and see it properly rather than rushing along and really seeing nothing.
Kinvara (A) is a good place for craft shops and the harbour is very pretty and gets photographers excited!
If you are lucky you may see one of the traditional local boats, known as Galway Hookers (yes, really!), out on the sea here.
Dunguaire Castle just outside the town is a typical 16th century “domestic scale” castle with fortified walls, in a lovely setting right on the shore of Galway Bay. It was occupied until about the 1950s but is now in the hands of the state and nicely restored.
A tour gives a very interesting view of how people lived in this type of dwelling and in the evening a Medieval Banquet is held here, something to consider for the return journey this evening perhaps.
The round tower at Kilmacduagh is Ireland’s tallest and is located at the centre of a scattered monastic settlement and against a backdrop of the hills of the Burren.
Unlike the better known Glendalough, there will be no tour buses or crowds here, nor is there a visitor centre, in fact to get access to the building you must borrow a key from a local house.
The drive from Kilmacduagh to Corofin skirts the edge of the Burren National Park, with the limestone hills on the right as you travel changing colours from purple to pink to blue to forbidding grey according to the weather conditions and the light.
You will pass Ballyportry Castle, a restored 15th century tower house once home to members of the O’Brien clan, which can now be rented out as self-catering accommodation.
Corofin is a small and pretty market town, built on the Fergus River which connects Inchiquin Lake with Lough Atedaun.
Legend has it that the mythical Irish hero engaged in battle here and the town is named for him – it means “Finn’s Weir”. St Catherine’s Church, built between 1715 and 1720 by Catherine Keightley who was a first cousin of Queens Mary and Anne, is now a small museum and worth a quick visit.
D. Dysert O’Dea
It’s well worth making the 3 mile detour from Corofin to visit Dysert O’Dea. The castle, now home to the Clare Archaeological Center, dates from the 15th century when it was built by the O’Dea clan, the former chieftains of the area.
However this site has been inhabited since at least the 8th century, when St. Tola founded a monastery here, at the site where the ruins of a 12th century church now stand.
The Romanesque doorway to this church is unique and fascinating, with 12 faces carved into the stone arch overhead, mostly human but also including dogs and birds.
The area around Dysert is rich with archaeological remains, which can be seen by following a guided trail. Among them are a round tower from the 10th or 12th century, a very fine 12th-century high cross, a holy well, a 14th-century battlefield, and a stone fort which dates from the Iron Age.
E. Lemenagh Castle
On the drive from Corofin to Lemanagh Castle, you pass Lough Inchiquin, an excellent location for salmon and trout fishing and also popular with walkers. The mostly ruined Inchiquin Castle which overlooks the lake was built in 1459 for the powerful O’Brien family.
The rather errie looking Lemenagh Castle, another stronghold of the ubiquitous O’Briens, was originally a tower house much like those you have seen already to-day, but was extensively altered and enlarged in the early 1600s by Conor O’Brien, to become an impressive fortified house.
Conor O’Brien and ‘Red Mary’
Conor was a powerful leader, but made a somewhat unfortunate marriage to Maire Rua MacMahon, or Red Mary, who as daughter of the powerful Thomand clan must have seemed a good match.
Mary’s first husband died young, and when Conor returned badly wounded from the Cromwellian wars, she refused to let him in on the grounds that earlier reports had said he was dead. She eventually relented, but he died soon after. Mary remarried, later burying her third husband.
According to legend, or maybe it would be better called gossip, she was not so much unfortunate widow as scheming murderess. Who knows.
F. Caherconnell Fort
The area from here to Ballyvaughan is probably the most archaeologically rich in the Burren, and sites such as Caherconnell Stone Fort indicate that there have been people living here for thousands of years.
The visitor centre here gives a very good introduction to the various sites in the area and is worth stopping at.
Caherconnell Fort itself is an excellent example of a ring fort, which would have been not a military defense but an enclosure where a family could live safely with their animals. It dates back to the 4th century AD and was probably lived in for hundreds of years.
G. The Burren Perfumery
A stop here is very worthwhile, not only to see production of the range of natural organic cosmetics but because it is a great place to learn a little more about the medicinal, cosmetic and culinary uses of the wild flowers and herbs that are so abundant in the region.
The perfumery has a beautiful herb garden and a good display with information about local plants.
There is also an exceptionally good tearoom, so if you are feeling hungry about now it is the perfect place to take a break.
H. Temple Cronan
While in the perfumery ask for directions to nearby Temple Cronan .
This tiny medieval church, just a a small, single roomed oratory, has a number of strange looking heads of people and animals set into its exterior wall. It was once a famous place of pilgimage and there is a holy well close by which is still a revered site for many locals.
I. Poulnabrone Dolmen
Back on the Ballyvaughan Road our next stop is one that is very busy in high season but worth persevering with.
The Poulnabrone Dolmen (the name means “hole of the Sorrows”), a megalithic tomb that dates from about 3500 BC, is the most outstanding of Ireland’s many dolmens, impressive stone monuments erected over the graves of the dead.
Excavations in the 1980’s found that at least 22 adults and children were buried here, along with personal items including a polished stone axe, a bone pendant, quartz crystals, weapons and pottery.
It’s a remarkable structure, and a place that seems to really leave a lasting impression.
J. Aillwee Cave
Ireland’s most popular show cave, Aillwee Cave(K) is a good stop and not just for the tour of the caves themselves, with their many impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
You are surely thinking about lunch around now and there is a good cafe in the the visitor centre and an excellent farm shop outside.
If it’s raining, eat at the cafe, otherwise stock up with freshly baked bread, local cheeses and some of the other yummies in the farm shop and have a picnic on the hills above the cave while you enjoy fantastic views over the Burren and Galway Bay.
Ballyvaughan is nominally a fishing village, but relies now mostly on tourism.
It’s a pretty town with a good range of activities available for those spending more than one day in the area. There are art courses at the Burren Art College, a very good dive centre and for those who want to explore the Burren in more depth, the guided tours offered by Burren Walks are ideal.
It’s also the location of one of the most photographed signposts in Ireland!
Each day from May to October the local village hall has a good crafts fair, where some of the many craftspeople and artists who live in the area display and sell their products. This is well worth calling in to, the quality is exceptionally high and you’ll find unusual items that will not be available in the larger gift stores and souvenir shops, and by buying direct from their makers will get very good value also.
L. Black Head Drive
The next portion of the tour take you along probably the most spectacular coastal drive in Ireland, with breathtaking views across Galway bay to the Connemara coast and the three Aran Islands of Inis Mor, Inis Meain, Inis Oirr.
Some of the best views are from the area around Black Head lighthouse .
However for the very best views take a walk up the limestone hills behind the lighthouse to the little visited Caherdooneerish, a very impressive and stunningly located ring fort.
It’s is a little tricky to find and is a somewhat testing walk, but this page has directions for those up to the challenge.
Doolin is a tiny village of just one street and several pubs, but seems to be a must-see for many people. While at night time this is understandable, since there is good music in the pubs, by day it really isn’t worth even a short detour – but go you must see it!
It is however a good place to overnight if you are doing this tour over two days. The recently opened Doolin Caves are worth a visit if you’ve skipped Ailwee or are a real cave enthusiast.
Doonagore Castle (N), about 1km from the village, is worth a quick visit if you have time. It’s a pretty 15th century tower surrounded by a walled enclosure, located on a headland with great views. The castle is private, it’s owned by an American family who use it as a holiday home. Nice.
Boats to the Aran Islands depart regularly from the pier at Doolin, so you could even make a 3 day tour of it by spending a day there.
O. The Cliffs of Moher
I’ve been scathing in the past about the need, or lack of it, for the now completed new visitor centre at the Cliffs of Moher, which I still believe adds little to the experience of the cliffs.
But the building is impressive, you don’t actually have to bother going in, and in the end nothing can take from the majesty of these magnificent cliffs.
On a windy day the walk up to the tower is quite scary, but always worthwhile and looking down from the top to the birds flying below you, is quite something.
In recent times, despite warnings of the real danger involved, the sea off the cliffs has become popular with extreme surfers, who arrive by boat to surf the huge waves. It’s a truly scary thing to see, there really isn’t any margin for error if things go wrong out there.
Lisdoonvarna (invariable referred to locally as ‘Lisdoon’) is a town famed for its annual Matchmaking Festival.
Depending on your viewpoint,this is an unmissable month of music, craic and romance, or a raucous and unruly gathering of the drunk and the desperate. More about all that here.
At other times it’s a sleepy place, best known for the stinking pungent sulphuric waters at the local spa, which was popular with Victorian visitors and continued to have a loyal clientèle who swore by the restorative power of the water until it closed for what seems to be never-ending refurbishment.
Lisdoon does have some excellent pubs though and is a good place to pause, have some coffee and recover from the cliffs.
Going Back to Galway
Q. Corkscrew Hill
The drive from Lisdoonvarna back to Ballyvaughan takes you over high roads originally built as a famine relief scheme, and down the aptly named Corksrew Hill, a spectacular drive with truly panoramic views over the Burren and Galway Bay.
Some years ago while driving towards Corkscrew Hill I spotted a lone donkey standing by a stone wall with a magnificent vista of hills and ocean behind him. “Photo opportunity” I thought, leaping from the car.
I had no sooner framed the shot when a small boy materialised from behind the wall and placed himself squarely in the way, holding up a large sign reading “€3 to photograph the donkey”! You had to admire his enterprise. I paid, but sadly cannot find the photo.
Further along the road you’ll see signs for Cahermore Fort, yet another of the many ring forts of the Burren and worth a detour if you have time.
R. Newquay & The Flaggy Shore
You’ll pass through Ballyvaughan agan on the way to the Flaggy Shore, something of a detour, but highly recommended..
At the Flaggy Shore, the limestone pavement of the Burren stretches into the sea and has been worn by millennia of waves washing over it into strange flattened shapes.
The light here in the evening bounces off the flags, making them shine in almost jewel-like colours. If you can get there at sunset do, it’ll be an unforgettable experience.
Newquay is a tiny village with just one pub but it’s an absolutely excellent one, Linnane’s Lobster Bar, where I’d strongy suggest you stop for dinner. After that it’s a straightforward drive though Kinvara and back to Galway.
Traveling on to Ennis
Those heading back to Ennis need to take the N67 south from Lisdoonvarna, heading for Ennistymon.
Not many people stop in Ennistymon, but you should. It’s a good shopping town for crafts and has a nice selection of pubs and restaurants.
Take a short walk a little below the bridge in the centre of town to see “The Cascades”, where the River Inagh rushes dramatically over a ridge of rocks. If the river is high the noise can be deafening.
Just outside the town, close to the remains of a workhouse, is the Famine Memorial.
This comprised of two upright stones, on one of which is a statue of a child standing plaintively before the workhouse door, while the other has the text of an actual note taken from a meeting of the workhouse board:
“There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about being buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve.”
Definitely a place to pause for a moment and recall the terrible desperation that at one time afflicted the people of this beautiful part of Ireland.
Further along the road Inagh is home to the one of Ireland’s few pub breweries, Biddy Early Brewery and Restaurant.
If you are here early enough you can enjoy a a guided tour of the brewery and a sampling of their beer, if it’s later you can enjoy their brews in some of the pubs in Ennis or with dinner at Halpinos, a good restaurant at the Woodstock Hotel.
Maps and Touring Information for the Burren
Respecting the Burren
Many years ago, when I worked in the area around the Burren I paused on a particularly lovely day and commented to a local farmer on the wonderful view. “You can’t eat f****** scenery” was his gruff response. But of course he was wrong.
Farming here goes back at least 3000 years. Generation after generation of farmer eked out a hard living from the stony land, not all of them successfully. Today the main source of income for their descendants is tourism – people who visit the area for the very scenery my farmer friend dismissed.
But large numbers of visitors bring their own challenges, and all of us who visit the Burren should step lightly on this place, if for no other reason than out of respect for those who have gone before. So:
- Don’t pick wild flowers, take home cuttings, catch butterflies etc
- Don’t sit on, climb, move, carve your name on or otherwise interfere with any of the hundreds of megalithic remains that dot the burren
- Don’t damage the limestone pavement or take home stones as a souvenir
- Don’t climb over gates or walls to access private lands
- Don’t leave any trace of your visit behind