Wild Flower Wonder of the World

  • By info
  • 24 May, 2016

The Burren

Spring Gentians and Mountain Avens carpet the Burren hills.

The Burren 2016 is finally blooming after an uncommonly cold spring. The region is considered to be of true international importance for its Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean flower admixture. The mystique lies in the melange.

I have picked out an example of a plant from all three regions and profiled them briefly as below. The three species are blooming at the time of writing. 

I also strongly recommend a pocket book which is indispensable when botanising in the region.
Bain súp as! Enjoy!

Spring Gentian - one blue, one albino. Burren National Park, May 2016.


A small member of the gentian family with the stem measuring only a few centimetres. The name derives from King Genthios of Illyria who was credited with discovering the herbal properties of the plant. The king reigned a couple of centuries before Christ and Illyria was a kingdom in today’s western Balkans.

The gentian is an astonishing metallic-blue colour. It is the symbol of the Burren region and flowers from April to early June. The flower is Alpine and is quite rare in the north of Europe. Teesdale is the only region in Great Britain where it grows. I ireland, the Gentian can only be found in a few scattered limestone localities in the west.

Spring Gentian is associated with mountainous limestone regions of central Europe and parts of Asia.
In the Burren, it is one of the montane plants which also grows at sea level. Moreover, it co-mingles in the region with orchids from the Mediterranean basin. This cold/warm climate plant melange makes the Burren a significant botanical region at a world level.

Irish Orchid/Dense Flowered Orchid. Neotinea Maculata.


Orchids are one of the largest wild plant communities. More than 25 thousand species have been identified. The grand total of 56 species can be found in Ireland and Great Britain. The small Burren region (200 square miles) is home to an impressive 24 of the British and Irish species.

Most of the Burren orchids flower in May and June. The Early Purple Orchid/Orchis Mascula and the Irish Orchid are the first to bloom. The Irish orchid is also known as the Dense-Flowered Orchid. It is a small orchid with densely-packed and cream-coloured flowers.

The plant has an astonishing geographical distribution. In the north of Europe, it only grows in a few limestone localities in the west of Ireland. The orchid otherwise grows further south in the world in regions such as the Mediterranean and North Africa. Its range also extends east as far as the Ukraine.

Irish Orchid is known as a Lusitanian flower – part of a tiny group of Mediterranean plants native to Ireland but absent from Great Britain. Lusitania is the Latin name of a former Iberian Roman colony which corresponds to most of modern day Portugal and part of Spain.

The Burren is the only region in the world where the Irish Orchid and Spring Gentian grow together!

The Irish name of the plant is Magairlín Glas, the Green Orchid.
Mountain Avens. Dryas Octopetala.


Mountain Avens is a member of the rose family. It is an Arctic plant which occurs in montane regions in the northern hemisphere. It is called Dryas Octopetala in Latin. The octopetala part of the name is explained by the fact that most specimens have 8 petals. As the leaves are oak-like, dryas also features in name. There is a poached egg look about the flower. It is the national emblem of Iceland.

The rootstock is quite woody and some define the plant as a shrub. The Burren uplands were treeless in the 19th century due to immense pressure on the land by a large and desperate population. In fact the pressure was so great that the rootstock of the Avens was being harvested for fuel for the fire. It must have been very labour-intensive and desperate work……. all also in the context of a potato famine (1845-49) which ravaged the region.

Mountain Avens, just like Spring Gentian, grows enigmatically at sea level in the Burren.

The field guide to the most commonly occurring plants in the Burren.


Don’t go without the book! The Wild Plants of the Burren and the Aran Islands by the botanist Charles Nelson. The excellent field guide was first published by The Collins Press in 1999. The third edition issued this year and it features 139 of the region’s wild plants with colour photographs and text. It is an invaluable resource in the great Burren outdoors in the blooming season.

Nelson was born in Belfast in 1951. He was taxonomist (scientist in the classification of plants) in the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin for 19 years. He has had written more than 20 books including the magisterial The Burren a companion to the wildflowers of an Irish limestone wilderness with illustrations by Wendy Walsh. The book is published by The Conservancy of the Burren Ltd. Nelson is now a freelance botanist, writer and leader of botanical tours. He has been living in the Norfolk fens in the east of England since the mid-1990s.


By info 29 Nov, 2016

"The last pool of darkness"……….. Connemara as described by the renowned 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The photo was taken roadside between Screebe and Cashel at the dimming of another spectacular November day in the west.

The summits are part of the great highland range - Na Beanna Beola - translated as Beola's peaks. Beola was a very obsure, local giant/chieftain. According to tradition he is buried in the tiny village of Toombeola.
The range is much more commonly known as The Twelve Bens. The dozen peaks range in height from 1900 to 2490 feet.

The Bens consist of quartzite rock just like Croagh Patrick (Mayo), Errigal (Donegal) and the Sugar Loaf (Wicklow). Once of sandstone, the rock metamorphosed into hard quartzite. The other great Connemara massif is Mám Tuirc (Boar's Pass)....known in English as the Maumturks. They lie a few miles east of the Twelve Bens.

The lowlands in the foreground of the photo were once made up of softer clay materials and were eventually worn down into schist, a coarse grained rock with layers of different minerals.

The bog-brown Connemara lakes and rivers are renowned fishing grounds... salmon and sea trout being the main attraction.

The Connemara region, at 800 square miles, is 4 times the size of theBurren. It is a wild and mysterious place......a magnificent distraction across Galway Bay from us.

Reference - The Mountains of Connemara by Joss Lynam, published by Folding Landscapes in 1988. The definitive guide and map of the Connemara uplands

By info 09 Nov, 2016

"Useless to think you'll park or capture it/More thoroughly" Postscript by Séamus Heaney.

The photograph was taken by Shelly Wolf from L.A. He and his wife Barbara were on a Burren tour with me on a golden autumn day – the very first day of October 2016.
We stopped at a lay-by in the townland of Fahee South about 5 km east of the tiny village of Carran as this photo opportunity presented itself.
The camera itself is pointing even further eastwards.

I like the image a lot as it can be read as having at least four different frames.


The lush green pastures in the foreground are in Glencolmcille (locally known as ”Glan”). The placename is an Anglicisation of Gleann Cholm Chille (the valley of St Colmcille). The monastic site (now ruins) in the valley are dedicated to this 6th century monk.
Like all Burren valleys, Glencolmcille has generous glacial deposits of sands, clays and gravels overlying the porous limestone. It makes for excellent terrain for pastoral farming. However, the valley would have been covered in oak trees in prehistory. It was farming communities in prehistoric/early historic times who converted the forest in to the grasslands we see today.


The stony hill of Turloughmore is perched above Glencolmcille. The Burren hills have been compared to a giant staircase with their classic terrace and cliff topography.
Moreover, the rocky uplands in the region make for a strong contrast with the lavish soil cover in the valleys below. The Turloughmore range extends for more than 6 km. The highest point is 267 metres. The great mapmaker/landscape writer, Tim Robinson, records 7 prehistoric tombs along the range.
The Burren uplands are home to one of Europe’s most distinctive landscapes – limestone pavement. In fact the region boasts the most extensive area of limestone pavement in the European Union. So much of the bedrock in the hills has been exposed due to glacial erosion and uber-enthusiastic prehistoric agriculture. Thus, one could argue that the Burren uplands are in part a deeply humanised landscape.
Hills like Turloughmore are still farmed today albeit in the autumn/winter only. Cattle are transferred to the uplands for the period November to April. This farming regime is highly unusual and is called reverse transhumance.


The white Derrybrien wind turbines are just about visible in the middle left of the image (behind Turloughmore). The turbines are built on Slieve Aughty -  a 25 km-long Old Red Sandstone hill range extending from east Clare into south east Galway. It is a wild and desolate landscape of uplands bogs. (Bogs are wetlands that accumulate peat, a deposit of dead plant material). The highest point on the range is Maghera (400m).
The Derrybrien wind farm has 70 wind turbines and was one of the largest wind farms in Europe when it was built in 2003. The farm, constructed by the semi-state energy body E.S.B., precipitated a 0.5 million tonne peat slide with significant environmental damage and a fish kill of 50,000. Bogs are notoriously unstable environments. Construction of large-scale infrastructural projects on bogs without proper environmental impact assessment can lead to environmental chaos.


The final frame in the image is the “cloud formation” as Shelly phrased it. It was a remarkably still, bright autumn day. The clouds were frozen on the canvas.

The 1st of October was a day from heaven in Ireland and the month kept giving. Met Eireann, the Irish Meteorological Service, summarised October as “extremely dry almost everywhere” with “mean air temperatures on or above average nearly everywhere”. However, November has returned to the form of most of 2016 – unsettled and changeable. We will look back on October 2016 as mí na míosa – the month of months.

Shelly informs me that the shot was taken with a Nikon D5 camera and a 20mm Nikon lens.
Thanks to Shelly and Barbara for the company and the sublime photo. 
Go n-eirigh an bóthar libh. May the road rise with you.

By info 21 Jul, 2016
Kilcolgan is in County Galway on the N18 road between the cities of Galway and Limerick.

Two miles west of the village, stands the abandoned beauty of the 18th century Tyrone House.

The occupiers were the St Georges and they owned more than 50,000 acres in the region at one time. Aristocratic kingpins of large parts of south-east Galway when Ireland was under British rule.

The elevated setting is stunning. The house faces south towards the Atlantic Ocean and the limestone hills of the Burren. The rear of the dwelling looks north onto the estuary of the river Kilcolgan.

Tyrone House is three storeys over basement. The basement would have housed the kitchen, store rooms and very basic accommodation for the servants. It was an invariably dark and smoky space and did not enjoy exotic views! Rough vegetation and scrub are now thriving in the basement of the Tyrone ruin. 

By info 24 May, 2016

The Burren 2016 is finally blooming after an uncommonly cold spring. The region is considered to be of true international importance for its Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean flower admixture. The mystique lies in the melange.

I have picked out an example of a plant from all three regions and profiled them briefly as below. The three species are blooming at the time of writing. 

I also strongly recommend a pocket book which is indispensable when botanising in the region.
Bain súp as! Enjoy!

By info 14 Apr, 2016

1) Ireland is home to only three native conifer species – the yew (Taxus baccata), juniper (Juniperus communis) and the scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).

2) Paclitaxel is a naturally occurring chemical in the bark of the yew. It is used to treat cancers including ovarian, breast, lung and pancreatic cancer among others.

3) Yew wood is very strong and flexible. It is probably the most highly prized wood growing in Ireland today. Yew furniture commands a high price!

4) Yew is known as eó or iúr in the Irish language. Examples of place names inspired by the yew are Maigh Eó (Mayo) the plain of the yew and Tír an Iúr (Terenure) Land of the Yew.

5) The yew tree was deeply revered in pre-Christian Ireland. The poisonous leaves represent death. The really hard wood is a symbol of eternity and as the yew is very long-living plant, it is also a symbol of the afterlife.

6) The tree is cultivated in 100s of Irish churchyards. There is theory and controversy as to why the yew is associated with sacred sites.

7) Ireland’s only native yew wood is in Reenadinna Wood in Killarney National Park.

8) The yew can reach 20 metres in height and live for 1000s of years.

9) The cattle in the Burren uplands avoid the tree because of its toxicity but it is grazed by feral goats.

10) The tree grows mostly at bonsai levels in the Burren hills. It will grow more expansively only in places where it has shelter from the strong westerly winds.


Other tree species that grow in the famous limestone uplands of the Burren include whitethorn (Crataegus monogyna) , blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) , hazel (Corylus avellana), birch (Betula), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), whitebeam (Sorbus ), holly (Ilex aquifolium), alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus), purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), rowan/mountain ash (Sorbus aria), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), aspen (Populus tremula), spindle (Euonymus europaeus) and many species of willow (Salix ).


By info 17 Mar, 2016

“In terms of meaning-making processes and engagement of diverse peoples with St Patrick’s Day celebrations, St Patrick and his feast day can easily be utilised in different ways for different people. It can be a religious celebration, a children’s day out to watch the parade, an adults’ pub-crawl, a revelry in being Irish, a connection for diasporic communities with the ‘homeland’, or a time to reflect on our country’s intricate religious history”.

Dr Jenny Butler. Department of Study of Religions, University College Cork.

By info 04 Mar, 2016

The only heaven I'll be sent to
Is when I'm alone with you.
Lyrics from the song "Take me to the Church" by Hozier.


I had the immense pleasure of visiting the ancient parish church of Killinaboy not once but twice this week. On the first occasion I was part of a group of local tourism providers which was led by the inimitable Galway archaeologist/guide Christy Cunniffe. On the second occasion I myself was guiding an A.T.G.I. (Approved Tour Guides of Ireland) group. Guide guiding guides.

The visits were a pleasure for two reasons: firstly, although Killinaboy is my adopted home place, I rarely frequent the church in my capacity as tour guide. The second reason is that the site visits impressed upon me the wealth of heritage housed there – ancient church, Romanesque art, round tower remnants, double-armed cross, sheela-na-gig, bullauns (basin stones) re-invented as grave markers…as well as a rich mix of medieval vaults, headstones, grave slabs, tombs and wall plaques.

The site is immaculately maintained by the enthusiastic Killinaboy History and Heritage Group. The church had been choked with ivy. Thanks to herculean work by the local group, the ivy has been removed and the splendour of the stone fabric is visible again. The same group is also responsible for the excellent information display board on the history of the parish which is located at the entrance to the site.

The group has also been active in print having published Killinaboy & Coad Graveyards – a remarkable alphabetical inventory of the graves at the Killinaboy site and the neighbouring historic church site of Coad.

The Killinaboy site is dedicated to Inion Bhaoith an obscure saintess from the Early Medieval period (400-110 A.D.) in Ireland.
According to tradition she founded a monastic community on site in the 7th century A.D. The oldest part of the extant church is said to date from the 11th century.  The church was repaired for Protestant worship in the 1720s.

The site is located on elevated ground in close proximity to the river Fergus. The eminent local historian Michael Mc Mahon maintains the Early Medieval monastery would have had a footprint of up to 800 acres. This landscape context of the monastery has been diminished as the busy regional road R476 passes within metres of the church.

I would like to share just five of the many cultural highlights from the church of St Inion Bhaoith.

By info 17 Feb, 2016

The R480 is a 16.4 kilometre long regional road stretching from Ballyvaughan in the north of the Burren to Leamaneh Castle in the south.

It is the main arterial route in the Burren interior. In high season the road can be heavily trafficked.

The roadside is littered with outstanding National Monuments including the ring forts An Ráth, Cahermore and Caherconnell. Ireland’s oldest known megalithic tomb Poulnabrone (5,800 years old) is also on the verge of the road. Poulnabrone attracts at least 100,000 visitors per annum.

 I recently “discovered” another monument along the road – a holy well called Tobargahard. It is a magical site which seems to avoid the attention of almost everybody.

Tobargahard was formerly situated in the classic Burren upland landscape of limestone pavement and thin soil. However, the monument has been hidden in recent years by the advance of hazel scrub. Scrub is advancing due to decline in farming in the uplands. The scrub may eventually occlude the well entirely from future generations. Hazel is glorious native tree but it is an enemy of archaeology.

 Tobargahard may be an Anglicisation of Tobar go hArd which means the well on high. The monument is located just above Gragan Valley which was heavily populated in the 19th century. There is a walled entrance to the well which faces the valley. The wall is now covered in moss which is thriving in the scrub. 

Folk medicine was widespread in the past and the belief was that the Tobargahard water cured eye ailments. I reckon that the waters of about 50% of Ireland’s 3,000 plus recorded holy wells are renowned for eye cures.

  I recorded just three pilgrim offerings at the site - two religious figurines on the altar above the well and a rosary beads hung from a tree. When the wind blows, the beads swing like a pendulum.

Tobargahard is an almost abandoned sacred site, a secret of the Burren landscape, a haven of tranquility.

By info 09 Feb, 2016

The Burren is 350 square kilometres (135 sq miles) in size – about 0.5% of the surface of the island of Ireland. The island of Ireland covers 84,431 square kilometres (32,599 sq miles).


The region is enclosed roughly within the circle made by the villages of Ballyvaughan, Kinvara, Gort, Tubber, Corofin, Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna.


The Aran Islands were formerly part of the Burren. They were detached from the region when sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age (circa 10,000 years ago).


The place name the Burren is a phonetic Anglicisation of the Irish place name An Bhoireann which means a place of stone.


The term karst is defined as a landscape formed from the chemical dissolution by rainwater of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. Karst is a rare and precious land form.The Burren is home to one of the biggest karst landscapes in Europe.


Glaciers and prehistoric agri-vandalism are the twin causes of the extensive soil erosion in the Burren.


The great English map maker and essayist, Connemara-based Tim Robinson (born 1935), said “The Burren’s austere beauty is due to millennia of abuse”


Oliver Cromwell’s lieutenant-general of horse and second-in-command in Ireland Edmund Ludlow (died 1692) said of the Burren “"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."


The Burren National Park is one of six National Parks in the Republic of Ireland and is the smallest one in size – 1,500 hectares approx.
                The other five National Parks are Killarney (Kerry), Wicklow Mountains,  Glenveagh (Donegal),  Ballycroy (Mayo) and Connemara.


The Burren region is home to five European Union priority habitats for wild flowers – limestone pavement, species-rich grasslands, turloughs, cladium fens and petrifying springs.


There are only two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Republic of Ireland – Skellig Michael (County Kerry) and Brú na Bóinne (County Meath).
The Burren is one of seven sites on an Irish Government Tentative List (2010) of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The other sites are Céide Fields and NW Mayo Boglands ; The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape ; Dublin - The Historic City of Dublin ; Early Medieval Monastic Sites (Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Glendalough, Inis Cealtra, Kells and Monasterboice) ; The Royal Sites of Ireland (Cashel, Dún Ailinne, Hill of Uisneach, Rathcroghan Complex and Tara Complex) and the Western Stone Forts.


There are an estimated 1,000 feral goats in the Burren hills – 20% of Ireland’s total population (5,000). The Burren feral goat population is one of the largest in Europe.


Octhebius Nillsoni is a black water beetle with white spots. It was first discovered in a Swedish lake in 1996. It was subsequently found in 2006 in three water bodies in the Burren National Park. Octhebius Nillsoni is one of the rarest creatures on planet earth that we know of. It has no name in the English language.


The Burren limestone is 780 metres thick in places.


The slow worm a nguis fragilis , a legless reptile, was introduced (by misguided people!) to the Burren in Ireland from Great Britain in the late 20th century. It has been expanding its range modestly since its introduction.


The viviparous lizard lacerta vivipara the Burren and Ireland’s only other reptile. It is the most northerly reptile on the planet and can even be found within the Arctic Circle.


The Burren is the only region in the cool, temperate world where livestock are transferred to uplands in winter.


There are approximately 25,000 wild orchids on the planet. Ireland is home to 27 of them and the Burren boasts 23 of this national total.


The east of the Burren is the only area in Ireland where the wild flower dropwort filipendula vulgaris grows.


The Caher river in Fanore is the only river in the Burren region that flows entirely over ground from source to sea.

Two of Ireland’s three amphibians can be found in the Burren. They are the frog rana and the smooth newt Lissotriton vulgaris . (The 3rd amphibian, Natterjack Toad bufo calamita , is confined in Ireland to County Kerry).


The sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and the kestrel Falco tinnunculus are the Burren’s two most common birds of prey.


The Burren has one of the highest densities of breeding pair cuckoos Cuculus Canora in Ireland.


Mean rainfall per annum in the Burren is maximum 1,400 millimetres (55 inches). Average annual rainfall in Dublin is 732 millimetres (29 inches) and in Connemara it is 2,800 millimetres (110 inches)


Glenquin House in Kilnaboy was used as the parochial house in the cult sit com TV series Father Ted . However, nearly all the interior scenes were recorded at the ITV Studios   facilities in central London  in front of a live studio audience.


Two renowned Irish authors, John O’Donohue (1956-2008) and Francis Stuart (1902-2000), are buried in Creggagh cemetery in Fanore village.


Tower houses were the castles of the elite in Ireland from 1400 to 1650. There are three cylindrically shaped tower houses in North Clare – Newtown in Ballyvaughan, Faunarooska in Fanore and Doonagore in Doolin.


The fort was the dwelling/defence structure of the elite prior to the castle. The fort at Ballykinvarga, Kilfenora is one of only 4 forts in Ireland with chevaux de frise (anti-cavalry stone defensive works). The other three are promontory forts - Dunnamoe and Treanbeg in County Mayo and Dún Aengus, Inis Mór.


Sheela na gigs are medieval architectural grotesques. There two in the Burren – one at Kilnaboy church (external) and the other in Ballyportry castle, Corofin (internal).


Round towers are 8th to 1th century stone structues. There are three recorded at monastic sites in the Burren – Kilnaboy, Kilmacduagh and Noughaval. The tower at Noughaval no longer survives.


              30 of Ireland’s 32 butterfly species have been recorded in the Burren…………    71 of the national total of 72 land snail species.


In 2011 the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher were awarded the designation of UNESCO Geopark. The status is accorded by UNESCO to sites worldwide which are considered to be of universal geological significance. There are two other Global Geoparks on the island of Ireland – Copper Coast (Waterford) and Marble Arch Caves (Cavan and Fermanagh).

By info 01 Feb, 2016
Now it's St. Brigid's Day and the first snowdrop
In County Wicklow, and this is a Brigid's Girdle
I'm plaiting for you, an airy fairy hoop
(Like one of those old crinolines they'd trindle),

Twisted straw that's lifted in a circle
To handsel and to heal, a rite of spring
As strange and lightsome and traditional
As the motions you go through going through the thing  .

From St Brigid's Girdle by Séamus Heaney.

Happy St Brigid's Day from the rocky Burren in the wild west of Ireland on the 1st of February 2016. I say "wild" as outside Storm Henry is raging. Henry is our 8th named storm this winter. Wind speeds will reach up to 128 kilometres per hour on the west coast of Ireland. There is an orange weather warning in place until this evening. Even temperate Ireland is no longer exempt from the extreme weather events affecting the planet.  According to Met Eireann, the Irish Meteorological Service, December 2015 was the warmest and wettest December ever recorded at most of its weather stations.

The 1st of February was the start day of the New Year in ancient Ireland and thus one of the four great pre-Christian agrarian festivals in the calendar.  The festival was called  Imbolc  - meaning literally in the womb. Imbolc was a major turning point in the agricultural and spiritual year - a time of birth and re-birth.

Imbolc has long since been Christianised through the figure of Saint Brigid. Paradoxically there may be no historical basis for Brigid as she was almost certainly a pagan goddess. She is known as Mary of the Gael and is one of the three major figures in the canon of Irish saints along with Patrick and Colmcille. Her feast is still celebrated in many parts of Ireland today - testimony to the remarkable tenacity of tradition.

Liscannor is a small coastal village about ten miles west us here in Killinaboy. Each 1st February St Brigid's festival is celebrated in Liscannor with a mass at the local holy well which is dedicated to Brigid. The mass is read by the forward-thing local priest , Denis Crosby. A small number of the rituals performed during the ceremony are quite secular and are highly unusual in the context of a Roman Catholic mass.

Both the St Brigid's cross (rush) and St Brigid's girdle (a straw hoop) can be seen in these archive images of St Brigid's Day at Liscannor. The swastika-like cross is hung up in the house (and less commonly outhouse) in the belief that it acts as protection against the onset of illness and misfortune in the case of not just people but livestock also.
People step through the straw hoop in order to get Brigid's blessing and to be reborn to good health for the new year.

Renowned singer-songwriter, Luka Bloom,  has been domiciled in Liscannor for the last three years. He has chosen today, St Brigid's Day, as the launch day of his 21st recording entitled Frugalisto www.lukabloom.com

An excellent documentary on Brigid was screened yesterday evening on the Irish language TV station TG4
The programme is in Irish with English sub titles.

As for Henry, he may well upstage Brigid today in idle chatter around these parts......as we stutter through the wildest winter in living memory. Lá Fhéile Bhríde Shona duit.  Happy St Brigid's Day to you!
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