Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Burren

The ruined castle rose from the barren land, a towering rock outcropping, looking as if slabs of limestone had been lifted from the Burren by some gigantic hand and placed like cratered dominoes to form a rough imitation architecture. Mullioned windows, hollowed and cracked, gave the building a foreboding, institutional look, something between a prison and an asylum.

County Clare was our last stop before returning to Dublin for our return flight to the States. Madeleine and I had been in Ireland almost two weeks and I was ready for the vacation to be over. Two weeks of overcast, damp, chilly weather was enough for me, to say nothing of navigating the goat paths the Irish called roads. I had not been enthusiastic about vacationing in Ireland in the first place, but Mattie had been going through a bit of a rough spell emotionally, and when she expressed a desire to visit her ancestral home, I acquiesced.

We had just come from the Burren, a geological anomaly in the northwest corner of County Clare. It was 300 square kilometers of karstic limestone slabs denuded of soil by ice age glaciations -- a bleak place dotted by the remains of megalithic habitations and burial sites, Celtic crosses, and a ruined Cistercian Abbey from the 12th century, and more recent remains of villages abandoned during the famine. The area was popular with archaeologists, as well as occasional tourists, like us. It was also popular with spelunkers, who had discovered that the crevices between the stone slabs often led down to extensive tunnels and caves.

Artifacts discovered in the Burren had been traced to a Mesolithic people that first came to Ireland about seven thousand years before Christ. Some artifacts recently discovered in caves under the Burren were puzzling to archaeologists, because they seemed to predate the earliest archaeologically accepted human habitations of Ireland, and because some of the items discovered appeared to be associated with witchcraft.

Had I known then what I later discovered about the castle we were about to explore, and the former inhabitants of the caves beneath the Burren, I would never have brought Mattie to the accursed place.

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