There are places in this land where the soul of wildness has not been stamped out of the ground, where the creatures of the earth carry out the ritual of life daily and where, if we have the eyes to see, we can capture that energy and find our souls refilled and refreshed.
Over the last two weeks, we have been shown such a land in the powerful and enchanting documentary The Burren: Heart of Stone. There is magic in this story from director Katrina Costello of The Silver Branch fame. A magic that transports us to the wild west coast, to the valleys that inspired the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue and a landscape that is unique to this island. It is our’s alone and there is nowhere else like it in this vast world.
At a time when we cannot leave our counties, when the dream of travel has been quashed, the film offered us a trip to that karst landscape formed out of the graveyard of coral reefs and found farmers, poets and historians who exposed a hidden kingdom.
In the age of streamers and American imports on our televisions, the heart of stone is a reminder too of the importance of our public broadcaster that, in short, this sort of TV making is needed and desired. This is the sort of television that is worth talking about because it touches the soul.
The landscape shown is part of the Burren National Park and runs over 1,500 hectares in size, though there are areas also outside the park too. It is an alien landscape in some respects, for it enjoys milder weather, grows different plants, where farmers winter their cattle outside to feed on the sweet grass.
Botanist Sinéad Keane explained in the program that rather than be some entire region of stone, the Burren too is home to Celtic rainforests, which are like a version of South American rainforests, where the moist atmosphere allows them to grow. Indeed, she goes on in the documentary to detail that there are many different regions within the Burren, from the stone pavement to grasslands and forests.
For the people who live upon and in this landscape, they know its seasons, they know its hardships and its joys. From the farmer and poet Patrick McCormack, himself a raw talent, we learn that the first sign of spring in the Burren is the changing of the light and that at times in the hills of the region, we see nature at its purest and its best.
Looking at the program, I was reminded of my own journeys to this land. Having been an emigrant for many years, I have only come to explore our own land since returning five years ago. When venturing it, I always seem to go west to the wild Atlantic and in a sort of Imram like Saint Brendan’s, I find a country that was all the world we ever needed.
In the old days, in the time of the Imrams, the heroes, some saints some warriors, set out to discover the otherworlds of this globe, but in the case of the Burren, no great sea-going voyage is needed. The otherworld is all here, from the ancient dolmen of Poulnabrone to the stone walls laid down by the ancestors. It is a universe of the other.
The series too went on to explain how the dolmens and edifices came to be. Our ancient forbears had come to this wild land which was heavily forested and tamed and changed it. If we follow those stone walls that litter the landscape of the Burren, we can be lead to another world.
The Burren is our dreamtime landscape and in a way, our holy land, for it contains the highest concentration of megalithic tombs in Europe. It is a wonder to think of all the human lives that have passed through this special place. The first farmers who came after our native hunter gatherers were the ones who cleared the first fields and built the heritage of the area. They were the shapers of the land we know today, though we do not know their names.
Thinking back to that first trip there a few years ago, I was reminded how my then-girlfriend now wife came to visit from Australia and how we took my old battered car down to Clare. It was, she remarked, unlike anything else she had ever seen and she recorded it all giddily on her film camera, soaking up the atmosphere.
Coming through the village of Kinvara and witnessing the sea for the first time in months, my heart lifted as the hills and sea began their song on my clay heart.
In the afternoon, we walked a small road on a sunny day and what amazed me were the ditches, for they held flowers that were not in my native Longford. From orchids to the bloodcrane’s bill, they were plants that held my attention in their delicate beauty. The stone walls lead us too to another world, one where we were together as lovers.
There is something in Clare, something that captures all of us. It is not a place of business, it is a place of quietness, a place where a person can come to know themselves again. I am looking forward to the day when I can return to the land that stole my heart all those years ago. It’s got a piece of me in it now and I think it has that power to do the same for all others who venture there.
I do not know what I shall find on the next excursion but after this sumptuous documentary, I shall look with wider eyes, eyes that now know the story of the heart of stone and the heart of life.
It is, as that famous Clare man John O’Donohue said, a place where there is an inner landscape of beauty.