By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
What? Orchids grow wild in Ireland? Well, sure. In fact, there are about 27 native orchid species that grow in Ireland and more than 20 of those are found in the Burren in Co. Clare, on the Wild Atlantic Way on the West Coast.
If you haven’t been there, the Burren should definitely be on the agenda for your next Irish visit. With more than 150 square miles of surreal and magical moonscape close to the coast, the Burren is also handy to fun, interesting towns like Lisdoonvarna, Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, and Doolin, where there are numerous great places to stay, from B&Bs to castles, and also many excellent pubs and restaurants and lots of things to do.
As you drive along the coast, the Burren rises up in the distance as you leave Ballyvaughan and from beside the road as you approach Doolin. At first glance, the Burren looks like hills of dull, gray stone. But when you get out of your car and walk among those stones, you will see an incredible floral display of lovely blue gentians, bright pink thrift (also called seapinks), yellow Marsh Marigold and white Woodruff, to name just a few. You don’t have to be a botanist or even a gardener to appreciate the beauty of the varieties growing there or to marvel at Arctic/Alpine flowers growing alongside Mediterranean species.
ORCHIDS AND MORE
And then there are the orchids! The early purple orchid starts the blooming season in April and we’ve seen them along roads and in meadows everywhere in the Burren. They are abundant and stunning. In September, Autumn Lady’s Tresses end the annual run.
The Burren has slightly less than 0.5 percent of Ireland’s land mass but irt has more than 70 percent of the country’s native plants, which support an assortment of wildlife, including feral goats, pine martens, and butterflies.
In addition to flora and fauna, the Burren is a treasure trove for archaeologists. More than 500 ring forts and Neolithic tombs have been identified there. Perhaps the most famous dolmen (portal tomb) is Poulnabrone, which attracts many visitors to the area.
One group we’ve supported is the Burrenbeo Trust (burrenbeo.com) in Kinvara, which is Ireland’s first landscape charity and promotes and supports the sustainable management and use of the Burren and its heritage. Individual memberships are 40 euro each and support efforts to protect this national treasure. An online shop sells books, maps, and postcards; you can buy a membership there, too. I did buy a membership several years ago because I support this group’s mission and wanted to support the preservation of the Burren, but I let my membership lapse. Will have to rectify that this year!
Nearby is the Burren National Park, the smallest of six national parks in Ireland. The visitor center is in Corofin, Co. Clare. And if you’re in Lisdoonvarna, be sure to stop in at the Burren Smokehouse for some of their extraordinary smoked salmon (also available at Shannon Airport.)
Another worthwhile attraction is the Burren Center in Kilfenora, which has fascinating displays all around the area. While you’re there, be sure to watch the beautiful video by the late wildlife film producer Eamon de Buitlear. His images trace the formation of the Burren 320 million years ago. The video alone is well worth the price of admission. There is a tearoom and craft shop on site, too. The Center closes for the winter but reopens on March 11 for the 2016 season.
Next door to the Center is the magnificent medieval Kilfenora Cathedral. Known as “City of Seven Crosses,” Kilfenora has one of the greatest concentrations of high crosses in Ireland, including the famed “Doorty Cross.” If you are interested in studying art, the Burren College of Art certainly offers a wide array of courses. Learn more at burrencollege.ie
Would you expect to find delicious chocolates being made in the rugged hills of the Burren? Well, like a lot of other hidden surprises about Ireland, there is a wonderful chocolate factory in Oughtmama, Bellharbour – eight minutes down the coast from Kinvara and 35 minutes from Galway City.
Hazel Mountain Chocolate (hazelmountainchocolate.com) offers dark chocolate made in small batches from Trinitario cacao beans and raw cane sugar and milk chocolate with Irish milk from grass-fed cows.
A friend in Mayo had been to Clare and told us about the chocolates last spring. If you have even the tiniest sweet tooth, we defy you to stop at Hazel Mountain without stocking up. We brought home numerous bars and boxes of the lovely and delicious chocolate.
The website says Hazel Mountain chocolate begins with a “team of chocolate makers … hand roasting, cracking and winnowing cacao beans before stone grinding for 40 hours. We then age our chocolate for further 3 weeks before our chocolatiers create our award winning range of bean to bar chocolates. You just can’t rush the process of making the world’s best chocolate.” We have to agree that the chocolate is very, very good.
There’s a farm-to-fork café on site and you can arrange to take a 45-minute tour through the various stages of chocolate making, followed by a yummy tasting session. Tours are available Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. For details, firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s probably a wonder that between chocolate and bread, I don’t weigh 600 pounds! I absolutely love McCambridge’s bread and am always excited to get into an Irish market to buy it so I can enjoy my favorite lunch of smoked salmon on buttered McCambridge’s wholewheat soda bread. It’s always disheartening to get home and not be able to find it at the local grocery store.
I emailed McCambridge’s to say how much I enjoyed their bread and received an email from Michael McCambridge recently saying, “Just to let you know we have introduced a McCambridge Bake at Home kit. It is available in the USA at foodireland.com. You can view the product in a short video on our website at mccambridge.ie.”
There are many, many Irish products on the excellent Food Ireland site, including McCambridge’s wholewheat, spelt, and seeded bake-at-home bread kits!! Take a look and have fun!
Enjoy Ireland whenever and wherever you go, and keep an eye out for all the commemorative events that are being prepared around the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. This will surely be a banner year for travel to Ireland!