Susan’s Burren


Valerian provides a carpet of red in a Burren field

We want ‘A Susan Day’, we told her – and what a day we got! Readers may remember our visit (Showing off West Cork) from Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems. We’ve been planning a return visit ever since, so that Susan could show us HER Burren. 

Fields of Stone

I’ve written about the Burren before – the unique karst limestone landscape full of heritage and wildflowers in West Clare. But this time we had the benefit of Susan’s intimate knowledge of the place – she lives there and has been exploring it for years. Since we only had one full day, she planned an outing that covered everything we love about this part of Ireland – you’ll see what I mean.

Our destination: Turlough Hill

Leaving the car in a convenient spot, we set off up a long green road, Susan pointing out the wildflowers as we walked, here and throughout the day. We stopped at numerous places to admire features in the landscape: Corcomroe Abbey, for example, lay below us in all its medieval glory.


Corcomroe – a wonderful site to visit if you’re in this area

Our first real stop was St Colman’s Holy Well. It’s a beauty, with all the remote wildness that lends such atmosphere to these ancient sacred spots. One of our blogging heroes, Ali Isaac of the wonderfully researched and entertaining site Aliisaacstoryteller had visited this same route a couple of weeks earlier. We were walking in her footsteps, although in reverse. She tells of her journey here and has extensive details about the holy well and St Colman here.

St Colman's well

St Colman's Well 2

Robert and Susan at Colman’s Well and a peek into the interior of the well

Ali had walked through the Burren in time to see the last of the electric blue Gentians that grow here and in the Alps. They were gone by the time we got there, but we were not disappointed in the wildflowers, which were everywhere underfoot in the most prodigal abundance.

Carpet of Orchids

Bloody Cranesbill, left, and a white orchid

Brilliant magenta Bloody Cranesbill jostled with delicate Orchids and tiny yellow Potentilla (or Cinquefoil), while Wild Thyme scented the air. One field was awash in Valerian. A rare Lesser Butterfly Orchid was spotted in the long grass and lovely Burnet Roses in a hedge.

Clockwise from top left: Burnet Rose, Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Mountain Avens and Spotted Orchid


Milkworth lurking in the grasses

Hiking up Turlough Hill was an excellent opportunity to see how the Burren is laid out. From below, it looks like bare rock, but as you ascend, you realise that the hills are stepped in a series of terraces, the evidence of retreating beach levels after the ice age. These terraces provide important forage for sheep and cattle, who, in turn, help in the regeneration of the plant life. The going isn’t easy – we didn’t stick to any defined path but simply clambered up the steep slopes. The flat parts had been deeply rutted by cattle hoofs – we had to be vigilant to prevent stumbles and ankle injuries.

Turlough Terraces

But the rewards were enormous – ever-increasing panoramas of North Clare, across Galway Bay and south into the hinterland.

Cattle enclosure?

We had an objective in mind. At the top of Turlough Hill, and most visible in arial photographs, is a prehistoric ‘village’ of over 150 hut sites and some larger enclosures. On the summit is an enormous cairn.

Turlough Hill

Turlough Hill 2

Hut site and cairn

From the top: An aerial image of the hut circles and cairn (look closely!)  from the National Monuments Service, a hut circle looking north to the sea, a hut circle looking towards the cairn

This mysterious site has been the subject of an initial investigation to establish the extent of it. The report had this to say:

Even though the hut sites, in a morphological sense, are domestic in character, it is very hard to see their role and function as primarily domestic, considering their location on this inaccessible and exposed hilltop. The activity that required the building of about 150 hut sites on this inaccessible and extremely windy summit, consisting mainly of bare bedrock, was most likely of a strong social and/or ritual character, with few direct links to secular way of life.

Susan on Cairn

This will give you a sense of how huge the cairn is

Earlier this year, Dr Stefan Bergh of UCG conducted a preliminary excavation within the hut-site concentration. You can read about that in this Irish Times piece. We saw the neatly back-filled trench, and look forward to his results.


Coming down, as all hikers know, is often more difficult than going up – the knees certainly protest! In this case, some chunks of it were accomplished by dint of sliding down on my butt and picking the thorns out afterwards. Oh – and the tick! Do check yourself after all walks in long grass where cattle and sheep have been grazing.

From the Cairn

The view from the cairn

We ended up at an early medieval site that quickly banished all thoughts of aching muscles – Oughtmama, of the Seven Churches. Meaning The Breast of the High Pass, there are actually only three churches at Oughtmama, but they pre-date the 12th century Cistercian foundation at Corcomroe, and as such they are excellent examples of early monastic structures in the Romanesque tradition.

Oughtmama Churches

There are several examples of churches built with ‘cyclopean’ masonry in Clare, and here at Oughtmama you can see the huge stones used in the courses of the outer walls that give it this name. Associated with St Colman (of the Holy Well) these churches probably fell into decline after Corcomroe was completed.

We hiked back to the car in the soft afternoon sunlight. It’s hard to believe that one day could be so packed with experiences. Thank you, Susan, for sharing YOUR Burren with us. We’ll be back – we’ll let you know when to put the kettle on again.

Wild Thyme

Wild Mountain Thyme

Beyond the Mizen: Top 14 West Cork Pics of 2015

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

Many of our top Facebook photographs this year were from the Mizen, but not all. You also liked and shared photographs that captured the essence of other parts of West Cork.

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

I think the Baltimore Bay one was so popular because the colours are SO west Cork. When you get blue sky and clouds, the sea turns this amazing Caribbean blue and the contrast with the green fields and wilder high ground is gorgeous.

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep's Head

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep’s Head

This photograph of our friend Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems is one of my favourites this year because of the impression it creates of sheer wildness.

Occasionally we get lucky with the local wildlife. Ferdia, the fox, used to be a regular around our place but has forsaken us recently for neighbours with higher quality leftovers.

Bantry House in winter

Bantry House

It’s possible to get good shots of Bantry House in winter, when the trees don’t obscure it from view.

Kilcoe Castle

Kilcoe Castle is such an icon on the landscape. This photograph shows the neighbourly way it interacts with the other houses around it.

Bardic School Loop, Sheep's Head

Bardic School Loop Walk, Sheep’s Head

This tiny abandoned cottage may have been part of the 17th Century Bardic School near Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head. We’re looking across at the Mizen in this shot.

The Beara, from the Sheep's Head

The Beara, from the Sheep’s Head

And here’s the view from the other side of the Sheep’s Head, across to the Beara Peninsula, with the instantly-recognisable bulk of Hungry Hill to the far right.

Priest's Leap Valley

Priest’s Leap Valley

The long climb up to Priest’s Leap starts near Ballylickey and ends at a high mountain pass that separates Cork and Kerry. The views are spectacular from the top, but this shot of a colourful house and farms in the valley on the way up seemed to express something typical of West Cork.

Farm, Sheep's Head

Farm, Sheep’s Head

This farm appears to be carved out of the mountain land behind it.

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

This was taken in November. I love the contrast of the turquoise water with the autumn colours of the bracken-covered hillside.


A final sunset to end this post. This was taken last February from the lay-by overlooking Roaringwater Bay on the N71. The light was extraordinary – a once in a blue moon kind of shot. The mussel beds make the water look like floating ice packs.

A big thanks to Celia Bartlett for helping us improve our photographic skills this year. We loved our workshop with her.

Happy New Year to all our faithful readers!

Showing Off West Cork

This is how you sightsee in West Cork!

This is how you sightsee in West Cork!

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Susan Byron! Susan is the face behind Ireland’s Hidden Gems, a custom travel service for visitors to Ireland, and she and I met last year when Robert and I spent a week in Clare. Susan loves nothing better than to hop in her car and take off for a few days to some part of Ireland she wants to explore or re-explore. There are very few places she hasn’t seen, but I soon discovered that the Sheep’s Head was one of them. She has been to the Mizen before but hadn’t seen some our OUR hidden gems. In short order we decided that a visit must be organised, and a couple of weeks ago she arrived, bearing Burren lamb, bottles of wine, and an infectious enthusiasm to see everything.

The 17th century Bardic School

The 17th century Bardic School on The Farranamagh Loop walk

Now if someone who runs a bespoke travel agency wants to see your piece of paradise, well, you’re going to put your best foot forward. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem in West Cork – it’s pretty well a fail-safe place to show off. Susan spent her first day whale watching (something we promise ourselves to do soon) and exploring the area east of Skibbereen. On day two and three she was all ours and we spent the first day on the Sheep’s Head and the second on the Mizen.

Mizen farm

Mizen farm

First of all, travelling with Susan is a hoot. She’s got a hot car, a ready laugh, an inexhaustible supply of stories, insatiable curiosity, and a real passion for Ireland. She is amazingly well-read – she knew the dates of the castles before I could tell her and was already familiar with what most tourists want to to see and do in West Cork. So this was a cheerful, companionable time of exploration, chatting, coffee and scones, hiking and sightseeing.

Our Sheep’s Head day took in two loop walks – the Farranamanagh loop and the lighthouse loop. We started off in drifting mist but the sun came out in the afternoon and soon we were shedding coats and applying the sunscreen. After a stroll around the lovely Farranamanagh walk (famous for its 17th century Bardic School) we had lunch in The Creamery in Kilcrohane and browsed in the Sheep’s Head Producers Market. We bought eggs from a farmyard, said hello to contented alpacas, and took innumerable photos of the killer views.

The Lighthouse Loop offers unparalleled vistas at the end of Sheep’s Head – south to Mizen Head and the sweep of the West Cork coastline, and then, as you round the end, north to the Beara and to the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry) beyond it. The trail has some steep sections and clings to a cliff edge for part of the northern stretch. It, and the Farranamanagh Loop are but two of the many waymarked trails that crisscross the Sheep’s Head. Each is as rewarding as the next and you could easily spend several days exploring this one Peninsula.

Lake Farranamanagh

Lake Farranamanagh

The Mizen, of course is OUR peninsula and we are always delighted to introduce it to friends. The weather was brilliant so we were able to drive in Susan’s cool car with the top down. (In my next life I want to come back as a blonde with a convertible.) Three Castle Head was at its most spectacular, with the water that deep azure blue that people who don’t live here have a hard time believing is real.

The Three Castles: it's love at first sight for Susan

The Three Castles: it’s love at first sight for Susan

The curtain wall and the lake

The curtain wall and the lake

Spring was bustin’ out all over so the air was heady with wildflowers and the fields full of newborn lambs. The drive on the north side of the Mizen is as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as any stretch of road in Ireland – the only difference is that it’s empty. We met not a single car, which enabled us to stop where we pleased to survey the scenery or take photos.

Barley Cove Beach

Barley Cove Beach

Susan wound up her time by conducting some retail therapy in Schull. No better place!

Schull, colourful village with great shopping

Schull, colourful village with great shopping

She has posted numerous photographs on her Facebook page and even used the phrase “possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been….” about Three Castle Head. That’s how I feel about that magical place – but when someone who has seen everything Ireland has to offer says it, maybe, just maybe, I’m not delusional after all.

Susan at the cairn. Three Castle Head on the Mizen

Susan at the cairn. Three Castle Head on the Mizen

A Week in Clare

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

From West Cork, the whole of the southwest of Ireland is within easy reach. Killarney is an hour and half straight north, through magnificent mountain scenery. Another hour brings you to Tarbert, on the banks of the Shannon Estuary. Take the ferry across to Killimer, and you’re in County Clare. For the trip last week, our lodging was a beautiful holiday home in Liscannor, owned by a generous friend. It’s about half way up the County, right beside the famous Cliffs of Moher – an ideal base for exploring Clare.

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare!

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare! This is the bar/grocery section.

While Robert attended the annual Noel Hill Concertina School I became a tourist. Clare is an astoundingly fertile area for geography, history, archaeology and culture and a wonderful place to spend time exploring with a map and guide book. I highly recommend The Burren and the Aran Islands: Exploring the Archaeology, by Carleton Jones – one of the best guides of its kind I have ever used. I was also lucky to have met a new friend online recently, Susan Byron, and in Clare I met her in person. The brains behind Ireland’s Hidden Gems, she gave me all kinds of great advice, along with lashings of tea and apple pie, about how to spend my time here.

Burren Landscape

Burren Landscape

For this visit, I confined my travels more or less to the area known as The Burren, which occupies the northern third of the county. It is a striking landscape of bare limestone hills – a karst formation full of caves and limestone ‘pavements’ and home to many species of rare and colourful wildflowers. No flowers yet – it’s still too cold. Too cold for other tourists too, so I had most places to myself. It rained and it hailed and the winds blew mightily, but in between the sun shone enough to imagine it was really spring. And if I got too cold, well, I retreated to the nearest friendly pub with a roaring fire and a pot of tea.

Eugene's Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Valughan's in Kilfenora

Eugene’s Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Vaughan’s in Kilfenora

The photographs I have chosen are a small selection of the sites I visited. One of the most iconic of all irish prehistoric sites is Poulnabrone portal tomb (what used to be called a dolmen). I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad photograph of it. Not too far away is Parknabinnia wedge tomb, another example of a neolithic stone monument. In researching this one on the internet I came across a recording on the excellent Voices From the Dawn site of an interview with 88 year old Paul Keane. Mr Keane’s story, familiar to us all over Ireland, illustrates how the beliefs of country people have kept these sites safe from depredation over many centuries.

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Medieval ruins abound in Clare. I went twice to Corcomroe to admire the stonework, to Dysert O’Dea (one of the most impressive Hiberno-Romanesque doorways I have ever seen, ruined abbey, round tower, an unusual high cross and 15th century castle) and Kilfenora, where the crosses are stored in the ruined church under a glass roof.

Corcomroe Abbey. 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

Corcomroe Abbey, 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

I also took in, although I have not illustrated, a church in Killinaboys with a sheelenagig (more on sheelanagigs in an upcoming post) and one in Noughaval to view the ‘cyclopean’ masonry. I spent a fruitless couple of hours, as the light was fading, trying to find a way to visit a particular stone cashel but had to give up – there’s lots to see but not everything is signposted, close to a road, or down a grassy boreen.

Dysert O'Dea and Kilfenora

Dysert O’Dea and Kilfenora

Robert has written about the incredible music scene we were part of in Clare, something that is also accessible to anyone who visits. The wonders of Ireland- no matter where you go, there’s so much to do and see! If you’re coming, try to fit in some time in Clare.

Finally – a piece of whimsy. Indulge me….

First century BC Chinese head from the Terracotta Warriers; 12th Century Irish head from the Dysert O’Dea Romanesque doorway; 21st Century American head from Wrestlemania.

Just sayin’…

Dysert Fu1