Burren Landscape and Geology
The Burren is located in north County Clare and southwest County Galway, on Ireland’s western coastline.
Located at 9.2°W 53.1°N, the Burren is located further west than most of mainland Europe (with the exception of parts of the Iberian Peninsula). Some 3000km west lies the island of Newfoundland and the north American continent.
An Ancient Tropical Ocean
The Burren is an ancient landscape that has evolved from its origins in a tropical Carboniferous marine environment located south of the equator, through a series of glaciations and warm periods, to its present location on Europe’s north-western frontier.
The climate in the Burren is fundamentally influenced by its coastal position adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.
Although located at a latitude of over 53° north of the equator (at the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador), the Burren enjoys a relatively warm climate, with average annual rainfall values of 1500mm.
The Burren comprises a geological landscape of fossiliferous Carboniferous (Visean) limestone, overlain by a Namurian shale and siltstone (Shannon Group), succeeded by a series of Namurian mudstone, siltstone and sandstone cyclothems (Central Clare Group).
The siliclastic Cliffs of Moher exhibit two of the five Central Clare Group cyclothems.
Synsedimentary deformation (recumbent folds, faults, thrusts) is visible in the Fisherstreet Slide at the Doolin Cliffs.
Limestones include an abundance of coral, brachiopod, crinoid, and gastropod fossils.
Goniatite and brachiopod fossils are present in the Namurian shale.
Abundant ichnofossils (trace fossils) can be seen in the Namurian flagstones quarried near the Cliffs of Moher.
In the east, folded limestone strata crop out on the side of Mullaghmore Hill in Burren National Park.
With over 100km2 of Atlantic coastline, the effects of coastal erosion (cliffs, arches, stacks, sea-caves) and deposition (dunes, storm-beaches) are clearly evident along Burren’s western margins.
The famous Cliffs of Moher stand over 200m above the wild Atlantic waves that are crash against the coast – some of which reach over 30m, and a regularly attract the world’s best surfers.
To the south of the Cliffs of Moher is the village of Liscannor, famous for its trace-fossil covered flagstones, and birthplace of John Philip Holland – inventor of the first submarine commissioned by the US Navy.
A series of surveys carried out by the Marine Institute and the Geological Survey of Ireland has given us a fascinating view of the coast off north Clare: visit www.infomar.ie
A Karst Landscape
Generally described by geomorphologists as a glacio-karst landscape, the Burren exhibits vast expanses of limestone pavement, hundreds of dolines and poljes (enclosed depressions), deep limestone gorges, springs, swallow-holes (where streams disappear underground), dry valleys (no longer occupied by rivers), turloughs (seasonal lakes unique to Ireland), karren, and hundreds of kilometres of caves.
The Burren is home to north-western Europe’s longest stalactite – the 7m long ‘Great Stal’ in Doolin Cave.
The legacy of the ice age is evident in the abundant glacial striae, erratics, drumlins and moraines.
This natural landscape is peppered by a multitude of archaeological monuments that date back over six thousand years to the Stone Age.
With over 2700 recorded monuments, the Burren has the most abundant and dense distribution of archaeological monuments in Ireland.
The unique assemblages of flora include Arctic/Alpine species (mountain avens, spring gentian) that may be found growing alongside Mediterranean species (maidenhead fern, dense-flowered orchid).
75% of the plants found in Ireland may be seen growing in the Burren, many of which contribute to the annual explosion of colour across the landscape in May and June.
In the wide valleys that dissect some of the limestone uplands and plateaus of the Burren, thick deposits of glacial till are blanketed with fertile grasslands, which have long produced the succulent beef and lamb that is so famous to the part of Ireland.
As early as 1651, Edmund Ludlow noted that the Burren...
'is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him;… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in tufts of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing'.