Endless stone walls of Ireland.

The endless walls of stone in western Ireland have stood up to Atlantic’s fierce winds for more than 6,000 years.

GALWAY, Ireland – St. Patrick may have chased the snakes out of Ireland, but it was the Celtic farmers who eliminated the big brown bears from the Emerald Isle.

European Brown Bears roamed this green island when it was covered with dense forests after the ice cap receded back into the Arctic. You wouldn’t want to encounter one in those woods. They were about the size of a Grizzly, with much the same disposition.

They’ve been gone more than 6,000 years, but bits and pieces remain. A bear’s skull and its major bones can be seen in a bear’s den deep inside a cave at Burren National Park. The Burren is a wild and rugged escarpment that dominates Ireland’s west coast. It gets its name from the Gaelic word “An bhoireann” meaning – a rocky place.

It’s certainly where Ireland shows it’s own bones. The Burren is composed of a limestone pavement nearly as smooth as a dance floor. It was formed 360 million years ago as the floor of a shallow tropical sea when Ireland was located south of the equator. It’s a geologist’s and archeologist’s dream.

When the Celtic tribes immigrated to Ireland from Eastern Europe around 2400 BC, they recognized its agricultural potential and started clearing the forest. That included devouring the bears that were devouring them.

Eventually nearly all forests were eliminated from western Ireland and today the country has the world’s highest ratio of pasture. That’s why Ireland is so green and is one of the world’s biggest exporters of beef, lamb and milk.

The Burren and the west coast get twice as much rain as Ireland’s east coast and the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico sweep up along its ragged shore depositing seeds that grow into palm trees. The rain and year-round mild weather are ideal for grass growth. Here cattle head up hill in winter to graze the highlands and in summer chew the shoreline grasses – the opposite of most herd activity north of the equator.

Irish cows ciimb high in winter

Cattle in Ireland go to high lands in winter for the best grass – opposite of most grazing herds. The piggybacking crows move with the herd.

The Burren has the most diversified landscape in all of Europe – maybe the world – says Tony Kirby, who conducts walking tours of the rugged terrain. “We have Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean wild flowers on the Burren – maybe unlike anywhere else in the world.”

Kirby says 28 different species of wild flowers can be found within one square metre. And those wild flowers attract visitors from around the world in May and June. He can point out and name each flower, plus guide hikers to many of the pre-historic stone structures scattered about the Burren. Kirby speculates with authority about why they were likely built and used by the early Celts.

An Bhoieann was appropriately named by the Celts. After clearing the forests the exposed ground was covered with stones. They cursed the stones, but also put them to work to outline fields, line their cart paths and build their structures.

Kirby says there are 250,000 miles of stone fencing in western Ireland. Some of the fences are 6,000 years old. Very few are younger than 200 years. The locals are still building their homes, barns, churches, etc. from the millions of rocks available.

Horse and cart travel in western Ireland

Horse and cart are still a popular way of moving around The Burren area of western Ireland and the Ayrn Islands off the Atlantic coast.

In County Clare they still talk about Cyclone Tini, although some call it the Darwin storm, as it struck on February 12, 2014 – the   205th birthday of Charles Darwin. Winds were recorded at 145k/h, waves were measured 30 feet high, more than 7.5 million trees were uprooted and millions of eurors in structural damage was inflicted by the record-setting winds. Yet, the stone walls of western Ireland barely noticed.

The Celts built their stone walls to protect the soil and their grazing farm animals from the relentless Atlantic winds, but not to stop them. The walls have no mortar. They’ve stood for 6,000 years because their gaps let the wind carry on.

To see where the ancient brown bears slept in hibernation you can walk half a kilometre into the Aillwee Cave carved out high up on a limestone mountain by an underground river in Burren National Park. The comfy pits formed by a sleeping bear are still there and in some pits much of the bear remains too – at least its skeleton.

This large cave was discovered by a local farmer in 1944 when his dog ran into it chasing a rabbit. He explored its amazing features over the years, but for some reason never revealed its existence until 1973. Cave experts then flocked to the site and it was open to public tours in 1976 with various safety features.

Scientists have found DNA in Aillwee Cave that indicate the brown bears bred with polar bears.

 

 

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