Bog, Burren, and the Giant's Causeway
As if general natural beauty weren't enough, Ireland also is home to some really unusual places and environmental conditions. The bogs have long defined Irish life as a source of fuel and building material, as well as an obstacle to quick overland transportation. The Burren and the Giant's Causeway are geological marvels.
A Boggy Land
The bogs are lush wetlands where plants grow thickly on top of shallow water (the ground is mushy, but you can walk on it). When the plants died, there wasn't enough oxygen in the water for them to rot quickly, so over the years a dense layer of plant matter accumulated to form peat. These bogs can be 20 to 40 feet thick.
For centuries the Irish people have used peat from the bogs to fuel their fires. They would cut chunks of peat every spring and set them out to dry in the sun; then they would burn this stuff, also called sod or turf, in their fireplaces. Few families still burn peat these days, but a substantial portion of Ireland's electricity (10 percent in the year 2000) comes from peat-burning power plants.
Bogs are so oxygen-poor that things buried in them often don't rot. Archaeologists have found tools, weapons, jewelry, and even well-preserved human bodies. The real treat, though, is bog butter; people buried huge clumps of butter in the cool peat to keep them fresh, but forgot to dig them up. Today, museums across the midlands proudly display these ancient chunks of petrified dairy fat.
Bogs support their own unique ecosystems, with spectacular flowers and plants that have evolved to thrive in the unusual environment. Carnivorous plants that eat insects thrive in bogs. They are also an important habitat for birds.
Bogs used to cover one-seventh of Ireland's landscape, but they have been depleted over the years. In the twentieth century, the Irish Peat Board excavated thousands of acres of bog to sell to power companies and other businesses that used the peat — they turned it into briquettes for burning and sold it to garden companies as compost. Some people fear that the bogs could disappear completely in the near future. Now the Irish Wildlife Service and the Peat Board are working together to preserve Ireland's remaining bogs, which they now consider a national treasure.
The Burren in County Clare is barren and bleak. It's a startling place, a giant field of limestone slabs that look like a slightly greener version of the moon's surface. The slabs are dotted with big limestone boulders. Belowground they are full of caves hollowed out by millions of years of running water; some people make a fine hobby out of mapping this cave system.
Ireland has lots of limestone under its rich soil and greenery, but the Burren is the only place where most of it is exposed, because glaciers from the last Ice Age scraped away the topsoil about 15,000 years ago. The surface of the limestone is quite dry; all water that falls on it quickly drips down to the network of underground streams. There are a few lakes in the Burren, but they are prone to disappearing suddenly when the water table drops.
Though it looks bleak, the Burren supports an astonishing array of plant life. Beautiful flowering plants, such as foxgloves, rock roses, and a number of orchids, thrive on the limestone. Grass grows there, too, in the hollows of the rocks; the limestone stores heat, which allows the grass to grow all year round. A number of wild goats live off this grass. Sometimes farmers even move their cattle to the Burren to graze.
People have lived in the area of the Burren for millenniums, long before the Celts arrived. There are some seventy ancient tombs there, such as the Poulnabrone dolmen, constructed about 4,500 years ago, and the Gleninsheen wedge tomb, where a wonderful gold collar dating from about 700 B.C.E. was found.
The Burren Way is a walking path that runs 22 miles from Ballyvaughan to Ballinalacken. The nearby Cliffs of Moher are a spectacular sight and can also be visited on foot; this is a great place to watch puffins or propose marriage. One of the best caves to visit is Aillwee Cave, which boasts dramatic stalactites and the remains of ancient cave bears.
The Giant's Causeway, on the coast of northern County Antrim, is one of the more stupendous sights in the world. It is a collection of bizarre rock formations set between the sea and the towering cliffs. Most of them are hexagonal columns that stand straight up from the ground. The flat tops of the columns look like stepping stones, and visitors can actually walk on them. Some of the odder formations have names such as Giant's Eyes (circular bubbles of basalt rock) and the Giant's Organ (columns of rock that look like the pipes of an organ). Others include the King and His Nobles, the Chimney Tops, the Honeycomb, the Giant's Loom, and the Wishing Chair.
The name “Giant's Causeway” comes from a legend about Finn MacCool, who supposedly built it. (Finn was sometimes spoken of as a giant.) In this story, he was spectacularly huge, and he had fallen in love with Una, a large and luscious lady on Staffa Island, off the Scottish Coast (which is across from this part of Ireland and happens to have the same bizarre, honeycomb-shaped rock formations as the Giant's Causeway). Finn built the causeway as a bridge between the two islands so he could take Una home with him. Everything was going swimmingly until Benandonner, an even more spectacularly large Scottish giant, decided to come after them and take Una back to be his girlfriend.
The Giant's Causeway has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Travelers have sought it out for centuries; Samuel Johnson, William Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott all journeyed to see it. Today it is Northern Ireland's most popular tourist attraction.
Finn was tough, but when he saw Benandonner's immense bulk, he realized that the Scot was just too big to fight. Fortunately, Finn was also clever — with Una's help, he disguised himself as an immense Irish infant. When Benandonner saw how big Irish babies were, he got scared of facing a full-grown one, and he ran back to Scotland, destroying the causeway in the process. That's why all we have left today are the remnants on the North Antrim Coast and on Staffa Island.
Geologists, however, believe that volcanic eruptions and the rapid cooling of theoleiitic basalt lava 60 million years ago resulted in the unusual polygonal shapes. Retreating glaciers exposed the basalt columns 15,000 years ago, and the Giant's Causeway was born.