In the west of Ireland, rising from the rugged cliffs of the Atlantic coastline, lies The Burren region of County Clare. A bleak, lunar landscape of gnarled and weathered limestone slabs, without trees or shrubs, yet with a unique collection of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean wild flowers that have become internationally famous. Glaciation and erosion over thousands of years has produced this eerie landscape, but there is also evidence that deforestation employed by the Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers of pre-history contributed to its present day appearance.
The Burren is littered with the remains of these early settlers – dolmens, cairns, wedge-tombs, raths, and ring forts, bear testimony to the many different peoples who in the distant past made their home here. Poulnabrone dolmen is one the most spectacular of these monuments, and probably the most frequently photographed dolmen in the whole of Ireland. Slabs of limestone rise from the stone pavement of The Burren, supporting the large tilted capstone, which forms the roof of the small chamber standing at the centre of a low, circular cairn.
Excavations at Poulnabrone in 1986 unearthed the best-preserved burial deposits to be found at any of the numerous Irish dolmens. The finds include the remains of sixteen to twenty-two adults, and six children. The bones found suggested that they had probably been exposed elsewhere before their remains had been taken and placed within the chamber of the shrine. Most of these people were under thirty years old when they died, with the exception of one who was over forty. Other finds consisted of a polished stone axe, two stone beads, a bone pendant and a bone pin, two quartz crystals, flint arrowheads and scrapers, and many broken pieces of pottery. The dolmen at Poulnabrone is believed to have been erected about 3800BC and used for a period of about 600 years.
The power of Poulnabrone far exceeds its actual size. The stark simplicity of its structure rising from the bare rock into the emptiness of the lunar landscape suggests a piece of modern sculpture. The mysterious and haunting atmosphere of The Burren adds to the sense of the dolmen being an entrance to another world and another time. Here, five thousand years ago the Tuatha de Danaan, the Shining Ones or Fairy Folk of Irish legend, performed their magic. Here, the people of the Neolithic era placed the remains of their ancestors, visiting the shrine to perform their rituals and ceremonies. Here they made contact with the spirit world, perhaps placating the gods with sacrifice to ensure the fertility of their crops, their livestock and their clan. Also to honour the power of the sun, moon, and stars, which had given them life. Here, perhaps, the shaman or medicine man of the tribe would talk with the spirits of the ancestors or the gods through trance or divination, providing reassurance and guidance for the uncertainties of their short and precarious lives.
Today The Burren stands grey and empty, swept by the wild winds and rain from the Atlantic Ocean. The figures and voices fade into the crevices of the rock and sink into the mist, leaving us to speculate on the lives of our brothers and sisters of five thousand years ago, their world outlook, and their spiritual beliefs. Here at Poulnabrone we are haunted by the closeness of their presence, yet frustrated by the abyss of time and silence that stands between us.
- © Simant Bostock