Burren and Poulnabrone Dolmen

March 17, 2011 – Across the grikes and clints of the karst region in Eire known as the Burren stands the Poulnabrone Dolmen. Ha. Don't worry. This article’s in English. It’s just about Irish oddity, so there’s going to be some Celtic-fu being thrown around here, plus we’re dealing with a landscape unique enough that it gets its own vocabulary. Actually, we’re dealing with two Irish oddities, the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a megalithic tomb in County Clare, and the Burren, which is the landscape where the dolmen sits. I’ll start with the Burren to put off having to make sure I spell the other one correctly every time I use it.

The Burren, which basically means “rocky” (although some translate it as “Rocky IV”), is a 100-square-mile karst landscape, meaning that its topography is made up of partially dissolved rock. In many cases, and in the case of the Burren, that rock is limestone. Rain and other water sources wore down the rocks like cola on a tooth until it achieved weird fragmented shapes, in this case grikes and clints, which are basically nooks and crannies.

Anyway, that’s the science. The experience is that, with its gray, textured, tree-less hills, it’s an eerie place to drive through, and an even eerier place to walk across.

In fact, it won’t take much Googling before you see somebody describing their visit to the Burren as "like walking on the moon,” which is probably the most ridiculous simile in the language. I mean, 12 people in the history of the world know what it's like to walk on the moon. The other six billion of us have no clue. So I’m not sure exactly how that became such a common expression. I blame Sting.

Anyway, as one who has not walked on the moon but who has walked on the Burren, I can offer you very little in the way of similes. It’s a crazy-looking rock plateau that’ll make you keep your eyes fastened to the ground both because it’s crazy-looking and because it’s real easy to trip over the grikes and clints if you’re not wary.

Actually, I do have a simile. Let me go get it.

The Burren kind of looks like the tread of an upturned boot. If you’re wearing a pair, play along at home. The furrows in between the treads are the grikes, and the upraised bits of rubber shaped by the furrows are the clints. Of course, since the tread at topic here covers 100 square miles, I don't want to meet the buried-head-first giant who’s wearing the Burren on his feet.

The region also apparently has a strangely diverse array of flora growing between its cracks. However, I only saw hills and hills of rock interspersed here and there with grasses. Like the Burren had gotten a bunch of stuff stuck between its teeth while chewing. Of course, it was a chilly March day when I visited. And I wasn’t there to see its life. I was there to see its death.

For you see, standing lonely in the small national park area of the Burren (except for the crowds of tourists surrounding it, of course) is the Poulnabrone Dolmen.

Dolmens are the stone remains of ancient mound tombs, where all the dirt has worn away, leaving only its table-like infrastructure. The pi-shaped nature of many of these dolmens also wins them the name portal tombs since they look like doorways. Also, I’ve heard, because if you walk through them, you’ll be transported to Nobpot, Nebraska. This is, of course, just a rumor since nobody’ll actually test the idea. Apparently, nobody wants to even possibly end up in Nobpot.

These pi/table/doorway-shaped dolmens occur all over Ireland, Europe, and the world. In fact, there are scores of them on the Burren itself, maybe even up to a hundred. None is more famous than Poulnabrone, though. Probably none more accessible, either, since it has its own parking lot. Of course, they do have the dolmen roped off at a discreet circumference to protect it from us and, I assume, us from becoming accidental Nebraskans.

Poulnabrone, which means “hole of sorrows,” hails from the Neolithic Period, is three to four millennia old, and is made up of a handful of large stone slabs. A series of six-foot-tall vertical stones arranged in a hallway formation hold up a jauntily angled 12-foot-long slab. Another large slab sits just behind the arrangement proper, getting all the glory for being a millennia-old structure but doing none of the hard lifting or balancing.

I’d like to say that this multi-lith has been standing untouched on the pseudo-wasteland of the Burren for its entire multi-millennial life. Unfortunately, sometime in the mid-80s, the dolmen collapsed due to a crack in one of its stones. It’s just one more thing we can blame that decade for. Fortunately, they were able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, replacing the cracked stone with a similarly sized one.

Around the same time, they found the remains of between 20 and 30 people buried underneath, including children, in addition to all kinds of ancient weapons and pottery and trinkets. Incidentally, archeologists are the only ones allowed to yell “Jackpot!” when they find human remains.

It’s kind of an amazing thing overall. I mean, here you are, just a tiny range of decades old, staring at a pile of rocks that’s a few millennia old sitting on top of another pile of rocks that’s hundreds of millennia old. Talk about late to the party. And all I can do to express my awe is make a Rocky IV joke.

This is the end of the article, but I would like to admit that I made up the town of Nobpot, Nebraska. I currently don’t really have a stock town that I like to make fun of. I am working on it, though, and any suggestions are welcome.

This way to Nobpot.