Sunday 3 May 2009

View from the Pew - Tilling and Keeping

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the Limerick & Killaloe Diocesan Magazine. This article appears in the May issue.

What a wonderful, blessed place the Burren is!
I jumped at the chance of a day trip to introduce my wife’s Finnish colleague Paula and her friend Anu to this unique landscape. I suppose we each have our personal dream landscapes on which our spirits feed. This is one of mine. I’ve spent many long days walking its green roads in all weathers, climbing its bare hills, and visiting its monuments, by myself and with those I love.

We were blessed with the weather - glorious early April sunshine, an invigorating breeze, and just enough cloud to give depth to the sky. We had a magical time. I feel sure the magic will draw Paula back when she moves to Limerick in the autumn. Here are some highlights:

  • At Kilmacduagh, beside the ruined cathedral and leaning round tower, a lady lovingly tending a grave regaled us with legends. The founder, St Colman, begged a site for a monastery from King Guaire, of Dunguaire near Kinvara. The King agreed, but told Colman he must walk away from Dunguaire until his belt fell to the ground. At Kilmacduagh Colman’s belt finally broke, and there he set up his monastery. Guaire was wise to send Colman as far away as possible, I think, since the holy man could be an awkward neighbour. St Colman was celebrating mass on Easter day after his Lenten retreat in a Burren cave. Hungry, with no food, he prayed for a good dinner to break his fast. Immediately a band of angels descended on Dunguaire and carried off the King’s own banquet for Colman to feast on!
  • We walked the green road from Corker Pass around Abbey Hill, past Patrick’s Holy Well with its votive offerings, to Burren RC Church. What a walk: blackthorn sparking silver in the shelter of the flanking walls; on one side a patchwork of green and brown fields stretching down and away to the waters of Galway bay; on the other rising terraces of grey rock, and arching overall the blue sky.
  • Hungry from walking, we lunched at Linnane’s of New Quay on a feast of native oysters, prawn cocktail and crab sandwiches, with wholemeal bread. Afterwards, at nearby peaceful Corcomroe Abbey, beautifully dedicated by its Cistercian builders to Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis - St Mary of the Fertile Rock - we admired harebells carved on the capitals of the chancel arch.
  • We scrambled up the craggy limestone hill at Black Head, across the old green road, searching for the dry stone walls of the fort, Cathair DhĂșin Irghuis. It’s always higher than I remember, over 600 feet: constantly expecting to see it over the next brow, I start to worry I’m lost when I don’t. But suddenly there it is, perched below the hilltop on a wide platform from which its stones were levered, walls still standing in places to nearly 20 feet. Built sometime between 400 and 1200 AD, no one knows just when, it was surely meant for a look out, since it commands a gigantic view: west over the Aran Islands to the vast Atlantic; north to Connemara and the Twelve Pins; and south to the cliffs of Moher.

  • Though too early for the famous Burren wild flowers, of which the Spring Gentian is the emblem, I found Early Purple orchids, so much smaller than those which grow in inland woods, gleaming alongside primroses and violets in sheltered hollows.

The Burren landscape is not wild at all – it is hand made.
For millennia human beings lived here, working in sympathy with nature, not against it. They tilled and kept this land, as Genesis tells us God put Adam in the Garden of Eden to do. They have left us traces of their presence, often signs of their faith, but in forming the landscape they did not ravish it, wisely preserving the fragile ecosystem which they lived in and were part of.

We are not so wise today. On the hill above Black Head I found cans and beer bottles thoughtlessly discarded, ugly and a danger to stock. Fanore beach is littered with plastic trash washed in on the tide. Mass tourism degrades what visitors come to experience: the Poul na Brone dolmen has been roped off by the OPW, walls keep people away from the Cliffs of Moher, and steer them to the expensive visitor centre.

Wherever there is enough soil, farmers have grubbed up the species-rich rough grazing their ancestors formed, to make rye-grass swards which glow emerald with nitrogen from bags. I mourn the loss of the bio-diversity, but I hope those who have borrowed and invested so much will make a sustainable living from their fields. I fear they may not, when fertiliser and energy become scarce and dear in future. If farmers no longer till and keep this place, what will become of it? It is only their patient work with crops and animals that maintain its integrity and beauty. Already large areas lie abandoned, degrading to hazel scrub.

Sustainable Living
Sustainable is the fad word of the moment – I even heard a Minister talk about a sustainable budget the other day! Though the word may be ugly, the idea it signifies is beautiful – sustainable living is living in balance with the world and all it contains, so that our children will be as bountifully endowed as we are. We have not been doing that for a generation or more.

The gathering crisis of climate change means this must change, and change urgently. If you are interested in an explicitly Christian view, you can do much worse than read an excellent new book, Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, by Nick Spencer & Robert White (£6.99 from Amazon.). Drawing from science, sociology, economics and theology, the authors make the case that Christians must respond and can make a distinctive contribution, and they propose practical actions at the personal, community, national and international levels.

As an example of practical action, a multi-denominational group of around a dozen of us followed the Omega Climate Change Course in Nenagh during Lent (for more details email me at, or see What we learned made us want to continue meeting together as the Nenagh Carbon Watchers. As a group we plan 1st to support each other as we monitor and reduce our personal carbon emissions (both helping the planet and saving ourselves money!), 2nd to use the European and local elections to raise awareness of the issues, and 3rd to explore the potential for our communities of the Transition Towns initiative.

But sustainable living is about more than just climate change. It is about creating vibrant relationships of love and respect: with our fellow human beings, with the world we inhabit and its web of life, and ultimately with God, who has given everything to us. And it is about protecting and handing on our dream landscapes like the Burren too.

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