Contributed by Frank Webster / In the month of October, I participated in the residency program at the Burren College of Art. During my stay, I hiked extensively documenting the region both photographically and in paintings. The Burren is an UNESCO Global Geopark located in County Clare in the west of Ireland. It is a geologically and environmentally unique area with a rich archeological, cultural, and historical legacy. Here are selections from my journal along with a few images from my travels.
Upon landing in the early hours of the morning, I took a taxi from Shannon Airport to the Burren College of Art. It was dark and gloomy along the way and the early glimmers of sunrise blended with the car headlights to faintly illuminate a lunar landscape. Half asleep, the traffic coming on the opposite side of the road was disconcerting. This was my first glimpse of the Burren. When I arrived at Newton Castle, I found my room where I slept until well past sun-up, took a shower, and began to figure out where I was. I wandered tentatively around the campus and climbed to the top of the Newtown Castle tower and looked out over muted gunmetal shapes in the hazy morning. This was my initial view of the karst, a landscape formed by the dissolution of limestone by rainwater and trace acids over millennia. It is a singular and exquisite topography, and the Burren is the domain of one of the most extensive karst landscapes in Europe. Descending from the tower, I then visited my studio and saw a bit of the school, meeting briefly with the dean. The weather was cloudy with breaks of sunshine and the rocky terrain had notes of purple and gold.
At the dean’s suggestion I took a walk up the hill behind the college on the Newtown Trail, beyond the brief “tree-line” which mostly consisted of thorny hedges and blackberry bushes, to behold a lovely and strange landscape with fine views of Galway Bay. Perfect green fields were abruptly interrupted by barren limestone mountains with fantastical layer-cake summits. The berries were ripe and abundant, and I stopped frequently to sample their lush sweetness as I hiked up the ridge. The terrain steepened as I climbed over ledges of finely eroded limestone, which appeared both delicate and eternal. Picking my way over ancient stone fences I encountered tawny cows and spritely sea birds. At my feet I spied a small fragment of limestone eroded into an hourglass arrowhead shape. I picked it up to examine it more carefully and it immediately shattered in my hands.
On my first full day after arrival, I decided to hike the Wood Loop Trail through the village of Ballyvaughan and back to the castle. It was overcast, drizzle turning to a gentle rain in the later part of the walk. There were lovely vistas of the surrounding mountains and the variegated terrain. Much of the path crosses through the low copses of trees that represent woods here. The trail also follows narrow roads that fade in and out of cow lanes. The diversity and lushness of the greens was extraordinary, all wet and glistening. The blackberries were plump and virtually everywhere covering or revealing distinctive stone walls or long abandoned dwellings – damp limestone piles green with moss and lichen. Cattle wandered with me along the trail, curious about my presence. Black winged birds of prey patrolled the skies as I made my way along the looming mountainside. Finding a spot to set up, I began a small watercolor study of Aillwee Mountain. (“Aillwee” means “yellow cliffs” – an apt description of the site.) I struggled with my little painting until the rain made it too difficult to work then packed my kit – two tripods, sketchbooks, pochade box and camera – and wandered north to Ballyvaughan.
It was clear that the elements would determine my working methods in Ireland. The next afternoon I walked up the hillside to paint the cliffs. The weather was lovely and sunny for most of the day, though extremely variable: on my walk up the trail it rained twice and hailed once – all while the sun shined brightly – within the space of an hour. I made two small paintings – one of the cliffs and the other across the valley. The hill behind the castle is really a mountain called Cappanawalla whose summit turned out to be much larger than I initially imagined, extending out towards Black Head Point on Galway Bay.
The following day I was restless in my studio and decided to take another long walk, this time around Cappanawalla. The sky was clear, and I thought I wouldn’t go too far. The night before I had plotted a section of the Ballyvaughan to Fahore trek and mused I might make it to the bay or maybe circumnavigate the mountain. There would certainly be stunning views to paint along the cliffs. The weather was sunny but a little windy as I set off, making my way to the remains of Rathborney churchyard, a multilayered ruin dating from the fifteenth century but built on an older structure from before 1300 and sited in an early medieval ring fort. The sky was getting greyer as I moved up the valley past Cahereen through lush green fields surrounded by limestone promontories – bare and yellow in the now occasional sunlight. I chatted with a cyclist until the turn towards Fahore and continued my scheme to reach the ocean, across the pastures to a break in the mountains where I started my climb to intersect with the Black Head Loop. It had been gently raining for a bit and I watched the small clouds pass on their way out to sea. But as I rose higher, the wind picked up and soon it was at gale force when I reached the trail intersection. What to do? Rain was coming down in sheets and I could barely stand. My initial thought was to try to circle the mountain. I got about 200 meters, and it soon became clear I was not going anywhere with my “walking in the wind” pantomime. It was hard to stand up and the rain made the rocks slick. I was both giddy and apprehensive at nature’s sudden display of raw power.
Time to choose another option: how about down to the sea? Visibility was very poor in the storm as I started my way down a seemingly gentle slope that soon came to the edge of what appeared to be a cliff. “No go” in this wind and rain while covering unfamiliar terrain – the trail here was steep and rapidly transforming into a waterfall. I could barely make out the sea but was amazed at how high it appeared I had climbed from the valley. Staying balanced was now a struggle and I could still make out the trail I came from so there was no choice but to head back the way I came – a pity since on another day this would be an awe-inspiring descent to the sea. I muddled my way back down over the rocks to the trail and eventually to the dirt road through the pasture to the way I came, all the while feeling very alive and excited by my taste of the “Wild Atlantic” and the sublimeness of its storms. I was back in my studio by sunset, but it was hard for me to stay indoors.
Working in the digital lab for a bit in the morning, I was soon on my way outside. I walked up the hill to paint. There were sheep milling about and the light was breathtaking. After a short lunch, I strolled down the lane to a ruined famine village and did another painting of the distant mountains. The weather was clear for the most part but a little gusty. A curt downpour produced a rainbow over the castle. Cows were grazing in the pasture, idyllic and calm. Around sunset I thought I might walk to the village for dinner. I started down the Wood Loop Trail but found that a turlough (temporary lake) had formed from the heavy rains in the little thicket of dense trees that the trail passed through. I was wearing my muck boots and thought maybe I could cross but the water was lapping at the tops. I was in an undersized bayou where it had been completely dry two days previous. Unique to Ireland, turloughs occur in karst regions like the Burren in slow-draining depressions in the limestone. I splashed around for a bit to confirm it was unpassable without a boat before re-emerging on the road. Luckily, a three-quarter moon was out as I headed back. The light was quite magical and the whole faerie thing made perfect sense in that context. I imagined trying to cross that dense little swamp before electricity or cars. The eyes would play tricks on you, and one might swear one could see the Tuatha de Danaan – a supernatural race in Celtic mythology – making their way through the shadows under that silvery moonlight.
The ensuing day sent me north towards the coast and in the evening, I made a small painting of Cappanawalla at sunset. The weather was clear but the following day it was wet until late afternoon. Antsy to get outside, I packed my gear as soon as the sun came out and went walking. My destination was the ring fort of Cahermore – an early medieval stronghold that even in its ruined state commands the surrounding landscape. I arrived at the stone fort near sunset and made fast sketches in the dying light.
Morning was glorious and clear as I walked north towards Galway Bay along the road on the mountainside. I veered west along the bay with its rocky beach to the Pinnacle Well then over the limestone pavement to Gleninagh Castle, which I stopped at and painted. I then got underway onto the Cappanawalla Loop trail and climbed the mountains above the coast on the same path that had seemed so impassable during the storm. Much less vertiginous in the sunshine, it was a thoroughly lovely ascent. On the ledge overlooking the bay I painted a small promontory on the edge of the mountain. I then climbed up the side of Cappanawalla and hiked through a classic Burren landscape of limestone pavement. I photographed the cliffs and rock formations and swung back around through the valley, up over the cliff again and down to the sea before walking back to the Newtown Castle.
After a bit of rain and some productive studio time, I decided to explore some of the archaeological Burren and visit sites from the distant human past. The first stop was at the earthen ring fort at Ballyallaban, near Cahermore, and then up to the overlook on the Corkscrew Hill and into the rough and rocky country of the upland Burren with its fissured pavement made up of grikes between water-and-wind polished clints. I was able to find the wedge tomb Gleninsheen nestled in a pasture behind an unassuming bush. I set up and painted the dolmen for about an hour. I saw clouds moving in and decided to get on my way to the main megalith of the region: Poulnabrone. A wedge tomb dating from the neolithic period, it is well preserved and very popular. Fortunately, October is a quiet time of year, so I had the place to myself. After the obligatory photos, I started the march back to the castle through stark terrain and winding roads. Despite forecasts, there wasn’t a drop of rain. It was a splendid walk back in time.
I started the Burren Loop on the early side since the sun was out and yesterday had been so delightful. After jumping over a fence or two I made my way to the trailhead and started on my way up Aillwee Mountain, taking photographs along the way. Unfortunately, the trail was more an “idea of a trail” than a reality at this point in the season and was hopelessly overgrown with thorns and briars, therefore unpassable. After I made a few attempts to find a way around the dense undergrowth, it started to rain, and visibility went to zero as the clouds descended over the hills. Acquiescing to the elements, I decided to head back to the studio. I was perfectly happy with the images that came from the earlier part of the climb and realized part of this process involved accepting the randomness of events on the trail and learning to make do with ever-changing situations. I decided to approach the route from the bayside the next day. I hiked to Moneen Mountain and made paintings on a small rock outcropping between the two sister mountains. There is a pass between Moneen and Aillwee that is a worthy trek with views of both summits and Galway Bay.
For a couple of days, I worked in the studio. Then I did a long walk to make up for lost time. I headed south towards Rathborney where I found a medieval head carved into a church wall. A mysterious figure, it was sculpted in a sort of a later day pagan manner, very stylized and abstract. I walked up the valley of Lismacsheedy near the Derrynavahagh wedge tomb on the way to Fahore. Splitting off to the Cappanawalla Loop, I trekked up the hillside, across to the cliff again, and down to Gleninagh Castle. The weather was lovely, with occasional wind and clouds but no rain. After the castle I skirted along the coast towards Black Head Point. I followed the coastal road until I found the trail again and headed back up the mountain. There were many ruined cottages and newly converted houses, sometimes sharing the same plot of land. I ended up wandering around Black Head Point, far above the lighthouse on Gleninagh Mountain by the Caherdoonerish Stone Fort. There were spectacular views of the bay along the way, although the recent rains made the trail muddy. When I reached the point, three white horses appeared as if by magic and trotted down to the cliffs below. The light was exquisite, but sunset was approaching so I headed back, taking a couple of hours to reach Newtown Castle.
The sun was bright and shining when I awoke, so I painted on the ridge of Cappanawalla until midday. That afternoon I went to Turlough Hill. Heading along the vaguest of paths and reaching the enigmatic site was more challenging and engaging than I had envisioned. After about an hour of hopping across grikes and climbing each ledge of the layer-cake of karst that makes up the hill, a massive and ancient cairn appeared over a very old stone wall. Around this great cairn were stone hut circles. It was set in an exhilarating location, with a commanding view of the valley and the sea, and looked like the perfect setting for some sun ritual. The site is most likely neolithic and dates at least from the Bronze Age, but no one knows for sure. The mystery adds a certain aura to an already impressive summit.
The following afternoon I spent at the Burren National Park. Conditions were rainy but cleared up a bit while hiking over Mullaghmore Mountain. The landscape consists of limestone pavement, grasslands, and hazel trees. Strange swirling mountains shaped like ice cream cones rose above the karst, now covered in areas by vast turloughs from the earlier rain. Climbing to the summit of Mullaghmore over the craggy and cratered landscape, I was struck by the serpentine character of Slieve Rua’s stony and tortuous coils. The great cartographer and writer of landscapes Tim Robinson noted that “the Burren’s austere beauty is due to millennia of abuse,” and this is apparent in the denuded glacial terrain. The distinctive terraced formations are produced by intervals of clay shale interposed between layers of limestone – the sedimentary remains of a primordial tropical sea. I try to picture a densely forested landscape, or a glacial wasteland superimposed on the view from Mullaghmore, or a terrain predating the massive tectonic disturbances that have given these hills their tilted and sweeping quality. The distinction between fluid and mineral started to seem rather arbitrary when filtered through the prism of deep time.
One of my goals during this trip was to visit the Richard Long stone circle in the Burren, located along the coast near Doolin Point, and I was delighted to realize that objective. Strolling slowly along the karst in the long shadow of the Cliffs of Moher, I searched for the earthwork. After about a half hour of trapsing over what looked like the surface of the moon, I located the sculpture, A Circle in Ireland from 1975, sited beautifully, facing the Aran Islands and the open Atlantic beyond. Surrounded by limestone pavement, ancient stone walls, and cairns, the work is restrained but remains in dialogue with the physical landscape. Long’s art is often based on walks he makes and reflects his response to the environment he traverses. The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most iconic and dramatic landscapes in the world and Long’s work wisely does not try to compete.
A dog walker I talked to on the beach was surprised the circle was a piece of contemporary art and not some relic of much older origin. Over the years the sculpture had apparently deteriorated but was recently restored by students from the Burren College of Art. Long’s ephemeral pieces have always struck me as a metaphor for environmental healing and as a coming to terms with the ravages of nature and time. The Burren itself, with its geological uniqueness, is like a sculpture of sorts, a complicated product of natural evolution and the actions of man. The artwork and the environment blend perfectly – a kind of anti-monument that is subordinate to the monumentality of nature. Nothing we make lasts forever, but our planet and its many wonders give our humble attempts at art substance and context. For this reason, perhaps our efforts at environmental preservation aren’t for naught.
About the author: Frank Webster earned his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, received his MFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Webster is the recipient of numerous awards including a Queens Arts Fund New Works Grant, the NYFA Fellowship in Painting, and the Pollock Krasner Individual Artist Award. Webster has been awarded residencies at Arctic Circle Residency, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, Ucross Foundation, Corporation of Yaddo, and MacDowell Colony. In October of 2022 he was an artist in residence at the Burren College of Art in County Clare, Ireland. He lives in Queens, NY.
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