by Silvina Martin
In October 2021, during the COVID pandemic and lockdown, I moved to a village of 300 souls on the west coast of Ireland called Ballyvaughan. The village is close to Corcomroe Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian foundation whose landscape I am studying for my PhD in Archaeology. This area of County Clare is called the Burren, meaning rocky district in reference to the region’s karst topology. I was immediately captivated by the spectacular beauty of the place and the mysterious atmosphere of the surreal landscape. The Cistercians monks may have had a similar experience of the landscape to mine when they chose this Burren valley to settle. As a matter of fact, the symbolic value of the physical landscapes was of great importance to the order and the Cistercians incorporated it to their place narratives.
Figure. 1: Corcomroe Abbey, west view.
The monastic order originated in Burgundy in the late 11th century, quickly spread across Europe and became one of the most powerful and influential institutions of the Middle Ages. Their arrival in Ireland was crucial to the island’s history, for the Cistercians were a key force behind the reform of the ancient Celtic Church. This reform introduced important cultural and territorial changes that led to a shift in power relations and ushered in a new era on the island. The Cistercians of Corcomroe were large landowners, typical of their brethren in faith, which granted them enormous social and economic influence. Their presence in the valley must have had a long-lasting impact on the indigenous people but also on the Burren landscape. One of the goals of my thesis is to define this impact.
Figure. 2: Grave slab of a cleric in the abbey church, possibly an abbot of Corcomroe Abbey.
In January this year, on a random visit to the abbey, I was horrified to discover that somebody was building a road right through the monastery grounds. The hydraulic excavator was still there, the operator was not. The scene before my eyes was Dantesque, mounds of earth containing vestiges of a midden and fragments of human bones were piled up alongside medieval buildings; sections of the remains of the enclosure wall had been removed and were gone forever. To make matters worse, the area was flooded by the Tobersheela, a karst spring that may have been used by the Cistercians. Desperate, I began documenting the site, taking pictures with my cell phone and trying to reach the Office of Public Works, the National Monument Service, and all my contacts in the sector. Eventually, it took three days to stop the unannounced work. The damage done was massive and irreversible.
Figure. 3: Corcomroe Abbey after the cessation of the work, north view.
The partial destruction of my dissertation object inevitably affected me deeply, but also made me think about my role as a researcher. In the immediate aftermath of the events, I felt frustrated and angry, first with the perpetrator, then with the institutions that failed to protect a National Monument, and finally with myself for not having anticipated it and not understanding the motivations of those involved. But in hindsight and thanks to the conversations I had with my Burren neighbours, I won a new perspective on the abbey and its landscape. I realised that my approach to heritage was too academic, centred on the study of a medieval monastic order without considering the actual importance of the place to the local population. The monastery is visited daily by walkers and horse riders who enjoy the romantic solitude of the abbey ruins and the epic landscape, which they have known since childhood. The graveyard next to the abbey, which is still in use, harbours the remains of local people, while only their heirs are entitled to be buried there. Until not too long ago, Easter Mass was celebrated in the roofless abbey church, and its morbid charm seems made for wedding photos. The ruin, the weather and the bizarre stone formations of the Burren, not so much the Cistercians, inspired songs and poems.
The little village of Abbey is covered up;
The little narrow trodden way that runs
From the white road to the Abbey of Corcomroe
Is covered up; and all about the hills
Are like a circle of Agate or of Jade.
Somewhere among great rocks on the scarce grass
Birds cry; they cry their loneliness.
Even the sunlight can be lonely here,
Even hot noon is lonely.
From: The Dreaming Of The Bones (1919) – W. B. Yeats
The ill-fated incident at the abbey seems to me an allegory of the processes that have been going on in the area lately. The local society and environment are undergoing rapid changes which endanger cultural and natural heritage, as did the digger at the abbey. One of the main factors behind these changes is the explosive tourist development on the west coast of Ireland. Thousands of day-trippers come in the summer and seem to multiply car and coach traffic a thousandfold. They are drawn to the scenic coastal views of the Wild Atlantic Way and the warm Irish hospitality. While luxurious holiday homes are popping up like mushrooms, everybody in town is converting their sheds into cosy Air B&B’s. In addition to post-pandemic wanderlust and the resulting friendly tourist invasion, the arrival of Ukrainian refugees is also dramatically changing life in the small villages. We live in times of demographic and environmental transformations, in which a sound spatial planning of the territory, taking into account the landscape and the archaeological context of monuments as carriers of heritage values, has become even more relevant.
Figure. 4: Houses built during the ‘Celtic Tiger’, Muckinish Hill in the Burren.
At this point, I have understood, not approved, the motivation of the destructive farmer. Someone told me that the ominous road was intended as a shortcut for his cows, as there had been some traffic incidents on the main road. My crusade with the institutions continues, but now I know they lack the resources necessary to carry out their tasks. For my part, I intend to continue raising awareness among locals and tourists about the Cistercian legacy and the importance of a global perception of the landscape, but also to preserve the values that Corcomroe Abbey represents for the community, integrating them in my research and scientific dissemination.
 For a comprehensive textbook on the Burren, see: Cabot, D. and Goodwillie, R. 2018 The Burren. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
 For an overview of the Cistercian Order in the Middle Ages, see: Burton, J. E. & Kerr, J. 2011 The Cistercians in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. For an overview of the Cistercian Order in Ireland, see: Stalley, R. A. 1987 The Cistercian monasteries of Ireland: an account of the history, art, and architecture of the White Monks in Ireland from 1142-1540. London; New Haven: Yale University Press.
About the author
Silvina Martin is a PhD Scholar at the University College Dublin, Ireland. This Blog post is based on her personal experiences during her PhD and was inspired by her participation in the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme in “Cultural Heritage and the Planning of European Landscapes”. Her PhD research on Cistercian Landscapes on the West of Ireland: Corcomroe Abbey is funded by the Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship.
Contact Silvina: email@example.com
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