IRELAND IS THE SHIRE! WE KNEW IT!
We all know The Lord of The Rings, by JRR Tolkien. But did you know what landscape inspired his masterwork? His muse was the Burren, in the west of Ireland.
The world-famous karst landscapes of the west of Ireland region grew into the famous places in The Lord of The Rings. Think about The Shire, and the Middle Earth. Once you visit the Burren, if you are a The Lord of The Rings fan, you will see the resemblance immediately. Ireland IS The Shire! That’s what we suspected all along, anyway.
For those of you who are new to ‘The Burren’, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Fertile Rock’. Its name comes from the Irish word Boíreann, meaning ‘rocky place’. The rolling hills of Burren are made up of limestone pavements with criss-crossing cracks known as grikes, leaving isolated rocks called clints.
The region supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment. The limestone strata that poke out of the ground contain fossils which can clearly be seen, giving it an ancient feel. The Burren has an unusually temperate climate while the surrounding areas freeze. Average air temperatures range from 15°C in July to 6°C in January. Since grass will grow once the temperature rises above 6°C, this means that the Burren (like the neighbouring Aran Islands) has one of the longest growing seasons in Ireland or Britain. Because it is a freaky pocket of the world, it supports diverse and rich plant growth which is not found even metres outside the Burren.
During the Cromwellian invasions, one of the officers, Edmund Ludlow wrote about the paradox of the Burren, by saying, “It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…… and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
The distinctive landscape, geology, flora and fauna, and panoramic views of the Burren have both inspired and terrified observers throughout its history. Its otherworldliness has been an inspiration to writers, painters and poets since Irish history began.
Tolkien visited the area many times, and once you learn more about the Burren, you will realise just how “Middle Earth” it really is. In fact if you are a hard-core fan, feel free to turn up to the Burren Tolkien Convention. It is a new festival organised by the Burren Tolkien Society. The organisers say the event will show the connection betwixt Tolkien’s many visits to the Burren and the scenery in The Lord of The Rings. Even just turn up to the Burren itself: you will see Middle Earth wherever you go. If you need evidence that the Burren was Tolkien’s muse, there is proof up to the rafters.
Tolkien visited the west of Ireland on a number of occasions with his close friend CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia series. Their friendship dates back to 1926 when the pair met at Oxford University, seven years before The Hobbit was originally published. Tolkien also spent considerable time in the Burren when he held a position in the English Department of NUI Galway. It was during these visits to the West of Ireland that he edited and then finalised The Lord of the Rings.
As an example of just how the Burren area inspired The Lord of The Rings, all you have to do is take a visit to the largest cave system in Ireland. It has 15 miles of underground passages. The entrance is called Poll Na gColm (translated from the Irish as ‘the hole of Colm’, anglicised as Poll na Gollum Cave). Now if that isn’t the direct inspiration for the character “Gollum” then what is? In The Book of the Burren, Ann Korff writes that the Irish ‘Colm’ means ‘rock dove’, and that the favourite habitat for these birds is cliff edges. Rock doves make a guttural sound, like that of Tolkien’s Gollum. Originally known as Sméagol, Gollum was corrupted by the One Ring and later named Gollum after his habit of making a horrible swallowing noise in his throat.
It was one location that was frequented by Tolkien and it obviously gave him the creeps. The entrance to Poll na gColm is a hole of one hundred feet deep and about a hundred feet across. It is so great a drop that a mature ash tree grows in the hole, and the tree canopy is well below ground level. You can see how this kind of landscape would spawn the idea of Gollum. For fans of The Lord of The Rings, it all sounds very familiar. Bilbo Baggins stumbled upon Gollum’s lair, having found Gollum’s ring in the network of goblin tunnels leading down to the lake. This is the place where Tolkien’s imaginings made Gollum the tormented monster of the caves.
Says Burren Tolkien Society Chairperson, Peter Curtin, “We have studied Tolkien’s works and correspondences, and we have spoken with people who knew the man. We are certain that his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings, was inspired, at least in part, by his experience of The Burren. We believe that Tolkien denied the Burren links when his masterwork was published in 1954 as he might have felt that Irish influences would have been unpalatable to his largely English audience at the time. In the few years leading up to his death in 1973 however, Tolkien spoke more openly about how his writings were influenced by the themes and ideas of Irish and Celtic Mythology. Although he referred to Gaelic as an unattractive language, he admitted that he had studied it and found it to be of great historical and philological interest. He also said he was suffering from acute Eire-starvation, having not visited his favourite Counties of Clare, Galway and Cork for a number of years.”
Mr Curtin said that another clue to where Tolkien found his inspiration for the Lord of the Rings is the topography of the Burren. He said topographical comparisons of the Burren landscape and Middle Earth, as featured in the Lord of the Rings, show striking similarities.
Dr Charles Travis is a Historical-Cultural Geography PHD graduate and Research Associate at Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub. He compared the actual topography of the Burren – around Gortaclare Mountain– with the Misty Mountains from Tolkien’s Middle Earth map. Dr Travis has confirmed that the curve of the Misty Mountain range in Tolkien’s imaginary map seems to fit the actual topography of this region of the Burren. He added that the topography could arguably support the case being made for this region of the Burren being one source of inspiration for Tolkien.
But anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings will recognise the landscape without prompting. Says Peter Curtain, “I, together with some friends, walk almost every Sunday in the Burren landscape, one of the greatest places in the world. It is easy for me to understand that Tolkien would instantly tune into the magic of the Burren. I believe that Tolkien, in writing the way he did, demonstrates the necessity for us to keep the umbilical connection with our natural instincts, and our environment alive and healthy. We need to tune into the nature to keep us on the true path of living.”
For more on the Burren Tolkien Convention visit the Burren Tolkien Festival. The Convention will feature contributions from Tolkien experts, writing workshops, screenings, lectures and guided walks of the Burren.
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