Ireland's 'Fertile Rock', the Burren: Q & A with Burrenbeo Trust Co-Founder Brendan Dunford

Ireland's 'Fertile Rock', the Burren: Q & A with Burrenbeo Trust Co-Founder Brendan Dunford

The Burren, Ireland: a Place of Rich Ecology & Cultural Heritage

I've often found that the stories of most people involve a deep connection with a particular locality. This is very true of Brendan Dunford and the place he has called home for more than two decades, the Burren in Ireland. If you've not heard of the Burren, its one of the most intriguing, mystical and inspiring places on the planet, and Brendan offers his take on the why and how of that in our Q & A.

Brendan Dunford grew up on a small farm in County Waterford where he developed a strong interest in farming and a love of the fields, woodlands, rivers, mountains, people and stories of his local place.

After completing a degree in engineering, Brendan embarked on a decade of travel before returning to Dublin to complete a master’s degree in Environmental Resource Management. Following this he was offered a Ph.D. focusing on the relationship between the people of the Burren and their extraordinary natural and cultural heritage. Upending tradition, he left campus and moved west to undertake his work from within the community and their place, re-working the story of the Burren and its people, and all the time forging lasting connections and relationships.

Through Brendan’s research he began to craft a plan to sustain farming and heritage in the Burren and secured a five-year EC grant of €2.2m to test his ideas in the region – the birth of the very successful Burren Life Programme, which was the first major farming for conservation project in Ireland. Today, its successor, the Burren Programme is a pioneering agri-environmental programme which aims to conserve and support the heritage, environment and communities of the Burren.

Brendan and his late wife Ann also founded the Burrenbeo Trust, a landscape charity dedicated to connecting all of us to our places and our role in caring for them. Burrenbeo engages with local and visiting communities, old and young, to generate a sense of informed pride in their heritage and landscape. The Trust develops and share knowledge of best practice in active community stewardship, place-based and community-based learning.

I know you'll enjoy meeting Brendan and his insights on the magical cultural landscape that is the Burren. 

Meg:  The Burren is one of the world’s great cultural landscapes, and for those unfamiliar with it, can you describe that landscape from a geological and cultural perspective?

Brendan:  It’s a very special place, The Burren is situated along Ireland’s mid-western coast, so it borders the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s about 300 square miles, so it’s a giant tablet of limestone, maybe up to seven or eight hundred meters thick in places.  That limestone has been shaped over many, many millennia, by different forces.  It’s been shaped by glaciers traveling across the landscape and grounding it. It’s been shaped by water solution causing these crevices and patterns on the rock to appear. It’s been shaped by the hand of man as people have been here for over 6,000 years interacting with the landscape. It’s a UNESCO global geo park and of geological significance.  There’s lots and lots of caves here, so it’s like a big block of Swiss cheese. 

 The Burren's lunar landscape. Photo: Creative Commons

The Burren's lunar landscape. Photo: Creative Commons

Culturally, it’s just extraordinary.  One of my favorite aspects of the Burren is that it bears the imprint of human occupation for over five and a half thousand years. It’s almost like a book written in stone as you walk across the landscape through the different periods: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age, the Christian and Medieval periods and so forth.  It’s kind of like the skin has been torn off and you can see the limestone skeleton of the Irish landscape laid bare.

Meg:  I love that metaphor. It’s very apt based on my experience. I personally have a conviction that certain places have an aura of certain power. I would ask whether you share that belief and, if so, do you consider the Burren to be such a place?

Brendan:  I suppose that’s a personal thing, isn’t it, your sense of a place? I certainly get a huge sense of power at the Burren from the landscape.  It’s a wellspring of inspiration, not just for me but for many, many other people from both here in Ireland and all over the world who keep coming back to this place, to look at the wildflowers or to explore the archaeology. I suppose it’s power for me is that you can connect with nature in a very real way because it’s got such wonderful biodiversity here. You’re in very much a living landscape. You can go back to the Stone Ages or to the Bronze Ages and imagine what life might have been like at that point in time.  The Cistercian monks 500 years ago called it the Fertile Rock, which is what it is.  In spite of appearances, it’s full of intrigue and beauty and interest and inspiration.

Meg: That is a perfect segue into my next question because I do think the Burren is such a study in contrast. To the outward eye, it appears to be so barren and stark and yet it is so full of life. I would think that many people, based on outward appearances, would be surprised to learn that the Burren has been farmed for more than six thousand years. Can you talk a little bit about the farming traditions of such a unique landscape and offer some perspective of how it has shaped the nature of the people who have worked with it?

Brendan: I came here about 20 years ago as a student, and my PhD topic at the time was the relationship between farming and the natural heritage of the Burren.  So I spent three years exploring that amazing story and telling it in the form of a book a little bit later on. I think farming here is fascinating because farmers have adapted to the landscape.

There’s pros and cons to a landscape like this. It can seem very harsh and arid and dry and barren, particularly in the summertime because there’s very little surface water.  There’s only one river in the Burren; most of the water is underground.   With rough land like this, it’s clear that you can’t plant crops on it. So you have to graze it, but there’s no water. Farmers in the Burren many, many thousands of years ago adapted a system of reverse transhumance., which basically means the movement of people and livestock between low land and upland areas for different grazing areas. Normally, cattle move to the hills in the summertime when its drier. 

But in the Burren, they developed a system of reverse transhumance called “Winterage,” whereby the cattle go onto the hills in winter time where they spend the entire winter foraging and grazing.  I suppose the origin of that was the lack of water in the summertime.  But the benefit of this winter grazing system is that when the cattle are in the hills, they’re sitting on a giant storage heater, so it keeps them nice and warm.  Limestone absorbs summer heat, so during wintertime is a really nice, warm place to lie.  They’ve got plenty of food to eat over the wintertime because of all the different species of grasses which grow year-round in the Burren landscape.  And they’ve also got plenty of calcium-rich water to drink, which is very good for bone health.

 Cattle and people on the move in the Burren's annual winterage. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

Cattle and people on the move in the Burren's annual winterage. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

The Relationship Between People & Landscape in The Burren.

Meg:  To expand on that, your PhD focused on the relationship between the people of the Burren their extraordinary natural and cultural heritage. What are some of the lessons that relationship can offer people in other landscapes that could be considered challenging?

Brendan: The Burren is really unique.  Everywhere is unique, I guess, to some extent.  A lot of the landscapes that are considered marginal from the farming point of view are very hilly or very wet or very rough.  Those areas are often really great places to find wildlife and also to find archeology because they haven’t been improved over time, so they’re little oases of biodiversity and of cultural heritage.  A lot of the lessons we’ve learned from the Burren can apply to those other areas.

The relationship between the people of the Burren and their place is a very close-knit relationship.  People can depend on the landscape.  They’ve shaped the landscape, and they’ve been shaped by the landscape.  We want for that relationship to continue in the era of modern farming practices. The challenges the Burren faces and the methodology developed to address those issues is applicable in other areas. 

The lesson from the Burren is that we see the farming community as a resource in managing this wonderful heritage, this wonderful landscape.   We don’t necessarily see it as a threat.  The wrong type of farming can be threatening, but the most important thing for us is the power of the farming community in particular to actually enhance the condition of their local heritage and to create a sustainable future for themselves and for their landscapes as well. I think that’s a message we ought to share with the other landscapes across Ireland as well anywhere else in the world where farmers are struggling.

Meg:  In 2011, you were elected as an Ashoka Fellow for creating a new approach to sustaining an iconic and much-loved landscape by placing farmers at the creative center of developing and delivering key conservation actions.  Can you describe the farming for conservation program that you created and the problem it solves and how?

Brendan:  The reason why we’re celebrated so much for what we do here  in the Burren and why the Burren Programme is very well-known now across Europe, is because we view farmers as a resource in terms of heritage management, rather than a threat.  Previous programs have tried to limit the damage done by farming, whereas we’ve taken the view that we actually need to reward the right type of farming.  So rather than penalize the wrong type of farming, we need to focus on rewarding the right type of farming, so taking a much more positive approach.  That’s informed everything that we’ve done. 

 The Burren Programme won the prestigious EU Green Award in 2017 for its work in nature and biodiversity from among 4300 projects. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

The Burren Programme won the prestigious EU Green Award in 2017 for its work in nature and biodiversity from among 4300 projects. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

When you see farmers as a resource, then the challenge becomes 'What problems are these farmers facing?' 'How can we support them to overcome those challenges and deliver for the environment, for their heritage, for the community?'  So, we set up The Burren Program as a research project fifteen years ago called Burren LIFE and we worked hand-in-hand with those farmers. 

We said to the farmers 'What are the changes you’ve witnessed on your land over the years because of the changes in farming?'  And they told us about different feeding and grazing systems and about the answer to scrub encroachment and about the challenges they’re having to farm these areas. And so then we asked them 'Well, what are the solutions? How can we farm The Burren in a way that continues to produce food, but also produce a really good landscape?' They gave us some ideas. Then, we kind of co-created the program with those farmers and tested some of the ideas, making sure that they worked.

After doing that for five years, we created the Burren Program where we have 350 farmers covering about 80% of the landscape. It’s a beautiful, simple program whereby we reward farmers for delivering environmental outcomes. If you don’t deliver, you don’t get paid. But if you do deliver for the environment, the heritage of the Burren, we pay them more. So it’s very much a farmer-centered approach, which awards those who deliver most for the environment.

Meg: I love the positivity behind the program. It addresses head on this idea that there’s a competition between the two objectives of conservation and agriculture. Is there a particular experience that embodies how it works?

Brendan:  I’ve been here for 20 years now,.  There’s been lots of little victories. There’s been huge challenges as well, but there’s been lots of great moments. There’s a couple I might share with you.

I really believe in the power of education to change futures. Burrenbeo has a program with the local schools here and I remember one day I was in the little school here telling the kids all about the amazing wildlife here in the Burren. The kids were just so excited. I came back the following week to talk about the animals of the Burren.  And the little kids came running up to me.  They said 'Look, look what we found!'  And on their school lawn they’d found a leaf of this rare orchid called the Common Spotted Orchid.  And they’d marked where all the leaves were.  I said 'That’s wonderful that you’re looking after them.  Thanks for marking them to show me. ' And they said 'We didn’t mark them to show you.  We marked them to protect them from the guy who comes every week to mow the lawn. ' That shows you the power of education, because those kids knew what was special about their place and they wanted to protect it and look after it.  So that’s the kind of message the Burrenbeo Trust tries to deliver to the community all the time.

 Learning Landscape Symposium contributor Kate Lavender taking children on an interactive day in the Burren. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

Learning Landscape Symposium contributor Kate Lavender taking children on an interactive day in the Burren. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

The other thing is that I work a lot with farmers, and farmers get a bad rap sometimes--sometimes it’s deserved --for not looking after their place.  But my experience at large has been that farmers love their place. They particularly love the cultural heritage that they’ve inherited from their ancestors. They really want to learn about this to share it with others. I had one farmer who at the beginning of the program, he wasn’t quite sure what this was all about. And he wasn’t quite sure where he fit in, but he joined in anyway. The transformation of that farmer was extraordinary. He’s a wonderful man. He now leads all our walks.

We have monthly walks here in the Burren. Farmers usually bring people onto their land and explore the local heritage. This farmer started off a little bit suspicious about what this was all about, but now he’s most wonderfully passionate about his role in looking after this place. He loves sharing his stories with other people who come. He and his family make a huge effort to share their story with other folks. It’s individuals like that who, over the years, have really started to appreciate what a special place we live in. They always had an understanding of that, but now they’ve really got the international context of how rare and special the Burren is. And they’ve begun to understand how important they are, as well. Little moments like that, seeing those people take on board the responsibility and do it with relish, it’s really very satisfying. To be able to see local communities taking on the leadership role, and looking after their place, that to me is what success is all about.

Meg: I consider those to be two examples of the power of place. Both to instill in young children an idea of stewardship and also to inspire someone to be open-minded about considering their landscape and their place in it differently. You touched on this, but there is a common perception that farmers and conservationists are typically working at cross-purposes, a notion that seems to be dispelled by the success of the Burren Farming for Conservation Program. Are there other cultural truisms that the program offers hope of eliminating?

Brendan: I think there are. I think this notion that farmers and conservationists being at loggerheads, it is true. You have to say it is true, but it’s ridiculous because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. Farmers are trying to look after the land and hand it off to the next generation in the best condition. And conservationists are really trying to achieve the same thing in a sense. I suppose what we’ve done in the Burren is show that really what farmers want to deliver for the next generation are opportunities for their children, whether it’s food production or tourism or just heritage. We’re trying to show the conservation authorities that they can’t manage this landscape without the help and support of the farmers and their livestock. I think what we’ve managed to achieve in this program is, while acknowledging that we’re coming from different places, we really ultimately want the same thing.

Now, farmers need to be paid for some of this work because they’re losing money by farming for heritage. And I think the conservation authorities also need to yield a little bit sometimes and trust farmers a little bit more. We’ve achieved a lot of compromise between the opposing forces, I suppose, in the Burren, which shows what you can actually achieve when you work together. It’s very heartening.

In terms of other cultural truisms, I suppose there’s many. One that we fight all the time against is that notion of top-down management. It is a truism most of the time, an area of heritage that’s designated, it’s managed a lot by law and by legal frameworks and by national programs and stuff like that. But I think the best way to conserve something is by investing in the local community and getting them to take ownership of their place and responsibility that goes with it. And certainly, rewarding them if there’s financial implications as well. But really what we’re trying to convey is that the best form of management is local. The best, most sustainable way to manage these landscapes is by investing in the local community. Thinking about not just the bottom line financially but also the social and the environmental benefits of managing our natural resources and cultural resources in a sustainable way.

 The Burren has been farmed since the Stone Age. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

The Burren has been farmed since the Stone Age. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

Meg: I think that’s a very timely issue that’s becoming increasingly important and increasingly visible, and that there are communities that feel disenfranchised and disempowered in terms of the direction their home is going in and how it’s presented to visitors.

Brendan: On this notion of who’s the expert, I do think a lot of us, with the best of intentions, come into these landscapes and think we're experts, think we know it all. And as a result, we’re not prepared to listen. So I think as experts, as people who are responsible for the management of landscapes, we need to listen to the local communities and respect their knowledge and their experience because they’ve accumulated that over generations. Sometimes I think we need to suspend our own expertise and really listen, really learn, and really work with people. We don’t do that too well as conservationists sometimes.

A Memorial to Bygone Cultures

Meg:  This program is a great example of the mutual benefit that can be gained by that spirit of cooperation, rather than coming in and saying let me show you how it’s done. That’s one of the things that I think is so compelling about the program. The Burren has been described as one vast memorial to bygone cultures. Can you give an overview of its archaeological history?

Brendan: It’s very special, to be honest. Tim Robinson, a cartographer who lives in Connemara now, described the Burren as 'one vast memorial to bygone cultures.'  There’s just so much archeology scattered across the Burren, over six thousand years, that rather than individually categorizing it, we’re better off in some ways, presenting the Burren is one giant site. I suppose the consequence of that and the rich cultural heritage is that the Burren would be a world heritage site, were it to be put forward by the national authority, I’m sure it would qualify in terms of its cultural heritage, as well a world heritage site.  There’s so much archaeology here, at such a scale, and over such a time period, and so intact; it’s an amazing resource.  People have farmed here for 5,800 years. 

We have a famous monument, an iconic structure called Poulnabrone Portal Dolmen, like the granddaddy of our Irish archeology.  That’s one of the oldest known structures built by farmers in Ireland; it’s Neolithic.  Then you have a couple of portal tombs, you have maybe 70 or 80 wedge tombs from the late Neolithic/early Bronze age.  You have several hundred ring forts from the Bronze and Medieval period.  You have Fulachtai fiadh, which were cooking sites.  You’ve got lots of tar houses from the Medieval period.  You’ve got little cultural structures for herding goats or for gathering water.  So you’ve got this extraordinary diversity of monuments scattered across the landscape.

 Poulnabrone dolmen in Irish means "hole of the quern stones" and is located in the Burren, County Clare. It's one of about 172 portal tomb in Ireland. Photo: Ron Cogswell, Creative Commons

Poulnabrone dolmen in Irish means "hole of the quern stones" and is located in the Burren, County Clare. It's one of about 172 portal tomb in Ireland. Photo: Ron Cogswell, Creative Commons

Because the Burren is such a rough and tough landscape, it hasn’t been damaged through land reclamation. The archaeological record here is extraordinary. Every farm has numerous archaeological sites, going back over thousands of years. I think the reason why we have so much archaeology here is because the Burren has always been attractive to farmers to come here and manage the land.  There’s always been a history of farming in this area, and structures that go with it.

The second thing is there so much rock available in the landscape that structures have been built. And when the structures are replaced, the old structures haven’t been taken down because you can keep building in stone, there is so much good building material around. I suppose the nature of the landscape and the farming here is that it’s a pasture landscape, so the farming tends to be reasonably gentle, in most places.  It’s been the cattle. It’s not tillage machinery.  Some places we’ve lost archaeology through land work, but by and large the archaeological record here is relatively intact.

What I love most about the archaeology is the stone walls. They’re everywhere. We have walls here going back four and a half thousand years to the Stone Age, when the first farmers lived here.  And we’ve got walls being built even today as part of the Burren Program. There’s a big continuity of wall building. I went to look at the landscape from the air, you can see the network, the paths of walls laid down on the landscape over many, many years. It’s just fascinating. The archaeological record here is amazing. I can appreciate the description of a vast memorial to bygone cultures. But I would qualify that by saying that there’s still active, living culture and communities here, and we’re still creating archaeology for the future.

Meg: That leads into my next question, which is about the fact that the Burren is also home to living culture and a wide range of artists, craftspeople, and entertainers. Can you could talk a little bit about how the landscape is a source of artistic inspiration?

Brendan: There’s been a lot of artists who are inspired by the Burren, as was Lady Augusta Gregory, who co-founded the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats.  She had a summer home here in the Burren.  Seamus Heaney, who died a couple years ago, wrote a very famous poem called Postscript about the shore area of the Northern Burren.  A lot of artists have come here, a lot of craftspeople who still work here in the Burren.  They’ve brought so much to the area. So many creative people have been drawn to the fact that here’s this landscape at the edge of Ireland, at the edge of Europe. By its nature, it’s open to people of creative minds.  There is a very strong tradition of Irish music in the area as well, which I personally love. It’s that lovely blend of the living tradition and the old archeology and wildlife as well, all mixed up here in the Burren together.

Young musicians on Burren

 

Meg:  There is a College of Art, isn’t there, in The Burren?

Brendan:  There is, yes.  It’s a beautiful little spot.  It’s one of the most unique colleges in the world, I think.  A lot of students come from the States every year to practice art.  It’s very much inspired by the landscape.  So a place where you can come and relax, get to know the community and get to know the landscape and basically, have your heart blow open.  I think the students who come here, they have a really unique experience.  They go to depths that they maybe haven’t been before.

Meg:  You and your wife also founded The Burrenbeo Trust, which is the first and only landscape charity in Ireland.  Can you describe the mission and some of the Trust’s initiatives?

Brendan:  We’re very proud of the Burrenbeo Trust.  My day job is with the Burren Program, but I suppose a big part of my passion involves the Burrenbeo Trust.  Ann O’Connor, my late wife and I, we set up Burrenbeo back in, 2001--almost 20 years ago now. We wanted to present to the world the notion of the fact that the Burren is a living landscape.  Because some people refer to it as being a lunar landscape, or a place almost bereft people. But we wanted to communicate to the world that this is a living landscape, where people have lived for thousands of years. We want to make sure the living culture tradition continues into the future.

We wanted to go to schools and tell kids all about their local heritage, to teach them all about the different special aspects of their local area. That worked really well. Then we started little programs within the community. We have a walk every month, where we take people out into the Burren and we share stories. Sometimes farmers lead the walks. Sometimes it could be ecologists or archaeologists. We organize festivals to celebrate the farming traditions.  We organize a winter festival every October, which is absolutely amazing.  We love it.  We organize a festival around place-based learning, which is learning in the landscape, so getting into the wedge tombs and imaging what it might have been like all those years ago, or interacting with nature. We organize a festival every summer called Burren in Bloom, celebrating the biodiversity of the Burren.  There’s tons of programs, about 30 or 40 different programs that we run, nearly all free, and focusing mainly on the local community.  But we also do a lot of outreach work to other parts of Ireland to promote this message of people and place. 

Our tagline is connecting people and places, and their role in caring for them.  That’s what we want to achieve with Burrenbeo, recognizing that your area is special, that your role in looking after your area is special as well, and don’t leave it up to others.  Take the initiative yourself and start looking after your place.  We want the Burren to be looked after long into the future when we’re all gone. We also feel that there’s other special places across Ireland, all over the world, and by taking some simple steps, adopting some simple ideas like monthly talks or walks or school programs or conservation volunteering or anything like that,  you can make a difference to your place.   We talk a lot about the environment and global responsibilities but it all begins at home. We encourage people all over Ireland and beyond, get involved, and participate in the well-being of their community and their local environment.

Meg:  That’s very simpatico with what Best Cultural Destinations is all about, the idea of the connection between people and place. It's is so important, whether you’re a resident or whether you’re a visitor, to be able to experience that connection and have that appreciation.  You mentioned the Burren in Bloom Festival, which I would love to experience.  Can you describe the biodiversity and botany of the landscape? 

Brendan:  The natural heritage and biodiversity of the Burren is really amazing.  It’s best to come and see it because it’s really special.  Beautiful colors, shapes, scents and smells.  Right around now, the first flowers start to pop out. We have a little plant called Spring Gentiana Verna, which belongs in the Alps.  I’ve just seen my first Gentian this year flowering over the weekend.  Next month we’ll have a beautiful plant called Mountain Avens, which is an arctic plant that’s going to start flowering.  It belongs in the Arctic Circle, yet it grows here in the Burren.  A few weeks later, we’ll have little plants called Dense Star Orchid, which is a Mediterranean plant, which grows here.

We’ve got a huge diversity of plants from different parts of the world growing here, and about three quarters of all native plants of Ireland are found in the Burren.  That’s amazing because the Burren is less than one percent of the national landscape. If you look at the micro level, and I did a lot of this is part of my PhD years ago, on average in every square meter you’re finding maybe 20 to 30 plants, and maybe up to 50 plants, which is extraordinary because in a typical swath of grasslands, you might find four or five species in the entire field, whereas at the Burren you’ll find a huge number of species in a small area.  It’s got a few rare species, but I suppose what’s famous about the Burren flowers is that there’s a lot of plants which are very rare elsewhere which are found profusely in the Burren, particularly the orchids.  There’s about 23 or 24 different orchid species, which are really extraordinary. 

 The Burren is host to 70% of Ireland’s 900 native plant species. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

The Burren is host to 70% of Ireland’s 900 native plant species. Photo: Burrenbeo Trust

Of course, the flowers attract different insects.  So you’ve got a lot of beetles and butterflies and some amazing moths as well, some totally unique.  You’ve got lizards.  You’ve got wonderful mammals like the red squirrel and the fox, the badger.  You’ve got big herds of feral goats here, which once were domesticated but now run wild.  It’s a real cornucopia of wildlife, both plants and animal based here in the Burren. We organize Burren in Bloom as an acknowledgment and celebration of how lucky we are to live here and how lucky we are to have such a rich biodiversity in our local area.

Meg:  I understand that there is a Burren perfumery. 

Brendan: Its right around the corner from where our office is, and run by a woman called Sadie Chowen and her husband Ralph.  It won shop of the year in Ireland about two or three years ago,. it’s a beautiful space, hidden away along a little side road here in the rural Burren.  It’s got a wild flower garden where they grow some of their foods and herbs for the little kitchen café that they have. They have a shop where they sell all these different perfumes which are made here in the Burren, sometimes using imported essences, but sometimes using a mix of some local plants as well. It’s one of the most beautiful little hideaways that you can find in the landscape, where you can have a cup of tea and learn about the Burren

Meg:  Can you describe your own personal relationship to the Burren and how that has changed over time?

Brendan:  I came here as a student, to tell the story of the people of the Burren and their place.  I spent three happy years here, touring around, interviewing older farmers, meeting the people, looking at the flora, looking at the archeology, which began to fascinate me.  And gradually I found myself really drawn to this place more and more, so that when I finished my studies, I settled down here.  I met my wife Ann, and we had four children.  And we built our little house here in East Burren.  It’s become my home.

It’s become my office, in a sense, because the initial research led to the Burren Program.  I drive across the Burren every morning to my little office here in Caron with my four or five colleagues.  And we work every day with farmers of the Burren. We walk the land all the time.  We visit international conferences to talk about the Burren. We very much live and breathe the Burren. I came here as a student and I’m still here is a student because I’m learning all the time.

But I very much feel it’s my home. It’s where I live, where I work, where my family lives, where my family go to school. It’s become everything, I suppose.  I feel privileged to be living in this place at this point in time when there’s so many good things going on, working with so many great people in the farming community and in the Burrenbeo Trust.  It’s a great place to be.

Meg:  It’s actually an interesting segue to my next question, which is about the fact that after you got your college degree in engineering, you traveled for a decade and worked each summer in America in order to save money to explore different places for the remainder of the year. Can you share a few of the highlights of that decade and how it shaped your views on the power of place?

Brendan: I think in Ireland we are able to root in a place. We’ve got an incredibly strong connection to our place. I grew up on a small farm in Waterford, always loving where I came from and knowing it very intimately. But then as you do, you grow up. I went to college and I got a degree in engineering. But I found a really have no passion for engineering. I thought I could be an okay engineer but never a great one. So I quit after about four hours of working and I went back to the University of Life.

I spent 10 years traveling, based in the States for summers, earning money working in different places to fund my travels.  I traveled an awful lot in Asia and New Zealand/Australia, around Europe. Around the States, of course, as well, and Canada. I loved it. It was extraordinary learning experience. It really did inform where I am now. I became fascinated by this relationship between people and their places, how people have been shaped by their places and how in turn, they shaped their places. So that’s the interaction between people and place that I found to be really fascinating.

I decided in my late 20s I wanted to come back to Ireland and go back to college. For me it was a really good place to explore.  So, I decided to look at environmental research, which is very much about people and their place because your environment is your place and managing it requires people. Then I was offered a PhD position on a project titled Farming and The Burren.  I thought this is perfect.  The Burren is this amazing place and it’s been farmed for so many years and there’s a great story to be told here.  So I took the opportunity.  It’s been a long, fascinating and really rich learning journey for me--since I was born, I suppose.  Which is a great thing to be able to say.

 Brendan Dunford during his first years of connecting with the Burren. Photo: Brendan Dunford

Brendan Dunford during his first years of connecting with the Burren. Photo: Brendan Dunford

Meg:  I personally believe that part of the beauty of traveling is that you do get to experience how other people relate to their environment. If you travel experientially and you connect with local people, you get a window into the destination that you don’t have otherwise because that connection is so important. That actually ties into my next question. I personally believe part of what’s wrong in the world today is this sense of apathy, that people don’t feel as connected to each other or to a place as ideally they might be. Several years ago, you hosted a program called from "Apathy to Empathy:  Reconnecting People and Place."  I do see a sense of disconnection from each other and from a sense of place as being one of the greatest challenges that we humans face. And empathy is being the most likely antidote to that. Can you share a few thoughts on these themes of apathy, empathy, and connection?

Brendan: Gosh, I’d agree with a lot of what you said.  When we talk about the environment, and talk about conservation, in some cases we get met with hostility, but more often than not the biggest challenge we face is apathy.  People who think it’s somebody else’s problem. 'That’s for the next generation.'  'We do what we do; we try to survive.'  'We’ve got more important things to be worried about.'  There’s a lot of apathy.

We try to organize meetings or initiatives, litter picks or something like that, and a lot of people just don’t bother. I think that’s increasingly the case. Our communities have become more fractured and fragmented. People’s lives are built more on their home entertainment complex in technology and stuff like that. That’s not a criticism. That’s just the way things are. I do think there’s a huge amount of apathy when it comes to our place, our community. It’s hard to get people to care unless there’s an emergency. Then people are good and they’ll help out.

The conference you mentioned is our Learning Landscape Symposium.  We have it every year.  The title in the first year was “Moving from Apathy to Empathy”. I love the term empathy; I think it’s a really important term.  It’s basically understanding the needs of your fellow people, your fellow community members, and responding to those needs. IPlace-based empathy implies understanding what your place is, what its needs are, and what you can do towards those needs.  I think it’s a very powerful term, the notion of empathy; placed-based empathy, that, look, we’re privileged to live where we live.  But we do need to take responsibility for the care of our place. Start here. Let’s move a sense of apathy to a sense of empathy. I think if we all do that, the world would be a pretty amazing place.

We’ve seen how it can work, that shift from apathy to empathy. We’ve seen it with local schoolkids prior to our eco-build program with Burrenbeo.  We’ve seen it with farmers as part of the Burren Program.  We’ve seen it with some of the public authorities who we work very closely with, who have a certain sense of how things should be and following rules and regulations.  They've seen what we can achieve by trusting people and investing in people, investing in community.  I think they’re really inspired by that.  It’s a recurring theme of ours to invest in people and create that sense of empathy.  We’re gradually starting to achieve it, little by little. It doesn’t happen overnight. But I think in the Burren, a lot of things are happening.  Good things.  I think we’re in a good position right now with what we’re doing.

Meg:  I would like to close by asking you if there’s been a specific moment or experience that you had that’s given you hope about our collective ability to connect with each other and with a sense of place?

Brendan:  For me, there’s been a lot of moments of frustration, meeting with indifference--it could be public authorities, it could be farmers who don’t really want to do what you’re hoping they will do, it could be visitors who you feel are damaging the landscape.  But to be honest with you, I’ve had many more positive experiences over time working with people in the Burren, working with the local community,  particularly with young kids. They’re amazing. They’re just sponges for information. They are so enthusiastic.  They really want to take ownership. They do it in such a wonderfully carefree, natural way that I’m very happy to work with them. I think the best program I’ve ever been involved with is the course with the kids.  We have 3,000 young Burren children now who’ve gone through that course.  Those kids are the future guardians of landscapes.  That gives me huge hopes.

One of my favorite moments is we have a little graduation ceremony when those kids finish the program. We bring them all together, with their parents and have a little quiz and we’ll ask questions like 'What is this flower?' All the kids shoot their hand up, jumping up and down with excitement to answer the question. And the parents have no clue what the answer is. The kids think 'Wow, I really am an expert now; I know more than my parents.' Same thing with the archaeology: 'What kind of tomb is this?'  Straightaway, they know it’s a wedge tomb, but again the parents have no clue.  That gives me hope for future generations, that the Burren is in good hands. 

The other place that gives me real hope is working with farmers on the ground.  Farmers get a bad rap sometimes, and sometimes they deserve it. But I think when you get to know farmers, and when you can explain in nonthreatening ways what conservation is about, they have an innate appreciation of it. I think they’re incredibly trustworthy, loyal, and really wants to do the right thing. Our role here has been to find ways to enable farmers to do that. We’ve developed systems of financially supporting them, which is important. We don’t want just to cost them money. We found ways to get the technical support, the kind of tools they need to manage the landscape in a way that’s appropriate to the archaeology and the flora and fauna.  We’ve always worked with them and their families, saying 'Look, you’ve got something extraordinary here that nobody else has got.  It’s really all about the legacy of previous generations on your lands. We’re here to help you to pass that down to the next generation.' The response we’ve had from our farmers over the years has been fantastic. Not all of them, but the majority of them have been great in that. 

Over the years, my colleagues and I have given lots of talks on the Burren but if somebody wants to learn about the Burren now what do I do? I send them out for a look with the farmer. They’ll have a far more rich, authentic and inspiring experience than they would have speaking to a so-called expert here in the office. The farmer on the ground is the one who knows their way around the Burren, who can speak with authority on the landscape.  That, to me, is the future.  That, to me, is success, when people are taking on the ownership and responsibility and the pride of place. I’m optimistic about the future of the Burren.