JRR Tolkien and the Burren
THE IMAGERY AND THE IMAGINATION FOR THE BOOK 'THE LORD OF THE RINGS' IS THE BURREN, IN COUNTY CLARE, IRELAND. SO SAY I, PETER CURTIN FROM LISDOONVARNA, COUNTY CLARE , IRELAND. FACT NOT FICTION - IT IS NOW OFFICIAL.
THIS IS THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS AND THE STORY BEHIND THE FACT.
I was living in Galway City in the mid 70's. I used to frequent a pub then called "Mrs Cullen's Bar" in Foster Street. Mrs Cullen was a genial host in the traditional fashion, offering great Irish music and wonderful pints. One Saturday lunchtime, I was relaxing with a pint when an elegant elderly lady to my left engaged me in conversation with the opening question "Where are you from?" to which I replied "My name is Peter Curtin and I'm from Lisdoonvarna, County Clare." The lady replied, "Oh, I'm Miss Crowe and I was Dr. Martyn's housekeeper for 30 years when Gregan's Castle Hotel was the Martyn's private residence. The imagery and the imagination for the book 'The Lord of the Rings' is the Burren in County Clare."
As we say in Ireland, things rested so until about two years ago (2008) when this chance meeting with Miss Crowe came to my memory again. Then a few months ago, I decided to check if Miss Crowe's statement was in fact true or not, so I spent many months putting the pieces together. I spoke with Mrs Cullen who said that in fact Miss Crowe called to the pub every morning and had breakfast for a number of years. Mrs Cullen had an uncle, a Catholoc priest at the village of Ballyvaughan (4 miles from Dr Martyn's house). This was initially the point of contact with Miss Crowe. Mrs Cullen recalls taking Miss Crowe back to Gregan's Castle to show her the former residence.
You can see a short history of the Martyn's by going to the Gregan's Castle Hotel website. Frank (Francis Florence) Martyn was the owner when JRR Tolkien used to visit. Fank Martyn was an engineer by profession who had worked for a time in Australia. He had an extensive library at his residence.
The next port of call for me was UCG, University College of Galway. I contacted the English department and spoke with Professor Hubert McDermott who confirmed that Tolkien had been external examiner to the English department for a number of years, and a classmate of his, Rose MacNamara (nee Murphy) was the daughter of Professor Murphy, the head of the English department at UCG who, as head of the department, was expected to entertain the visiting examiner.
Professor Murphy and his lady wife would wine and dine Tolkien. I spent a long time trying to track down an article written in the Irish Daily Mail with the headline "Was the Burren genesis of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?" (published on 9 July 2007, see below). As we say "around the house and mind the dresser", I was more than amused to discover that the lady I was trying to find, Rose MacNamara, lived fifteen miles away.
Two hours after discovering this I was having tea with Rose who recalled her many great times as a young girl in the company of Tolkien and her parents. Tolkien and the Murphy family became life-long friends. I will not go into any personal details, suffice to say that Tolkien was a gentle man who loved nature, loved flowers, and when he felt tired while out walking would just lay down and have a nap. Rose confirmed that her parents took Tolkien to the Burren and to Dr Martyn's residence on many and numerous occasions, and also to Connemara.
The special Papers section of Galway University Library confirmed to me that Tolkien was an external examiner for the years 1949, 1950, 1954, 1958 and 1959. 'The Lord of the Rings' was published in 1955.
So there you have it: the Burren in County Clare was the imagery and the imagination for the 'Lord of the Rings', and this fact was brought to you by Peter Curtin from Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, Ireland.
Poll na Gollum - entrance to the cave
(pictures left and below)
For many years now there has been words written about the character of Gollum who appears in 'The Hobbit' book published in 1933 but whom I'm told only gets a more developed persona in 'The Lord of the Rings'.
The Burren is home to the largest cave system in Ireland, the entrance of which lies about four miles from Gregan's Castle. It comprises of 15 miles of underground passages. This entrance is called Pol na Gollum (translated from the Irish as the Hole of Gollum). The 'Book of the Burren' by Ann Korff, p. 26, says 'Gollum' in Irish means 'rock dove', and the favourite habitat for these birds is cliff edges. The entrance to Pol na Gollum is a hole a hundred feet deep and about a hundred feet across, at the bottom of which is the actual cave entrance. It is so big a collapse that a mature ash tree grows in the hole, and the tree canopy is well below ground level. Of course the other coincidence is that rock doves make a guttural sound, same as Gollum in the book.
Some weeks ago, I had Rabbi Eckstein in the pub for a whole evening, just he and I. The rabbi was over from London, because the Burren Smokehouse was being audited for kosher brand. The rabbi said to me, "There is no such thing as coincidence", so if the rabbi is to be believed, then it is a thing of wonderment that I should be the person to join all the dots.
(picture courtesy of Colin, The Burren Outdoor Experience)
The reality is that I together with some friends - Dave Birge and Tom Molloy - walk almost every Sunday in the Burren landscape, one of the great places in the world, and 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 shows humanity, shows the necessity for us people 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. A nice lady rambled into the pub some weeks ago for a coffee, and when I engaged her in conversation, she told me she was a classical scholar teaching at a London university. She tries to come as often as possible to the Burren because she feels a healing quality about walking here. The late John O'Donohue (author of books such as 'Anam Cara', 'Eternal Echoes' and 'Benedictus', and friend of Steven Spielberg) was born and inspired by the nature and landscape. There was great excitement for some when Stephen Spielberg made a visit in the summer of 2009.
The Burren is 200 square miles of limestone pavement. It warrants world heritage status on two counts: 1) heritage built by man, and 2) the natural environment. It will have geopark status by 2011. It is a protected landscape that was formed circa 230 million years ago. You can find lots of information by searching the word BURREN on the internet or going to the Burrenbeo website. Recent satellite imagery has given researchers in geology and archaeology plenty of new insights into the landscape.
I was born upstairs in the Roadside Tavern in 1953. I am the third generation of my family in the pub. The name 'Curtin' comes from the Irish language Mac Cruitin which means humped back person. This signifies the Curtins were keepers of knowledge. The Curtin name was first documented in County Clare in 1325 AD. They lived under patronage to the O'Connor's / O'Loughlen's / O'Brien's of the Baronies of Corcomroe, Burren and Thomond. They were the educators of the tribal chiefs and travelled to the many castles educating and recording social history, and they wrote poetry.
Article published in the Daily Mail on 9 July, 2007:
Here another clue as to where Tolkien found his inspiration.
Charles Travis compared the actual topography of the Burren - around Gortaclare Mountain to be precise - with the Misty Mountains from Tolkien's Middle Earth map with the Middle Earth region of Rohan in the foreground and the Misty Mountains covering the spine of the mountain ridge with runs into Gortaclare Mountain. He states, "The curve of the Misty Mountain range in Tolkien's 'imaginary' map seems to fit the actual topography of this region of the Burren. It seems that the topography could arguably support the case you are making for this region of the Burren being one source of inspiration for Tolkien."
In the picture, the map on the left is an Ordonnance Survey sheet of the area around Gortaclare Mountain in the Burren. The map on the right is an image of the Misty Mountains from a Tolkien Middle Earth Map. Both maps when viewed together illustrate the officially surveyed region, and Tolkien's Misty Mountains transposed on top of a topographical satellite image of this area of the Burren.
Source: Maps by Charles Travis 2010, Trinity Long Room Hub; OS Map from collection of the Glucksman Memorial Map Library, Trinity College Dublin
Poll na Gollum as seen when approaching the entrance to the cave
Another view from above -
Peter Curtin is half-way down towards the cave
Brass plate at the entrance of Poll na Gollum
Entrance to the cave from below (courtesy of Colin, The Burren Outdoor Experience)
Poll na Gollum - a hole in the foyer of the entrance to the cave
Rare flower in the hazelwood
Typical hazel grove in the Burren - the home of fairies and hobbits
Aerial views from North Clare, the Burren
taken by Steven and Peggy Eyth, USA
From top left to bottom right:
1. Caher Valley - the level mountain top on left is Slieve Elva, home of the Poll na Gollum Cave
2. A ringfort like many in the Burren. Nobody has ever counted them.
3. View from Black Head Mountain to the south overlooking the Fanore coast line, Cathair Dún Irghus (ringfort) in the foreground.
4. Cathair Dún Irghus closer up.
5. Black Head Mountain looking east towards Ballyvaughan. On the left, you see Galway Bay.
Here you can read an article published in the Sierra Magazine, written by Laura Read. She went on a walk with Peter Curtin as her guide to explore the Burren, and found it an amazing almost spiritual experience.