WHEN Frank McCormack first saw the Burren at the age of 21, the young stone mason never dreamed he would make his home there for the next four decades.
“I was gobsmacked,” the Kildare native told The Clare Champion. “I had never seen anything like it, the beauty and the starkness of the landscape took my breath away.” Four years after that encounter, Frank had bought a small farm close to Tubber and he and his wife Mary started a new life, balancing suckler farming with the running of their fledgling business, Irish Natural Stone.
Now, decades later, as the father of eight and a highly-regarded sculptor and stone mason, Frank is part of a team embarking on an ambitious plan to give others that same experience of the Burren as a wild and inspirational landscape.
Together with another force of nature, Hector Ó Eochagáin, and Galway-based coach and fitness expert Tom French, Frank is preparing to welcome hundreds of outdoor adventurers to a specially-designed 10km off-road obstacle course that promises something of a spiritual as well as a physical work-out.
“This is more than just running around a muddy track,” Frank said. “It will be a very, very special experience. Outdoor fitness is hugely popular nowadays and it was my daughter, Bernadette that really recognised the potential we have here.”
Holding a running event in the Burren is something that Hector also believes is about much more than just the physical challenge: “The idea was born around a year ago, because we really want to get people out of the gym and bring them to the Burren and back to the land and the incredible landscape here which has been considered sacred for millennia. People have been coming to the Burren for thousands of years to farm and to worship.”
Taking place on the McCormack’s farm on Saturday, January 25, the first ‘Feel the Burren’ run is set to immerse participants in all aspects of this fascinating lunar-like terrain. The run is the first in a series marking the turning points of the Celtic year, and will be directed by a team that Hector feels can make the most of what the Burren can offer those looking for more than just a test of physical stamina. “Tom French is the fitness guru and the military general and as for Frank, his positivity and creativity are unbelievable. He has a real charisma and I just love the vibe he brings to this event.”
With between 150 and 200 people expected to take part, the run has been carefully designed and marked to give those taking part a real sense of the place, as well as the sacred elements that lie behind it. Field names will guide runners along the route and give them as sense of the history and traditions of rural life in the Burren. Even the trees in the area have names and Niamh and Máire are twin ash trees who, along with rows of silver birth, will mark out the way to the high point of the course – literally and metaphorically – Bouleevin Hill. While the ascent to the peak will be a gruelling challenge, the pay-off is the chance to ring the Bell of Bouleevin. That has been put in place on a 20ft high dolmen as a way for participants to celebrate their completion of the climb.
“We really want to incorporate a sense of mythology into the event,” Hector explained. “We want to time the different runs to coincide with the Celtic seasons, that’s why our first one takes ‘ice’ as its theme. There’s a bit of a Game of Thrones vibe too and people respond to that.”
Getting to experience the uniqueness of the Burren is the key element of the event and Hector and his team are keenly aware that the limestone landscape has already proven to be a source of inspiration for scholars and artists of every kind. It has – to international acclaim – given rise to the Burren Programme which captures and enhances traditional farming practices. As a young couple starting out in farming, that’s something that that Frank and his Limerick-born wife Mary immersed themselves in, discovering an aptitude for that way of life. Working in the deceptively barren landscape of the Burren lowlands, Frank also developed his eye for the potential of telling stories in stone.
Having left school at 15, he learned the mason’s craft and found his passion. “I was always arty, I suppose and when I learned a bit and discovered I was good at the more intricate work, I started to carve.” Over the years, Frank and the family business Irish Natural Stone have secured specialist work on projects including the restoration of St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford and The Four Courts. They also had the honour of creating a 1916 memorial in New York as well as the moving Irish Hunger Memorial there. The current project might seem a bit of a departure, but Frank has brought his skills to bear across the course. “We’ve been putting in the names on the fields in a way that’s in harmony with the traditional stone walls and we’ve marked the tracks and the routes in stone,” he explained. “The dolmen on the top of Bouleevin hill is really special and the view from there is just fantastic.”
Frank revealed that he is also considering creating a gathering point for other artists in stone: “I would love to have a hub here for artists, it’s something we will possibly look at doing in the future. There’s so much inspiration here.”
The first ‘Feel the Burren’ run takes place on Saturday, January 25 at Bouleevin, Tubber. Full details can be found on social media and www.feeltheburren.ie.