Your Wild Atlantic Day tour with West Coast Cycle Tours has started well. You’ve walked along exposed limestone pavement in the Burren, you’ve learned of the local flora and fauna and you’ve played fancy dress while re-creating an iconic moment from a popular Irish TV sitcom, Fr. Ted (at the actual location!) Now, after checking your bikes and equipment, your guide is releasing you and your friends into the wilds of the rural west coast of Ireland with a set of simple directions. Alone, you begin to make your way north, along quiet, grass-down-the-middle roads, before turning east and skirting along one of the largest turloughs (seaonal lakes) in Europe. You’re getting there…
Ireland is home to many a flowering plant. With as much rain as we get, it’s easy to see why! But the Burren, which takes up just 1% of Ireland’s landmass, is home to 70% of Ireland’s flowering pant species. Staggering!
Well, Brian Mooney thought so too. In 1972 Mooney, a poet, came to see an opportunity here. Marrying together the techniques of long established French perfume houses with his own experiments on local plants he set up the Burren Perfumery and Floral Centre in 1972. It was the first perfume house in Ireland.
Since its early days, it has grown, changed hands (now owned by Sadie Chowen), its name has been shortened to the Burren Perfumery and it has become something of a hidden gem in Clare and along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. It is not easy to find nor can it facilitate large bus tours. Perfect.
You pedal easily along, savouring the sights and sounds of this blissfully tranquil corner of the country. Your cycle tour has promised to take you along the Wild Atlantic Way and to the Cliffs of Moher…but you weren’t expecting this solitude or this silence. You meet your guide (after following his directions) and he points you the rest of the way. Taking an exit from one ‘bóithrín’ (small road) to another, you begin to realise that this is a special place. A secret. A hidden treasure.
As well as being the oldest in Ireland, The Burren Perfumery is a working perfumery. That is, every one of the 120 products is made on site, by hand in small batches. This place busies itself daily in the blending, sampling and production of its goods, making perfumes inspired by the Burren landscape from natural and organic ingredients. It is also open to visitors right through the year. Walking the grounds you find small signposts and engraved stone directing you here and there. There’s quite a lot to see!
The Burren Perfumery is divided into six main areas. They are: the Perfume Room; the Soap Room; the Creams Room; the Shop; the Tea Rooms and the Garden.
Sadie, the Perfumer, spends most of her time here. Sadie has been working with perfume for nearly twenty years. Trained in France, she brings with her great expertise and continues to work with a ‘Nose’ in Paris when formulating a new scent. (A ‘Nose’ is essentially a very highly trained perfume expert.) She and other makers often give little talks and demonstrations here at the Open Door of the Perfume Room, showcasing the processes of making their creams, soaps, perfumes and candles.
Here you’ll find Rose, the Cosmetic Chemist, hard at work making certified organic lip balms, face creams, body lotions and Castile soaps. All these products come in direct contact with the skin and therefore must be made to only the highest of standards. This is why, for health and safety reasons, this room is not open to the public. However, the tiny jars of goods produced within can be found in the Shop.
Cate makes soap here using a traditional “cold process” method. Made using scented essential oils distilled on site, they are then removed from moulds and air-dried. Beautiful scented candles are also made here by Sheila and Christina. Using natural soya wax and high quality essential oils, they make over 100 candles a day! Personally speaking, these are amazing and make a wonderful gift.
Be prepared to be blown away by fragrances of the products on display in the little Shop. There is a real calm in this well lit, modern and easy to navigate space. Everything is available to sample and the staff are happy to answer questions you may have. As well as the soaps, perfumes and other previously mentioned goods, you’ll also find locally-made herbal teas available.
Behind a heavy curtain, one finds a small cinema-like room which plays a short, ten minute “movie”. This, narrated by Brian Mooney (the aforementioned founder), is a beautifully relaxing presentation of floral life in the Burren, featuring stunning shots of the local landscape captured by present owner Ralph Doyle. This is a really gorgeous piece of work and is very well worth the time taken to sit and watch it.
(On a side note, “Unsophisticated Me” was a little confused the first time I visited the Shop. There were little glass beakers of coffee beans placed along the shelves. I wondered was this a decorative feature perhaps, or maybe there was some other aesthetic reasoning behind it. Turns out, when sampling the different scents your nose can get a little overwhelmed and begins to find it difficult to distinguish subtle fragrances after a while. The coffee beans act as a cleanser between different samples. I wouldn’t have had a clue!)
I just love this garden. I think everybody who visits The Burren Perfumery does. And I also think that everyone who wanders along the limestone pavement and the crunchy gravel pathways through the beds of ferns, herbs and flowering plants takes a mental note of something small they’d like to try in their own garden at home.
Huge praise is owed to Sarah and Gay Casey for their incredible vision and work in maintaining these gardens for us to enjoy. It’s a gorgeous place to slowly amble through and, as it’s an educational garden, you can read plenty on the medicinal and dietary functions of these plants.
The garden simply showcases samples of the herbs and plants that are used by the perfumery to create their fragrances, however, as they must produce goods to a certain scale their ingredients are brought in from certified organic producers. Trying to grow plants in the Burren to the scale that is required by the perfumery would be insensitive to the land of the area. For example, to yield 1kg of essential oils from Thyme would require 400kg of cultivated plant.
The Tea Rooms are hugely popular, and after spending your time strolling through the courtyard and in through the various rooms, perhaps it’s only right to sit and have a light snack. Here, everything is made from scratch using organic and local products. Speaking form personal experience, their cakes and soups are delicious!
Their coffee is roasted just a few miles away by Brian at Anam Coffee. I just love what Brian is doing and the passion he brings to his product. To be at the perfumery Tea Rooms with a slice of homemade cake in front of you partnered with a cup of high quality, locally roasted coffee is a picture of total comfort and relaxation.
Today, the Perfumery is a family-run business owned by Sadie Chowen and her husband, Ralph Doyle. They live on site with their two daughters, two cats and one dog. Ralph is the photographer and videographer behind the stunning images found on their website and the short “movie” in the Shop.
Living and working here, an appreciation for the delicate balance of nature is heightened. The Burren Perfumery does what it can to be sensible and responsible in an age of visible climate change. 50% of the electrical needs of the perfumery are provided by solar panels, while their restrooms are serviced by an on-site, environmentally-friendly water treatment plant. All waste from the Tea Rooms is composted and each winter native trees are planted to further enrich the biodiversity of the area.
It’s such a wonderful thing that here, on the west coast of Ireland, in the very heart of the Burren – with all its apparent obstacles to entrepreneurship and other economic disadvantages – we have this unique place to visit. They do something different, something quite rare and they do so responsibly. They create employment for local people (up to 30 in the summer season), they utilize local produce and they work with other local businesses. Even their fragrances are based on rural Irish landscape themes! For example, “Lost Garden is inspired by the overgrown gardens that one sees around ruined cottages where wild roses grow over the tumbled walls”, while “Atlantic Coast is a fresh citrus sea cologne inspired by the Burren Atlantic Coast and the fresh scents of the sea”. The Burren Perfumery is a local delight with world-class produce, a place you can visit with West Coast Cycle Tours.
After spending some time here, relaxing and taking it all in, it feels a pity to leave. But all good things come to an end. And remember, there’s so much more to come on your Wild Atlantic Day! The Cliffs of Moher, Fanore, Ballyvaughan, Black Head Lighthouse and Doolin…but there’s something about The Burren Perfumery that always takes you back. Well, they do say that olfactory memories (those based on smells) are the most resistant to interference. You may be reminiscing about this visit for a long, long time to come…