Located as it is on the western extremity of Europe, Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. As a result, many ancient remains have been preserved, giving the island an unusually rich archaeological inheritance. Exploring the Neolithic, Celtic and early Christian sites that are dotted around Ireland and learning about their mythology is a fascinating experience. To help you take it all in, here is a selection of 10 ancient sites in Ireland.
1. Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara in County Meath, feted in songs and poems, is an impressive limestone ridge affording views across the central plain of Ireland to distant mountain ranges. A Stone Age burial site, once the magnificent headquarters of the Celtic kings, it is unexcavated, with only the remains of ring forts and a standing stone marking the place that was Ireland’s spiritual and cultural capital for millennia.
2. The Burren
In southwest Ireland, Burren National Park in County Clare abounds with megalithic sites. The biggest is the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a distinctive ‘portal dolmen’ (burial tomb) with a huge capstone that has been adopted as a symbol of the region. It was built about 5,800 years ago, and when excavated contained human remains that were at least 1,500 years old.
Older than the Egyptian Pyramids, the Neolithic burial grounds at Newgrange are a Unesco World Heritage listed site that pre-date Stonehenge by around 1,000 years. Consisting of three separate Neolithic burial mounds, two of which are open to the public, this is one of the most important prehistoric clusters in Europe.
Early monks apparently appreciated beautiful countryside, as they had a tendency to build in the most beautiful spots: wooded glens, lake islands and river bends. The natural beauty of these settings is in turn enhanced by the simple stone monastic buildings still standing today. Glendalough in County Wicklow is a wonderful example of this – St Kevin’s Church was founded in the 6th century in a steep-sided glacial valley between two lakes. The ruins you can see at the site today – a 33 meter (110ft) round tower, stone churches and numerous stone crosses – date from the 11th century.
5. Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael, set 13km (8 miles) off the Kerry coast, is dramatically situated on a barren rocky island. The site can be visited by boat, weather permitting, between May and August. Dating from around AD 800, the tiny monastery was built under twin peaks on a saddle of rock at the top of 600 stone steps. Six beehive huts, in which the monks lived, and two rectangular oratories, where they prayed, were built of dry stone on a cliff edge around a small garden area. They are surprisingly well preserved, given their exposed Atlantic location.
Clonmacnoise, near Athlone in central Ireland, was founded by St Kieran and built on a natural gravel ridge in a bend of the River Shannon. It is the biggest monastic site in Ireland encompassing the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (dating from the 10th–13th centuries), two round towers, three high crosses and numerous graves. There are several Irish Romanesque doorways and arches. Today, it is way off the beaten track, but in AD 545 the Shannon was an important waterway.
In the northwest of Ireland at Carrowmore, near Sligo town, the 6,000-year-old Bronze Age graves of Ireland’s largest megalithic graveyard are scattered across the fields. From here, you can see the Knocknarea hill burial site, which stands 328 meters (1,078ft) above sea level. A signposted path leads to its enormous Neolithic tomb (70 by 11 meters/200 by 35ft), which is said to be the burial place of Queen Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connacht in Celtic mythology. The ascent is steep but worth the climb. The magnificent views from the site clarify why the Celts associated this part of Ireland with myth and magic.
8. Drombeg Stone Circle
Stone circles are a feature of west Cork and Kerry, usually with a burial site at their center, and often with two upright pillars (the portal) opposite a recumbent altar stone. They are oriented to the setting sun at the winter solstice, and those that have been excavated have a ritual burial site at their center. Drombeg Stone Circle, set on a plateau with views of the sea in the distance, has 17 stones and is the biggest and most complete of the early Bronze Age remains. The burial site at its center has been carbon-dated to 1124–794 BC.
9. Ardmore Cathedral and Round Tower
Ardmore Cathedral and Round Tower, in County Waterford, stand on a cliff-top site on a narrow promontory with expansive sea views – a stunning location for these 12th-century cathedral ruins. Its sturdy Hiberno-Romanesque arches contrast with the slender, conical-roofed round tower. Nearby St Declan’s Oratory and Well date from the 9th century, and are still visited by pilgrims annually on 24 July, the feast day of St Declan.
In the southwest, Innisfallen Island on Lough Leane in Killarney National Park can be reached by rowing boat from Ross Castle. The abbey ruins on the wooded island date from the 7th century. The last High King of Ireland, Brian Ború, is said to have been educated by the monks here.
Photos are from Shutterstock
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