More than 5,000 years of history are revealed through colossal passage tombs, the beehive huts of early monasteries, and more iconic landmarks. Here are Irish places of curiosity, pilgrimage, and inspiration.
Rock of Cashel
Photograph by Design Pics Inc/National Geographic Creative
For more than a millennium, the Rock of Cashel, a formidable stronghold rising high above the surrounding plain, has stood sentinel over Tipperary. Legend—and a carved cross—imply an association between St. Patrick and the Rock’s earliest rulers, the kings of Munster, but the ancient fortress wasn’t formally presented to the church until 1101. Officially dissociated from its secular roots, the stronghold proved equally majestic as a center of ecclesiastical power, flourishing as a spiritual high ground until the Cromwellian army laid siege to it in 1647. Still, the architecture from that period largely survives and continues to hold sway over the tourists who besiege the Rock each year. The jewel of the stronghold is undeniably Cormac’s Chapel, considered one of the best examples of 12th-century Romanesque architecture in Ireland. Yet it’s the 90-foot round tower, built in the early 12th century without the use of mortar, that perfectly exemplifies the Rock of Cashel’s dual role as a religious center and medieval fortress.
Photograph by Chris Hill, National Geographic Creative
According to ancient legend, the Irish warrior-giant Finn McCool created the Giant’s Causeway so as to avoid getting his feet wet walking between Northern Ireland and the coast of Scotland. While geologists now insist that the 40,000 or so mostly hexagonal basalt columns were formed by volcanic activity some 60 million years ago—not giants—there’s still something magical about the columns’ rugged symmetry as they descend from the rocky cliffs and disappear into the sea.
Visitors to the Giant’s Causeway can stair-step their own route down past unusual rock formations to the wild North Atlantic, or climb the Shepherd’s Steps for a bird’s eye view of the rocky coastline. A visitor’s center opened in 2014 offers a deeper dive into the World Heritage Site with exhibitions, audio guides, trail suggestions and cliff-top walks that explore both the geological causes and the mythical legends of the remarkable basalt columns leading out into the sea.
Photograph by Raul Touzon, National Geographic Creative
In a valley carved out by glaciers and surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Wicklow Mountains, a nobleman rejected the trappings of his privileged life and retreated into a cave for religious reflection. St. Kevin, born in 498, later established Glendalough monastery on the site, attracting like-minded disciples who studied and prayed in the monastic city for more than 900 years.
The monastery survived scores of Viking attacks over the years (perhaps due to the hundred-foot-tall round tower that provided both lookout and refuge for besieged monks), but it couldn’t withstand the ravages of Henry VIII, who officially dissolved it in 1539. Many of its buildings still remain, providing a snapshot of monastic life to visitors who often link an official tour of the grounds with several other excellent walks in the Glendalough Valley. The roofless 12th-century cathedral is the largest ruin on the site, but several other churches, a high cross devoted to St. Kevin, and a tiny chapel with a steeply pitched stone roof and circular belfry pay homage to centuries of quiet devotion in the picturesque valley.
Photograph by scenicireland.com/Christopher Hill Photographic/Alamy Stock Photo
Religious life in the Northern Ireland town of Downpatrick has long oriented itself around the hill on its southwestern border. Several orders of monks worshipped here from the sixth century onward, and a small congregation still gathers at the present-day Down Cathedral—but Cathedral Hill, where Down Cathedral stands, is far better known as the supposed burial ground of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. A well-worn tenth-century cross in the churchyard and a more recently placed granite slab inscribed with the saint’s name mark his final resting place. Scores of visitors make the pilgrimage to Down Cathedral each year, many stopping to pay homage to St. Patrick at nearby Saul, where he first landed and began his religious work in 432, and to climb Slieve Patrick, which has a granite figure of the saint at its summit. Start your own pilgrimage at the Saint Patrick Centre, where an Imax theater and a permanent exhibition invite visitors to follow in the footsteps of the patron saint.
Photograph by Christopher Hill, Alamy
Not only did the Neolithic inhabitants of the Boyne River Valley build monumental ceremonial sites, they decorated them with spirals, crescents, and geometric designs. Knowth, built around 3,200 B.C, is said to contain more prehistoric art than any other site in Ireland—the 200-plus decorated stones found in excavations represent a third of all decorated stones found in Western Europe. The circular base of the Great Mound passage tomb is inset with over 120 massive, decorated stones capped with a grassy mushroom-shaped mound. Surrounded by over a dozen smaller, grass-covered mounds, the odd, lumpy landscape seems somehow organic. Knowth rivals Newgrange, acclaimed for its winter solstice alignment when the rising sun illuminates the inner chamber, but its interior passages aren’t open to the public. Knowth also isn’t as crowded. Access to both sites is by guided tour only through the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.
Photograph by Karl-Heinz Raach, laif/Redux
Built on a steep-sided, double-peaked rock seven miles off the coast of County Kerry, the monastery on Skellig Michael illustrates the extremes of early Christian devotion and discipline. Monks occupied the island from possibly the 6th century through the 13th century, building narrow stone terraces some 500 feet above the sea for their beehive huts, oratories, and gardens, with channels and cisterns to capture rainwater.
The extensive stonework, including several sets of near-vertical stairs, served penitential and practical purposes. On the South Peak, a devotional route required monks to rock climb in order to visit a series of prayer stations on ledges before reaching their destination—a tall, cross-inscribed stone on a rock spit about 700 feet above the sea, reached by a death-defying walk for absolution.
It’s no wonder that Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also a bird-watching destination due to a large puffin colony. To this day it’s not easy to get to Skellig Michael as boats can only land when the seas are calm. Boats run from Ballinskelligs and Portmagee; there’s a visitor center on Valentia Island.
The National Museum of Ireland—Archaeology
Photograph courtesy National Museum of Ireland
This remarkable Dublin museum presents Ireland’s ancient treasures and artifacts, and with 9,000 years of human inhabitation, there are rich objects and archaeological discoveries on display. Most impressive is the prehistoric gold collection, the largest and finest native-origin gold exhibit in any national museum in Europe outside of Athens. Included are lunula neck ornaments, sheet gold sun disks and collars, twisted arm bands, ear-spools, and clothing fasteners dating from 2200 to 500 B.C. Deposited in bogs during the Bronze Age, peat-cutters have discovered most of these treasures. The early Christian relics are of world importance, including the Ardagh Chalice, Cross of Cong, Lismore Crozier, and a bell that reputedly belonged to St. Patrick. The finds from Dublin’s Wood Quay, the most intact Viking urban center ever excavated in Western Europe, reveal town layout and everyday life from the year 1000 and before, as well as widespread commercial connections. The museum features a large collection of weaponry; an early illuminated Book of Psalms recently found in a bog; and well-preserved bog bodies that were likely Iron Age and earlier tribal sacrifices. Admission to the archaeology museum on Kildare Street is free.
Photograph by Hazel Thompson, The New York Times/Redux
It’s easy to see why Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland was such an easily defended stronghold—it crowns a high, rocky crag jutting out into the sea reached by a bridge (formerly a drawbridge) over a ravine. Dating back to the 13th century, for a time it was the seat of the Clan MacDonnell. Walk through the arched gate with defensive tower to the atmospheric inner courtyard, where you can explore the ruins and take in the far-reaching views of the cliff-lined Antrim Coast. La Girona, part of the Spanish Armada, wrecked in 1588 nearby, and some of its recovered canons allegedly were installed at the castle. The Earl of Antrim built a lavish residence within its walls, but the kitchens supposedly collapsed into the sea in 1639, taking the staff with it. Impoverished after the 1690 Battle of the Boyne—when he backed the losing side—the Earl abandoned Dunluce and moved to another property. The castle is now a highlight of the 33-mile Causeway Coast Way walking trail.
Photograph by Martin Sasse, laif/Redux
This fascinating Dublin prison reveals the heartbreaking courage of the men and women who resisted English rule and helped forge an independent nation. Opened in 1796, Kilmainham Gaol played a part in every act of rebellion over the following 128 years—many of the Irish leaders right up through the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) were imprisoned here. The firing squad executions of 14 leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in the prison yard were a turning point, creating an outcry and support for nationalism. The colorful guided tour tells the tales of many prisoners, like Joseph Plunkett, who married his sweetheart in the jail chapel just before he faced the firing squad, and James Connolly, who couldn’t stand up due to his wounds so he was tied to a chair for his execution. The grim, gray building is one of the largest unoccupied prisons in Europe and presents the rough conditions as they were. In recent years it has had roles as a movie backdrop in films such as Michael Collins (1996) and In the Name of the Father (1993).
Photograph by Chris Parker, Corbis
Northern Ireland's Derry (officially Londonderry) is the best-preserved walled town on the island of Ireland and is one of the finest examples of a walled city in Europe. Completed in 1618, the walls are up to 26 feet high and 35 feet thick in spots with watchtowers and cannons. A one-mile guided tour atop the walls tells the early history of the city, as well as the later violence during “the Troubles,” which are widely regarded as getting their start in Derry in the late 1960s. You can see down into the Bogside, a Catholic neighborhood where a mural proclaims, “You are now entering Free Derry.”
For a more in-depth perspective, take a walking tour of the murals along Rossville Street known as the People’s Gallery with the Bogside artists who started painting them as witness to the events that happened here, like the 1969 Battle of the Bogside and 1972’s Bloody Sunday. Now the murals also feature symbols of peace and world human rights activists. Don’t miss the Museum of Free Derry, which chronicles the civil rights struggles, or the Tower Museum, which presents both sides of the story. The Tower Museum also features artifacts from a Spanish Armada ship that wrecked in 1588 off the north coast, and excellent city views from the open-air viewing platform.
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