Drive on any motorway or back road. It won’t be long before you come upon a Norman round tower, trees settled comfortably in a mystic fairy ring, a medieval castle tumbling in upon itself or a beautifully restored castle. Perhaps you’ll happen upon the shadowed monastery where St. Kiernan slept between mountain peaks on the shores of a soft lake. Look in the fields, especially if you’re in the west or in the heartland of Ireland, and you’ll likely see a dolmen. Older than ancient, these huge stone tables often sit alone, skylining the horizon.
Stone circles, mounds, cairns and Celtic crosses… Carvings on blinding-white quartzite and the inscriptions of an ancient language… Many ancient relics are perfectly preserved and come complete with a visitor’s center. Others are content to live amiably with grazing sheep.
Every illusive or majestic remnant of Ancient Ireland gives pause. Certainly, it’s wonderful to see photos or paintings of these traces of our past; isn’t a picture worth a thousand words? But in this case, coming upon such a site leaves you speechless, for it’s a stronger experience than words can convey.
Some of our ancient sites are older than the pyramids. We consider the ancient Egyptians to have been educated and knowledgeable about the movement of the stars and their own place in the universe. And so it was with the Ancient Irish, although this piece of information has slipped by many of us and comes as a wonderful surprise.
There are ancient sites expressly for the demarcation of time, for the rituals of royalty, and for celebrations relating to seasons and giving thanks. But there are many sites whose meaning, although surmised, and often differently, by archaeologists, aren’t clear. It’s best to relax and float within the mystery.
When you come home to Ireland, you may find that visiting ancient sites may be the most moving part of your journey. We believe after you’ve visited an ancient site you carry home a piece of time, some part of Ireland that made us who we are. A love of the land and sky you can use long after you return to your daily routine as a compass. A guide to the knowledge of those who lived before us and those who will come after.
Other than the lucky surprise you’ll simply happen upon during your self-drive tour, chauffeured drive, or larger group tour, here are a few ancient sites we suggest:
Newgrange, in County Meath, crouches on a rise just north of the River Boyne. It is the focal point for a ceremonial area and megalithic cemetery that is 5,000 years old. The tombs passage is perfectly aligned to mark the Winter Solstice. Read 20 intriguing facts about Newgrange here.
Hill of Tara
Also in County Meath, important rituals were performed here from the Stone Age and through the Christian era. It was also the traditional seat of Ireland’s high kings. Slowly ascend Tara. From its top you can see all of Ireland’s four Celtic provinces.
Again, this is in County Meath. This site is somewhat of a secret. On the east side it is possible to enter the domed tomb. Be still. Experience time as it stops and then reels you backward into a world then can only be known by your senses.
This site is in County Limerick. It is on a lake (lough) that was inhabited by Neolithic farmers for over 4,000 years. There are prehistoric remains and the largest surviving stone circle in Ireland.
In County Galway, this is an enormous stone fort with a mystery—no oneknows who built it or when. It was called by several renowned archaeologists, “the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe.” It faces the wild sea, and three stone rings meet above 300 foot sheer cliffs. It seems to keep a watchful eye on our traditional Aran Islands.
Carrowmore and Carrowkeel
In County Sligo. These are Europe’s two largest megalithic monuments. One in a valley and one on a mountain, there are 200 passage tombs here. When you visit this ancient site you understand clearly how mystified, terrified and awestruck those people were by the concept of death. You feel their longing for eternal life. They were, after all, our direct ancestors.
In County Antrim. There’s not much left but the crumbling passage of time, but this was once the ceremonial and royal seat of Ulster. The Interpretative Center at Navan is a miracle in itself. It opens a door to the myths and archaeology of this fort, Emain Macha, and the power of place.
Drombeg Stone Circle
In County Cork. This lovely recumbent stone circle is locally knownasthe Druid’s Altar, and is located on the edge of a rocky terrace withfine views to the sea about a mile away. The word Drombeg means ‘the small ridge’. The circle stones have been shaped to slope upwards to the recumbent itself. The midpoint of this stone was set in line with the winter soltice sunset viewed in a conspicuous notch in the distanthills.