In the North Atlantic Ocean lies a land of beauty and enchantment: of myth, magic, ancient buildings and spectacular landscapes. That land is Ireland, an island that consists of the Republic of Ireland in the south, with its twenty-six counties, and Northern Ireland in the north, with its six counties.
THE EMERALD ISLAND
Also known as the Emerald Island, Ireland is famous for its many shades of green and its lush vegetation, which it owes to its mild climate and heavy rainfall. Geographically, it is defined by low central plains surrounded by coastal mountains, and a drive through the countryside will take you past rolling hills, thick forests and endless green fields, many populated by cows and sheep. It is easy to get lost in the beauty of the land and imagine that you’re in some fairy-tale realm.
Contributing to this illusion are the country’s many ancient buildings. Inhabited since around 10,000 BC, Ireland is home to more than thirty thousand castles and castle ruins, with some estimated to be almost one thousand years old. And throughout the country are remnants of prehistoric civilisations, including monuments that reveal the religion and rituals of its early inhabitants.
Another aspect that makes Ireland unique is its rich indigenous culture. If you go into an Irish-language-speaking region, known as a ‘Gaeltacht’, you’ll hear people speak their own ancient language, like an echo from the past. And if you go into an Irish pub, you might hear traditional music played on instruments like fiddles and flutes, and see people engaged in Irish dancing.
Ireland was historically a pagan country until its patron saint, Saint Patrick, converted its people to Christianity in the 5th century. It still has a culture of superstition, particularly surrounding prehistoric dwellings, known as fairy forts, and a rich culture of mythology. There are few things more magical than sitting at a fireplace somewhere in the Irish countryside listening to legends about banshees and ancient warriors while the rain falls on the wild green fields outside.
Described as “part of our dream world” by Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, Skellig Michael is a towering sea crag in the Atlantic Ocean, almost twelve kilometres off the coast of County Kerry. Accessible to visitors only in summer, this wild place was once home to a group of ascetic monks seeking solitude. The monks built a monastery there some time between the 6th and 8th centuries, and you can visit the remains of the monastery, as well as the two lighthouses built in the 19th century. Skellig Michael is not only a site of historical importance but also one of Ireland’s primary sites for breeding seabirds, so expect to see some beautiful wildlife while there.
The ruins of a circular tower in Lough Oughter, County Cavan, near the Northern Irish border appears on many artists’ images from the 18th and 19th centuries. It occupies what may have been a ‘crannóg’, or artificial island, in what was once the historic Kingdom of Breifne. Built on what was possibly a sixth century fortification, work began on Cloughoughter Castle in the late 12th century when it was owned by the O’Rourke clan. In 1233, the O’Reilly clan took possession of the area and finished the castle. Abandoned centuries on, the castle was used as a prison in the 17th century then fell into ruin. Conservation work in the 1980s saved Cloughoughter, which can be visited today by boat from the town of Killeshandra.
In the northwestern county of Clare lies the Burren, an expansive, limestone landscape where you can see incredible natural and archaeological wonders. You’ll feel like you’re on another planet as you navigate this lunar world, which is known for its vast vegetation and includes species native to the Arctic and the Alps. The landscape is also dotted with fossils, caves and monuments, the most notable of which is the Poulnabrone Dolmen. Built around 3,800 BC, this giant dolmen is in one of the region’s most desolate places. It was the burial site of more than thirty people, whose remains archaeologists have discovered, along with ancient objects buried with them.
Off the coast of County Galway lies Inishmore, the biggest of the three Aran Islands. And on that island, you’ll find an ancient pilgrimage site known as the Seven Churches. The name of the site is actually a misnomer because only two of the seven buildings there were churches – St. Brecan’s Church, built around the 7th or 8th century, and the Church of the Hollow, built around the 15th century – while the other buildings were monastic dwellings. The site is still open to pilgrims and also has a graveyard, where ancient saints are said to be buried alongside local people from recent times.
Many tourist sites in Ireland are associated with famous legends, and McDermott’s Castle, on Lough Key in County Roscommon, is no exception. This 18th-century castle is on Castle Island, which has been the site of a castle since the 12th century, when the McDermott clan ruled the area. Legend says that Úna, the daughter of the McDermott chief, fell in love with a boy from a lower class. Her father prohibited her from leaving the castle so she couldn’t see him, so he began swimming across the lake to see her. Tragically, he drowned one night, and Úna died soon after from a broken heart. People say the two of them are buried on the island under two intertwined trees that grew over them.
Brú na Bóinne
Long before the pyramids of Egypt were built, the people of Ireland were building incredible monuments, with intricate artwork, scientific artefacts and grand passage tombs. These monuments are in an area along the River Boyne in County Meath called Brú na Bóinne, which has over ninety Neolithic monuments dating to around 3,200 BC. The most famous monument is Newgrange, which consists of approximately two hundred thousand tonnes of rock and which legend says was once the dwelling of the gods. Every year, on winter solstice, which is December 21st, the sun shines through the entrance to Newgrange, lighting a golden path to its central burial chamber. Nobody knows how or why this monument was built, making this a site of eternal mystery.
St. Michan’s MUMMIES
Most of us associate mummies with Egyptian and not Irish culture, but in the vault under St. Michan’s Church in Dublin are the mummified remains of people who were buried there up to eight hundred years ago. This Church of Ireland church was built in 1686, but is on the site of a church built in 1095 to serve the Vikings of Ireland, who were ostracized at that time. The conditions in the vault mummified the remains of the buried people and their coffins subsequently deteriorated, revealing them to the world. Today, you can descend to the vault to see the mummies, which are said to include a nun, a thief and a six-and-a-half-foot tall medieval crusader.
More ancient monuments lie on the Coolera Peninsula in the northwestern county of Sligo. It is here that you will find Carrowmore, one of the largest and oldest groups of megalithic tombs in Ireland, built around the 4th century BC. The site has more than thirty stone tombs, many of which are still visible and most of which are passage tombs and boulder circles. The surrounding area is considered a site of ancient ritual and is home to many other historical structures, including forts and standing stones. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find as you explore this spectacular landscape!
In the Northern Ireland county of Fermanagh lies Boa Island, the largest island on Lough Erne, which is connected by road to the mainland. The island’s most notable monuments are two anthropomorphic carved stone statues, situated in its graveyard. The larger of these figures, called the Boa Island figure, is one of the most notable and enigmatic stone figures in Ireland. It is called a Janus figure, after the two-headed Roman deity, because it has two faces, but it is believed to represent a Celtic god. The other figure, the Lustymore Island figure, was discovered in a graveyard on the nearby island of Lustymore and moved to Boa Island in 1939.
The Giant’s Causeway
Legend says that an ancient Irish giant called Fionn mac Cumhaill built stepping stones off the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland to fight a Scottish giant called Benandonner, who was coming to meet him from the other side of the Irish Sea. Today, you can see those stones, which are actually about forty thousand giant black columns that were formed by an ancient volcanic eruption and that lead from the base of a cliff and disappear under the sea. The Giant’s Causeway is often considered one of the natural wonders of the world. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Ireland, attracting almost a million visitors a year.