my top 5 ancient irish sites
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
When I moved to Ireland to satisfy my Irish husband’s longing for home, I never thought I would fall in love with a country so completely.
So here is a Top 5 of some of the sites I love. If you live here but haven’t yet been, I urge you to do so. If you live elsewhere, but think you might like to come to Ireland to see for yourself, you can be sure of a great Irish welcome.
The top tourist destination in Ireland, Newgrange has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and attracts 200,000 visitors per year. This Passage Tomb was built about 3200 BC. The mound covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, most of them richly decorated with megalithic art.
The inner passage is 19 m long, and leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. At the winter solstice sunrise, a shaft of sunlight enters through the roof box above the entrance, shines along the passage way, and lights up the chamber. It’s an experience not to be missed.
WHY I LOVE IT
The tour takes you right inside the mound, where you are surrounded by all the megalithic artwork. You can touch them, trace the carvings which were created thousands of years ago by ancient craftsmen. Then they turn all the lights out, and recreate the winter solstice lighting up experience. It’s electrifying!
This is what the builders laboured to create, we don’t know why for sure, but it’s a privilege to be able to share it now, all these years later. I don’t know many places which allow you such up close and personal interactive experiences of such an ancient and valuable treasure. In addition, the visitor centre is an amazing in itself, with great facilities, informative displays and friendly, helpful staff.
Knowth (sounds like mouth) is a sister site of Newgrange, and you can join a tour from the same visitor centre. The central mound was built over 5000 years ago, and is similar in size to Newgrange. It is surrounded by 18 smaller satellite mounds. The central mound has two passages with entrances on opposite sides. The western passage is 34 metres long and the eastern passage is 40 metre long, ending with a cruciform chamber.
WHY I LOVE IT
Knowth has a great sense of serenity. Unfortunately, the entrances are sealed, so unlike at Newgrange, you can’t go inside this mound, but here you will find great megalithic rock art; nearly half of all of Ireland’s engraved megalithic stones can be found in just this one site. That amounts to 30% of Western Europe’s ancient rock art. There is a path which leads you to the top of the mound, from where you can admire the view of the surrounding countryside, with many other sites of megalithic significance within sight line.
The Hill of Uisneach stands 183 metres tall, and is located between the villages of Ballymore and Loughanavally in County Westmeath. In ancient times, it was regarded as the centre point of Ireland, symbolised by the presence of a great stone called the Ail na Mirean, or Stone of Divisions.
This stone was said to be where the borders of Ireland’s five provinces, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster and Mide met. Nowadays, there are only four provinces, Mide becoming the Counties Meath and Westmeath.
Uisneach was a site of great significance. It was considered the sister site of Tara, in fact, remains of an ancient road have been discovered which actually connect the two locations. Whilst Tara was associated with Kingship rituals, Uisneach is believed to have been a place of Druid worship and ceremony. Evidence of huge fires have been uncovered here, believed to have been lit in celebration of the festival of Beltaine.
WHY I LOVE IT
When you arrive at the Hill of Uisneach, access is sealed off by a large fence and gate, with a sign giving the land owner’s mobile number. This is his private property, but he will come and let you in, free of charge.
NB: The site now has its own visitor centre, from which tours regularly depart.
The monuments are surrounded by electric fences to keep the cattle off them, so you must be careful. There is a surreal blend of old and new here; the evidence of ancient civilisation and ritual in the archaeological remains, juxtaposed with the more modern monuments created for the recently revived Beltaine Festival of the Fires. I love the sense of space and freedom, and kids will love it, too.
NB. Since this post was originally written, the festival of fires has stopped, and a small visitor centre has been opened.
4. THE HILL OF TARA
Another very popular tourist attraction, known as Teamhair na Ri in Irish. It is located on the River Boyne near Navan in County Meath, and believed to be a sacred site associated with ancient kingship rituals.
The most prominent earthworks on the site are two linked enclosures known as Cormac’s House, and the Forradh, or Royal Seat. The famous standing stone, the Lia Fail, is located in the centre of the Forradh (the left hand enclosure). Tara also features a small Neolithic passage tomb called Dumha na nGial, or the Mound of Hostages, which was constructed around 3,400 BC.
Originally, the Lia Fail would have stood before the Mound of Hostages, however, it was moved to its current site in 1798 to commemorate the 400 rebels who died in the Battle of Tara during the Irish revolution.
In mythology, the Lia Fail was said to roar out in joy at recognition of the touch of the rightful High King, or Ard Ri, of Ireland. In order for this to happen, the King was required to stand upon it. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the stone would have laid upon its side in order to facilitate this.
The Lia Fail was destroyed by Cuchullain when it failed to proclaim his protegé, Lugaid Riab nDerg, as High King. In a fit of anger he struck it with his sword and so broke it in two.
The Lia Fail is reputed to have left Ireland in AD500, when the then High King of Ireland, Murtagh Mac Erc, loaned it to his brother Fergus for his coronation as ruler of Dalriada in Scotland. In 1296, it was taken by Edward 1st of England to Westminster Abbey, and fitted into the wooden chair upon which all subsequent English monarchs have been crowned. Some say, however, that the monks of Scone Palace hid the real stone in the River Tay, or beneath Dunsinane Hill, and that it lies there still.
WHY I LOVE IT
Tara is so wonderful simply because it is so undeveloped. You can join a tour of the site if you wish, but you can get just as much pleasure from wandering freely, and finding a pleasant spot to picnic with the kids. Even when busy, the site feels tranquil. Children will love the freedom they have to run up and down the embankments and ditches, and the surreal experience of the Fairy Tree. There is a tiny visitor centre located in a nearby church, and also some gift shops and a tea shop nearby.
Loughcrew is only 20 minutes drive from my house, and I go there often. Loughcrew is one of four main passage tomb sites in Ireland, and is thought to date from about 3300 BC. It is spread over three locations; the twin hilltops of Carnbane East and Carnbane West, and a cairn at Patrickstown.
The Irish name for the site is Sliabh na Caillí, which means ‘mountain of the hag/witch/nun’. Legend claims the monuments were created when a giant hag, striding across the land, dropped her cargo of large stones from her apron. There are about 25 mounds in the Loughcrew complex, but most are in a state of disrepair.
WHY I LOVE IT
Like most of Ireland’s monuments, Loughcrew is located on private land, so keep your dog on a lead, as the hill is dotted with sheep. Outside of the tourist season, you can collect the key for the mound from the tea shop at the nearby Loughcrew Gardens, itself well worth a visit… yes, I know, only in Ireland! During the summer months, there is often an OPW guide waiting at the top, who will give you a free guided tour.
I was amazed on my first visit inside the mound; the artwork is so clear and sharp, seemingly untouched by the passage of time, as vivid and sharp as the day they were cut. If there are not too many people about (and usually there aren’t), the guide will lend you her torch, and let you stay inside the mound as long as you like, studying the rock art. My boys were fascinated! The cairns of Carnabane West, however, are not accessible to the general public, although they can be viewed from the road.
NB: Since writing this post, the main mound has been closed to the public, which means you can no longer go inside, as it has become unstable. Please show some respect and do not climb all over it. This monument is thousands of years old, and more fragile than it looks.
So, there you have it… my top five. If you ever visit any of them, give me a shout… I might just join you!