The small yet by no means the insignificant island of Ireland is awash with historical and heritage sites, as well as incredible prodigies of nature. It’s true to say that Ireland’s national identity is probably formed in a large part by its natural heritage. The extraordinary innate wonders of the country include such places as the Giant’s Causeway, the Skellig Islands (more on those below), the stunning Wicklow Mountains, Dingle Peninsula, and the awesome Cliffs of Moher. In addition to these native beauties, the Irish landscape is sprinkled with a variety of heritage sites – ranging from the largest Stone Age monument in the world (included in this review, of course!) to forts, medieval castles, stone circles, and crannogs.
Ireland, of course, has much to offer any visitor, with its rolling green hills, wonderful bars and restaurants, and not to mention that infamous Irish hospitality. If, however, you have more than a passing interest in history and heritage, then Ireland is the destination for you. The main historic attractions can be seen in a two-week trip or less, allowing time to enjoy the “craic” on the way around, naturally! Here we look at just six of the many heritage sites to be found in Ireland.
We have to begin with the two World Heritage Sites – the first one being Skellig Michael in County Kerry, on the scenic south-west coast. A World Heritage Site means that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has recognized it as being a place of “special cultural or physical significance.” Skellig Michael is certainly that, and much more! These days, it’s now, of course, synonymous with Star Wars, as it was one of the locations for the recent films. Aside from the Star Wars link though, Skellig Michael, together with its smaller sister, Little Skellig, is steeped in history dating back to the 6th century, when a group of Christian monks founded a monastery there. Remains of the monastery can still be found on the island, which is also home to many breeding seabirds. It’s a hugely popular attraction these days, and only accessible via boat from the mainland. Not for the faint-hearted, though; there are 618 pretty old and uneven steps to negotiate before you reach the awe-inspiring summit! But it’s absolutely worth every step.
Traveling up to the north-west of the country, we find the second UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is believed to be the largest Stone Age monument in the world. It’s the Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb in Moy Valley, County Meath. Incredibly, it’s thought to have been constructed in the year 3200 B.C., which certainly makes it older than the famous Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. The Irish name for it is Brú na Bóinne. The site consists of an impressively large circular mound with inner chambers and a stone passageway. Many of the larger stones are covered in decorative megalithic art and the whole mound is surrounded by a stone circle. It’s believed that the construction had some religious significance as, in keeping with many similar sites in Ireland, the entrance aligns with the rising sun on the winter solstice. No doubt one of Ireland’s – and indeed Europe’s – most important and significant megalithic structures, the site also has links to Ireland’s mythology and folklore. A fascinating place not to be missed!
Further south and to the east, you’ll find the beguiling Glendalough Monastic Settlement in County Wicklow, where the local mountains have been described as “God’s own country.” The settlement is an early ecclesiastical Christian one, founded in the 6th century. The monastic remains include an iconic round tower, stone churches, and decorated crosses. The setting is simply awesome: a stunning glacier valley featuring two beautiful lakes. There are many different walks available throughout the area, as well as an extremely informative visitor center. Follow in the footsteps of former First Lady, Michelle Obama, who paid a visit here with her daughters!
Up the country a little bit again, to the capital – Dublin. There are so many sites to choose from here, including Dublin Castle and the Garden of Remembrance, but we’re going to focus on just two – firstly Kilmainham Gaol. Of huge political importance to Ireland, Kilmainham Gaol is currently one of the largest unoccupied gaols in Europe. It opened in 1796 and closed its doors for the last time in 1924. Leaders of rebellions fighting for Irish independence were locked up here and, in some cases, executed here. It’s therefore symbolic of Ireland’s fight for nationalism. Prisoners were held here from the earliest rebellion of 1798, up to the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921). The famous Easter Rising of 1916, which saw a deadly battle on the streets of Dublin between Irish rebels and the British military, resulted in most of the rebel leaders were imprisoned and subsequently shot at Kilmainham Gaol. The fight and the British reaction to it led to a national increase in the support for Irish independence.
Still, on the subject of war, let’s take a look at the fabulous War Memorial Gardens in Dublin. They are dedicated to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died during the First World War (1914–1918). The name of each and every soldier is included in the wonderfully illustrated manuscripts, displayed in the granite book rooms in the gardens. These beautiful gardens are not just of historic interest, though; they are also of great architectural importance as they were designed by the famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. An enjoyable experience any time of the year.
Finally, back over to the west coast, and the wonderful County of Galway. Athenry is a heritage town and home to Athenry Castle, which dates back to 1250. The exterior of the doorway to the hall and the inside of two of the window openings contain notable carvings, which are deemed to convey the importance of this particular room. The battlements are the authentic 13th-century work and parts of the castle’s original enclosure walls still survive to this day. The castle is located in the center of this historic town, which is well worth a visit.