Top 10 ancient sites in Ireland

St Kevin’s church in Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock
St Kevin’s church in Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock


Located as it is on the western extremity of Europe, Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. As a result, many ancient remains have been preserved, giving the island an unusually rich archaeological inheritance. Exploring the Neolithic, Celtic and early Christian sites that are dotted around Ireland and learning about their mythology is a fascinating experience. To help you take it all in, here is our pick of Ireland’s top 10 ancient sites.


1. Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara in County Meath, feted in songs and poems, is an impressive limestone ridge affording views across the central plain of Ireland to distant mountain ranges. A Stone Age burial site, once the magnificent headquarters of the Celtic kings, it is unexcavated, with only the remains of ring forts and a standing stone marking the place that was Ireland’s spiritual and cultural capital for millennia.


2. The Burren

In southwest Ireland, Burren National Park in County Clare abounds with megalithic sites, the biggest being the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a distinctive 'portal dolmen' (burial tomb) with a huge capstone that has been adopted as a symbol of the region. It was built about 5,800 years ago, and when excavated contained human remains that were at least 1,500 years old.

Poulnabrone portal tomb in the Burren at sunrise. Photo: Shutterstock

Poulnabrone Dolmen, Burrren National Park, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock


3. Newgrange

Older than the Egyptian Pyramids, the Neolithic burial grounds at Newgrange are a Unesco World Heritage listed site, pre-dating Stonehenge by around 1,000 years. Consisting of three separate Neolithic burial mounds, two of which are open to the public, this is one of Europe’s most important prehistoric clusters.

Newgrange Megalithic Passage Tomb, County Meath. Photo: Shutterstock Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock


4. Glendalough 

Early monks apparently appreciated good scenery, as they tended to build in the most beautiful spots: wooded glens, lake islands and river bends. The natural beauty of these settings is in turn enhanced by the simple stone monastic buildings still standing. Glendalough in County Wicklow is a good example of this – St Kevin’s hermitage and church was founded in the 6th century in a steep-sided glacial valley between two lakes. The ruins you can see at the site today – a 33 metre (110ft) round tower, stone churches and numerous stone crosses – date from the 11th century.


5. Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael, set 13km (8 miles) off the Kerry coast, is dramatically situated on a barren rocky island and can be visited by boat, weather permitting, between May and August. Dating from around AD 800, the tiny monastery was built under twin peaks on a saddle of rock at the top of 600 stone steps. Six beehive huts, in which the monks lived, and two rectangular oratories, where they prayed, were built of dry stone on a cliff edge around a small garden area. They are surprisingly well preserved, given the exposed Altantic location.

Stone Circle at Drombeg, County Cork. Photo: Shutterstock

Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock


6. Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise, near Athlone in central Ireland, was founded by St Kieran and built on a natural gravel ridge in a bend of the River Shannon. It is the biggest monastic site in Ireland encompassing the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (dating from the 10th–13th centuries), two round towers, three high crosses and numerous graves. There are several Irish Romanesque doorways and arches. Today, it is way off the beaten track, but in AD 545 the Shannon was an important waterway. 


7. Carrowmore

In the northwest of Ireland at Carrowmore, near Sligo town, the 6,000-year-old Bronze Age graves of Ireland’s largest megalithic graveyard are scattered across the fields. From here, you can see the Knocknarea hill burial site, which stands 328 metres (1,078ft) above sea level. A signposted path leads to its enormous Neolithic tomb (70 by 11 metres/200 by 35ft), which is said to be the burial place of Queen Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connacht in Celtic mythology. The ascent is steep but worth the climb: the magnificent view only clarifies why the Celts associated this part of Ireland with myth and magic.

  

8. Drombeg Stone Circle

Stone circles are a feature of west Cork and Kerry, usually with a burial site at their centre, and often with two upright pillars (the portal) opposite a recumbent altar stone. They are oriented to the setting sun at the winter solstice, and those that have been excavated have a ritual burial site at their centre. Drombeg Stone Circle, set on a plateau with views of the distant sea, has 14 stones and is the biggest and most complete of the early Bronze Age remains. The burial at its centre was carbon-dated to 1124–794 BC. 

Stone Circle at Drombeg, County Cork. Photo: Shutterstock Drombeg Stone Circle, County Cork, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock


9. Ardmore Cathedral and Round Tower

Ardmore Cathedral and Round Tower, in County Waterford, stand on a cliff-top site on a narrow promontory with extensive sea views – a stunning location for these 12th-century cathedral ruins. Its sturdy Hiberno-Romanesque arches contrast with the slender, conical-roofed round tower. Nearby St Declan’s Oratory and Well date from the 9th century, and are still visited by pilgrims annually on 24 July, St Declan's feast day.

Irish horses by an ancient round tower in the beautiful Ardmore. Photo: Shutterstock Round Tower at Ardmore, County Waterford, Ireland. Photo: Shutterstock 


10. Innisfallen 

In the southwest, Innisfallen Island on Lough Leane in Killarney National Park can be reached by rowing boat from Ross Castle. The abbey ruins on the wooded island date from the 7th century. The last High King of Ireland, Brian Ború, is said to have been educated by the monks here.


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Updated 8 February, 2019