Ireland is spilling over with ancient ruins, from the Neolithic through the Middle Ages to Georgian mansion and 20th century cottages. There are a lot of abbeys and friaries and priories in Ireland, and the majority of them are a lot like this one – in ruins. This we can blame on the terrible Englishman Oliver Cromwell whose horrid armies swept through Ireland in 1649 in order to “put those troublesome Irish back in their place” (I mean, how dare they ask for the right to rule themselves, speak their own language, or practice their own cultural traditions). He stomped through Ireland, burning and pillaging as he went. Even upon returning home, he left his son-in-law to continue his awful work. Ballindoon Abbey (also called Ballindoon Priory) is just one of many Irish abbeys to suffer at the fate of the disillusion of the abbeys. This gorgeous place rests quietly on the shores of Lough Arrow in Co Sligo. Built in the 14th century in the Gothic style, Ballindoon Abbey is small compared to some, but it is well preserved. It is has still been used in recent times as a gravesite. The tower overlooks the rest of the church, though there are stairs on the exterior, they are no longer usable. Ruined as it is, Ballindoon is a quiet place. Sitting on the pensive shores of a little-visited lake in a remote corner of Ireland, Ballindoon is picturersque, lonely and hauntingly beautiful. It is a testament to a long standing tradition and Ireland’s complicated relationship with both religion and England. Bring a camera, book and thermos of tea, and curl up here to escape from the world (likely met by the farmer’s cheerful black labrador pup!)
Pro tip: You’ll need a car, but Ballindoon Abbey is part of a supurb day trip from Sligo. Head over to Carrokeel tombs (5,000 years old!) for a 5km return hike to the tombs, then over to Lough Arrow to visit Ballindoon Abbey and up the hill behind Cromleach Lodge to visit Labby Rock. Hungry? On weekends, bounce over to Ballinafad Café (right next to the castle!) for a cosy community cafe for a cuppa and homemade treats, run 100% by volunteers in the community.
“6,000 years of human life.” Stop and think about that for a second, and try to imagine that. 6,000 years. That’s older than the Pyramids of Giza. That’s long before the Romans – the Romans are practically modern compared to that! Same goes for the Greeks. The Middle Ages were practically last week compared to that! The Renaissance? The Reformation? Victorian times? The world wars. Yesterday. 6,000 years ago, Lough Gur was a-bustle with human life. Evidence of everything from the Neolithic era through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Early Christian, Medieval, Early Modern and Modern eras has been found around Lough Gur. It is an area awash in mythology, and dotted with archeology – from ancient Neolithic times through to much more recent eras. For instance, the fortified towerhouse Bourchier’s Castle (closed to visits), is decidedly medieval, built by the now-extinct Earls of Bath. There are ringforts in the area, Neolithic tombs and even Ireland’s largest stone circle. Amazingly, Lough Gur is also home to one of the most amazing finds – a complete Bronze Age Yetholm-type shield. The county and city of Limerick, neither of which are likely on most people’s ‘must-visit’ list, has been making great strides to reinvigorate its streets and slightly-unsavoury reputation, and the county has plenty to offer – including the wonders of Lough Gur.
Pro tip: Visit the website for opening times. There is a copy of the sheild at the Lough Gur Heritage Centre (which is small, and includes a small fee); the original is on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin (free entry). This museum is well worth visiting even beyond the shield!
Would you believe this “temple” actually dates to only the 18th century and is located in Northern Ireland? Strangely enough, that’s the truth. One would call it a folly (i.e. a fake building built to look like something much older). Mussenden Temple was built by Lord Bristol in 1785. The estate was originally that of Frederick, the 4th Earl of Bristol (yes, Bristol, England…he’s far from home! Sadly this happened often – English “heroes” were given stolen Irish land), who was the Church of Ireland (e.g. Protestant) Bishop of Derry for 35 years in the late 1700s. Lord Bristol modelled his temple on the Roman Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, though despite appearances, Mussenden Temple’s original purpose was a library. Located on the estate of Downhill Demense (now a sprawling ruin), the temple is precariously perched atop a cliff overlooking the lovely Downhill Strand. Though the temple itself did not appear in the infamous TV show Game of Thrones, the site was used as a backdrop for some scenes – in particular, Downhill Strand’s beach was one such site used. Nothing is left of the house but a shell, and though the temple fares slightly better, it is no longer a library. Coastal erosion is bringing the temple ever closer to the edge and though solutions are being looked at to keep the temple from tumbling down to the sea, you may want to visit sooner rather than later…
Pro tip: You can actually get married at this temple…imagine that! Also note that dog lovers can bring their pups with them when visiting Downhill Demense and Mussendun Temple. There are also lovely gardens on far side of the estate. Nearby, don’t miss the world-famous Giant’s Causeway or Bushmill’s Distillery, Ireland’s oldest.
The wee town of Ballina, first established in the Middle Ages, is not the sort of place that makes it on most Ireland tourists maps, largely due to its little-visited location in northwestern Ireland. Lively and colourful, Ballina portrays everything you’d expect out of a traditional Irish town: bustling downtown, cheery pubs, colourful facades and plenty of churches. Located in Co Mayo, a rural region north of Galway, few people have heard of this region and even fewer visit. And it’s true that eastern Mayo isn’t terribly exciting – but the western and coastal parts of Mayo are some of Ireland’s most beautiful landscapes! From the ancient abbeys of Rosserk Friary and Rathfran Abbey to the wild cliffs and sea stack at Downpatrick Head, the ancient archeology of the Ciede Fields or the utter wilderness of Ballycroy, the Nephin Beg mountains and Banger Erris, this forgotten corner of Mayo packs a bundle. And the market town of Ballina makes for a perfect jumping-off point!
Pro tip: Though its location isn’t as dramatic as some other sites, check out the Neolithic monument (4,000 years old!), the Dolman of the Four Maols, just down from the train station. You can get to Ballina either by rail or bus, but to visit the wilds of Mayo, you’ll really need a car.
Though perhaps less world-famous than America’s New England, Ireland in autumn is a spectacular place. The region of Galway is usually known for two places: the lively Galway City and the desolate mountains of Connemara in northwest Co Galway. Inland however, Galway holds other wonders, such as rural hills, crumbling ruins, tiny villages, and beautiful forests such as here at Loughrea. Loughrea in Co Galway is not an area well-known to tourists as it is inland and away from the ocean. Instead, it sits on the shores of a lake, with vestiges of its medieval history nearby (town walls, priories, and a gate). Founded by Richard de Burgo, an Anglo-Norman knight in 1236, the town grew based on its important location along the Shannon River. Despite its Norman origins, the family later adopted Gaelic names and traditions, and Loughrea, along with much of Connemara, was part of the Gaelic Revival in the late 1800s (which included the Irish language as well as Gaelic sports, architecture, music and other traditions), though its garrison status meant that it did not take part in the 1916 rebellion. This cabin near the small town of Loughrea is particularly idyllic, nestled into the brilliant golden leaves. In autumn these forests glow in a shimmering quilt of yellow, orange and red, making for some beautiful panoramas and lovely photos. Autumn in Ireland is a great time of year to get outdoors as there are few tourists and oftentimes a fair amount of clear days as long as you don’t mind a bit of chilly weather! At the end of the day, curl up by a turf fire in a traditional pub with a pint of Guinness while listening to trad music and you have the perfect day.
Pro tip: Check out Irishtrails.ie for more info on hiking trails in Ireland and where to find the trailheads.
Knocknarea is a very special place. Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Ireland on a little peninsula in County Sligo, Knocknarea is renowned for its history and legends. Though only 300 metres high, climbing to the top of this hill is a sacred act. Crowning this hill is a huge cairn from Neolithic times – over 5,000 years old! Sligo is riddled with ruins from the Neolithic era – at Knocknarea’s foot are the Carrowmore tombs (home to some 50 monuments!), and further inland, find the even more impressive Carrowkeel tombs – 20 monuments of which three are opened. There are other sites of course – Deerpark, Creevykeel, Knockvranny, Knocknashee, and so many more – and these are all in wee County Sligo! You could spend a lifetime trying to visit all of Ireland’s Neolithic sites… But yes, back to Knocknarea. Other than the huge cairn, there are a few satellite tombs, and the ruins of an ancient village (as well as a famine age abandoned village – both just a few houses). After Ireland was Christianised, many early Christians hung on to their beliefs, and the religious leaders had to find a way to compromise – such as Yule becoming Christmas, the Pagan goddess Brigid becoming a saint, and the fertility goddess Sheela na Gig giving Mary a higher status than in most contemporary – and patriarchal – Christian societies. And then there was the problem of understanding those societies who came before these early Christians (who were they, and why did they build these things!? Questions still unanswered today…). Knocknarea was therefore explained away using folklore. The cairn was attributed to the legendary (and semi-mythical) saviour and warrior queen of Connaght, buried upright in her great tomb under the cairn, facing her enemies from the North. Though this story is unlikely to be true, it’s clear that someone (well, many someones) are buried here, making this an ancient graveyard of sorts. It is one of Sligo’s iconic spots and can be seen from almost anywhere around Sligo town. Knocknarea is seen here from the far side reflected in the low tide sands of Cullenamore strand, a quieter alternative to busy Strandhill Beach – and also better for a long walk on the beach!
Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring a stone from the bottom of the hill up to the cairn for Queen Maeve! If you have a car, climb from the Queen Maeve Car Park. No car? Take the Strandhill bus and stop at the Centra – there is a path up this side starting here. A new path connects both sides with the Strandhill beach, famed for its surf. We recommend lunch/brunch at Shells, ice cream at Mammie Johnson’s and/or pizza and a pint at The Strand pub.
Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Coumshingaun Lake of Comeragh Mountains, Co Waterford, Ireland
Ireland is a wealth of natural wonders – and the beautiful Comeragh Mountains located in southeast Ireland are one such wonder! Generally visited only by other Irish, and then again, largely by those already living in the southeast (such as residents of Kilkenny, Cork, Waterford or Wexford), the Comeragh Mountains aren’t on most Irish tourism itineraries, even for hiking enthusiasts who make a beeline for the west coast. Within the already-magnificent Comeragh Mountains, Coumshingaun Lough (or lake) is of particular note. Though small enough, Coumshingaun is a corrie lake – a small, round lake carved deep into the mountainside, left behind by the massive glaciers that once covered Ireland during the Ice Age. Surrounded by 400 meter (1,300ft) cliffs that drop dramatically down into the glistening corrie lake far below, the whole setting is utterly stunning. Even more so when you consider your hike – a narrow, rocky trail that encircles the cliff edge all around the horseshoe-shaped canyon. Not for the faint hearted, expect to use both hands and feet as you hike up steep and mucky terrain, scrambling over rocks and boulders and trekking through wet boggy ground. Though not an easy hike, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views over Coumshingaun Lake, the Comeragh Mountains and emerald hills stretching out to the horizon.
Pro tip: Not a great walk for children (unless quite fit and agile) or those who suffer from vertigo. Dogs are allowed on the land, but unless your dog is good at climbing, we recommend leaving them at home (though dogs who are used to scrambling up rocks and boulders will do just fine). No toilets, and only limited parking/picnicking space. Combine with a visit to the nearby Lismore Castle Gardens. Start point is at the Kilclooney Wood Car Park(parking is free). The hike is about 7.5km, longer (about 8.5 km) if you also walk to the lake’s edge.
Cliff Baths ruins of Enniscrone in Co Sligo, Ireland
The west coast of Ireland is a magical place. Timeless and unspoilt, the west coast has managed to keep an aura of otherworldliness. Full of historical and natural wonders, County Sligo is a little-travelled place of fantastic hiking, breathtaking coasts, ancient Neolithic monuments and crumbling abbeys. Enniscrone is a little seaside village where waves crash against rocky headlands and wind sweeps over sand dunes, paired with 5km of beach strand perfect for bathing – if you’re willing to risk Atlantic temperatures! Rising out of the edge of the sea on the foot of Enniscrone are the ruins of the Victorian era Enniscrone Cliff Baths, a strange sort of castellated little building. The Cliff Baths were built in 1850 by a wealthy local family, the Ormes, who owned large tracts of land in Sligo and Mayo. The Ormes, wanting to turn Enniscrone into a fashionable beach resort town, built the lodge and the baths to attract the fashionable crowd. They even built a man-made tidal pool in front of the Cliff Baths in order to ensure that all baths would be supplied with fresh seawater no matter the tides (today its a popular spot with local kids). Little remains of this once-luxurious resort bath, and it has been allowed to fall into disrepair, helped along by the the crash of the tide, the gusts over the Atlantic, and the salty seawater in the air. Today it is simply an idyllic place to take dramatic photography!
Pro tip: Book a seaweed bath at the more modern bathhouse, Killcullen Seaweed Baths, or head north along the coasts to Voya Baths in Strandhill.
Everyone knows of Belfast, and most have heard of Derry, but the border town of Enniskillen slips under most people’s radar. Smaller than the other two, and further south on the border with the Republic of Ireland, Enniskillen is a fascinating little place. As with most cities in Northern Ireland, it was bombed during the Troubles – in Enniskillen’s case, it happened on Remembrance Day (November 8th, 1987), and several civilians died. But that’s all in the past now. Today, Enniskillen is a thriving town, a bustling cosmopolitan centre in an otherwise rural region of Ireland, and a perfect stop for road trips from Belfast to the west coast of Sligo or Connemara and Galway. In Irish, Enniskillen means island of Cethlenn, a mythological Irish goddess, and in fact it is still known as “The Island Town.” At the centre of Enniskillen, its oldest structure is Enniskillen Castle, built in the 16th century on the foundations of a much older fortification (dating back to 1428), which came under siege several times during the Irish rebellions against British rule (including falling to Irish rule from 1595-1602). Later, Enniskillen Castle was built up with barracks for soldiers, giving the castle the look more of a military fort. Today, the castle site hold a collection of museums on the history of Enniskillen and County Fermanagh in general, as well as the military history of the castle. Though not the most medieval castle, the border town of Enniskillen and its castle is a fascinating look at the history of the Irish border from the 1500s through the Irish Rebellion, the Revolution, the Troubles, all the way through to today and whatever Brexit holds for the future.
Pro tip: There’s a great pizzeria in Enniskillen called Little Wing Pizza – close to the castle with reasonable prices and a varied menu. Learn more about the castle visit (hours & tarifs) here. If you arrive 1 hour before closing, you’ll get a reduced price ticket. Nearby, visit a number of other castles. Explore the islands of Lough Erne – take a boat to Devenish Island, just north of Enniskillen, or White Island, further north. Both contain the ancient ruins well worth visiting.
Moygara Castle is a brilliant ruined castle tucked deep away in exactly the middle of nowhere. Northwest Ireland‘s rural and overlooked County Sligo is already a little-visited region – and Moygara Castle is in perhaps Sligo’s least-known corner. Named for the once-powerful O’Gara family – who ruled Lough Gara and nearby relands since the 1200s – they needed a castle to show off their status, and act as defence during troubled times. Three castles were erected, though Moygara Castle is by far the best example and the only properly surviving structure. Starting out as a typical Irish tower house (a large, rectangular structure built by landowning chieftains found throughout Ireland), Moygara Castle later expanded to include 4 towers connected by high stone walls, a gatehouse (now in ruins) and a massive courtyard. The side gate is still intact, but its precarious keystone has caused this entrance to be closed off. Instead, visitors should walk all the way around the castle, where a hole chuck of the wall is missing, which acts as the castle’s main entrance now. Attacked in 1538 by the famous chieftain O’Donnell and later by some mercenary Scots in 1581, the castle has fallen into ruin. Much overgrown by trees and vines, Moygara Castle is slowly being reclaimed by the hills surrounding Lough Gara, a place that has been inhabited for thousands of years (it has one of the highest concentrations of crannogs – manmade islands built for defensive purposes but also lived on). Today, Moygara Castle sits in a field inhabited by cows and sheep, on a tiny country lane, far from a main road or village. Few people know it’s there, and still fewer visit it. Chances are, you’ll have this magical piece of history to yourself!
Pro tip: Moygara Castle is located on a working farm, so be careful and respectful. Don’t bring your dogs, and be sure to close any gates you open. It is also quite mucky, so wear good boots! Hungry? In nearby Boyle, check out its many cafes. For meals made of farm fresh produce, meat and dairy, head to Drumanilra Restaurant.
Other Places in Northwest Ireland’s counties Sligo & Roscommon
Tucked into a shady backroad a stone’s throw from St Patrick’s Cathedral in downtown Dublin is the exquisite Marsh’s Library. This isn’t just any library. In fact, Marsh’s Library looks exactly the same as it did when infamous horror author Bram Stoker (writer of Dracula) was a scholar there, checking out books about history and Transylvania! Founded in the early 1700s by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, Marsh’s Library has been a renowned place of study since opening day. A gentle odour of ageing leather and ancient oak meets you as you walk through the neoclassical doorway and up the stairs of this beautiful, hidden library. Magnificent oak-panelled shelves rise up, larger leather-bound tomes on the bottom, smaller volumes up top. At the back of the library, there are still reading cages liming the walls – and 18th century solution to avoid books going missing (because of course you weren’t permitted to check a book off the premises in those days!). Today, only scholars can look through the books (though in a modern reading room, not the cages!), but there’s always an exhibition in Marsh’s Library, changed every few months. At the time of writing this, the exhibition is on Bram Stoker and the books he consulted while studying at Trinity University, though past exhibitions have been on stolen books, rare books or other scholars and writers who’ve consulted or featured in the thousands of books on the shelves of this library.
Pro tip: Check their website to see what exhibition is on at the time of your visit. While in Dublin, enjoy a stroll in Stephen’s Green or Merrion Park, visit any of the free national museums or have a walk through the infamous Temple Bar district.
Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Being an island, Ireland is naturally full of beaches… It’s just that no one thinks about Ireland as a “beach destination” (or even a “destination with beaches”) because of its lack of palm trees and piña coladas! Ventry Beach is probably one of the Dingle Peninsula’s most well-known beaches (after Inch Beach & Slea Head), most likely because of its proximity to the much-loved artist’s haven of Dingle town. The Dingle Peninsula in general is one of the most beloved tourist spots because it’s in Kerry. That said, it still has quieter spots! The Dingle Way is a way-marked trail that circles the peninsula. While parts of it are on roads, other sections are on farmer’s tracks and even beaches – such as Ventry Beach. Ventry Beach also happens to be the start to the Saints’ Road, a pilgrimage trail that travels to Mt Brandon, one of Ireland’s holy mountains. (It is said that Mt Brandon is where St Brendon fasted and saw a vision of the Promised Land, inspiring his 7 year Voyage of St Brandon the Navigator). Whatever the reason – Dingle Way hike, pilgrimage walk or a simple stroll on the beach and a splash in the waves when it’s warm enough – Ventry Beach is a lovely place to simply relax and enjoy being outdoors.
Pro tip: Hike this section of the Dingle Way (from Ventry to Slea Head) where you’ll pass dozens of ancient clohans or beehive huts. Not far away, visit Louis Mulcahy’s pottery studio to try your hand at pottery or just browse. Even try a seaweed bath – said to be great for the skin!
When one envisions the Irish countryside, often quaint stone cottages with thatched roofs, with a garden of dancing flowers on backdrop of rolling emerald hills comes to mind. A lot has changed since this type of Ireland was the norm. Ireland (which was a 3rd world country until about a generation and a half ago) has modernised, become part of the EU and joined the 21st century. And yet, when you are wandering in the countryside – particularly in the rural parts of the west coast, in places like Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and other similarly rural and agricultural counties, you will still find pockets of this old world Ireland, such as this wee little cottage outside the village of Dromahair that maintains traditional thatched roofs and stone structure (though it’s a vivid shade of blue!). The best way to uncover the real Ireland is by pulling on a pair of hiking boots and set of traipsing through the woods, as Ireland’s outdoors has so much more to offer than Ireland’s towns or cities. This particular cottage is along the final stage of the little-known Sligo Way, a nature and cultural track that winds its way through some of Northwest Ireland’s most scenic destinations. Not only is hiking in Ireland – especially in the remote and undiscovered northwest – a good way to explore the island, but it’s also a great escape from our busy, fast-paced, screen-driven lives of modern society. Instead, kick back, relax and enjoy a slower – albeit muckier – way of life in the remote corners of Ireland!
Pro tip: The Sligo Way is 78 km long, but the final 10km are by far the best. Nearly all off-road, the landscape and backdrop varies from lush woodland, tranquil lake shore, to mountain path, farm track and boggy ground. It passes the famed Isle of Inisfree, the ruins of Creevylea Abbey, a donkey farm and lovely cottages like this one, before ending in the charming village of Dromahair.
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland – The Gateway to Hell
Below the wet, emerald fields of Co Roscommon, an overlooked county in the Irish Midlands, is the narrow fissure that jets through the earth for some 37 meters… of which local lore calls this cave the Gateway to Hell (or the Gateway to the Otherworld). Oweynagat Cave is an ancient place. Though the cave itself is of natural occurrence, the entrance to it is what they call a souterrain (literally, ‘underground’) – a neolithic monument with an underground element. Oweynagat’s entrance is man-made, using boulders as well as lintels – basically structural horizontal blocks spanning the opening – inscribed with Ogham writing (the earliest form of writing found in Ireland). While this is rare enough in Ireland, in Co Roscommon, only 6 Ogham exemplars have been found. The cave’s small opening, mysterious inscriptions, dark interior, and narrow passages earned it the Gate to Hell. Not easy to find, Oweynagat Cave is located deep in the backcountry of the forgotten Midlands – but it wasn’t always this way. In ancient times, this region held a sacred and royal function. The surrounding area of Rathcroghan, like the Hill of Tara in Ireland’s Ancient East (near Dublin), is full of ancient, man-made mounds where kings were crowned and later buried, and important festivals and rituals were celebrated. Oweynagat Cave is associated with one of these Celtic pagan festivals – that of Samhain (pronounced ‘saw-when’), celebrated the 31st of October, when the borders of our world and that of the otherworld are said to be open. In fact, it is this festival that gave rise to the modern holiday we call Halloween! Like most pagan things, when Christianity came along, it repurposed pagan rites. So what was once the gateway to the otherworld of the fairies now becomes the terrifying Gateway to Christian Hell. Would you be brave enough to crawl inside the dark and narrow passage of Oweynagat Cave… on Halloween!?
Pro tip: The cave is extremely muddy. Be sure to wear good, waterproof boots, rain trousers and waterproof jacket so that you can shed them when you come out. Bring lights and a hard hat if you have one. Nearby, be sure to visit a few of the ancient mounds. Though little is left of them, it is interesting to learn about the ancient peoples who once worshipped there.
Welcome to the ends of Earth – or at least, that’s a bit what Donegal feels like. The Republic of Ireland’s northernmost county also contains the island’s northernmost tip, Malin Head – used as a Star Wars filming location (a stand in for the backdrop of Luke Skywalker’s hideout). Donegal is nicknamed the Forgotten County – and for good reason. It is one of Ireland’s most remote regions, as well as one of its most sparsely populated. It’s cut off culturally and geographically as it is blocked by ocean on one side and the UK (via Northern Ireland) on the other. It was the last region of Ireland to fall to British rule, who then tried to establish and maintain their power in this volatile region by naming the local chieftains “Earls” – a title against which they rebelled and subsequently were defeated and driven away, henceforth known as the Flight of the Earls. Perhaps because of this, Donegal has a high proportion of Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) communities. On Donegal’s rugged northern coastline stands the devilishly named Horn’s Head Peninsula – so named for twin rock formations that resemble horns. Today, it retains its wild side. It is also the Wild Atlantic Way’s northernmost section. Alongside Mayo, Donegal is about as close to true wilderness as Ireland gets! Desolate boglands, sheer cliffs, jagged headlands and vast heathland dotted with hardy mountain sheep, Horn Head is a place that works as a time capsule, transporting the weary wanderer to another place, another era, another world.
Pro tip: Unlike Scotland and Scandinavia, Ireland does not have the same Rights to Roam. When hiking on private land (most of land in Ireland), be sure that the landowner has given permission for hikers to access their land. Usually this is the case if there aren’t any signs put up. Use stiles when available, but if you do need to open any gates, make sure you close them after you (even if you found them open).
On the shores of Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest lake, though far from its most interesting one…), Shane’s Castle is one of the most fascinating castle ruins on the Emerald Isle. Built in 1345 by the O’Neill dynasty (one of the major family clans in Ulster, the northern half of Ireland), the original name was actually Eden-duff-carrick – only becoming the far more catchier “Shane’s Castle” in 1722 when Shane MacBrien O’Neill changed its name to suit him. Today, the castle is famous for its many uses in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series. Though largely ruins, most visitors to Shane’s Castle will miss the most fascinating part (only accessible through certain tours and events): the huge network of tunnels, caves and catacombs twisting underneath the castle’s foundations! Dark and windy, these tunnels featured in several GoT scenes. Not far way, the infamous Battle of Antrim was fought on on 7 June 1798 as an unsuccessful rebellion of Irish peasants against the British Rule (the Republic of Ireland only managed to get independence from Great Britain in 1922 after years of fighting, and obviously Northern Ireland is still a region within the UK). Though this can still be a contentious subject in Ireland (both north & south), a lot has changed in recent years making the whole island a fun and safe destination.
Pro tip: Every year in July, the grounds of Shane’s Castle holds Ireland’s largest Country & Game Fair, including living history and reenactments – well worth the visit! The event includes is a historical component showcasing ways of living in the past, from the Viking age through to modern times, with a reenactment of the Battle of Antrim.
One of the many murals of Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast is known for a lot of things. It’s known for struggles, religious and political unrest, even for terror. But a lot has changed in recent years. Belfast has become a cosmopolitan hub, with an up-and-coming foodie scene that surpasses Dublin and rivals other European capitals. It’s a quirky place where art meets urban life in the best possible ways. For one, there are the Peace Walls. Massive walls that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, Peace Walls were constructed to protect each side from the other but at the end of the day, it is a barrier through the middle of the city dividing the two sides (not unlike the Berlin Wallonce did). Today the wall is still there and the sides are still divided but the wall is now a Peace Wall, full of thousands of messages of hope and courage written by residents and visitors alike, and the two sides have come together much more. But that’s not the only wall in Belfast. The city of Belfast is full of murals. Some are well known, others aren’t. Some are religious or political, some are artistic. Some are massive, others small. The above mural is one of the many one finds in the city centre, ‘neutral’ territory where both Protestants (aka unionists) and Catholics (aka republicans) rub shoulders. Belfast is still a divided city, and though on the island of Ireland, it resembles England far more than Ireland (in regards to architecture, way of life, fashions, shop brands…). Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – it is a fascinating place to visit. Particularly the murals!
Pro tip: To truly appreciate Belfast, its history and its murals, take one of the famous Black Cab tours – Paddy Campbell’sis the original and the best!
Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)
Boyle Abbey in the Irish midlands, was Connacht’s (one of four traditional regions of Ireland) first Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1142 (though not consecrated until 1218), Boyle Abbey was built alongside the skeletal shell of an abandoned Celtic monastery. Cistercians, also called Bernardines or sometimes White Monks (for their garments), are a Catholic order of monks and nuns from Cîteaux, France (near Dijon) that were a highly influential religious sect under the renowned influenced of famed Bernard de Clairvaux. Widespread across Europe, the Cistercians founded hundreds of monasteries, abbeys and daughter houses. Though the Cistercians seemingly found it difficult to settle down in Ireland, they finally found their home in Boyle, growing quite successful at founding many daughter abbeys and monasteries throughout the region. Unfortunately, much of the beautiful cloisters and other fine architectural details are lost today. In 1645, Boyle Abbey was besieged by the evil Oliver Cromwell and his English army of hooligans, who spent the better part of four years (from 1649–53) murdering, destroying and causing terror and mayhem across Ireland for the sole purpose of conquering Ireland in order to steal their land and force them under English and Protestant rule. Of course, Ireland was predominantly Catholic (and thanks to the misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII, the English were very strongly Protestants) – all of which lead to the Penal Laws that effectively outlawed Catholicism in Ireland. Poor Boyle Abbey was once again ravaged in 1592, this time when it was transformed into Elizabethan barracks – soldiers’ quarters and a base for the English army – because what better way to assert dominance over your colony than use a monastery as a war engine (the British don’t fare well in Irish history…). Archeologists, historians and conservationists have attempted to recover and conserve the abbey as much as possible, carrying out both repairs and archeological surveys – leading to both a new wall and some interesting finds – with the abbey presented as it would have been under the Cistercian command.
Tip: Today, Boyle Abbey is under the care of the OPW (Ireland’s public works office) so check opening hours before you go, and be prepared for poor weather conditions as most of the tour is outside. Afterwards, eat at the deliciously organic Drumanilra Farm Kitchen, or head to the Book Lady for a bit of reading material, Ireland’s self-proclaimed smallest bookshop.
Sligo’s Hidden Glen on the Coolera Peninsula, Ireland
Sligo in itself is a little-known corner of Ireland. Located on the northwest section of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, it is known as the Surf Coast for good reason. But for those who venture inland, Sligo is full of gems – fascinating mountains, ancient neolithic monuments, vibrant towns, quiet beaches, delicious seafood, rich mythology. One gem you won’t find on the traditional tourist track is the Hidden Glen, on Sligo’s Coolera Peninsula, a region once home to ancient Neolithic peoples. The Hidden Glen (or The Glen) as it’s known locally, is tucked under Knocknarea Hill. The entrance is as unremarkable as it is hidden – simply a rusty gate and trail off the ocean side of Woodville Road. Pass through this narrow, natural doorway and you’ll find yourself in a another world straight from the pages of a fairytale book. This narrow ‘micro-valley’ is a magical glen where handmade swings hang from soaring trees. Spellbinding stone walls rise up some 60 feet on either side of this narrow chasm deep in a magical woodland. Forget rose-coloured glasses – the verdant ferns and thick green leaves of the Hidden Glen make it feel like you’re seeing the world through emerald shades. If fairies were to exist, then surely this must be their home. Enchanted and magical, this ancient wooded world contained inside the glacially-hewn walls of the Hidden Glen under the watchful eye of mythical Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea Hill is the pinnacle of any fairytale experience and is a place you simply have to see with your own eyes. Pro tip: The Hidden Glen is almost always extremely muddy underfoot so only attempt with study, waterproof hiking boots.
Though it may be hard to see from here, Knocknarea is topped with a magnificent stone cairn, shaped like an overturned bowl. Dating back to the neolithic times (so, some 2,000-3,000 years old…), a cairn is a loose dry-stone (without mortar) pyramid, usually located in a desolate or altitude location, and used as a tomb. Ireland is full of these neolithic monuments of varying shapes and sizes. Though generally simple, many of these monument pre-dates the Pyramids of Giza, and have changed very little in past millennia (thanks to local Celtic peoples thinking they were either cursed or protected by the fairies). Even today, projects get diverted in order to avoid touching these ancient sites. Knocknarea is a small hill in northwestern Sligo, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Coolera Peninsula, and Sligo town. The cairn is legendary queen of Connacht Queen Maeve’s burial place – supposedly buried standing up, spear in hand, ready to face her enemies.
Pro Tip: There is more than one way up but the best way starts from the Queen Maeve car park. Bring a stone up from the bottom of the hill to add to Queen Maeve’s cairn for good luck! Back in Sligo, have dinner at the delicious Coach Lane (pub – not restaurant – it’s the same cook but cheaper food!) and go for music and drinks at traditional pubs like Shoot the Crows and Connollys or craft beer pub, the Swagmans.
Ah, beloved County Kerry. One of everyone’s favourite places to visit in Ireland must be the Dingle Peninsula. Rugged, green and just a bit wet, this peninsula encapsulates Ireland in miniature. From cheery towns and snug pubs to emerald fields and fierce coastlines, the Dingle Peninsula is deserving classic. If you want to explore it off the beaten path, hike part or all of the Dingle Way, a 179-km trail that circumnavigates the Dingle Peninsula and brings you to Dingle’s wild side where one will be privy to some of the greatest coastal landscapes in all of Europe! Though flat enough, at the interior of the Dingle Peninsula is Mt Brandon, where St Brendan the Navigator is said to have seen the ‘promised land’ and inspired his seven year’s Voyage of St Brendan. At any rate, a trip to Slea Head, Ireland’s westernmost point, is a must for gorgeous coastal panoramas. Next stop? North America!
Pro Tip: From the local harbour, catch a boat to the desolate Blasket Islands, evacuated in the 1950s due to harsh weather conditions, to get a glimpse to what Ireland was like in the past.
Lough Key is the centrepiece of Lough Key Forest Park, located at the heart of rural Co Roscommon, part of a region known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Woven and crossed with trails, Lough Key Forest Park is the perfect way to visit Ireland’s countryside if you don’t have the time or ability to undertake a wilderness hike, or if you’re looking for family-friendly hiking paths. In the centre of Lough Key – named for an ancient druid called Cé in Irish folklore (folklore attributes the lake as his grave site) – there is a tiny island roughly half an acre. In the centre of Castle Island is… you guessed it, a castle. What we see today is McDermott’s Castle, which is a folly (or ‘fake’ castle) built as a gothic castle in the early 1800s to improve the view, but there’s been one castle or another on Castle Island since the the 12th century. The castle of the island has since been struck by lightning, attacked by fire ships, sieged by raft-mounted catapults, cursed by the Hag of Lough Key and burnt during WWII.
Pro tip: Lough Key is located 2h from Dublin on the Sligo road. Though you can’t really visit the castle (it was sold recently via auction!), there are exquisite grounds for a hike or picnic, as well as the famed puzzle rooms (a bit like an escape room) and a cafe. Keep in mind the car park isn’t free.
Probably the most famous of Ireland’s six national parks is Connemara, hugging the central section of the Wild Atlantic Way (a 2,500km route following Ireland‘s western coast). More of a cultural region than anything else, Connemara is a region in northern Galway, although its purple-and-gold bogs and savage mountains seem fall from the colourful bustle of Galway City. Diamond Hill is the jewel in the crown of the Twelve Bens Mountain Range, and is easily the most accessible part of the surrounding region. On a backdrop of the Twelve Bens, from the summit, gaze out over the lakes of Connemara (made famous in France by singer Michel Sardou’s 1981 Lacs de Connemara), the late Victorian Kylemore Abbey (that is most certainly not a castle, despite common perception), as well as narrow inlets leading to the Atlantic Ocean. The hike itself is not hard if you are reasonable fit, though there are shorter versions for those who are not. Diamond Hill is a great introductory hike in the region, but once summited, the best way to get to the heart of Connemara is to get away from its visitor centres and instead head off to its villages and rougher hills – places like Roundstone Harbour, Clifden town, Errisbeg Hill and the bogs of the Marconi Monument spring to mind. Curl up by a turf (peat) fire in a cheery pub with a hand wrapped around a pint while chatting with the locals (or listen to them speaking Irish Gaelic!) to really get under the skin of this romantically remote and forlorn part of Ireland.