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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Northern County Mayo is perhaps the closest you’ll get to true wilderness in Ireland. At the very least, Mayo is remote (and travel to and around), rural, quiet, and under-rated. There is little tourism infrastructure in the northern nether regions of Mayo (the southern part of the county fares better: parts of Connemara, the town of Westport and the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick all draw visitors). The problem does not lie in the lack of beauty – more in the lack of roads leading to said beautiful places. Lough Conn, a large lake outside of the not-overwhelming town of Ballina, is a diamond in the rough. Not far off the famous Wild Atlantic Way driving route, the glittering shores, fantastic sunsets, and little-visited beaches make Lough Conn an ideal place for off-the-beaten-track nature enthusiasts. It is a lovely place for wild camping (otherwise known as ‘real camping’ – no showers or wifi here!) or even just a beachside barbecue on a sunlit evening at the end of summer. Lough Conn itself is quite large – it measures 14,000 acres (57 km²). There are two accounts for the name (and very existence) of the lake. In Irish mythology, Lough Conn was created by famous giant Finn McCool (also credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway – a story for another day!). Hunting with his hounds Conn and Cullin, they chased a wild boar for days until water began to pour from the boar’s feet. It swam across the newly-created lakes one after the other but Conn the Hound drowned in the first lake (Lough Conn) and Cullin drowned in the second lake (becoming Lough Cullin). A version of the story was later attributed to an Irish chieftain, Chief Modh, though in this account, the pigs, not the hounds, was drowned. Drowning aside, both lakes are lovely, quiet places – a true glimpse into unspoilt Ireland. For a bit of local culture, stop by Foxford Woollen Mills on the way back to civilisation – a respected local weaving and crafting designer!
A flash of movement, a shimmer of gold, a glimpse of green. Welcome to the land of the leprechauns – a spit of land near the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. Bearded little men with a penchant for mischief-making, leprechauns have become a prominent part of Irish folklore, and though today’s prankster wears green, the original creature actually wore red. The Dingle Peninsula, where the Slea Head Drive is located, is a magical place with or without the leprechauns. Though cars scoot by along narrow Irish roads following the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, those who venture into the rolling green hills with only sheep for company will be immensely rewarded. While visitors may not find a leprechaun or even his pot of gold, what you will find is much more valuable. As you walk barefoot through the soft blanket of thick Irish grass on the rugged peninsula that overlooks the waves of green hills of the unpronounceable Coumeenoole, you will bask in the solace of tranquillity and total immersion, living wholly in this magical moment lost in the Irish countryside – all the while knowing that once you begin to craving vivacity, you will surely find raucous fun in the next village’s pub. It’s an amazing and intricate balance that only Ireland seems capable of creating and maintaining!
The cherry-red doorway stands out amongst the backdrop of grey stone. Doorways, being a threshold between one place and another, always feel like opportunities that provide endless possibilities regarding what lays on the other side. While a universal object, doors and their thresholds often still somehow manage to stay culturally unique, varying dramatically across Europe (and by extension, across the world as well). Doors in Ireland are often bright, colourful and arresting – see this door in Dublin for example – which reflects the playfulness of the Irish culture. This door opens onto the old Nun’s Island Theatre in west coast city of Galway, just a stone’s throw away from the youthful Galway Cathedral. Built in Neo-classical style, this proud little theatre was once a Presbyterian church in the 19th century. Nun’s Island, the theatre’s location and namesake, gets its name from a group of 30 nuns from the order of Poor Clare who sought shelter on the island during the Ulster Rebellion of 1641. The striking red door and gate is an eye-catching sight on this otherwise low-key street in Galway, one of the most beautiful cities along the western coast of Ireland.
Shuttered, dark, and eerie, this once-elegant manor strikes an odd contrast with the surrounding cheery, green estate-turned-park. Curraghchase Manor (the centrepiece of Curraghchase Forest Park), once the reigning jewel of the land, was exterminated by fire in 1941, and its grounds were turned into a happy-go-lucky park for locals of Limerick‘s surroundings to take a stroll, go for a jog, have a picnic, or play fetch with the dog. The manor, though, is haunting. A rounded stone building once elegant and home to the de Vere family who could trace their lineage to a tenant-in-chief of William the Conquerer, today it is completely encased, with no way in or out except the open roof. Gutted by the flames of the mid 20th century, the interior now makes a home for the birds and the bees, the only critters who can fly over its high walls. As proof of its former splendour, it was once the inspiration for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Lady Clara Vere de Vere. Today however, the manor exudes a certain eerie quality, not unlike that of the abandoned Krimulda Manor deep in the Latvian forests, or Lake Annecy’s remote, ivy-covered chateau. While today the Curraghchase grounds are full of a variety of tree types, twisting forest paths, trickling streams, silent ponds, and even a miniature (and sad) pet cemetery where beloved pets were once laid to rest, it is still Curraghchase Manor that arrests the eye, thoughts and senses of the visitor. On a more intriguing note, according to local legend, it was the ghostly figure of the Lady of the Lake, first seen by Tennyson, that supposedly caused the tree to come crashing through the window and knocked over the candelabra that started the fire? Once cannot help but shiver when thinking about the long-neglected interior, left for nature slowly to take its course, the mythic ghost, or about the scared inhabitants who abandoned their splendid home one cold night in December of 1941, never to return again. Despite the shining sun and beautiful grounds, as one passes in front of Curraghchase Manor one cannot help a little shiver, and a feeling of desolation that passes as quickly as it came before you meander off to discover the rest of the grounds.
More Unbelievable Stories Myths & Legends of Europe
Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland
The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.
Slea Head Peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland
One of the most interesting examples of a tourism product produced by a destination(s) is the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, a route that conducts travellers through nine counties for roughly 2,500 km (1,550 miles) along the western coastline of Ireland. Developed to showcase the best of Western Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way does a pretty fantastic job of connecting otherwise isolated regions, counties, villages, cliffs, beaches and attractions into something much greater. One place along the Wild Atlantic Way that is particularly awe-inspiring is Slea Head, the tip of the oft-overlooked Dingle Peninsula. Sitting here in the soft, green grass at the tip of the point, overlooking a few rugged, rocky islands, it sends a shiver down your spine to realise that the next thing out there after the miles and miles of waves is North America. While most tourists do not stray far from the well-worn tracks of the Ring of Kerry, Dingle is much more rugged and authentic, peopled by cheery Irishmen and women who hold an innate love of their country. Slea Head is as green as it is peaceful. In fact, at Slea Head, the only other beings you’re likely to meet is the local farmer’s fleecy sheep and lumbering cattle, making this amazing natural landscape a great place for internal reflection.