Best 15 Ancient Ireland Sites: Your Friendly Guide to Must-See Locations

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Ancient Ireland Sites

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Ireland is a country steeped in ancient history, with an abundance of remarkable ancient sites and ancient ruins that capture the essence of its rich past. From impressive Neolithic monuments to awe-inspiring early Christian sites, these historical treasures provide a unique insight into the development and culture of early Irish civilization. As you explore the many archaeological wonders and myths that surround these sites, you’ll come to appreciate the complex and fascinating history that has shaped the Emerald Isle.

One of the most attractive aspects of Ireland’s ancient sites is the sheer variety of experiences they offer. You’ll find ancient structures such as the iconic Passage Tomb of Newgrange, revered early Christian establishments, and significant sites like the Hill of Tara that played a pivotal role in the country’s historical narrative. Each landmark possesses its own unique story and has contributed to the enchanting tapestry of Ireland’s history.

Key Takeaways

  • Ireland’s ancient monuments and celtic ruins offer unique insights into its rich history and development.
  • A diverse range of archaeological landmarks, from Neolithic monuments to early Christian establishments, can be discovered throughout the country giving rise to some of the best ancient sites in Western europe.
  • Exploring these sites provides a deeper understanding of the myths, stories, and events that have shaped Ireland’s captivating past.

Top Ancient Sites In Ireland

Site NameLocationPeriodDescription
NewgrangeCounty MeathNeolithicThis passage tomb is older than the Egyptian pyramids and features an amazing light show at the winter solstice.
Brú na BóinneCounty MeathNeolithicThis is one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in the world, including the Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth passage tombs.
Skellig MichaelCounty KerryEarly MedievalThis monastic settlement, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was featured in the “Star Wars” series.
The Hill of TaraCounty MeathIron AgeThis site was the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
ClonmacnoiseCounty OffalyEarly MedievalThis was a significant early Christian monastic site with beautiful high crosses.
The Rock of CashelCounty TipperaryMedievalThis site features a 12th-century round tower, a High Cross, and Romanesque Chapel.
CarrowmoreCounty SligoNeolithicThis is one of the largest cemeteries of megalithic tombs in Ireland.
Poulnabrone DolmenCounty ClareNeolithicThis iconic dolmen (portal tomb) is located in the heart of the Burren.
Loughcrew CairnsCounty MeathNeolithicThese cairns are ancient passage tombs with celestial alignments.
Drombeg Stone CircleCounty CorkBronze AgeThis is a well-preserved Recumbent Stone Circle known locally as the Druid’s Altar.
Dun AonghasaAran IslandsIron AgeThis is a prehistoric hill fort spectacularly located on the edge of a 100-meter-high cliff.
Ardgroom Stone CircleCounty CorkBronze AgeThis stone circle, located on the Beara Peninsula, has beautiful views of the surroundings.
Mount SandelCounty LondonderryMesolithicThis is the oldest known site of human habitation in Ireland.
Maeve’s CairnCounty SligoNeolithicThis large cairn is believed to be the burial place of the mythical Queen Maeve.
Ring of KerryCounty KerryVariedThis scenic drive features various ancient sites, including the Staigue Fort and Gallarus Oratory.

Newgrange

Newgrange, located in the heart of the Brú na Bóinne complex in County Meath, is an astonishing testament to the ingenuity and vision of our Neolithic ancestors. This massive passage tomb, constructed around 3200 BC, predates both the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, making it one of the world’s oldest known structures.

The mound, spanning about an acre, features an intricately designed passage leading to a central chamber. The chamber’s corbelled roof, created from large flat stones layered to form a conical ceiling, has remained watertight for over five millennia, a testament to the engineering prowess of its builders.

However, it’s Newgrange’s alignment with the winter solstice that truly captivates. On the shortest day of the year, a shaft of sunlight penetrates the roof-box above the passage entrance and illuminates the central chamber, a phenomenon that lasts just 17 minutes. This celestial event symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and the promise of a new year, underscoring the ancient society’s profound understanding of astronomy.

Brú na Bóinne

Nestled in the heart of the Boyne Valley in County Meath, you’ll find the awe-inspiring archaeological landscape of Brú na Bóinne, part of Ireland’s ancient east. This UNESCO World Heritage site is older than both the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, dating back over 5,000 years to the Neolithic era.

Brú na Bóinne, Gaelic for “Palace or Mansion of the Boyne”, is a testament to the engineering and artistic skills of the Neolithic people. The site encompasses a vast complex of monumental structures, including passage tombs, henges, standing stones, and other related enclosures. The most renowned of all the ancient sites are the magnificent passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, each with its own unique features and allure.

The Newgrange tomb, famed for its winter solstice sunrise alignment, showcases the Neolithic people’s sophisticated knowledge of astronomy. Meanwhile, the tomb at Knowth is notable for having the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe, etched on stone slabs within and around the tomb.

The Brú na Bóinne complex remains a source of intrigue and fascination, not only for its significant historic sites and archaeological value but also for its insights into the spiritual and everyday life of Ireland’s ancient people. The treasures and secrets of Brú na Bóinne continue to be discovered and explored, painting a vivid picture of the past.

Skellig Michael

Rising majestically from the wild Atlantic Ocean off the coast of County Kerry, you’ll find Skellig Michael, a twin-peaked crag that seems more a part of a mythical landscape than the real world. This UNESCO World Heritage site is renowned for its staggering natural beauty, rich history, and incredible wildlife.

Skellig Michael, or Great Skellig, was once home to a group of ascetic monks who chose to live in isolation from the 6th to the 13th century. They built a remarkable monastic settlement at the edge of the world, with beehive-shaped stone huts, oratories, and crosses, perched precariously above the sea. The extreme isolation and harsh conditions reflect their extraordinary commitment to a life of prayer and contemplation.

Aside from its historical significance, Skellig Michael is a sanctuary for a diverse range of bird species, including puffins, gannets, and guillemots. During the breeding season, the island comes alive with the sights and sounds of these seabirds, offering a unique wildlife experience.

For fans of pop culture, Skellig Michael also gained fame as a filming location in the Star Wars franchise, portraying the ancient Jedi temple in “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi”. These epic movies introduced a whole new audience to the stunning beauty and cultural significance of Skellig Michael.

The Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara, nestled in the lush landscape of County Meath, holds a special place in the heart of Ireland. Revered as a sacred site since the Stone Age, this elevated ridge offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, earning its name, “Tara”, which means “a place of great prospect” in Gaelic.

The Hill of Tara’s fame largely stems from its role as the ceremonial seat of the High Kings of Ireland during the first millennium AD. Here, leaders were not only crowned but also communed with the gods of the pre-Christian era, giving Tara an aura of both political and spiritual importance.

Among the historical and mythical features at Tara, the most significant are the Iron Age “Fort of the Kings”, the “Mound of the Hostages” which is a Neolithic passage tomb, and the “Stone of Destiny”. This legendary standing stone, also known as Lia Fáil, was believed to roar when touched by the rightful king of Ireland.

Clonmacnoise

Situated on the banks of the River Shannon, in the heart of Ireland, lies the early Christian site of Clonmacnoise. Founded in the 6th century by Saint Ciarán, this ancient monastic settlement became one of the most significant spiritual and educational centers of its time, drawing scholars and monks from across Ireland and beyond.

The site boasts an impressive collection of ecclesiastical buildings and structures, including two round towers, three high crosses, nine churches, and an extensive collection of early Christian grave slabs. Among these, the Cross of the Scriptures, a richly carved high cross, and the Cathedral, the largest of the churches, are particularly noteworthy.

Clonmacnoise also flourished as a hub of craftsmanship and art, known for producing elaborate metalwork and illuminated manuscripts, including the renowned Book of the Dun Cow. Its strategic location at a crossroads of river and road travel contributed to its growth and influence in religious, cultural, and political matters.

The Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel, also known as St. Patrick’s Rock, is a striking historic site that dominates the Tipperary landscape in southern Ireland. This majestic complex of medieval architecture has a rich history that spans over a thousand years, interweaving tales of kings, saints, and scholars.

The Rock of Cashel was the traditional seat of the kings of Munster, a southern Irish kingdom, before it was gifted to the Church in the early 12th century. This historic gesture was reportedly made by King Muircheartach Ua Briain, in a bid to curry favor with the powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The site features a collection of well-preserved medieval structures, including the round tower, the chapel of King Cormac, and the magnificent cathedral. These structures represent various architectural styles, reflecting the evolving trends of their respective eras. Among the most fascinating features is Cormac’s Chapel, famed for its exceptional Romanesque architecture and medieval frescoes.

Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery

Nestled within the scenic landscapes of County Sligo, the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery is a must-visit location for history enthusiasts. Spanning an area of over 1.5 square miles, it is amongst the largest and oldest cemeteries of megalithic tombs in Europe, with origins dating back to 3700 BC.

This ancient cemetery consists of around 30 visible tombs, including passage tombs, dolmens, and stone circles. These structures serve as fascinating evidence of the complex burial rituals and spiritual beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors. Intriguingly, many of these tombs align with the Knocknarea mountain, where Queen Maeve’s Cairn is located, suggesting a strong spiritual or ritual connection between these two ancient sites.

One of the most significant monuments in the cemetery is the central dolmen known as Listoghil or Tomb 51. Unearthed in 1997, the tomb contained the remains of several individuals, along with pottery, flint tools, and cremated bones, providing archaeologists with a wealth of information about Neolithic culture.

Poulnabrone Dolmen

The Poulnabrone Dolmen Megalithic Tomb is a striking prehistoric site worth visiting. Situated on the rugged limestone landscape of The Burren in County Clare, this prehistoric monument is one of Ireland’s most iconic archaeological landmarks and certainly a must-visit for any history enthusiast.

This striking megalithic tomb, also known as a portal dolmen, dates back to the Neolithic period, around 4200-2900 BC. Its name, Poulnabrone, intriguingly translates to “the hole of sorrows” in Gaelic, adding an air of mystery to its already fascinating presence.

At first sight, the Poulnabrone Dolmen captivates with its large, flat capstone balanced dramatically on two tall portal stones. This seemingly simple large portal tomb required considerable engineering skills and communal effort to construct, attesting to the advanced capabilities of our ancient ancestors.

Excavations in the 1980s unearthed the human remains of adults and children, along with artifacts like pottery, stone tools, and beads, suggesting that the site was not only a burial place but also an important ritual site for the Neolithic community.

Mount Sandel Mesolithic Site

Nestled in the town of Coleraine, Northern Ireland, the Mount Sandel Mesolithic Site marks a significant chapter in the early history of Ireland. It’s renowned as the earliest known evidence of human habitation on the island, tracing back to the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, approximately 9,000 years ago.

The site was discovered during an excavation in the 1970s, revealing a wealth of information about the lives of Ireland’s earliest settlers. It was here that archaeologists unearthed post-holes and pits, indicating the former presence of circular huts. These discoveries point to a community of hunter-gatherers who made their homes along the banks of the River Bann.

Further excavations unveiled an impressive array of artifacts, including flint tools, arrowheads, and fishing equipment. These finds have offered invaluable insights into the survival strategies and lifestyle of the Mesolithic inhabitants, showcasing their resourcefulness and intimate understanding of their environment.

Maeve’s Cairn

Dominating the landscape of County Sligo atop the flat-topped Knocknarea Hill, you’ll find Maeve’s Cairn, an iconic monument steeped in mythology and intrigue. This massive stone pile, visible for miles around, is one of Ireland’s most prominent megalithic structures and is believed to date back to the Neolithic period, around 3000-2500 BC.

The cairn, also known as ‘Miosgán Meadhbha’, is traditionally associated with the legendary Queen Maeve of Connacht. According to ancient tales, Maeve, a powerful and formidable figure, is said to be interred within the cairn, buried upright facing her enemies in Ulster.

Despite its association with Queen Maeve, the cairn has never been excavated, leaving its true purpose and the secrets it might contain a mystery. It measures roughly 55 meters in diameter and reaches a height of 10 meters, comprising an estimated 40,000 tons of loose limestone rocks. This colossal construction project suggests that the cairn held a significant ceremonial or commemorative purpose in ancient times.

Drombeg Stone Circle

ituated on the wild and scenic landscape of West Cork, Drombeg Stone Circle stands as an intriguing testament to Ireland’s ancient past. Also known as the Druid’s Altar, this Bronze Age monument is one of the most visited megalithic sites in Ireland, drawing those who wish to experience a tangible connection to the island’s distant history.

The stone circle, dating back to around 1100-800 BC, consists of 17 closely spaced stones, arranged in a precise and deliberate circular pattern. The most fascinating aspect of Drombeg is its alignment with the winter solstice — the recumbent stone is oriented to the sunset of the shortest day of the year, underlining our ancestors’ understanding of astronomy and the seasons.

Not far from the stone circle, you’ll find the remains of a primitive kitchen or “fulacht fiadh” — a cooking pit once used to boil meat in prehistoric times. Excavations at the site have also revealed post holes for a timber hut and fragments of pottery, hinting at the day-to-day life of this ancient community.

Glendalough

County Wicklow is home to the tranquil and picturesque Glendalough, a monastic site established by St. Kevin in the 6th century AD. Wander through ancient churches, a round tower, and Celtic crosses while soaking in the valley’s serene ambiance.

In the heart of the valley are the monastic remains including an impressive round tower, a cathedral, and several ancient churches. The round tower, standing about 100 feet tall, served as both a landmark and a refuge. While exploring the area, don’t forget to take a moment to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the lakes and the lush greenery that surrounds these ruins.

The stone circles and other artifacts found in Glendalough provide a fascinating insight into early Christian life in Ireland. As you wander through this sacred site, imagine the devotion and commitment of the monks who once lived, prayed, and studied here.

Ardgroom Stone Circle

Situated on the rugged Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Southwest Ireland, the Ardgroom Stone Circle is a mesmerizing prehistoric monument that offers a glimpse into Ireland’s distant past. This Bronze Age stone circle, dating back to around 2,200 – 600 BC, is a beautiful and serene place, imbued with thousands of years of history and mystery.

The Ardgroom Stone Circle comprises of nine standing stones, forming a near-perfect circle, with an outlier stone known as an “axial” or “recumbent” stone positioned to the northeast. This stone is aligned in such a way to likely have astronomical significance, possibly connected to the movements of the sun, moon, or stars, much like other megalithic structures from this period.

Apart from the intrigue of its original purpose and construction, the circle’s location is a significant part of its charm. Nestled in a scenic valley, the Ardgroom Stone Circle overlooks the breathtaking panorama of mountains and the nearby Kenmare River. This fusion of natural beauty and ancient human endeavor creates a wonderfully atmospheric experience.

Loughcrew Cairns

Perched atop the rolling hills of County Meath, the Loughcrew Cairns represent one of Ireland’s most significant and oldest archaeological landscapes. These neolithic passage tombs, estimated to be older than 5000 years, make up a complex known as Sliabh na Caillí, or “Hill of the Witch”, named after a mythical hag said to have dropped stones from her apron to form the cairns.

The site comprises of more than 30 passage tombs, with Cairn T being the most notable. Inside this cairn, visitors can explore the inner chamber and witness the elaborate megalithic art etched into its stones. Intricate spirals, concentric circles, and other cryptic symbols are still clearly visible, fascinating visitors with their ancient, yet remarkably sophisticated design.

The Loughcrew Cairns are also famously aligned with the sun during the equinoxes. As dawn breaks, a beam of sunlight gradually extends along the passage, illuminating the chamber and the carvings within. This breathtaking event provides a tantalizing glimpse into the neolithic mind and their understanding of celestial movements.

FAQs Irish History Sites

What is the oldest site in Ireland?

The oldest archaeological site in Ireland is the Mount Sandel Mesolithic site, located in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This site, which dates back to approximately 7000 BC, is evidence of the first known settlement of humans in Ireland during the Middle Stone Age.

What is the oldest archeology in Ireland?

The oldest archaeological find in Ireland is a flint tool discovered at a site near Belfast, which was dated to nearly 8000 BC. However, the oldest “permanent” settlement is believed to be at Mount Sandel.

What are the oldest Irish artifacts?

The oldest Irish artifacts are stone tools, with the oldest known tool, a flint blade, dating back to about 8000 BC. These early tools were likely used by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Other ancient artifacts include polished stone axes from the Neolithic period and a variety of artifacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages such as jewelry, weapons, and pottery.

What ancient civilization lived in Ireland?

The first humans to live in Ireland were the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who arrived around 8000 BC. They were followed by the Neolithic people, who introduced farming around 4000 BC. The Bronze Age, beginning around 2500 BC, saw the introduction of metalworking. The Iron Age, typically associated with the Celtic culture, began around 500 BC. However, the term “Celtic” is often disputed in archaeological discussions due to its broad and often misleading implications. It’s important to remember that these societies were complex and not isolated, having ongoing cultural exchanges with Britain and continental Europe.

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