SCATTERED AROUND THE island of Ireland are thousands of places that link us to the past.
Impressive round towers, isolated dolmen stones and long-forgotten tombs stand as they have done for centuries, away from civilisation as we know it, all waiting to be visited by us.
But for too many people, these sites are unknown. We drive past them on long trips, we might see the signposts every day, but we just don’t make the effort to see what’s there.
But that could all change thanks to husband-and-wife team Tarquin Blake and Fiona Reilly, who have combined their knowledge of Irish heritage with an explorer’s nose and a photographer’s eye and created a huge guidebook to the best Irish heritage sites.
Their book, Ancient Ireland: Exploring Irish Historic Monuments, would give even those with a cursory knowledge of Irish history a sense of excitement. It will make you want to throw on a pair of wellies, get in the car and seek out the nearest location to you. Who knows what you’ll find?
Blake, a keen photographer, is known for his Abandoned Ireland books, while Reilly is an archaeologist. Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Blake said that putting together the 312-page book began three years ago.
He set himself a personal challenge to get the photography done within a year, but the research and writing meant reading around 1,000 journals and books.
The idea came to Blake after being asked by readers of his Abandoned Mansions books about how they could get to the locations.
The mansions are not really suitable for members of the public to visit. At the same time, my wife is an archaeologist and she was dragging me around these places and I started getting interested in the castles and tombs.
He realised these were national monuments under State ownership that would be much easier to visit – but the first thing he had to do was to narrow down the sites, as there are around 1000 national monuments in the Republic of Ireland and 2000 in the North.
The criteria he used was that he could get decent photographs of the places; that the locations differed in some way; and that there was an interesting story around the places.
In covering the 32 counties, the book also covers all the periods of Irish history up to modern times.
“It covers a full 10,000 years of human occupation of the island of Ireland,” said Blake. There are even maps and GPS coordinates for each location to encourage people to take trips to them and each site is profiled in an accessible – rather than boring or academic – way.
One of his favourite locations is Carrowkeel Passage tomb cemetery in Co Sligo, where his first visit left him “gobsmacked”.
Blake doesn’t believe that these sites are well-advertised in the Republic, but admits that the OPW doesn’t have an enormous amount of resources for this.
One of the aims of the book really was to try and make people aware of these heritage sites we have in Ireland and get people out to these places – some of these sites they are not well visited at all.
Blake jokes about “dragging the family around with me” while taking shots for the book, but his wife was equally delighted to take part.
The first photo in the book was even taken on their honeymoon. The couple split the writing duties, with Reilly penning the introduction.
“I was trying to stop her being too academic and she was making sure I had everything correct,” laughed Blake. “I thought we were a good combination.”
“I’ve been all around the world looking at places, and the tombs in Egypt are special – but we’ve got things that are spectacular,” said Reilly.
She pointed out that lots of Irish people explore other countries when they go on holiday, but they haven’t explored their own country.
One of her favourite locations is Kilcooley Abbey in Co Tipperary, which has incredibly well-preserved Medieval carvings.
While the couple want people to visit these sites, they encourage visitors not to take anything away from them, such as stones or keepsakes.
“Respect the place that you’re in and remember how old it is. Some of them have been here for thousands of years and we want them to be there for thousands of years more,” said Reilly.
With Ancient Ireland, Blake and Reilly have brought us the definitive guide to Ireland’s ancient sites – and with his next book, Blake will be taking us around haunted Ireland. Clearly, there’s still much more of Ireland yet to explore.
Below are some photographs from the book, all taken by Tarquin Blake.