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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 24 October, 2014

Hidden Ireland: Where to get in your St Stephen’s Day walk

Archaeologist Neil Jackman picks fascinating sites nationwide for a stroll today.

HOPE EVERYONE HAS had a wonderful Christmas. If you’re feeling like you’re in need of a walk to help shake off the over-indulgence then here are some fantastic places to visit around the country.

I have selected just two sites from each region, but every corner of Ireland has such a wealth of amazing places that I could have easily chosen hundreds! Please note that some of these sites would be difficult to access during poor weather conditions, however on a bright clear day each of these sites are a simply spectacular way to spend an afternoon.

These are just a few of my favourites; what is your favourite place for a St Stephen’s Day stroll?

Midlands

Rindoon, Co Roscommon

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Strategically positioned on a peninsular that thrusts out like a finger into Lough Ree, Rindoon is one of Ireland’s best preserved deserted medieval towns. The castle at Rindoon is thought to date to 1227 and was constructed by Geoffrey de Marisco.

It appears that Geoffrey de Marisco was a villain on a Game of Thrones level of nastiness. He was Justiciar of Ireland between 1215 and 1228, and took full advantage of the young King Henry III by being as corrupt in his dealings in Ireland as possible. He amassed huge swathes of land and a fortune by seizing goods, lands and taxes in the Kings name and then keeping the rewards for himself. He was eventually dismissed from office in 1228. He was even excommunicated for misappropriating funds from the Church (the money was just resting in ye olde account apparently).

When you visit the site you can encounter the remains of the medieval castle, church, town walls and you can even still make out the plots where houses and field systems give tantalising glimpses of everyday medieval life.

Rindoon is a fantastic site to visit, and as well as the intriguing history and archaeology, it makes for a lovely walk. Rindoon is roughly half way between Roscommon town and Athlone on the N61 and it is well signposted from the road. The main part of the site is about a 15min walk through fields, the fields are full of livestock (cattle and sheep) so do remember to bring appropriate footwear and please close all gates behind you. For more information about Rindoon and for the story of the villainous Geoffrey de Marisco please click here.

The Rock of Dunamase, Co Laois

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Perched on a steep rocky crag above the low lying plains of Laois, The Rock of Dunamase is one of the most atmospheric sites to visit in Ireland. The first historical reference to the Rock of Dunamase came from the Annals that record it being plundered by Viking raiders in 843 AD.

But the site was extensively refortified after the Norman invasions of Ireland. The site was said to be part of the dowry given by Diarmuid MacMurrough when his daughter Aoife, married the leader of the Norman Invasions Richard de Clare (Strongbow). Strongbow appointed Meiler FitzHenry, a famous Norman knight, as custodian of the site and he began to fortify the Rock to ensure the Normans would have a foothold in the notoriously dangerous borderlands between the Norman colony and the Gaelic Irish kingdoms.

The Rock passed to the most famous knight in medieval Europe, William Marshall, when he married Isabel de Clare, daughter of Strongbow. Most of the visible remains on the site today probably date to Marshall’s time. He was an extremely progressive lord who is responsible for some of Ireland’s most famous castles like those at Kilkenny and Carlow.

Dunamase is a wonderful place for a walk and is easily accessible off the N7. You can discover the story of Dunamase by downloading our free audio guide to the site - click here to download.

East

Castleroache, Co Louth

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One of the best of Ireland’s hidden heritage treasures, Castleroache is possibly the finest example of Ireland’s mid-thirteenth century castles. It is thought to have been constructed by Lady Rohesia de Verdun in 1236 to serve as a bastion of defence for the Anglo-Norman colony in Louth against the Gaelic tribes of Ulster.

Lady Rohesia was a formidable woman, and is said to have thrown the castle’s architect through one of the tower windows so he could never reveal the castles secrets.

Castleroache has to be one of the most impressive heritage sites I have visited in Ireland, and it is one of those sites that is so massive, so imposing and so breathtaking that pictures cannot do it justice – it is one you must experience for yourself to gain a true impression of its size and grandeur. For more information about its history and instructions on how to find it please click here.

The river walk at Trim, Co Meath

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One of the nicest strolls in Ireland and you get to see five fantastic medieval sites all positioned alongside the banks of the beautiful River Boyne. Leave your car in the carpark below Trim Castle and cross the wooden bridge over the Boyne. From this vantage point you can get amazing views of Trim Castle, Ireland’s largest Norman fortress that was constructed by Hugh de Lacy in the late twelfth century.

The unusual building directly across from the castle is Talbot’s Castle, a grand house and formerly the home of Jonathan Swift. The ‘Yellow Steeple’ towers behind it. This was once the bell tower of an Augustinian priory that once thrived here.

Along the path following the bank of the river you can find a number of information panels that inform you about life here in the medieval period. You will also encounter the beautiful remains of the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, a small chapel with the Tomb of the Jealous Man and the medieval remains of the Priory Hospital of Saint John the Baptist. All of these sites are fantastic to explore, the walk from the castle carpark to the Priory Hospital will take around 30–35mins and there is a great old pub, Marcey Reagan’s directly across from the last stop so you can reward yourself by indulging again, before retracing your steps back along the path.

South East

Kells Priory, Co Kilkenny

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When you first encounter Kells Priory, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a castle given its strong defensive walls and towers, but Kells Priory was a monastery. It is superbly well preserved, and is one of the most striking and unforgettable monastic sites in Ireland.

The Priory was founded in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert, brother in law  to the famous Strongbow – Richard de Clare, leader of the Norman forces in Ireland. It was given to the Augustinian Canons, the biggest religious order in Ireland at the time.

The Priory is a great place to visit and you’ll often find you have the place to yourself. You’ll find it about 15km south of Kilkenny City, near the village of Kells, signposted off the R697. For more information about its history and how to get there please click here.

The Towers, Co Waterford

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The ‘Towers’ is one of the best examples of a nineteenth century folly existing today in Ireland. The Towers were commissioned by Arthur Kiely-Ussher in around 1835. He had inherited over 8,000 acres of land in the area, and quickly gained a reputation for being a harsh and cruel landlord.

It is said that his wife had become deeply envious of Strancally Castle, built by Arthur’s brother John Kiely, and hectored Arthur to build a residence to outshine that of his brother. Plans for an extravagant mansion were drawn and work began on the long and winding carriageway, with an ornate gate lodge. They then constructed the elaborate bridge over a small stream, with large towers flanking each side of the bridge.

However their grandiose ambitions quickly outstripped their funds and they ran out of money soon after completing the bridge. Their dreams of building a huge mansion were never to come true, they spent their days living in the now demolished Ballysaggartmore House, and must have felt despair as they travelled along their stunning carriageway, that it would never lead to the mansion they had so desired.

However Kiely-Ussher’s folly has left us with a superbly atmospheric and unique place to go for a walk. The site is pretty easy to find, just take the R666 from Lismore heading towards Fermoy (signposted left after the bridge past Lismore Castle). You’ll find the Towers after about 3–4km well signposted on the right hand side.

A fairly large carpark and a number of interpretative panels are on the site, I recommend when you arrive to follow the path up the slope to the right and loop around to the Towers that way, first entering by the impressive Gate Lodge. For more information about the history of the site please see here.

South West

Lough Gur, Co Limerick

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For anyone interested in Irish archaeology, a visit to Lough Gur is almost like a pilgrimage as it is one of the most important and remarkable archaeological landscapes in Ireland. The site is possibly most famous for its Neolithic settlement.

Several houses, forming a small village, have been excavated on the south-facing slopes of the Knockadoon peninsula, which extends out into the lake. Two of the buildings have been reconstructed and now serve as an excellent visitor centre – the centre is open on Stephen’s Day from 12–4pm and I highly recommend a visit.

From the visitor centre, your first stop will be a lovely walk that takes you past ‘The Spectacles’ where you can see the foundations of a number of buildings and field systems dating to the early medieval period. As you follow the path beyond the Spectacles, you climb ever higher and get spectacular views over Lough Gur. From here you can see the castles built by the Earls of Desmond in the later medieval period, and the earlier crannogs, small artificial islands, on the lake.

When you have finished your visit to Knockadoon, a short drive up the road will bring you to the cashels of Carraig Áille. These well-preserved early medieval stone ringforts have quite spectacular views. From there take another short drive to see a wonderful example of a Bronze Age wedge tomb, followed by a lovely atmospheric medieval church at Teampall Nua. Last of all is the spectacular Grange Stone Circle.

It really is a spectacular place, for more information please visit their website here.

Bridgetown Priory, Co Cork

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Bridgetown Priory is a beautifully preserved medieval priory positioned on the western bank of the River Blackwater in County Cork. The Priory was founded in the early thirteenth century, by Alexander Fitz Hugh. A number of the structures that make up Bridgetown Priory have survived in excellent condition, making it a fantastic site to explore.

The early thirteenth century church is in good condition and contains an internal wall that seperates the nave (where the general congregation sat during mass) from the choir (reserved for the monks and clergy). There are signs of later medieval developments and modifications at the church, with a large two-storey residential tower added.

As you pass through the church you can encounter a number of medieval buildings and features such as a sixteenth century chapel, a well preserved thirteenth century graveslab, the calefactory (or warming house, apart from the kitchen, the calefactory was the only other building in the Priory allowed to have a fire), the prior’s domestic quarters, a room thought to be the kitchens, a large refectory where the priors met for large communal meals and a vaulted passageway that leads to the cloister.

The remains are extensive and you can easily find hours slip by at this wonderfully peaceful spot. I highly recommend a visit, it has a similar feel and atmosphere to the extensive Kells Priory in Co Kilkenny.

Bridgetown Priory is located about 12km west of Fermoy off the N72. About 2km south of Castletownroache take a minor road to the west at Kilcummer. Then take the road to the south after half a kilometre, the site is well signposted. For more information about the site click here.

West

Moore Hall, Co Mayo

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Moore Hall is located in a beautiful spot on the shore of Lough Carra in Co Mayo. The house was constructed between 1792 and 1796 by George Moore. He was a very successful wine merchant and entrepreneur, his main business was based in Alicante in Spain where he traded in wine and brandy. He was also involved in the export of seaweed from Galway as it was used to make iodine.

Unusually at that time for such a wealthy and powerful man, George Moore was a Roman Catholic. His family originally came from Ashbrook near Straide in Co Mayo, but George wanted a house to reflect his vast fortune so he commissioned the architect John Roberts, to construct a house suitable for a man of his means.

Unlike the unpopular and foolish Kiely-Usshers we encountered at the Towers in Waterford, the Moores were well liked by their tenants who saw them as good and fair landlords. A descendant of the family, George Henry Moore (who was landlord of the large estate) was renowned for his kindness during the Great Famine.

He was a keen horse racing enthusiast, and during the height of the Famine in 1846 he entered his horse Coranna in the Chester Gold Cup and won the huge sum at the time of £17,000. He used that money to give every one of his tenants a cow. He also imported thousands of tonnes of grain to feed the locality. Not one person was evicted or starved on George Moore’s estates during the Famine.

George was also a politician and an MP for County Mayo. Today Moore Hall is owned by the forestry company Coillte and is a wonderful and atmospheric spot to enjoy a walk and a picnic.

Moore Hall is located around 11km north of Ballinrobe. Leaving Ballinrobe, take the L1067, this will take you to Ballygarris cross.  Turn left at this point and you will be on the road for Carnacon. Follow the road to the right, and after crossing Annie’s bridge, take the next left turn at Lough Carra lake. This will take you to the car park at Moorehall. There is a marked trail through the woods which is approximately 3km long. For more information please see here.

Clontuskert, Co Galway

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The Augustinian Priory of St Mary at Clontuskert is thought to have been founded in the later part of the twelfth century by Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht.

Originally Clontuskert would have been a considerably sized Priory that was regularly expanded, with a large undivided church dating to the late twelfth century that later became the chancel when the church was expanded in the early fifeenth century, it was enlarged again when a north transept was added to the building in the late fifteenth century. Though the Church still survives well today, many of the other structures only survive as foundations, although a small part of the cloister has been reconstructed from the remains found on site.

For me the most spectacular feature on the site is the amazing west doorway into the nave. It is beautifully carved and bears the figures of St Michael brandishing a sword and scales for weighing souls on Judgement Day, St John the Baptist, St Catherine and a bishop. It also depicts a pelican, a star, a pair of griffins, a dog, a deer, a rose and a mermaid. It is one of the finest examples of fifteenth century sculpture in Ireland.

Contuskert Priory is very easy to find. Simply head from Ballinasloe towards Portumna on the R355, go past the Ballinasloe Golf Club and keep going straight down the road, after about 5-6km on the R355 you’ll see the site on your left hand side. There is a small carpark then the site is a short 100m walk down a lane.

North-West

Carrowkeel, Co Sligo

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Carrowkeel remains one of the most spectacular and breathtaking archaeological landscapes in Ireland, and is simply a must-see for anyone with any interest in our prehistoric past. They are situated at the northern end of the Bricklieve Mountains in County Sligo, and cover a number of the peaks that tower over the surrounding landscape.

These stone cairns are passage tombs, and you can visit three of them (cairns G, H and K) very easily. The tombs date to the Neolithic period, the time of Ireland’s first farmers around 5,000 years ago.

You’ll find Carrowkeel around 30km or so from Sligo town. Aim for Castlebaldwin on the N4 road between Sligo and Boyle, and the tombs are well signposted from there. Please be aware that the site may be unsuitable to visit during poor weather conditions.

For more information about its history and how to get there please click here.

Grianán of Ailech, Co Donegal

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The Grianán of Ailech is one of the most iconic sites of North-West Ireland. This was the former residence of the powerful Kings of Ailech, the Uí Néill dynasty. In the first few centuries AD the Uí Néill controlled vast swathes of territory in the northern half of the island of Ireland. However as their power began to wane they became locked in a bitter dynastic war with the Kings of Munster.

The Grianán was recorded in the Annals as being destroyed in AD 676, and then more thoroughly in 1101. The site is situated high above the surrounding landscape and offers absolutely spectacular views. You can find it around 8km north-west of Derry, it is well signposted from the N13 between Derry and Letterkenny. For more information about its history and how to get there, see here.

Northern Ireland

Tuallahoge, Co Tyrone

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Tullaghoge in County Tyrone has to be one of the most atmospheric and evocative sites that I have visited. It was the inauguration site of the powerful O’Neill’s. During the crowning ceremony at Tullaghoge, the King elect was seated on a stone inauguration chair known as the Leac na Ri. He swore oaths to rule by Brehon Law (the ancient laws of Ireland) and to give up the throne if he became too old to rule.

New sandals were placed on his feet by the chief of the O’Hagans and a golden sandal was ceremonially thrown over his head to indicate he would continue in the footsteps of his ancestors, and then the new king was handed the ceremonial rod of office. The primate of Armagh would then anoint and crown the O’Neill as chief and king.

However the last O’Neill to be inaugurated here was the famous Hugh O’Neill in 1595. Hugh was the powerful Earl of Tyrone, and he led a massive rebellion against the Crown forces in Ireland in an attempt to stop the plantations of Ireland and the erosion of the powers of the Gaelic chiefs.

This series of conflicts became known as The Nine Years War. After some initial successes, like the Battle of the Yellow Ford, by 1601 the Gaelic Forces had suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Kinsale. Lord Mountjoy led the Crown Forces here, to the Royal Inauguration site of Tullaghoge, and smashed the Leac na Ri, the sacred inauguration stone of the O’Neill’s, thereby symbolically breaking the O’Neill sovereignty.

The site was said to have been completely abandoned by 1622 and today it is an incredibly atmospheric place to visit. When you enter the centre of the enclosure and are shut off from the modern world by the trees and earthen banks, you can really get a sense of the history of Tullaghoge, a place of celebrations, ceremonies, inaugurations and gatherings for centuries.

Tullaghoge is just around 4km south of Cookstown in County Tyrone, off the B162 (Cookstown to Stewartstown Road), and you’ll see signposts for the site. There is a small area to park at the base of the hill, and a well made stone path leads nearly the whole way to the site. At the end of the path just pass through the small kissing gate. For more images and information please click here.

Derry City Walls, Co Derry

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Derry is the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland. The walls were built during the period 1613-1618 as defences for early seventeenth century settlers from England and Scotland. Today you can walk the entire length of the walls as they encircle the city.

You can encounter some of the original cannons that ringed the city, and there are easy places to get on and off the walls to visit some of Derry’s many attractions. I visited Derry in the summer and it was certainly one of the highlights of the year, a fantastically historic but still vibrant and modern city.

The experience of walking the walls is something I strongly recommend to all.

Hope you have enjoyed my suggestions, if you are looking for more inspiration for great places to visit try the rest of my articles for the Journal.ie or our blog. Please do let me know your favourite heritage site in Ireland by leaving a comment below.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google+ posts.

If you’d like to support Neil please consider downloading an audioguide from abartaaudioguides.com. They are packed with great facts, information, stories and legends from Ireland’s iconic sites. They are designed to be fun and informative whether you are visiting the sites or from the comfort of your own home, so if you are looking to escape to the Court of Brian Boru the next time you are doing household chores, download one of our guides and let Abarta whisk you off to ancient Ireland!

All images © Neil Jackman/Abarta Audio Guides.

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