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Dublin: 11 °C Thursday 18 April, 2019
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Ever heard of Darby's Bed? Diarmuid and Gráinne 'slept' here...

Discover this magical ancient site in Co Limerick, and a monastic complex that saved locals from slaughter in Kilkenny as Neil Jackman’s Heritage Ireland returns.

SPRING HAS ARRIVED and the weather is beginning to improve again.

Continuing from last year’s Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.

In the first edition of 2015 we revisit an old favourite, the incredible Kells Priory in Co Kilkenny, and take a hike up to an atmospheric ancient tomb imbued with legend in Co Limerick. As ever, this year I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions – if you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

Kells Priory, Co Kilkenny

Kells Priory 1

In December we visited an old favourite of mine, Kells Priory, one of Ireland’s very best hidden gems. This enormous site has the appearance of a large castle with high walls and strong towers, but despite its military appearance, the site was a monastic foundation, founded by the Norman knight Geoffrey FitzRobert in c.1193 for the Augustinian canons.

The huge walls and towers date to the late fourteenth or fifteenth century. By this time the Priory had become well established and the church buildings had been expanded considerably.

The wealth of the site did not go unnoticed, and the site was attacked a number of times in this turbulent period. First in around 1317 by the armies of Edward Bruce, brother to the Scottish king Robert the Bruce, who had launched an invasion of Ireland to try to break England’s colonies there and to open a second front in the Scottish wars with England.

Later, the Irish friar and chronicler John Clyn recorded that Kells was burned and the surrounding area devastated in the course of a baronial war in 1327. The 14th century generally was a time of great disturbance, warfare and, at times, almost apocalyptic nightmare in Ireland as the Black Death swept across the country.

The troubles continued into the 15th century, as various factions battled for supremacy in the region. The walls and towers were constructed as a defence and refuge for the people and livestock of the area as well as for the priors. As you pass around the outside of the towers you can see evidence of the defensive features, like machicolations and murder holes, from where the defenders could pour down boiling fat, bad language, large stones, and even the contents of the toilet to make life nasty for any attackers.

One of the defensive towers with a machicolation over it.

These strong walls enclose an area of nearly three acres, and the sheer enormous scale really makes this one of the most remarkable heritage sites to explore in Ireland.

Inside the walls you can find the remains of the churches, cloister area and the domestic buildings of the priors, like the kitchens and dormitories. After venturing through the site, you can enjoy a lovely walk alongside the King’s River. The priors would have operated a series of mills and fisheries along the river to help make the priory economically viable, and you can just about make out the remains of these from the stonework in the river.

Kells Priory is simply enormous and well worth taking a couple of hours to explore. If you have time and if you’re in the mood to visit more monastic ruins I strongly recommend following the signpost to Kilree monastic site, located just 2km up the road.

This early medieval monastic site is certainly worth a visit and has the remains of a fine round tower, a medieval church and an interesting high cross. You can discover more about this site on my blog here.

You’ll find Kells Priory about 15km south of Kilkenny city, near the village of Kells, well signposted off the R697, there is a carpark but please be advised that you must cross a large [often mucky] field to access the site so do wear comfortable footwear.

Darby’s Bed, Co Limerick 

Darby’s Bed (also known as Duntryleague Passage Tomb), is the remains of a passage tomb, situated near the summit of a steep hill just outside the village of Galbally in Co Limerick. We visited the site in November, and found it to be a really tranquil and atmospheric spot.

The tomb probably dates to around 3000BC, and was once covered by a stone cairn or earthen mound. All that remains visible today are large upright stones known as orthostats that once lined the passageway and the capped chamber of the passage tomb. The entrance to the tomb faces north-west, possibly in alignment with the sunset at midsummer. Though the planted forest obscures much of the view, it is clear that this tomb once had spectacular views over the landscape.

The Neolithic tomb is steeped with legends and folklore, and the tragic lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne are said to have sheltered for a night inside this tomb when they were fleeing Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

From Galbally village square, head northwest and follow the signpost marked Duntryleague cairns and passage tomb. Follow this small road for approximately 2km and you will come to a small gravelled car park on your right with a wooden sign marked megalithic tomb. Leave your car here and follow the path up the hill. It’s around 500m to walk though it is quite a steep climb, and comfortable boots are recommended. Just keep following the path straight up and you’ll see the tomb on your left.

If you have time there is a marked hiking route around the area. To download a free hiking route map please click here on the Visit Ballyhoura website.

  • Handy tip: If you enjoy visiting historical sites I do recommend purchasing a Heritage Card from the OPW. These cards allow access to all OPW Heritage Sites for a year, and really are exceptional value and you can save considerable money if you plan to visit a number of sites through the year. An adult card costs just €25, a senior card (60 years and over) costs €20, students (and under 18s) costs just €10, and a family card €60. You can pick up your card at any OPW fee-paying site, please see here for more information.

***

Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog, Time Travel Ireland, where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website abartaheritage.ie, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

Our latest free-to-download guide is The Kildare Monastic Trail that leads you to the atmospheric ruins of the ancient monasteries of Kildare. Download as a free audio-visual app (Android or ioS), please see here for a preview.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Abarta Audioguides on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaheritage.ie

Read more from Neil here>

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