Heritage Ireland: 3 amazing sites to see this Easter weekend

Lovely Doneraile Park, ancient Derrynaflan and iconic Clonmacnoise – archaeologist Neil Jackman guides you through these magical sites.

IN THIS EDITION of our Ireland’s Heritage series, we explore the lovely Doneraile Park in County Cork, we discover the ancient church of Derrynaflan in County Tipperary and take a trip to one of Ireland’s most iconic sites – the beautiful monastery of Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, plus details on the National Museum of Ireland’s new Clontarf Exhibition. There’s lots to see and do this Easter weekend!

Doneraile Park, County Cork

Doneraile is a true hidden gem, a lovely town with fantastic 19th century architecture and a charming atmosphere. The town has many stories, in horse racing circles it is famous as it was the finish line of the first ever steeplechase, a horserace that ran from the steeple of the church at Buttevant to the steeple of the church at Doneraile in 1752.

Doneraile Court itself was built in around 1725 for Hayes St Ledger, fourth Viscount of Doneraile and it was altered a number of times in the nineteenth century. The St Ledgers were a wealthy and well-connected family, and even have the curious distinction of having the first female member of the Freemasons.

In 1710 it is said that Elizabeth St Ledger, the daughter of the first Viscount, hid in a grandfather clock to eavesdrop on a meeting of the Masonic Order, but she was caught and to protect the society’s secrets, she was forced to take the Masonic Vows. Hayes St Ledger was also responsible for the beautiful landscaping of the Park that surrounds the house. The grounds are a fantastic place to spend an afternoon, with lots of ideal spots for a picnic.

The state purchased Doneraile Court and its surrounding 400 acre park from the St Ledger family in 1969, and the OPW with the local community and support of Doneraile Development Association, Ballyhoura Development, the Irish Georgian Society and Cork County Council have been working to return the grounds and house to its former glory. Doneraile Park is free entry to visitors and has lovely tea rooms where you can enjoy local produce.

You can find Doneraile around 12km north of Mallow in County Cork, on the R581. It is situated on the River Awbeg, a branch of the Blackwater. This Sunday you can enjoy a guided tour of Doneraile Park, the tour meets at 2.30pm at the Triumphal Arch entrance to the park, the tour costs €5 per person and children are free.

For more information about Doneraile please visit here (please link

Derrynaflan, County Tipperary

Derrynaflan, also known as Gobán Saor’s island, is situated in the middle of Littleton bog. The name derives from the Oak Wood of the Two Flanns, a reference to two prominent clerics who lived here during the ninth century. It has over a thousand years of history as an ecclesiastical settlement – from as far back as the early medieval period to the 1700s.

The site first appears in our historical records when a monastery was said to have been founded here by Saint Ruadhan of Lorrha in the sixth century. Derrynaflan reached its zenith in the eighth and ninth century, when it became home to the Celi Dé (or Culdee) movement. This Christian sect were noted for their very austere way of life.

Derrynaflan is reputed to be the burial place of An Gobán Saor (Gobán the builder), a famed architect, stonemason and builder of churches in Ireland in the decades around 600 AD. He is said to have been born near Malahide, Co Dublin in 560 AD. A wealth of folklore abounds concerning the life of An Gobán.

One tale tells how on one occasion he was building a monastery, and as he neared completion, the monks decided to lower his wages and cheat him of his dues. Gobán refused to negotiate, so the monks took away all his ladders and scaffolding until he agreed, leaving him trapped high on the building. This did not deter Gobán though, he simply began to throw down stone after stone of the building, saying it was an easy way as any to descend, the monks reluctantly relented and paid him the agreed fee.

Another story concerns his shrewd wife Ruaidhseach. Gobán and his son were labouring for seven years to build a fine castle for a king. The wily king planned to have them killed when they finished it so they could not build as fine a fortress for any of his rivals. Gobán heard of his wicked plans and sent word to the king that he couldn’t finish the castle without a particular tool called a “crooked and straight”.

The King, fearing treachery, would not allow Gobán and his son to leave to fetch the tool, so he sent his own son in their place. What the king did not guess, was that the ‘crooked and straight’ was actually a warning code for his wife, Ruaidhseach. When the Prince came demanding the ‘crooked and straight’ she told him it was at the bottom of a deep casket. When the Prince bent over to find it she quickly threw him in and sealed the casket, sending word to the King that if he wished to see his son again then he should release Gobán and her son which he promptly did.

Three graveslabs on the eastern side of the island are said to mark the burial place of the Gobán and his family.

The land for Derrynaflan was probably granted by the powerful Eoganacht dynasty from their base in Cashel, however when the Eoganacht’s power began to wane by the end of the ninth century, the monastic community at Derrynaflan also went into decline.

The site was reinvigorated during the twelfth century, and the ruined church at Derrynaflan represents these two different periods. The small single-roomed church of the early medieval period was incorporated into a larger nave-and-chancel church in the twelfth century. This was a traditional layout during the medieval period, the chancel was the part of the church which housed the altar and where the priests, monks or clergy would have sat during mass, while the nave was for the common people. Outside the church you can see one wall of an enclosure nearby.

A small Franciscan community continued largely unnoticed on the island between 1676 and 1717. This was during a period of suppression of the Catholic Church in Ireland, when the harsh Penal Laws held sway, following the Cromwellian Conquest and Williamite Wars.

In recent years, life has begun to return to the old church site of Derrynaflan, as dawn mass on Easter Sunday morning on the island has become an annual event. To hear more of the story of Derrynaflan try our free MP3 audioguide, available from here.

Clonmacnoise, County Offaly

Clonmacnoise is one of Ireland’s most iconic historical sites. The monastery was founded by Saint Ciarán in the middle of the sixth century. Unlike many of the other early Irish saints who often came from privileged families, Ciarán was the son of a carpenter. Despite his humble origins, Ciarán soon gained a reputation for his intelligence and holiness. After completing his education, Ciarán became the founder of a small monastery on Hare Island in Lough Ree, before choosing the site of Clonmacnoise to establish another monastery.

His choice of location at Clonmacnoise was incredibly shrewd. Though today it seems like a peaceful and somewhat isolated place, in the early medieval period Clonmacnoise was at the crossroads of the two major routeways of Ireland: the mighty River Shannon and the Slí Mór (meaning The Great Way) the roadway that traversed the country from east – west over the glacial eskers that offered easy passage over the wetlands and bogs of the midlands.

Clonmacnoise was also situated on the borders of two of the great kingdoms of early medieval Ireland, Connacht to the west, and Mide (Meath) to the east and the site prospered from its close relations to both of the ruling dynasties.

The earliest churches at Clonmacnoise would have initially been wooden constructions, known at the time as a dearthach (Oak House), but as Clonmacnoise grew in power and prestige these were gradually replaced with grander buildings made from stone, often founded by Kings and nobles.

In 909 King Flann commissioned the construction of the Cathedral and the beautiful high cross known as the Cross of the Scriptures. The cross now on display in the excellent visitor centre, bears an inscription marking the event. Not to be outdone, over the centuries more ruling dynasties like the O’Melaghlins (kings of Meath) commissioned churches at Clonmacnoise. The monastery grew wealthy as rulers and nobles clamoured to be buried within the same hallowed ground as Saint Ciarán, as it was believed that the saint would ensure entry into Heaven.

At its height the monastery was surrounded by a large bustling settlement, with markets, craftsmen, labourers and farm-workers. It would have been surrounded by one of the largest early medieval populations outside of the Viking cities of Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Cork. The growing wealth and reputation did not go unnoticed, and Clonmacnoise was raided a number of times through its history, mostly by warriors from rival Irish kingdoms like Munster, and in 842 and 845 by the Vikings.

As the fortunes of the once mighty kingdoms of Meath and Connacht waned following the Norman invasions, Clonmacnoise too gradually declined over the centuries. The Normans left their mark on the site by constructing Clonmacnoise Castle to ensure they controlled the strategically important crossing point of the Shannon.

Despite Clonmacnoise having a brief period of resurgence in the early seventeenth century, by the mid-1600s the site had been largely abandoned. Its isolation has left us with a wonderfully atmospheric site that is a fantastic place to explore.

Today Clonmacnoise is under the auspices of The Office of Public Works, and a visit to the site should be on everyone’s bucket list. For information about entry fees and opening times please click here.

If you’d like to hear the story of Clonmacnoise try our fun and informative audioguide. Packed with original music and sound effects it is an immersive way to discover the story of Ciarán’s Shining City.

Clontarf Exhibition, National Museum of Ireland

To mark the anniversary of The Battle of Clontarf, the National Museum of Ireland has a special exhibition that helps to tell the story of life in Ireland a thousand years ago, and attempts to separate fact from fiction to establish what caused the Battle of Clontarf, and how life changed in the aftermath of the conflict. Viking and Irish weapons, similar to those used in the battle, feature alongside hoards of precious silver objects and religious treasures. Much more recent artefacts will bring the story of Brian Boru and Clontarf right into modern times.

They have also produced a fascinating series of short videos that help to shed light on the archaeology and history of eleventh century Ireland.

The National Museum of Ireland is a wonderful institution and is free to enter. I highly recommend a visit this weekend to see the incredible artefacts and exhibitions that help to tell the story of Ireland so tangibly.

The National Museum of Ireland, Archaeology is on Kildare Street in Dublin and is open Tuesday – Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday 2pm to 5pm. For more please see here.

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from

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All photographs © Neil Jackman /

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