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Dublin: 5°C Tuesday 24 November 2020
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No plans for the long weekend? Here's 16 brilliant Irish things to see

No matter where in the country you are…

IT’S THE FINAL edition of our Heritage Ireland series for 2015, so archaeologist Neil Jackman shares some of his favourite sites from all around the country in this bumper special edition.

As the days are drawing shorter and the winter is upon us, this is the last of my Heritage Ireland series for this year. So in this special edition I’ve included just a few of my favourite sites from all around the island of Ireland.

All of these sites are free to enter and are open to the public all year round. Some are situated on private land, so please do ensure that you close all gates behind you and that if livestock are present that you please keep your dogs on a lead.

North Midlands

Boa Island, County Fermanagh

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Caldragh Cemetery, a small seldom-visted graveyard on Boa Island, is home to some of the most enigmatic prehistoric art in Europe. The larger sculpture is a two-sided ‘Janus’ figure, with depictions of a bearded figure on both sides.

Both of the depictions show an oval-faced man with large almond shaped bulging eyes, and a straight nose. One side has the tongue partially sticking out, the other seems just to be an open mouth.

The head just merges into the body without a clear neck, and the arms are crossed over what appears to be a belt. The base of the larger sculpture was found at a later time, and is now propped up against the figure. At the top of the heads there is a groove where people today leave coins as an offering.

The smaller figure is called the ‘Lustymore Man’, and was found on the neighbouring Lustymore Island. It appears to be more weathered and more plainly carved. This figure is only one sided, but has a lot of similarities with the larger figure. It seems to also depict a man with a straight nose and open mouth and its arms are crossed.

So who made these sculptures? Who do they depict and when were they carved?

Unfortunately there really isn’t very much information at all about the Boa Island figures, though they are both thought to date to some time in the Iron Age.

The small cemetery they reside in is a very atmospheric place, apart from a few old gravestones that largely date to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, there is nothing else here, no church or visible monument.

You walk along a small grassy path and enter this leafy glade to be confronted by these two idols. It almost feels like something from a Mayan site from the jungles of Central America, rather than a small, narrow island in County Fermanagh.

Definitely worth a trip if you’re in the area!

Boa Island is on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, roughly around 25km north-west of Enniskillen on the A47. The island is long and narrow with bridges that lead on and off it, so it is fully accessible by car, no ferries are required. The figures are in Caldragh Graveyard in the south-west of the island, the graveyard is well signposted and there is a small area to park.

Cavan Burren, County Cavan

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This remarkable upland limestone plateau is part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. The Cavan Burren has a visitor information point, leading to a number of superb walks along well-made paths and boardwalks offering stunning views over the landscape.

Here you will encounter an array of megalithic tombs, including the Giant’s Grave, a large and well-preserved wedge tomb that dates to around 2,500 BC. The tomb has two burial chambers, and interestingly it has a large amount of cup and ring rock art. It is believed to be aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice.

The remains of other monuments, including a small promontory fort and later 18th- and 19th-century settlement, means that the Cavan Burren is an absolutely perfect blend of breathtaking scenery and heritage.

You’ll find the Cavan Burren well-signposted from the village of Blacklion at co-ordinates 54.26519, -7.88745, it is free to access and I highly recommend a trip.

Midlands

Rindoon, County Roscommon

Rindoon is one of Ireland’s best preserved deserted medieval towns.

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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 15-minute walk through fields, which may have livestock, so do remember to bring appropriate footwear and please close all gates behind you. For more information about Rindoon and the story of the villainous Geoffrey de Marisco please click here.

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois

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.

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The first historical reference to the Rock of Dunamase came from the Annals that record it being plundered by Viking raiders in 843 AD.

The rock was reputedly 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 Anglo-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 M7. You can discover the story of Dunamase by downloading our free app.

North-East

Nendrum, County Down

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Positioned in a scenic setting on Strangford Lough, Nendrum is one of the best-preserved examples of an early Irish monastery. It is thought to have been founded by saint Mo-Choí in the mid-5th century.

The site reached its peak in around the 7th–10th centuries, and the remains of a church, round tower, stone houses, sundials, enclosures and tide mills have been discovered.

The site is one of the best to visit to get an idea of how an early-medieval monastery was laid out, and it is an atmospheric and scenic place to while away an hour or two.

You can find Nendrum roughly 25km south-east of Belfast, on a minor road off the A22 (Comber-Downpatrick road).

Castleroache, County Louth

One of the best of Ireland’s hidden heritage treasures, Castleroache is possibly the finest example of Ireland’s mid-thirteenth century castles.

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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. 

East

The Hellfire Club, County Dublin

Steeped in local legends of demonic devilish debauchery, the Hellfire Club is one of the most iconic and atmospheric places to enjoy a walk in Ireland.

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The building was constructed as a Hunting Lodge for the famous politician William ‘Speaker’ Conolly in 1725, however Conolly died soon after its construction and it was leased to a notorious group of aristocrats who called themselves The Hellfire Club.

Stories of their bacchanalian revelries and darker tales of demonic rites and devil worship at the Hellfire Club are synonymous with the building and it is undoubtedly an atmospheric and slightly creepy place.

A neolithic passage tomb on the site was destroyed when the building was being constructed, and the remains of this 5,000 year old tomb can be seen just to the rear of the building. The views over the landscape are incredible, and there is a nicely set out walking loop around the hill so it is a popular place for walkers and dog owners.

The site is about 15 minutes’ drive or so south of Tallaght on the R115. It is well signposted with a large carpark, you can simply follow the well made path all the way to the site.

The River Walk, Trim, County Meath.

The River Walk at Trim is one of the nicest strolls in Ireland, as you get to see five fantastic medieval sites all positioned alongside the banks of the beautiful River Boyne.

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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-12th 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 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 what life was like 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 30–35 minutes and there is a great old pub, Marcey Reagan’s directly across from the last stop so you can reward yourself with a pint before retracing your steps back along the path.

Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin

Rathfarnham Castle has just reopened after refurbishments and there is free entry all weekend.

For information about opening hours please visit here. 

South East

The Towers, Ballysaggartmore, Lismore, County Waterford

The ‘Towers’ is one of the best examples of a 19th-century folly existing today in Ireland.

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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 never came 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.

Athassel Priory, County Tipperary

Athassel Priory is located close to the village of Golden in Co. Tipperary and is a fantastic example of an Augustinian Priory.

 

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Indeed Athassel was once an important urban centre in medieval Ireland. It is said that there were over 2,000 people living in a settlement around the Priory, but today the ruins slumber beside the meandering River Suir, with no visible traces of the vibrant settlement that once surrounded it.

Athassel stands today as a testament to the different fortunes of the Anglo Norman families who came to Ireland in search of opportunities and land. One of the largest medieval priories to be found in Ireland, Athassel is incredibly well preserved and highlights the strong connections between the Norman Lords and the church and the value of strong patronage.

The complex stretches across four acres of land and features one of Ireland’s only medieval gate and bridge complexes, a truly wonderful site to explore.

To get to Athassel, make your way to the village of Golden, Co. Tipperary via the N74. Drive through the village, over the bridge, directly after the bridge turn left (the site is signposted) and continue down this small lane. The site will be located on your left. There is limited parking.

South West

Doneraile Park, County Cork

Doneraile is a a lovely estate village with fantastic architecture and a charming atmosphere.

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The area 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 Leger, fourth Viscount of Doneraile and it was altered a number of times in the nineteenth century. The St Legers were a wealthy and well-connected family, and even have the curious distinction of having one of the first female members of the Freemasons.

In 1710 it is said that Elizabeth St Leger, 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.

You can find Doneraile around 12km north of Mallow in County Cork, on the R581. The grounds are a fantastic place to spend an afternoon, with lots of ideal spots for a picnic. Be sure to download your free app that tells the story of this lovely site, available to download direct to your smartphone or tablet from here.

Killmallock, County Limerick

Killmallock is one of Ireland’s best preserved medieval walled towns, and it has a wealth of fascinating historic buildings that are great to explore.

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The story of Killmallock begins in the early medieval period, some time around 600 AD when St. Mocheallóg founded a monastery on Killmallock Hill.

Over time more religious orders established foundations in Killmallock, and today perhaps the most striking of these are the remains of the Dominican Priory that dates to around 1291.

Here you can explore this treasure-trove of architectural wonders with a number of fantastic examples of the skill of medieval stonemasons with extravagant window designs and numerous sculptures of human heads.

Killmallock was once one of the most important towns in medieval Munster, and it benefitted from its association with the powerful Fitzgerald dynasty. The wealth of the town was reflected in the medieval buildings like the stone mansion, and the elaborate defences like the well-preserved town walls with gates and fortifications like King’s Castle.

We also have a free app for Kilmallock, please see here for more details. 

West

Moore Hall, County Mayo

Moore Hall is located in a beautiful spot on the shore of Lough Carra in Co Mayo.

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The house was constructed between 1792 and 1796 by George Moore. 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 a 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. There is a marked trail through the woods which is approximately 3km long. For more information please see here.

Cahercommaun, The Burren, County Clare

Cahercommaun, a large stone fort that perches dramatically at the edge of a cliff overlooking a steep valley.

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Cahercommaun bears a striking resemblance to Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór, with its its complex of defensive walls and utilisation of the natural topography.

It really is a stunning location.

To get there, travel to Carron and continue south on the L1014. Take the first left and continue on this road. Keep left and stay on this road. You will eventually come to a yellow house with a small boreen to the side signed for Cahercommaun at co-ordinates 53.009950, -9.081712. There is a 15- minute walk along a gravel path.

North-West

Caves of Keash, County Sligo

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The Caves of Keash in County Sligo are some of Ireland’s most visually striking caves, appearing as black mouths set in the white limestone rock face high on the western shoulder of Keshcorran Mountain.

There are 16 caves and you can enter the majority to enjoy a really incredible evocative experience. Archaeological investigations in the early 20th century, discovered bones from animals that stalked Ireland towards the end of the Ice Age – with evidence of hares, brown bear, red deer, Arctic lemming and wolves.

Tantalising evidence of human activity was also discovered during the investigations, with artefacts and human remains discovered from a number of periods throughout Irish history.

One of the discoveries has sinister possibilities. Part of a leg bone of an adult male was discovered within one of the caves, nearby to an iron crossbow bolt. This could represent the grisly end for someone who was hiding in the caves before they were hunted down. An entry in the Annals of the Four Masters from 1007 AD states: ‘…Muireadhach, a distinguished bishop…was suffocated in a cave, in Gaileanga of Corann’.

Being so highly visible and unusual in the landscape, the Caves of Keash and the mountain are imbued with myth, legend and folklore. The legendary High King of Ireland, Cormac Mac Airt was said to have been born by a well at the foot of Keshcorran, and was raised by a she-wolf in one of the caves.

The caves also feature in stories of Fionn MacCumhaill, who had to enter the caves to seek out the otherworld smithy of Lon MacLíomhtha. Another story featuring the caves tells how Fionn and his Fianna were captured and bound in the caves by three hideous hags.

You can find the Caves of Keshcorran signposted off the R295 between Ballymote and Boyle (around 30km from Sligo at co-ordinates 54º03.541, -008º27.146). There is a small carpark and a steep path up to the caves but I highly recommend good walking boots as it can be very slippy underfoot. For more information and images please visit our blog.

Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demense, County Derry

The wealthy and flamboyant Earl Bishop Fredrick Hervey, chose the beautifully dramatic headland of Downhill in County Derry to build his grand country house.

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He spent a fortune on the finest architects and designers, and had the grounds beautifully landscaped with follies and iconic features. He filled the house with artwork by European masters like Rubens, Raphael, Murrillo and Tintoretto, and it became one of the key venues for high society in the eighteenth century.

Unfortunately a devastating fire swept through the mansion in 1851 and destroyed most of the contents. It was rebuilt and lived in until after World War II, but it never regained the majestic opulence of Hervey’s tenure.

Today it is a beautiful place to explore, where you will encounter famous features like the Mussenden Temple, the Lion’s Gate and the mansion itself.

You’ll find Downhill on the scenic A2 Coastal Road, just north-west of Coleraine in County Derry.

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So that brings this year’s Heritage Ireland series to an end. I am grateful to TheJournal.ie for running these articles, and I’d especially like to thank all of you for reading and commenting and for all of your kind support and suggestions of places to visit. If you’d like to discover more about my company please do pay us a visit at abartaheritage.ie where you can download audiobooks and guides to Irish historic sites, and on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

More: The king in ‘high spirits’ who arrived to Ireland stuffed with goose pie and Irish whiskey

Read: Brian Boru’s ‘Island of Churches’ is the perfect place to relax and unwind

Related: The widowed Máire Rua married Cromwell’s junior officer to keep her Burren house 

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