Hidden Ireland: 3 amazing heritage sites to see this autumn

Archaeologist Neil Jackman leads us through a mystical stone circle in Donegal, an abbey with a bloody past in Mayo and a medieval village in Cork.

LOVELY CRISP AUTUMN weather we’re having – perfect to go exploring one of Ireland’s many stunning heritage sites. In our fortnightly articles we try to focus on highlighting the ‘hidden
gems’, the perhaps lesser-known heritage sites and places off the main tourist lists.

Here are my latest suggestions for great places to visit: the beautiful and atmospheric medieval Moyne Abbey in Co Mayo, one of Ireland’s largest prehistoric stone circles at Beltany in Co Donegal and the charming village of Glanworth in north Cork, where you are never too far from some fantastic reminders of our medieval past.

Moyne Abbey, Co Mayo


Moyne Abbey was founded in 1460 by the powerful de Burgo family, on the orders of Mac William de Burgo. He had originally chosen to establish a monastery near his home in Rappa near Crossmolina.

However when he was out inspecting the planned location for the monastic site a dove flew low overhead. Mac William followed the dove which flew to the low lying site of Moyne, on the estuary that leads out to Killala Bay. Mac William took this to be an omen, as Moyne had once been the site of a great battle and chose this site to donate to the Franciscans to construct their friary.

Moyne Abbey flourished and became a college or novitiate, a place where those aspiring to become friars could learn the order and way of life. It is thought that the community living at Moyne usually numbered over fifty lay monks, professors and friars. However, the peace and tranquillity was not to last.


In 1590, the friary was burned by the notorious Sir Richard Bingham, the English Governor of Connacht appointed by Queen Elizabeth I. There are a number of tales about Bingham and his cruelty and excesses, he hated the powerful Burke (the descendants of de Burgo) family and was envious of their vast estates. He began a campaign to destroy the Burkes and to claim their lands for the Queen for plantation.

One story has it that he was enraged when a beautiful young woman named Mary Burke refused his advances, in retaliation he ordered that all the women bearing the name in the locality be hanged. Thirteen women were executed. Their bodies were thrown into a communal grave adjacent to the castle in an area known as ‘Poll na Marbh’ or ‘The Hollow of the Dead’, which is located within the grounds of the Ballinrobe Golf Club.

Bingham continued his relentless campaign in the region, but despite persecutions by Bingham and the burning in 1590, Moyne Abbey survived, and friars continued to live, worship and work at Moyne.

A historical account of 1606 tells of a man by the name of Mooney visiting Moyne, where he encountered a widow who owned the friary and the lands surrounding it, however, she had let the church and some cells to a group of friars, whose rent was paid by a member of the de Burgo clan.

Another story tells of a family that blew the roof off the friary with gunpowder and sold the bell of the friary for £700, an enormous sum in those days. It is possible that friars continued to reside in the friary until the end of the 18th century, when the friary began to fall into ruin.

Today the remains are still incredibly well preserved and a fantastically atmospheric place to visit. The majority of buildings are still standing at the site and the cloister walk where the monks would have walked in silent contemplation and prayer are amongst the finest surviving anywhere in Ireland.


The well-preserved aisled church stands on the southern side of the cloister. To the north of the cloister are the kitchen and refectory where a monk would have read out prayers while the friars were eating. On the eastern side of the cloister is the sacristy and chapter house where the friars would have met to discuss the day-to-day running of the community and important issues would have been discussed.

Above the chapter house were the dormitories. Buildings that are in a very ruinous condition at the site include the mill, which still has water from a millrace flowing to it and the infirmary, which is where the sick would have been treated.

Moyne Abbey is a fantastic example of a medieval monastic site and is located in a wonderfully picturesque location. To get to the Friary, take the R314 from Ballina towards Killala. The site is off a minor road close to Killala on the right and is signposted. There is very limited parking at the site. Access to the site is through some private land so please close all gates behind you.

Beltany Stone Circle, Co Donegal


Beltany Stone Circle is positioned high on a hilltop in County Donegal with stunning views. It is made up of 64 stones of various sizes enclosing a low earth mound; originally it is thought that there could have been up to 80 stones. The diameter of the circle is around 45m, making it one of the largest stone circles in Ireland.

The interior of the site has a number of loose stones strewn around, evidence of disturbance in the past, as noted by archaeologist Oliver Davies in the 1930s. This disturbance probably dates to
the nineteenth century or even earlier, as according to the OS Memoir (1836), there had been a cairn or ‘vast heap of stones’ within the circle, but it had been removed to form fences in the vicinity.

Thomas Fagan, who saw the monument in 1846, observed that both the interior and the enclosing circle of stones were ‘much disfigured’. He was informed that ‘the interior was raised with earth and stones covering and encircling sepulchral graves’ and that decayed bones were unearthed here. So it is certainly possible that this low mound in the centre is the remains of a cairn or large earth mound, and that the stone circle represents the remains of kerbing.


It has been suggested that there may have been a megalithic chamber within the circle and that the site is the remains of a passage tomb, though this has not yet been conclusively proven.

Some believe that the stone circle has astronomical alignments, and that it is associated with the pre-Christian festival of Bealtaine (roughly equivalent to May Day). At this festival, it is believed that people gathered together on hilltops to light fires to mark the changing of the seasons. Bealtaine was one of the four major festivals of ancient Ireland and marked the beginning of summer, the other festivals were: Lugnasadh, which was celebrated at the start of August and marked the beginning of Autumn); Samhain (the origin of today’s Halloween) marked the beginning of Winter; and Imbolc which was normally celebrated in early February and marked the beginning of Spring.


The name Beltany is clearly derived from Bealtaine and suggests that the site was an important place of congregation and celebration at this important festival.

Beltany Stone Circle is pretty easy to find and is well signposted, it is located in Tops Townland, roughly around a 5 minute drive from Raphoe (around 3 miles south) and about 25 minutes or so from Letterkenny. You’ll find a small carpark at the base of the hill, and a good path leading upwards. I advise wearing decent boots as the site is in a field and ground conditions can be a little rough.

Glanworth, Co Cork


North Cork is a beautiful part of the country, and alongside the banks of the River Funcheon that winds its way through the rich pastureland you can find Glanworth, a village full of heritage and history with a number of great medieval buildings to explore.

Glanworth is thought to be associated with a branch of the Eoghanacht, the ancient ruling dynasty of Munster during the early medieval period, however no visible remains from that time can be seen today. Instead much of the historic structures in the village date to the medieval period, following the Norman invasions.

This area of Cork was granted to two brothers called de Caunteton (whose later descendants became Condon). They constructed a castle with a manor and town. By the end of the thirteenth century, Glanworth passed into the hands of David Roche through marriage, and his descendants remained there until they lost their lands after the Cromwellian confiscations in the seventeenth century.

The first place we stopped at Glanworth was at the medieval friary. This was founded by the Roaches for the Dominican Order in 1475.


Unfortunately only the church remains of the monastic site as there are no above-ground traces of all the other monastic buildings including the dormitory, cloisters and refectory. The church is quite plain, a long rectangular building with a tall tower. It does have a very fine window on the eastern wall and is well worth a visit if you’re in the village.

You can access Glanworth Castle through the grounds of the lovely Glanworth Mill. The castle is strategically positioned high on a rock outcrop and would have been an effective defensive position overlooking a key crossing point of the River Funcheon. It was first constructed by the de Cauntetons in the thirteenth century.

Archaeological excavations at the castle revealed that the castle was constructed in four key phases, the first phase was a simple rectangular hall-keep surrounded by a strong wall which had a gatehouse in the western side. The main structure was the hall-keep (see pic below), which served both as a defensive redoubt and a lordly residence, this type of building was usually split into two floors with the ground floor being defensive and the upper floor containing the great hall and domestic quarters. You can see other similar examples of Glanworth’s hall-keep at Rindoon in County Roscommon and at the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois.


Soon after the first phase was completed, the gatehouse was extended and converted into a domestic residence. During the fifteenth century in the third phase of the castle, the gatehouse was transformed into a fashionable towerhouse. During the fourth and final stage of construction at Glanworth in the early 17th century, a kitchen was constructed inside the walls. The castle was badly damaged by the Cromwellian General Ireton’s artillery in 1649, and never recovered as a defensive site.

You can get some lovely views over the river from the castle, where you can see the beautiful 16th or 17th century bridge.


We did not get a chance to see it ourselves, but the ruined nineteenth century Church of Ireland church is on the site of where the medieval parish church would have been, and apparently you can still see traces of this earlier church, with medieval graveslabs reused as headstones and parts of medieval walls are still visible.

The town of Glanworth is certainly worth a visit, and there are a number of great heritage sites nearby too like the impressive Labbacallee Wedge Tomb.

I hope you enjoy this article, it is part of a regular fortnightly series for, the
articles are based on my blog. Take a look to see if we have covered any sites in your area.

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Is this the most ancient carving of a hurley and sliotar?>

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