This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
OK
Dublin: 4 °C Monday 16 December, 2019
Advertisement

4 more off-the-beaten-track places you really should visit

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman suggests four more heritage sites to visit in Offaly, Roscommon, Meath and Tipperary.

Clara Bog Visitor Centre, Co. Offaly

I’M NOT JUST a history and archaeology nerd, I like a bit of natural history too! I paid a visit to Clara Bog Visitor Centre in Co. Offaly this week and had a great day. The modern and accessible Visitor Centre gives great insights into the wonderful and precious landscape of Ireland’s peat bogs, and you can encounter the fascinating fauna and flora (including a very innocent looking but carnivorous plant). After you have visited the centre, enjoy a walk along the boardwalks that lead you safely through this remarkable landscape.

It’s a great time of year to visit as well, with lots of newly hatched tadpoles, and some of the plants are beginning to flower. I highly recommend a visit to bring the kids to see some of the diverse wealth of Ireland’s natural heritage. Entry to the boardwalks and visitor centre is completely free of charge. You can find more details on their website at http://www.npws.ie/naturereserves/offaly/clarabognaturereserve/

Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon

The incredible complex of archaeological monuments that fill the landscape around Tulsk in County Roscommon needs a whole lifetime to explore. Rathcroghan is the most famous of the monuments, and is one of the key Royal sites of Pre-Christian Ireland along with The Hill of Tara in Meath, Dún Ailinne in Kildare, The Rock of Cashel in Tipperary and Emain Macha (Navan Fort) in Armagh. Rathcroghan was the ancient capital of Connacht, from where the last High Kings of Ireland, the O’Connors, ruled.

The site is possibly most famous for its appearance in the great Irish epic the Táin Bó Cuailgne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley). It was at Rathcroghan that pillow talk between Queen Medb and her consort Ailill turned competitive as they quarreled over their respective fortunes, with Ailill playing his trump card of his magnificent white bull, only matched by the Brown Bull of Cooley in Co. Louth, that Medb immediately determined that she must steal, leading to all manner of hassle.

The mound itself is located in the centre of the archaeological landscape, and when you ascend the mound you are rewarded with incredible views of the surrounding countryside. The site has never been excavated by archaeologists, but an exciting series of non-intrusive investigations using geophysics have been conducted by archaeologists, the results of which are highlighted and clearly explained in the Visitor Centre. Another one of the famous monuments located close to the main mound of Rathcroghan is Owenygat – The Cave of the Cats. This cave is central to many legends and folklore. It was thought to be the entrance to the Otherworld, and home to early Irish race that became Fairies, the Tuatha Dé Dannan. It was also believed to be a place guarded by malevolent creatures that emerge from the cave at Samhain, and ravage the land of Ireland, and home to the Morrígan, the powerful goddess of battle, strife and fertility.

This is a fascinating landscape deeply steeped in folklore, legend, history and archaeology. Though you can access the main site for free, I strongly recommend you pay a visit first to the excellent visitor centre. This will give you a real grasp of the complexity of the archaeology as well as the stories and legends that make this such a special place. You can also arrange tours of Rathcroghan and its associated sites through the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre at Cruachan Ai in Tulsk Village where the staff are more than happy to take you on a journey through this ancient landscape. The centre is open all year round.

Tours of the centre cost €5 per person for adult (discount for children/students and pensioners) and visits to the sites can be arranged by appointment. Site tours cost €20 which covers 1 to 4 people with an additional charge of €5 for each subsequent person. For special events or to arrange a tour see www.rathcroghan.ie or contact 071 9639268

Loughcrew, Co. Meath

Cairn T is perhaps the best known of the extensive series of passage tombs making up the archaeological landscape of Slieve na Calliagh. The cairn dates to around 3000 BC, and is 35m in diameter and 5m high, and has a number of fine examples of megalithic art. Cairn T is surrounded by six smaller satellite tombs, some of which are no longer covered by a cairn or mound and are now accessible.

The Hag’s Chair is one of the kerbstones that surround Cairn T, it displays megalithic art but unfortunately the carvings are very difficult to make out today. More clear is the cross inscribed on the seat, it possibly represents the use of the stone as a Mass Rock during penal times. It was possibly also used as a ceremonial or inauguration chair during the early medieval period.

The name Slieve na Calliagh is thought to derive from The Hill of the Witch. Folklore has it that the monuments at Loughcrew were formed when a witch called An Cailleach Bhéara, was challenged to drop an apron full of stones on each of the three Loughcrew peaks, if she succeeded she would be proclaimed the ruler of all Ireland. She was successful on the first two peaks, but missed the third and fell to her death.

Loughcrew is one of the true hidden gems of Ireland, a fantastically atmospheric place that you will quite often have to yourself. People still gather at Loughcrew at the Vernal Equinox (usually around the end of March) and Autumnal Equinox to watch sunlight enter the chamber and illuminate the interior of the tomb. Unlike the superb but far more frequented Newgrange, Loughcrew can perhaps offer a more intimate experience with Ireland’s Neolithic past. Loughcrew is located approximately 3km east of Oldcastle in Co. Meath, it is free to enter, and great guided tours are available (also free of charge) from the Office of Public Works from the 30th May – 28th August, see http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/midlandseastcoast/Loughcrew/ for more details.

Athassel Abbey, Co. Tipperary

Athassel Abbey is located close to the village of Golden in Co. Tipperary and is a fantastic example of an Augustianian Priory. Indeed Athassel Abbey was once an important urban centre in medieval Ireland. It is said that there were over two thousand people living in a settlement around the Abbey, but today the ruins of the abbey slumber beside the meandering River Suir, with no visible traces of the vibrant settlement that once surrounded it.

This Abbey site was founded in around 1200 AD by a prominent Anglo Norman named William Fitz Aldhelm de Burgo. He was granted extensive land in Tipperary and decided to give some of that land to the church to create a bastion of Anglo Norman worship in the Irish Landscape. It is likely that William de Burgo himself lived quite close to the site where the abbey was to be built, the remains of a motte stand across the river from the abbey. Mottes were built by Norman lords in the years after their arrival in Ireland as defensive sites to gain control of strategic areas. Today the motte at Athassel is very overgrown but it is an interesting indication of strong Anglo Norman presence in the area.

Augustinian Canons came to Athassel on de Burgos request and initially built half a church, followed by a cloister area, then a chapter house and dormitories with a refectory or eating area before turning their attention back to the church to complete the nave or congregation area. The priory was dedicated to St. Edmund. The support from a wealthy family like the de Burgos and the location of the Abbey on the banks of the navigable River Suir insured that it would become a prominent economic hub and settlement quickly grew around it. The burgeoning town was granted the valuable privilege of the right to hold an annual fair for seven days that attracted people from surrounding towns and villages from miles around. To put this in context, at this time Dublin was granted an annual fair of fifteen days.

By the 1480s, the abbey was in decline. It had suffered during the fourteenth century from raids, burnings and plague, and by the fifteenth century Ireland was becoming more lawless as the power of the Anglo Norman lords was dwindling. In 1512, the strong connection with the de Burgo family was broken, and another family took precedence, the Butlers of Ormond. The Butler family had landholdings in south Tipperary and Kilkenny. The break with the Burkes was the beginning of the end for Athassel as shortly after King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Athassel was spared until 1552, when King Edward VI ordered the abandonment of Athassel. It was burned one final time in 1581 by a member of the Fitzgerald family who destroyed the monastery in Athassel in a search of ‘spoils and booty’.

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. The site is located both close to the historical towns of Cashel and Cahir so why not combine a visit to Athassel with a visit to the wonderful Rock of Cashel or the magnificently well preserved Cahir Castle.

  • You can discover more great sites off the beaten track 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 cost just €1.99 each (or free in the case of The Rock of Dunamase) and are available from abartaheritage.ie

Interior photograph of Oweynagat © Richard Mills. All other photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaheritage.ie
All recommendations are from the personal experience of Neil, who has received no payment from any site owner or community.

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article
  •  

Read next:

COMMENTS (55)