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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
heritage ireland

Step from Ireland's pre-Famine past to life in the New World in the Sperrins

Fancy stretching the legs over the Easter weekend? Archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.

IN THIS EDITION we take a trip to the famous Ulster American Folk Park in Tyrone to get an insight into Irish emigration, and we visit one of Kildare’s ancient monasteries that played a significant role in the Rebellion of 1798. As ever, 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.

The Ulster American Folk Park, Co Tyrone

We spent a great few days last week visiting heritage sites around Co Tyrone. Apart from the incredible megalithic monuments and stone circles that are so abundant in the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains, Tyrone’s most famous attraction is the Ulster American Folk Park, located just north of Omagh on the A5.

The Folk Park gives really great insights into the history of Irish emigration to the United States. I had expected it to be a little hackneyed, but the attention to detail in the faithful reconstruction of the buildings along with the enthusiasm of the excellent guides made it an informative and enjoyable experience.

The Folk Park was originally developed by the Mellon family. They originated as tenant farmers in Tyrone, and sold their lease to move to Pennsylvania in 1818. They would go on to become one of the wealthiest families in the world, after establishing the powerful Mellon Bank.

As you explore the park you begin with a typical tenant farmers cottage. This single roomed cabin originally stood in the Sperrin Mountains, and was meticulously reconstructed stone by stone here in the Folk Park. Inside, one of the guides was dressed in authentic 19th century clothes and she gave an account of life for the landless poor in Ireland prior to the Famine. The smell of the turf fire and damp thatch created a really evocative experience.

Other reconstructed buildings include an early 19th century blacksmiths forge, a weaver’s cottage and a meeting house. The only building still in its original setting is the Mellon homestead, a typical three-roomed farm cottage, where the guide baked (very tasty) bread in a traditional iron skillet over a turf fire.

The trail eventually leads to the docks, where you board a cargo ship to gain an experience of what the Atlantic crossing was like for the emigrants. As you disembark the ship, you find yourself in a reconstruction of the New World, in an American street typical to those that would have greeted the emigrants who arrived in Boston, Baltimore or New York.

Moving through the rest of the Park gives you a sense of life in rural America, with reconstructed log cabins that originally stood in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The Ulster American Folk Park is a great day out for all the family. This Easter they are having a number of events, including a re-enactment of a typical Spring Fair in 1914 Ulster. For more information including entrance fees and opening times please click here.

Old Kilcullen, Co Kildare

Old Kilcullen 3

Old Kilcullen is, as its name implies, the original site of the settlement of Kilcullen. The hilltop was the site of an early medieval monastery that was believed to be founded in the 6th century, however hagiographic legend states that the monastery was originally founded by Patrick himself, who gave it to a bishop called Mac Táil.

Mac Táil was listed as one of Patrick’s smiths or craftsmen, and indeed the name Mac Táil translates as ‘Son of the Adze’, an adze being an axe-like woodworking tool used by craftsmen of the time. He is wonderfully depicted cheerfully using his adze to decapitate an enemy on the shaft of an early medieval high cross on the site.

The cross shaft is one of two that you can see. Along with Mac Táil, it also depicts more conventional biblical scenes, like the Flight into Egypt and the Twelve Apostles. The eastern cross is taller, though unfortunately the shaft is too worn to make out any depictions.

The base of a third high cross lies to the south of the round tower. This round tower is likely to date to the 11th century. It would have served as the bell tower for the monastery and a repository for valuable items. Its round-headed Romanesque doorway faces to the north. Although now in ruins and standing 13 metres high, it was still in a good state of preservation until it was badly damaged during the 1798 Rebellion.

It was here at Old Kilcullen that the rebels scored a notable victory in one of the early engagements of the uprising. Some 300 rebels assembled here on 24 May and used the walls of the graveyard to defend themselves when they were charged by a force of British cavalry. It is said that the round tower suffered extensive damage during this skirmish; a sketch from the 1780s showed that it was in a much better state prior to the battle. The rebels were defeated in a subsequent battle and surrendered just a few days later.

Just to the north-west of the graveyard, a round hill is visible under a kilometre away. This is Dún Ailinne, one of Ireland’s ancient royal sites. This was a place of large assemblies, and is believed to have housed a palace and a fortress, with royal roads leading to it from different directions.

Archaeological excavations here over 40 years ago revealed evidence of palisade enclosures dating back to the Iron Age. At the centre of the site, archaeologists discovered a circular podium which may have been a ceremonial inauguration place. It is perhaps no coincidence that the monastery at Old Kilcullen was located within sight of this ancient royal seat.

Old Kilcullen is a really atmospheric spot, along with the other ancient monasteries of Kildare it features on our free audioguide, please see here for a preview.

You’ll find the site approximately 3.5km south-west of Kilcullen. Take the R448 and continue on to the R418. Turn left onto the L6078 at the crossroads, this small road ends in a T junction where you can see the site in front of you at co-ordinates 53.108164, -6.762075.


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, 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 to the lovely heritage town of Abbeyleix in Co Laois. You can download it as a free audio-visual app (iOS or Android), 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 /

Read more from Neil here>

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