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10 tips for offbeat travellers in Ireland

If you like exploring Irish history, stories and eccentricities then read on…

Annemarie Ni Churreain

Here, Annemarie Ní Churreáin recommends ten destinations and accompanying books for visitors in pursuit of Irish history, stories and eccentricities.

1 Tory Island, Donegal

Located about nine miles off the coast of Donegal, this spectacular island is regarded by some as a former stronghold of the Fomorian pirates, a semi-divine race who were descendants of Noah. Ruled at that time by King Balor of the Evil Eye, Tory is now under the reign of King Patsy Dan Rodgers – an affable man on a bicycle who takes his role very seriously and can often be found welcoming visitors off the ferry. Irish is the everyday language of this tiny population (approx 150 people) and the community is well versed in local history, mythology and folklore. Expect sea-faring stories, good parties, poitín and the chance to see the world-famous primitive art of the Dixon School of Painting.

Recommended reading: The Waves of Tory by Jim Hunter or Cloughaneely: Myth & Fact by local historian Gerry McLaughlin.

2 St Peter’s Church, Monaghan

Hidden away in the wilds of Laragh, this extraordinary church was imported from Switzerland as a honeymoon gift from a mill-owner to his wife. Fashioned in a Swiss-gothic hybrid style and made from corrugated iron, the church was consecrated in 1891 and closed for worship in 1962.  Recently refurbished, this gem is well worth a visit. The surrounding landscape has even been designed to suggest a small mountain glade with rocky outcrops!

Recommended reading: if you can source it, try From the Margins to the Centre: Irish Perspectives on Swiss Culture and Literature by Patrick Studer and Sabine Egger. Also, Tadhg Ó Cianáin recorded the Switzerland stop-off of the Flight of the Earls in 1607. Details here

3 Sheelagh-na-gigs, various locations 

Found throughout Ireland, on churches, castles and other buildings, these stone carvings depict naked women with emphasised genitalia. Although probably carved between the 12th and 17th centuries, the Sheelaghs could be based on much older pre-Christian fertility symbols.

Recommended reading Sheelagh-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma by Barbara Freitag. In September 2015, poet and scholar Kimberly Campanello will launch a collection of Sheelagh-inspired poems. Or, if you fancy indulging yourself, check out her special-edition gift book featuring Sheelagh poems, music and scores.

4 Seal Island, Cork

9045518616_480a608bb8_o Source: Picasa

Image: Wendy Cutler via Flickr/Creative Commons

In Irish stories, ‘selkies’ are mythological creatures that live as seals in the sea but become humans on land. These gorgeous creatures can be spotted at various locations along the Irish coast. For some up-close seal action, try a day trip to the Seal Island at Grenagarriff, a colony comprised of 250 seals.

Recommended reading: People of the Sea by David Thomson (featuring an introduction by the late poet Seamus Heaney).

5 Celtic Druid Temple, Roscommon

Home to the indigenous spiritual tradition of Pagan Ireland, this tranquil place offers a range of events and courses that allows visitors the chance to learn about the Celtic spirit. Look out f0r free moon and sun ceremonies to celebrate the cycles of nature and the universe.

Recommended reading: Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions by James Bonwick. Also, on a related note, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (the “last witch burned in Ireland’) by Angela Bourke is a fascinating true-life insight into the clash between pagan traditions and Christianity at the turn of the century.

6. Slate Quarry grotto, Valentia Island

Installed in the Marian year of 1954, this grotto features a statue of the Virgin Mary embedded high into the face of the quarry and overlooking the sea. At night, the statue lights up – casting an ominous glow over the whole site. Very few took the Vatican’s year-long celebration of Mary as seriously as Ireland – commemorative stamps were produced, entrance numbers to the convents and spiritual locations soared, and most girls born that year were named Marian or Mary. Devotion to Mary came to public attention again in the 1980s with the famed ‘moving statues’.

Recommended reading: Seeing is Believing: Moving Statues in Ireland edited by Colm Toibin. Another grotto of interest is located in  Ballinspittle Cork, where in 1985 alleged movements were reported.

7 The National Folklore Collection, UCD

Home to one of the largest collections of folklore material in the world, very few tourists know about this special place. Archives and a specialist library contain a wealth of books, manuscripts, tapes, photographs, drawings, paintings and more.  Many Irish writers and scholars frequent this modest little building, situated on the UCD campus.

Recommended Reading: too many wonderful books to mention, but try this introductory paper by director of the National Folklore Collection Professor Ríonach uí Ógáin

8 Kerry’s Dark Sky Reserve

Offering an ‘exceptional sky quality and natural darkness’ Ireland’s first International Dark Sky Reserve is one of a kind in the world. Star-gazers can view constellations with many more stars than are usually shown on maps. The Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, Star Clusters and Nebula’s are just some of the wonders to see without the aid of any astronomical equipment or filters.

Recommended reading: check out the Astronomy Ireland Magazine edited by David Moore, who is also giving a talk on 31 July at a Dublin astronomy event by Seasonal Beast.

9 Victoria’s Way, Wicklow


Image: Daniel Dudek-Corrigan via Flickr/Creative Commons

Victoria’s Way is a privately-owned sculpture and philosophy park. Created over 20 years by Victor Langheld, the stone sculptures were commissioned from Mahabalipuram, India. Ganesh and Shiva figures can be seen alongside some less familiar creations, including an enormous disembodied finger, and a sculpture called ‘The Split Man’ which shows a figure ripping itself in two, representing ‘the mental state’ of human dysfunction.

Recommended reading: Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (originally published 1965) 

10 Marsh’s Library, Dublin 

Step back three hundred years into Ireland’s very first library. Situated in St. Patrick’s Close, adjacent to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this well-preserved library of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment is home to 25,000 rare and antique books, many of which come decorated in gold-tooled, calf, or goatskin bindings. Unlike any other library you will ever see, this closet of treasures counts among its highlights hand-scrawls by visitors Johnathan Swift, Bram Stoker and James Joyce.

Recommended reading: Marsh’s Library: a mirror on the world by Muriel McCarthy & Ann Simmons

Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet and writer from Donegal, Ireland. She is currently a Literature Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude. More about her work can be found here.

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Annemarie Ni Churreain

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