Hero photograph

Travelling By the Book: Exploring the Ancient Sites of the Emerald Isle

Shirley Jones, Senior Library Assistant, Information Services —

Brooding grey skies, weathered grey stone, green green countryside, flocks of crows, crumbling ruins, and ancient Celtic monuments - where could we be but Ireland!

After flying into Dublin on a crisp Spring morning, we picked up a car, then headed off on our Irish road trip in search of history and off-the-beaten-track adventures. Once we turned off the motorway onto smaller roads, the real Ireland began. Travellers should be aware that the ‘B’ roads of Ireland are sometimes hardly roads at all - more like farm tracks; a bit hairy when you meet a large car coming the other way! And also note that there aren’t many public toilets in Ireland - find a pub!

Our first stop was the medieval town of Kilkenny, where we stayed in a white-washed thatched cottage, overlooking a paddock that contained two naughty donkeys. Note to tall people - old thatched cottages are not for you! Our host was a local, who is related to the presidential Kennedy family and very proud of it. He gave us a tour, during our stay, of some of the lesser-known ancient sites. Highlights were a bronze age dolmen: Leac an Scail (stone of the hero) in a paddock at Kilmogue; and, near Kells, a huge ruined abbey complex with masses of crows, a tall round tower and an ancient high cross. We also toured the impressive Kilkenny Castle (built in 1195).

We continued our journey along the Copper Coast in County Waterford - 25 kilometres of spectacular coastal road, featuring 19th century copper mines (now a UNESCO Global Geopark). Drombeg stone circle, West Cork, was hard to find but worth the frustration; and Muckross Abbey, a Franciscan Friary founded in 1448, now within Killarney National Park, was impressive. We had time for just a few tasters: "Jaunting car" (horse and cart) tours took our fancy; and The Wild Atlantic Way also beckoned - from picturesque Kinsale, once a Viking trading post, to Malin Head in the north - 2600kms of coast in length. The beginning of the Ring of Kerry has stunning views and narrow, winding roads, but I’d advise against using the summer tourist buses - they looked terrifying! We walked along the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, with its ruined watchtowers. The Burren (Gaelic for stoney place), a vast, barren, windswept, striated limestone landscape, that stretches from northern County Clare to south County Galway, was an ancient seabed that is now a vast plateau containing cliffs and caves, fossils, rock formations and archaeological sites. Stunning greys, pinks and purples stretch right to the coast, and Poulnabrone Dolmen, a neolithic portal tomb, is an absolute must-see.

We drove next to Connemara, where fabulous rock walls divide up the green rolling landscape, spotting Connemara ponies eating gorse, quaint thatched cottages, and gorgeous colourful villages (often sadly spoilt by the main road passing through). Turning inland to County Limerick, we sought out Lough Gur and the Grange Stone Circle in a paddock - the oldest, largest stone circle in Ireland, 4,100 years old, 46 metres in diameter. It was atmospheric with its weathered rock, covered in lichen & moss, huge trees and roots, and grass covered mounds - no wonder it is packed with "spiritualists" on Midsummer's Eve.

Having enjoyed the untamed beauty of the Irish countryside, we concluded our journey by returning to Dublin city on a much larger road, and some excitement of a different kind!

Recommended Books:

Castles, Follies and Four-Leaf Clovers: Adventures along Ireland's St Declan's Way. Rosamund Burton

Coast: Recipes Inspired by Ireland's Wild Atlantic Coast. Rachel Allen

Connemara: Listening to the Wind. Tim Robinson

Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide to Sites from Earliest Times to AD 1600. Andrew Halpin

National Geographic Traveler Ireland. Christopher Somerville

Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland: A Guide. Estyn Evans

Rings of Stone: The Prehistoric Stone Circles of Britain and Ireland. Aubrey Burl

The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland. Christopher Scarre

The Taste of Ireland: Landscape, Culture and Food. Tamsin Pickeral