More than 5,000 years of history are waiting to be discovered across Ireland and Northern Ireland. In fact, some of it’s prehistoric structures date back from before the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. To commemorate St. Patrick’s Day, we have compiled a collection of the oldest heritage sites across the emerald isles, in honour of Ireland’s amazing history and culture. Some sites even have links to St. Patrick himself.
60 million years old
The Giant’s Causeway is a rugged expanse of approximately 40,000 polygonal basalt columns sitting on the North coast of Ireland. The tallest column reaches 12 metres high, their jagged symmetry descending from rocky cliffs, disappearing into the sea.
Resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, the causeway has attracted visitors for centuries. It harbours a wealth of local and natural history. However, legend says it was carved from the coast by the mighty giant Finn McCool to avoid getting his feet wet while walking between Northern Ireland and the coast of Scotland.
The Visitors Center offers a deeper dive into the UNESCO World Heritage Site with exhibitions, audio guides and trail suggestions. There are four stunning trails at the Giant’s Causeway suited to every ability, from a pram friendly jaunt to a challenging coastal hike and in addition, a new accessible cliff top walk for families and people with disabilities. The area is suitable for picnics, cliff and country walks, and dogs are welcome on leads (guide dogs only within the Visitor Centre).
Newgrange, County Meath
5,200 years old, Neolithic era
Newgrange is an ancient passage tomb located in the Boyne Valley in the East of Ireland. Built by Stone Age farmers, its hulking mound is 85 meters in diameter and 13.5 meters high, a total area of about 1 acre. Older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids, Newgrange dates back to 3200 BC. While the actual purpose of Newgrange is still debated, it is widely agreed that it was of religious importance.
What attracts people to this structure is its relationship to the Winter Solstice. A 19 metre passage leads to a chamber inside the tomb, and at the Winter Solstice both the passage and chamber are perfectly aligned with the rising sun, illuminating everything inside. Access to the chamber on Solstice mornings is decided by a lottery which takes place in September each year.
The tomb itself is not the only attraction here, as the structure is surrounded by 97 large carved stones, called kerbstones. Some of these are engraved with megalithic art, the most striking being the entrance stone which is decorated in swirling geometric patterns.
Approx. 5,000 years old, Neolithic era
The sister of Newgrange, Knowth is another passage tomb located near the Boyne Valley River. It lacks the connection to the Winter Solstice that Newgrange has, but Knowth is said to contain more prehistoric art than any other site in Ireland. It’s interior passages are also open to the public, unlike Newgrange. So if you fancy braving the dark innards of a Neolithic tomb, then Knowth may be preferable. It also isn’t as crowded as its sister site.
Knowth contains over 200 decorated stones found in excavations, which represents a third of all decorated stones found in Western Europe. The circular base of the Great Mound passage tomb is inset with over 120 massive, intricately carved stones capped with a grassy mushroom-shaped mound.
A series of inscriptions on the stones lining the inner passage was discovered to have been made around the 8th century, making it ancient graffiti rather than artwork. The main tomb is surrounded by over a dozen smaller, grass-covered mounds, which many have liked to hobbit-holes.
Inhabited 1,400 years ago.
Skellig Michael is the largest of the two Skellig Islands, and became home to a small group of monks in the 6th Century. Its jagged towers of double-peaked rock stretch out of the sea 7 miles off the coast of County Kerry. Named as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, Skellig Michael is one of Europe’s most famous but least accessible monasteries, as boats can only land when the seas are calm.
The monks came seeking religious solitude, and built a Christian monastery on the remote island, living there until the 13th Century. It is truly a testament to their extreme devotion and discipline to Christianity. Narrow stone terraces teeter on cliff-edges, and near-vertical staircases must be climbed to reach certain areas.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples is a devotional route on the South Peak, which required monks to rock climb to 700 feet above the sea. They first had to climb up to a series of prayer stations on ledges, then undertake a death-defying walk at the island’s peak before reaching their final destination at a cross-inscribed stone.
Skellig Michael is not only famed for its well-preserved ruins, but is also home to large colonies of birds. The world’s second largest gannet colony live there, with figures estimated at around 70,000 birds. It’s also home to thousands of puffins for part of the year.
Recently a new wave of visitors has been attracted to Skellig Michael due to the Island being used for key scenes in both ‘Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens’ and the highly anticipated follow up ‘Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi’. In a behind the scenes documentary, Mark Hamilton (Luke Skywalker) said “it’s just indescribably beautiful”. Director of The Force Awakens JJ Abrams said he could not be more honoured to be shooting scenes on Skellig Michael.
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Approx. 1,600 years old
The Rock of Cashel, or Castle Rock as it translates, is a 4th Century fortress littered with limestone outcrops and ancient fortifications. Sitting on a prominent green hill, rising from a grassy plain, the fortress is still a formidable sight today. It is otherwise known as St. Patrick’s rock, as it was the chosen base of the Eóghanachta clan, who were associated with the patron saint. Also, according to legend, St. Patrick arrived in Cashel in AD 432 and baptized King Aengus, who became Ireland’s first Christian ruler.
Much of the Rock of Cashel is well preserved, making it a popular attraction for tourists. The oldest surviving buildings are the 12th Century round tower, a 13th Century Gothic cathedral and the ruins of Cormac’s Chapel, one of the earliest chapels built in a Romanesque style. Another popular site is the Hall of Vicars which houses the museum where the original Cross of St. Patrick can be found.
The Rock is only a five-minute stroll from the town centre, or you can take a day trip for Cork for a reasonable price. Scaffolding is always moving around the Rock, in a relentless battle to preserve the site, so expect this if you’re planning a visit.
Written by Kelly Barrett