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A journey through the past: a guide to the ancient sites in Ireland

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By Emma Grove / January 21, 2020
Ancient Sites in Ireland

Transport yourself back to Ireland’s mystical history by discovering some of the ancient sites in Ireland. 

The misty grey skies of this stoic island carry a whisper on the wind of ages past. Druidic tradition and bardic tales contained within the annals of Irish history lay the legend of the ancient sites in Ireland. Many of these structures bedecking the island’s rolling green hills are said to have been sites of battle, burial, and even gruesome human sacrifice. 

While it is difficult to date each site exactly, modern methods of radiocarbon dating have shown that these sites date as far back as 4000-5000 B.C., making them older than many of the wonders of the world. Their complexity in design and decoration make Ireland’s megalithic structures some of the most awe-inspiring relics of antiquity in the world. Take the opportunity to view this verdant haven of Ireland through the eyes of its settlers by visiting one of the mystical and magical megalithic monuments with the ancient sites in Ireland.

Loughcrew Passage Tomb, Photo: Loughcrew Megalithic Centre

Passage Tombs

Adorning the emerald hills of this beautiful island are some of the country’s most complex ancient monuments, the passage tombs. Elaborately decorated with engraved designs, these beautiful relics of ancient Irish history lie within the man-made earthen mounds decorating the Irish landscape. 

The builders of these archaic burial sites remain a mystery to historians, however it has been concluded that the spirits who inhabit these age-old sites were of high stature within ancient Irish society. This is evidenced by the rich grave goods discovered at these sites. From beads and pendants to bone pins, those who inhabit these ancient tombs were bound to be leaders of society exalted in death by their loyal followers.

 The term ‘passage tomb’ comes from the stone-constructed pathways that divide the earthen mounds, some of the most famous of which resemble a cross shape pre-dating christian symbolism. According to scholars, these structures could take 20 years or more to erect with builders dragging 200,000 tonnes of stone to the mound. Many of these passage tomb sites pre-date world-famous sites such as the Pyramids of Giza by some 700 years and Stonehenge by nearly 1,000. Some might call these ancient sites in Ireland the 8th wonder of the world.

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  • Giant’s Ring
    • Constructed just outside Belfast circa 2,700 B.C., the Giant’s Ring is the largest enclosed ceremonial space stretching to 180 meters in diameter. According to legend, the rings which make up the Giant’s Ring were believed to be the home of the fairies and thus treated with the utmost respect, however by the 19th century the site was used as a sort of ‘ancient’ horse-racing track. 
    • Address: Shaw’s Bridge Off Ballynahatty Road, County Down
  • Newgrange
    • This infamous Brú na Bóinne winter-solstice mecca was built circa 3,200 B.C. The entrance to the passage aligns with the rising sun, allowing the ancient to illuminate with sunlight at dawn. The walls of this tomb contain some of the most well preserved ancient celtic art including concentric circles, triscales, serpentine forms, and chevrons. 
    • Address: Newgrange, Donore, Co. Meath
  • Knowth
    • To join Newgrange in Brú na Bóinne is Knowth, the second largest passage tomb in this UNESCO World Heritage site stretches 67 metres in diameter. These ancient burial grounds consists of a large mound, known as site 1, and 17 smaller tombs surrounding it. Excavation of Knoth found some 200 decorated stones, the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe.
    • Address: Knowth, Donore, Co. Meath
  • Knocknarea
    • On the top of a 327 metre limestone hill, Knoecknarea, is one of the largest man-made monolithic sites still standing in Ireland today. Knocknarea lies on the Cuil Irra peninsula between Sligo and Ballysadare. At its peak lies a large 60 metre stone cairn believed to be the burial site of Queen Maebh, the mythic queen of Connacht whose beauty was said to have robbed men of ‘two-thirds of [their]valour’ upon seeing her. 
    • Address: Knocknarea North, Co. Sligo
Wedge Tomb, Glantane, Co. Cork

Wedge Tomb, Glantane, Co Cork, Photo: Coil00

Portal Tombs [Dolmens]

Where the passage tombs tended to consist of multiple chambers, the portal tombs, aka ‘dolmens’, consisted of only one chamber built from two or more upright stones supporting another, larger granite stone – called a capstone or a ‘table’ – laying horizontally atop. There are 190 of these stone dolmens across Ireland, many of which are thought to be the grave sites of Ireland’s ancient heroes and saints ‘thrown together by the hands of giants’. The dolmen is also thought to have been a druid’s altar; the grooves etched into the capstones surface are meant to allow the blood of the druids’ sacrifices to cover the stone in their spiritual energy.  

Originally these structures were also thought to have been covered in earthen mounds with the capstone forming the entrance passage. The earth which had enveloped these structures is thought to have been washed away by centuries of the ever-present Irish rainfall. Sites like these are found across the globe from Britain and Ireland to France, Korea, and even as far as Indonesia. What makes Irish dolmens so unique however is their age, many of which date as far back as 4,000 B.C. 

The cremated remains of ancient Irish figures were placed within these tombs as a way of connecting the deceased spirits to the afterlife, believed in Irish mysticism to be within the earth, rather than beyond the skies as is common place with christian interpretations. Within these burial sites, the souls of those buried within are guided to the dwelling place of the gods, the legendary Tír na nÓg.

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  • Slidderyford Dolmen
    • Situated in Northern Ireland just outside Co. Down, the Slidderyford Dolmen lies at the foot of the picturesque Mourne Mountains. It is thought that this dolmen was constructed by the late-Neolithic ‘Beaker People’ of Northern Britain who were also responsible for large stone circles found at Ballynoe and Newgrange. The capstone placed at the top of Slidderyford Dolmen fits perfectly into one of the portal stones, ‘almost as if held in the palm of a hand.’
    • Address: 38 Old Rd, Newcastle, Co. Down
  • Legananny
    • An everlasting inspiration to visual artists across Ireland, Legananny Dolmen is quite possibly the most famous dolmen in Ireland. It is most certainly the most photographed, with a google image search generating more than 2,000 images of the iconic stone structure. Admirers of this ancient site in Ireland have often liked the capstone and supporting stones to a coffin being carried by pallbearers. 
    • Address: Unnamed Road, Castlewellan, Co. Down
  • Poulnabrone
    • One of Ireland’s most infamous megalithic monuments, Poulnabrone sits atop the Burren limestone plateau. Excavations carried out by archeologist Anne Lynch in the 1980’s have found the remains of some 21 individuals buried within the main tomb chamber. The carbon dating of bones found in Poulnabrone have shown that this ancient site in Ireland was used continually as a burial ground for a period of 600 years between 3600-3200 B.C.
    • Address: Poulnabrone, Co. Clare
  • Kilclooney More
    • One of the oldest dolmens in Ireland dating from 4000-3000 B.C., Kilclooney More is thought to be one of the best preserved portal tombs in Ireland.  The structure consists of one massive capstone approximately 4 by 6 metres, supported by two upright stones measuring nearly 2 metres in height. This dolmen is of particular interest because it contains a smaller [now collapsed]dolmen. 
    • Address: Cill Clunaidh, Co. Donegal
Ancient Sites in Ireland

Ancient standing stones in the west of Ireland, Photo: Bryan Ledgard

Standing Stones

The mystical and magical standing stones of the Emerald Isle rest within their lush green habitat as a relic of ancient ceremonial Ireland. Found in clusters as well on their own, standing stones also known as ‘menhirs’, typically date from the middle of the Bronze Age around 2100-1550 B.C. These lonely monoliths have proven difficult to date, however shards of pottery found underneath have allowed archeologists to connect these upright stone structures with the Beaker people credited with the construction of the Slidderyford Dolmen. 

The stones which stoically rest against the wild Irish backdrop represent what historians believe to be ancient religious ceremonial sites. The chief rituals hosted at theses stones are unknown. Historians have speculated that these standing stones were used for a number of reasons such as ancient druidic sites for human sacrifice, territorial markers, and even an ancient calendar system. 

Many of the standing stones in Ireland contain etchings of Ogham, a writing system consisting of various dashes places along a vertical line. These ogham inscriptions are thought to have been added to the standing stones centuries after their erection, around the early medieval period. That being said, these etchings are some of the oldest written records in Irish history, a real treat to see in person.

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  • Lia Fáil 

    • Lia Fáil, meaning ‘Stone of Destiny’ or ‘Speaking Stone’, is an artefact of oracular tradition within Irish history. It can be found at the Inauguration Mound atop the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath. It is said that this stone was brought to Ireland by a group of mystical settlers. Legend has it that when the new king of Ireland was to be crowned, candidates for the title would touch the stone. Under the rightful king’s hand the stone would erupt in a roaring bellow, and thus he would be crowned.
    • Address: Castleboy, Co. Meath
  • Turoe

    • Etched with artwork typical of La Tène Celtic art, the Turoe Standing Stone is an ornate monolith found in the village of Bullaun in Co. Galway. The shapes decorating this white granite monument includes a series of curved lines, concentric circles and spirals, triscales and other curvilinear patterns. 
    • Address: Turoe House, Loughrea, Co. Galway
  • Castlestrange

    • Another stone adorned in La Tène designs, the Castlestrange Stone is one of four so-called ‘cult stones’ in Ireland, including Turoe. Located along the banks of the river Suck in Co. Roscommon, this beautiful granite boulder is thought to have been etched in Celtic designs during the Iron age about 2000 years ago. 
    • Address: Castlestrange, Boyle, Co. Roscommon
Ancient Sites in Ireland

Ballynoe stone circle, Co. Down, Photo: Ardfern

Stone Circles

As in the name, Stone circles consist of individual standing stones found across Northern Europe, Britain, and Ireland. These circles were constructed by their masons with special attention paid to the shape and size of each boulder lining their borders. It is believed that construction of these ancient sites in Ireland took considerable planning and effort including astrological planning, archeology, quarrying, transportation, digging the foundation trenches, etc. 

The stone circles found in Ireland are known as ‘recumbent stone circles’ meaning they consist of a single large stone circle featuring one stone turned on its side. Recumbent stone circles in Ireland are unique in that there are two tall stones placed across from the horizontal stone. These two stones are known as ‘portals’ and are often turned so that they face each other rather than the centre of the circle.  

The use of these stone circles remains a mystery today. While bodies have occasionally been found during excavations, archeologists do not believe that these sites were used for burial. It is likely instead that these sites were used for ritual or religious practices. That being said, the placement of the horizontal stone almost always aligns with the rising or setting sun, This has led historians to believe that these ancient sites in Ireland may have also been used for astronomical observation. 

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  • Drombeg
    • Presiding in the luscious green sweeps of Co. Cork lies Drombeg stone circle. The whimsical site also known as ‘The Druid’s Altar’ bears the remnants of Ireland’s sacrificial past, evidenced by an inverted pot found in 1957 containing the cremated remains of a young adolescent. To this day, Drombeg remains the most visited megalithic site in Ireland. 
    • Address: Drombeg, Co. Cork
  • Uragh
    • Starkly constructed against the breathtaking takes of the Beara Peninsula, the Uragh stone circle is surrounded by volcanic mountains along the coast. While Uragh is one of Ireland’s smaller stone circles, it’s scenic habitat complete with a rushing waterfall in the backdrop has made Uragh very popular amongst photographers across the globe. 
    • Address: Derrynamucklagh, Co. Kerry
  • Beltany Stone Circle
    • One of the largest, most impressive stone circles in Ireland, the Beltany stone circle spans nearly 45 metres in diameter. This ancient Irish site is thought to have contained 80 upright stones, 64 of which are still standing today. Five of the stones creating this circle contain ‘cup marks’ a prehistoric form of artwork consisting of small circular dimples carved into the stone. Beltany stone circle is of particular interest to travellers and historians alike for the pre-Christian era carved stone head found at this archaic Irish ritual ground. 
    • Address: Raphoe, Co. Donegal

The emerald fields of Ireland are beautifully embellished by hundreds of these mystical monuments. A trip would not be complete without paying homage to at least one of these ancient sites in Ireland. Have you been to one of Ireland’s ancient monuments? Comment your experience in the box below!

Featured image: Beltany standing stone circle, Co. Donegal, Photo: Gareth Wray

About the author

Emma Grove

Emma is a Californian-native, a food lover, and a Journalist for Babylon Radio. With a MA(Hons) from the University of Glasgow, Emma is interested in everything musical and cultural going on in Ireland!


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