From historical boglands to a passage tomb that is older than Stonehenge, and Star-Wars-famous ancient stone oratories 712 feet above sea level, there's incredible history at every turn in Ireland.
It’s said that there’s a story under every stone in Ireland, and with castles, abbeys, and prehistoric monuments at every turn, there are legends, histories, and mythologies scattered across its lush terrain. The Irish countryside is a living, breathing landscape testifying to more than 5,000 years of history with more castles and ruins than can be counted. You can’t go wrong just pulling over at any crumbling ruin, medieval castle, graveyard, or interesting-looking stone formation you see as you explore, but we’ve chosen a few historical treasures you shouldn’t miss.
Top Picks for You
Rock of Cashel
WHERE: County Tipperary
Perched high on a solitary lump of gray limestone, the Rock of Cashel was originally a ceremonial center and home to the kings of Munster, known as the Eóganacht, and it remains a potent symbol and one of the Southeast’s top attractions. A cluster of magnificent turreted buildings, this mighty outcrop’s highlights include Cormac’s Chapel, an atmospheric Romanesque church completed in 1134 with distinctive features like blind arcading and rounded doorways, and the Hall of the Vicars Choral, a 15th-century Round Tower that housed the choir. The huge Gothic cathedral, the largest building in the complex, dates to around the 13th century and contains medieval sculptures, carved heads on its capitals, grave slabs, and pointed arches.
INSIDER TIPPay particular attention to the Sheela-na-gigs throughout, which are small sculptures of nude women whose purpose is the subject of debate. One school of thought suggests they were seen as a way to ward off evil spirits; others see them as a warning against the sins of the flesh.
Kilkenny Medieval Mile
WHERE: County Kilkenny
Labeled by tourism gurus as the Medieval Mile, this trail runs through Kilkenny’s city center, linking a 13th-century cathedral with a hulking, 800-year-old, creeper-clad castle alongside a potpourri of other ancient buildings. History lies deep along this time-warp maze of cobbled streets and enticing alleys (known as “slips”), and strolling through them is a surprisingly sensory experience.
The route is big on architectural largesse, including the Anglo-Norman castle overlooking the River Nore, home to the powerful Butler family for six centuries. It was offered to the city by the 6th Marquess of Ormonde for £50 in 1967 and is a huge draw with its picture gallery wing complete with hammer-beam ceiling and lined with family portraits. Some of Ireland’s most handsome buildings, such as the Tudor-era merchant’s Rothe House, the Tholsel (or town hall), and St. Canice’s Cathedral, whose bragging rights include a climbable Round Tower, line the route. Buildings shine with the local, black, polished limestone known as Kilkenny marble that led to the nickname Marble City. Don’t forget the Medieval Mile Museum, which has a copy of Liber Primus, the oldest town book, dating to 1231.
INSIDER TIP: No visit to Kilkenny is complete without a shopping spree in Kilkenny Design Center, where you will find Irish potters and jewelers working on their bespoke pieces.
WHERE: County Down
Dating from the 1770s, Hillsborough Castle is the only royal palace in Ireland and it is still used by the British royal family on state visits to Northern Ireland. This Georgian beauty sits 19 km (12 miles) south of Belfast and was given new life as part of a £16 million renovation completed in 2018. Benjamin Franklin stayed here for five days and is said to have contributed directly to the American War of Independence while in residence.
A guided tour takes in the history of the refurbished State Rooms and includes the Throne Room, the grandest in the house, dressed in green silk-damask fabric, and used for investitures and citizenship ceremonies as well as an annual concert given by the Prince of Wales. In 2005, the Queen met the Irish president, Mary McAleese, in the Red Room. This was the first time that the two heads of state had come face-to-face in Ireland, and the room—hung with outstanding artwork by Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Hogarth—matched the grandeur of the occasion.
The castle gardens cover an astounding 100 acres and include a walled garden, which dates to the 18th century and was historically used to produce fruit and vegetables for the house. The Lost Garden, which had been overgrown and hard to access, has been rediscovered and restored with ferny paths, bridges, and trails open to visitors.
INSIDER TIPThe surrounding town of Hillsborough is filled with antique emporia and swanky tea shops and it’s also home to several first-class pubs, so you should definitely make time to visit.
WHERE: County Mayo
Located in a remote coastal region of north Mayo on the Wild Atlantic Way, Céide (pronounced Kay-jeh) is a historical bogland and unique ecosystem on which barley was once grown in its cultivation ridges. The fields are amongst the most extensive Stone Age monuments in the world and represent an intact Neolithic settlement reaching back 5,000 years. At one time, several thousand people lived on these bogs and hills. On a walk across them, you will stumble over heathers, the pink-flowering lousewort, milkwort and butterwort, mosses, sedges, and lichen. Stretching 30 km (18½ miles) west, the whole site represents the largest blanket bog valley in Western Europe. In the foyer of the visitor center—an award-winning, glass-topped, pyramidal building built into the sloping hillside—an ancient Scots pine tree, reputedly 4,300 years old and from a local bog, is the star attraction.
INSIDER TIPFrom the viewing deck at the top of the center, marvel at the interface of sea and land and, far out in the distance, the jagged Stags of Broadhaven.
WHERE: Inishmore, Aran Islands, County Galway
Far and away the most thrilling ancient site on the three sea-battered Aran Islands, Dún Aengus is a dramatic semicircular fort perched against sheer, 300-foot-high cliffs on the edge of the Western world. The remains of this fort, on the northern coast of the largest island of Inishmore, consist of three drystone ramparts surrounding an inner enclosure, although its purpose is unclear. Bronze Age objects, including beads, tools, and rings, were found on the site and are now in the National Museum in Dublin; scholars believe these may have had ceremonial significance, but the mystique of the fort is an essential part of its allure.
All three Aran Islands are off the Galway coast and visitors come, not just for history, but also for the striking views which on a clear day stretch uninterrupted to Mt. Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula of Kerry. Look carefully to the west and you may even spot the island of Hy Brasil, a famous mirage after which the South American country is supposedly named. Folklore surrounds it, and islanders believed it appeared once every seven years—in fact, until the mid-19th century, it was shown on Atlantic Ocean sea charts.
INSIDER TIPFrom the ferry at Kilronan on Inishmore it is a pleasant 45-minute bike ride to Dún Aengus on largely traffic-free roads.
WHERE: County Kerry
Two stark and bare islands of old red sandstone lie 13 km (8 miles) off the southwest Irish coast, calling you to visit (but only in calm seas). After circling the smaller island of Little Skellig to watch the awe-inspiring spectacle of 30,000 gannets jostling for precious space on the overcrowded ledges, the boatman drops you at a tiny quay on Skellig Michael. An early Christian hermitage, Skellig has earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list and has been thrust into the international spotlight as the home of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
The boat trip to reach the islands is an adventure in itself—the best day is one with tranquil weather when the boatmen like to cross on what they call “lazy” waves. A steep 20-minute zigzag ascent on 650 uneven and worn flagstones—known as the Highway to Heaven—leads to the summit with its extraordinarily well-preserved drystone beehive huts and oratories 712 feet above sea level. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw described it as “an incredible, impossible, mad place … it is part of our dream world.” In the 12th century, the monks left the island, and it is now occupied by hundreds of portly, gregarious, bright-billed and red-legged puffins walking around your feet whose main enjoyment is posing for the cameras—a selfie opportunity par excellence.
INSIDER TIPThere are a limited number of landings per day, so you should make your reservation in advance as early as possible. Plan to stay nearby the night before (for convenience) your trip for the best experience.
BONUS TIPThere are no bathrooms on Skellig Michael so use the facilities on the boat (and don’t drink too much coffee!) before you land.
WHERE: County Offaly
Many history-heavy sites hug the River Shannon. Still, in any ranking of its greatest hits, Clonmacnoise, which translates from the Irish as “Meadow of the Sons of Nóis,” is unquestionably the highlight. Of all the buildings sitting cheek by jowl along the riverside, this monastic site, founded by St. Ciarán in the 6th century, is the most persistently revered. It is a place where land, riverscape, and weathered ecclesiastical buildings blur into one piece of consecrated ground covering 1,500 years. The network of seven stone churches, three major sculpted crosses, two Round Towers, and one cathedral has been part of the uninterrupted view for hundreds of years.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, Clonmacnoise had the status of a city and was a settlement of power and influence. It teemed with black-cowled monks, clerics, scribes, artisans, and students from throughout Ireland and the Continent. Today, while it may teem with tourists, the very name Clonmacnoise still whispers saints, scholars, and even a few squabbling scoundrels and chieftains. It mirrors much of Ireland’s golden age of learning—somewhere you can absorb the spirit of an ancient land and connect with the natural world.
INSIDER TIPBefore you leave, be sure to visit the Nuns’ Church, a 10-minute walk away. It’s often missed but is in a beautiful setting dating to the 11th century and is a place of pure peace. Follow the pilgrim’s path out of the site, through the modern graveyard, and follow the road to the church.
Brú na Bóinne
WHERE: Newgrange, County Meath
On a commanding ridge close to a loop of the River Boyne, the Newgrange passage grave known as Brú na Bóinne, the “palace or homestead of the Boyne,” is one of the most celebrated prehistoric sites in Ireland. Dating to about 3200 BC, Newgrange, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an enormous mound made of alternating layers of earth and stone. It is 295 feet in diameter, covers an area of 47,000 square meters, and a ring of 97 curbstones around its base leads to the central chamber lined with 43 upright stones, some engraved. Its entrance is elaborately decorated and an excellent example of megalithic art, consisting of enigmatic lozenges, zigzags, spirals, concentric circles, and other geometric designs. These may have been symbolic, religious, or magical, but the original meaning of the motifs remains unknown.
A roof box above the entrance allows sunlight into the chamber and is indelibly linked to the winter solstice. Four minutes after sunrise on December 21st, the whole area comes alive with vibrant drumming and chanting generated by a mixed gathering of archaeologists, children, pagans, poets, and wolfhounds. It is said that at this time, you may hear the fairy people—the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of pre-Christian Ireland, thought to have arrived on a dark cloud as divine beings and with whom the site is associated.
INSIDER TIPThe only access to the passage and tomb chamber is by guided tour, although you may wander freely around the site, which includes an astonishing array of similar passage graves and satellite tombs.
WHERE: County Wicklow
In the heart of the Wicklow mountains, Glendalough is a captivating valley carved by Ice Age glaciers that lays claim to some of the best-preserved monastic sites in Ireland’s heritage. It was here that St. Kevin founded his 6th-century settlement, a peaceful place where he retreated to pray. The ruins consist of a 108-foot Round Tower and sacred buildings that flourished for several centuries. On at least four occasions, between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Vikings raided the settlement, followed in the 14th century by the English before it was dissolved during the Reformation.
The main sites are on the eastern side of two scenic lakes: the Lower Lake, and further west, the Upper Lake with wooded cliffs and a famed waterfall. At the Lower Lake, a double-stone archway leads to the roofless but impressive Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, which dates to the 9th century. Outside stands one of the best remaining relics, St. Kevin’s Cross, a granite monolith decorated with the carving of a Celtic cross. Walk downhill, and you will find St. Kevin’s Church, also known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen, because people believed that the bell tower was a chimney to a kitchen, but really no food was ever cooked there.
INSIDER TIPSee a scale model of how the settlement is thought to have looked in the visitor center.
WHERE: County Dublin
With its tiers of cells, overhead catwalks, and grim corridors, Kilmainham prison—where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising as well as other Irish revolutionaries were executed by the British—evokes a chilling period in the past. Now a government-run museum, the prison is a symbolic place, intimately connected with the struggle for independence, Irish political martyrdom, and British oppression.
Its history stretches back to the 1790s when the leaders of the 1798 and 1803 rebellions, Henry Joy McCracken and Robert Emmet, were detained in it. Down through the years, the jail also held thousands of ordinary men and women whose crimes may have been petty offenses or more serious charges like murder.
In the second decade of the 20th century, Kilmainham was the place of incarceration for the captured leaders of the Rising, and from May 3–12, 14 of them were shot in the stone-breakers’ yard. More than any other event, their executions helped bring about the intense desire for a separate Irish state, free of British rule. Republicans continued to be jailed here, even after the War of Independence (1919–21). The prison closed in July 1924 after the release of its last inmate, Eamon de Valera, who would later become Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and president.
Book of Kells
WHERE: Trinity College, Dublin
The 9th-century Book of Kells, with its delicate symbols and stunning Celtic designs, is widely regarded as Ireland’s most significant cultural treasure, and the queues to see it at Trinity College testify to its lionization. Leave behind the hectic Dublin traffic and enter through a portal into a serene world where academia and tourism combine in a mostly happy, albeit crowded mixture. A short walk across the ancient cobbled quadrangle brings you to the Old Library, where, in a glass case, a different page of the masterpiece is on display each day.
The medieval manuscript, running to 680 pages, is a richly decorated copy of the four gospels in Latin brought to the college in the 1660s. Its place of origin is controversial, with the Scottish island of Iona being the most widely accepted attribution, although it is named after a small town in County Meath founded by the monks. The book consists of 340 vellum, or calfskin, folios written in an elaborate style by the scribes. Its lavish decoration brings together a variety of influences, including Celtic, Germanic, Pictish, and Mediterranean. In its sheer vibrancy, intricacy, color, and scale, the Book of Kells easily outclasses other manuscripts. While it evokes liturgical and eucharistic meanings, it also contains some monkish elements of humor.
INSIDER TIPVisits are self-guided and, if booked online, will ensure you have a timed entry. Most visitors stay between 45 and 60 minutes, although you may remain as long as you wish. Late afternoon is the quietest time to visit.