Stop almost anywhere in the Irish landscape, and you’ll find proof of the country’s ancient past close to hand. You just need to know what to look for
Burial mounds, stone circles surrounded by munching cows, enormous dolmens and amazingly engineered passage tombs… they’re all scattered throughout Ireland in abundance. And sometimes in the most unexpected of places.
Who’d have thought, for example, that the world’s oldest known field system would lie under a blanket of bog in west Mayo? Spread over several kilometres, the Céide Fields are a landscape of stone houses, walls and tombs built along mathematical principles by Neolithic farmers 5,000 years ago.
Visitors can take a guided tour, or just stroll towards the cliff edge and marvel that anything at all was built so close to the thumping Atlantic breakers.
Still out west, it seems people have always been drawn to settle in Ireland’s wildest outreaches. What else but its strategic location could explain the presence of Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric stone fort huddled on a cliff at the edge of the Aran Islands in the Atlantic Ocean? It’s all too easy to imagine how approaching invaders would have been in awe – National Geographic recently included its “unclimbable” perch amongst its Top 10 Ocean Views.
The surprises keep on coming. Did you know that stone circles abound in counties Fermanagh and Tyrone? Or that at Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, you’ll find the first known dwelling in Ireland, dating back to around 7,000BC, making it even older than Carrowmore in Sligo and way, way older than the Pyramids of Egypt?
And while people often talk of the High Kings of Ireland’s stronghold in Tara, let’s not forget Navan Fort near Armagh, seat of the Ulster kings, which was made famous in the sagas of the Irish mythical hero, Cú Chulainn.
If the walls could speak…
“What’s the story?” Wherever you go in Ireland, you’ll hear this casual greeting, a conversation-starter that says as much about the place of storytelling and oral history in Irish culture as it does the friendliness of the greeter. And just as you’re never far from a ring-fort or stone circle here, so some rollicking tale of an ancient warrior, weird creature or pioneering saint is always close to hand.
Push through the old rhododendron below Muck Rock on Howth Head, County Dublin, for instance, and you’ll come across a 2,500-year-old collapsed dolmen. It’s known locally as Aideen’s Grave. Why? Aideen was a warrior who died of grief shortly after her husband, Oscar, was killed in battle. Oscar’s father, Oisín, is said to have personally buried her beneath a 75-tonne capstone.
Circles of friends
Similar treasures lie hidden at Lough Gur, County Limerick. Pull up at the enchanting lakeside setting here, and you’ll find a site at which people have lived for at least 5,500 years, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a stone circle, hill fort or mass rock of some kind.
Tread carefully, mind – it’s said that every seven years, Gur demands the heart of a human. At the nearby Grange Stone Circle, however, the cowpats are a more imminent threat.
So you see, a slice of Ireland’s history is never far away – but don’t just look out for the obvious (or even the cowpats), it’s often the stories surrounding them that’ll take your breath away.