Awesome is a much-overused word, but there are few others to adequately describe Skellig Michael ,County Kerry. It was here, between the 6th and 8th centuries, that devout Christian monks sought extreme isolation. They certainly found it. Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichíl) and its smaller sister, Little Skellig (Sceilig Bheag), make up the Skellig Islands – second only to the Blasket Islands as Europe’s most westerly point.
It is a world apart, a demanding world, not a shelter. It leaves you full of questions
Visitors here have been varied, among them Norway’s first king, Olaf Tryggvasson (he was said to have been baptized on Skellig Michael), and literary legend, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw later commented that Skellig Michael was an ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’. It was, he wrote, ‘part of our dream world’.
We say: dream on.
The Giant’s Causeway
Myth shrouds this coastal Antrim oddity (get the full story of Finn Mac Cumhaill v Scottish giant Benandonner here) but the facts are arguably even more impressive. As a result of violent volcanic activity 60 million years ago, thousands of basalt columns popped up on what would one day be named the Causeway Coast. Known locally as ‘giants eyes’, these octagonal stepping stones aren’t the only curious stone creations on this stretch of coast. A modest wander will bring you face to face with the Organ, the Giant’s Harp, the Honeycomb and more.
For sheer otherworldliness, the Causeway can’t be beaten.
This UNESCO site keeps itself in good company, too. A mere 20-minute drive east swings the sea-spanning Carrick-a-Rede-rope bridge, while a six-minute jaunt south west will place you in the town of Bushmills, famed for its eponymous whiskey distillery and the award-winning Bushmills Inn.
And rest assured: no warring giants will spoil your fun.
Brú na Bóinne and Newgrange
Looking for Ireland’s most famous passage tomb? Newgrange in County Meath it is. Thanks to the ingenuity of its pagan architects, the building itself predates even the pyramids at Giza. And while its grass-topped exterior is a visual treat, what really excites about Newgrange is what’s on the inside. Come the winter solstice on 21 December (the shortest day of the year in Northern Europe) a shaft of sunlight creeps through an opening in the roof box. The result? A resplendently illuminated inner chamber and one of the oldest sun celebrations on the planet.
"It was one of those rare experiences of heightened spiritual awareness. I was on a high for days after the experience."
Should it sound like the kind of experience that would sit snugly on your bucket list, you're not alone. Thanks to a modestly sized inner chamber and a vast interest, the audience entitled to view the Winter Solstice from inside Newgrange is chosen by lottery. In 2014, for example, an astounding 30,542 entries were received. Here's all the information you'll need to apply.
In the event that your lottery luck escapes you, visitors are still invited to gather on the hill and watch the sun illuminate this Neolithic monument, just as it has done for over 5,000 years.
In addition to the three sites above, Dublin is a UNESCO City of Literature and Galway is one of only five UNESCO Cities of Film.
And as if that weren't enough, here are another eight Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty for your walking, hiking, cycling and visual delectation. Enjoy.