Clonmacnoise, County Offaly
Hallowed history, mystical ruins and sacred secrets abound at Clonmacnoise. Founded by St Ciarán in the 6th century and overlooking the majestic River Shannon, this peaceful monastic site includes high crosses, seven churches, two round towers and a cathedral. Once a great centre for learning, Clonmacnoise was at the very heart of Ireland’s era of “saints and scholars” and was renowned for exporting art, learning and faith all over the Europe. Today, a walk amongst these impressive ruins is a memorable experience, and history buffs can enjoy an audio guide while soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. Or enjoy a cruise to the site with Viking Tours Ireland from nearby Athlone.
Devenish Island, County Fermanagh
Beloved for its 6th century monastic site, Devenish has seen off Viking raids, been burned to the ground and is now a time capsule of early Christian Ireland. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what a thriving community once lived here on this secluded isle on Lower Lough Erne. An ancient round tower stands alongside the ruins of the Oratory of St Molaise, St Mary’s Augustinian priory and a number of medieval carved crosses. The island is only accessible by water – hop on the ferry from Brook Park with Erne Tours.
Sherkin Island, County Cork
With around 100 residents and a length of 5km, Sherkin Island is a world of its own. Board the ferry from Baltimore and within 10 minutes, Sherkin Island’s wild beauty is in plain sight. This is the ancestral home of the mighty O’Driscoll clan who built the island's now ruined Franciscan Friary in the mid 15th century. Despite raids and conflicts throughout the years, the friars remained until the last of them passed away in 1766. After a wander through these sacred ruins, be sure to mingle with the locals at the Jolly Roger pub and warm up with a hearty bowl of seafood chowder.
Fore Abbey, County Westmeath
Discover the curious Seven Wonders of Fore at the remains of Fore Abbey set in a quiet meadow in County Westmeath. Founded by St Feichin in 630, Fore Abbey is the largest Benedictine site in Ireland. The Seven Wonders are “miracles” associated with St Fechin – the monastery in the bog, the mill without a race, the water that flows uphill, the tree that won’t burn, the water that won’t boil, the anchorite (religious hermit) in a stone and the stone raised by St Fechin’s prayers. Perhaps the true wonder lies in the fact that any of this mystical site still exists, given that it was set on fire a total of 12 times throughout the years!
Grey Abbey, County Down
Grey Abbey lies on the shores of Strangford Lough in County Down within the landscaped parkland of Rosemount House. This once flourishing site remains one of the best examples of Anglo-Norman Cistercian architecture in Northern Ireland and, even in its ruined state, the scale and majesty of abbey is still felt today. Dating back to the 12th century, it was built in thanks to God for safe passage across perilous seas by Affreca, wife of John de Courcy and daughter of Godred – the king of Mann and the Isles. From a once thriving sacred sanctuary to humble parish church, this now weathered ruin is brimming with architectural intrigue and beauty. History buffs should stop by the Visitors Centre (February-November) and learn about the lives of the humble monks who once called this place home.