Fascinating Ancient Irish Monuments

A book has been written detailing all the best heritage sites in Ireland. And not only does it have some very fancy photography, it also gives you the GPS co-ordinates so you can check out these historic monuments with your own eyes.

Photographer and historian Tarquin Blake and archaeologist Fiona Reilly have pooled their expertise to provide a vivid record of Irish heritage sites, the first of its kind. These range from megalithic tombs to round towers, monasteries, castles and ancient churches to the more recent Martello towers and windmills.  The husband-and-wife team regularly visit archaeological and heritage sites and find the more popular ones aren’t always the most interesting. For example, Carrowkeel Passage Tomb in Sligo is an extensive Neolithic passage tomb undisturbed since its excavation in 1911. Robert Praeger, one of the excavators, described being one of the first to enter the tomb: “I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last man had left it, three to four thousand years before.” On an isolated hillside, the tomb is in almost the same undisturbed condition today. Ireland is rich in such monuments and buildings that preserve the stamp of the past. Here are some of the examples from the book, especially for readers of Old Moore’s Almanac.

Gaulstown Portal Tomb

Gaulstown Portal Tomb is located 8km south west of Waterford city, at the foot of a steep north facing slope known locally as, Cnoc an Chaillighe, or The Hill of the Hag. The tomb is recognised as one of the finest portal tombs in Ireland and its situation, in a small wooded glade, creates a scene of striking beauty. The huge capstone, which is estimated to weigh about six tons, measures 4.2m by 2.5m and about 1m thick. It rests on two portal stones and a backstone. There are two other sidestones and a sillstone. George Du Noyer, who worked for the Geological Survey of Ireland, made sketches of the tomb in 1864. The sketches show the stones standing in the same position, though without the surrounding woodland.

Beaghmore Stone Circles

 The Beaghmore site was first discovered in the 1930s by turf cutters and recognised by the local amateur archaeologist George Barnett. Excavations from 1945 to 1949 and again in 1965, removed a thick layer of covering peat, to reveal 1,269 stones, arranged in seven stone circles and about ten stone rows. All but one of the stone circles occur in pairs with the interior of the single circle filled with small upright stones referred to by the excavation team as ‘the dragon’s teeth’.

Most of the stones on the site are fairly small, measuring less than 0.5m high. A number of small round cairns were also found, including one with a neatly built central chamber in which was found a polished stone axe-head. The cairns were dated to 1800 to 800 BC, indicating the main features of the site were probably built in the Bronze Age. The function of the site is not clear. Some of the stone rows roughly align with the midsummer sunrise, whilst others do not indicate any solar or lunar event. Another suggestion is that the construction of the site was an attempt to halt the expansion of blanket bog and restore fertility to the area.

Kilcooly Abbey

Kilcooly Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1182, by Dónal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond, with monks from Jerpoint, County Kilkenny.  The church was built in the early thirteenth century, initially with a nave and two aisles.  In 1445, after the monastery was almost totally destroyed by a fire, a large amount of reconstruction took place. The church was rebuilt without aisles and a new north transept, entrance porch and tower were added.

The fine east window contains particularly good flamboyant tracery and under it are the altar and the effigy tomb of Piers Fitz Oge Butler who died in 1526. In the wall of the south transept is a magnificently carved doorway which leads to the sacristy. Above and around the doorway are carved scenes depicting the Crucifixion, St Christopher, and also an image of a mermaid holding a mirror, perhaps as a warning against vanity. Outside, the cloister path still remains with a large tree growing at the centre of the cloister garden. The other domestic buildings include the chapter room, refectory, kitchen and dormitory. A little to the north of the abbey stands a columbarium or pigeon house. Kilcooly was used in the making of John Boorman’s film Excalibur.

Roscommon Castle

The construction of the castle began in 1269 under the instruction of Robert de Ufford, chief governor in Ireland for Henry III. Aedh O’Connor, King of Connacht, was an ardent opposer and burnt the unfinished castle in 1270, 1271 and 1272. After Aedh’s death in 1274, the pace of construction increased dramatically and the castle was eventually finished around 1278. It became the centre of Anglo-Norman power over a wide area of Ireland and one of the primary royal castles in Ireland until the middle of the fourteenth century. It was attacked repeatedly and eventually taken by the O’Connors, who then held the castle until it was surrendered to the Dublin government in 1569.

In 1577, it was granted, along with 17,000 acres, to the English soldier and administrator, Sir Nicholas Malby. Malby constructed a fortified house in the northern half of the courtyard. The castle was attacked by Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1596 and again in 1599. It was also a scene of strife during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and was surrendered to a Cromwellian force in 1652. After the Williamite Wars of the 1690s the castle fell out of use.

About the Authors:

Tarquin Blake, photographer and historian, is the author of the best-selling Abandoned Mansions of Ireland Volumes 1 and 2 and of the website www.AbandonedIreland.com. He has extensively explored Irish architectural relics and historical sites and his passion is unravelling and documenting a lost heritage.

Fiona Reilly is Assistant Keeper of Irish Antiquities with the National Museum of Ireland. An archaeologist with wide-ranging experience, she has directed numerous excavations, many of which are published. Her interests lie in medieval church architecture and industrial and historic archaeology. Ancient Ireland – Exploring Irish Historic Monuments is available for purchase here.


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