Ireland, known as Éire in Irish Gaelic, is a remarkable island. We’ve previously written about some of the reasons you should take a trip to the Emerald Isle, and today we’re offering 10 more sites that are must see places for cultural, historical, and architectural reasons. We focus on the Republic of Ireland, which takes up the majority of the land on the island. Get ready for a journey exploring some of the most unusual, romantic and iconic places of Ireland.
10. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Ireland’s largest church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the national church for the Church of Ireland, a building with significance to Irish culture and a feast for eyes appreciative of ancient architecture. The place where the church now stands is believed to represent Ireland’s most ancient Christian site, where St. Patrick baptized his converts. Between the 5th century and the year 1191, the church onsite was built of wood. The present building was constructed starting in 1191 to be completed in 1270. It was in 1191 that the structure was re-classified as a cathedral.
From 1783 to 1871, the Knights of St. Patrick used the church as the Chapel of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick. Significant reconstruction works during the 1870s were undertaken when concerns over the architectural integrity of the building led to fears of collapse. Accordingly, the present day look of the building is decidedly Victorian in form due to the extent of the renovations and upgrades. Interestingly, the work was funded by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness himself, who is commemorated with a bronze statue at the church.
9. Irish Sky Garden
Close to Skibbereen is a huge crater containing a central monument. Looking like an idyllic, Shire-themed version of a meteor crater, the Irish Sky Garden frames the sky for an arresting view presented to those who venture in. The site is part of the Liss Ard Estate, whose owner commissioned the project for about €500,000. The unique exhibit is the work of James Turrell, who is actually an American artist who went on to create the work of art in Ireland. A stone plinth is located in the center of the grassy “crater,” upon which visitors can lay down on their backs, seeing just grass and sky during the day, or stars at night.
The view of the sky is elliptical, creating a stunning view of the stars that may recall space travel while still being on Earth. While slightly eerie, the fact that the bowl-shaped structure blocks all outside sound allows visitors to explore in silence, adding to the illusion of having traveled to space. Entry to the “bowl” is gained through an arch of stone that leads to an underground passage, coming out at the bowl’s edge close to the central plinth.
8. Meascán Méabha
A 1,073-foot mini-mountain of limestone known in Irish Gaelic as Cnoc na Riabh and in English as Knocknarea is located in County Sligo, close to Sligo Town. The hill resembles a monolith in its structure and atop is a cairn comprised of countless individual limestone pieces, a human-made hill atop the natural hill. One of the most spectacular memorial sites in Ireland, this cairn is known, in Irish Gaelic, as Meascán Méabha, often anglicized as Medb’s Tomb and named after Méabha, a figure of Irish mythology.
The cairn is perhaps Ireland’s answer to the famed pyramids of Egypt and Mayan tombs. The cairn is enormous, measuring 180 feet across and 33 feet in height. The cairn dates back to around 3200 BCE and represents a mystery of ancient civilization in Ireland. It is theorized that the cairn conceals a passage tomb from the Neolithic era. The cairn remains the largest unexplored monument in Ireland, but examination of the area in which it is located suggests that the site was significant for both meetings and rituals in ancient times. Conservation being important, visitors are instructed not to remove stones, while respect for the deceased means that those visiting should not tread on the cairn.
Tombs tend to fascinate modern day observers and Ireland has no lack in the department of exotic burial locations. Dating back to about 3600 BC, Poulnabrone is a portal tomb that was excavated in 1986 to reveal the remains of no less than 16 ancient people, both adults and children. The first megalithic monument owned by the state, the structure is both iconic and exceedingly mysterious, attracting viewers from around the globe. Standing just over 6-feet tall, the structure is supported by three large narrow stones in the shape of a tripod that are capped by a huge flat stone.
This arrangement lends Poulnabrone an appearance reminiscent of an inuksuk. Located in western coastal Ireland in County Clare, the now popular amateur historian’s destination was originally fashioned out of limestone that is abundant in the region’s Karst landscape. Structures such as Poulnabrone are known as dolmens, considered to represent portal tombs set up in honor of the deceased in ancient times.
6. The Rock of Cashel
A most magnificent landmark, the Rock of Cashel towers above the green hills and craggy rocks on which it is built, contrasting with the grassy landscape beyond. Together with a graveyard, the site is walled off. Located in County Tipperary in the Republic of Ireland, the Rock of Cashel was the seat of the Kings of Munster until the invasion of the Normans. Alternative names for the Rock of Cashel include the Castle of Kings, and the more proper name of St. Patrick’s Rock.
The Rock of Cashel is considered to be a globally unique masterpiece of ancient architecture, combining elements of Germanic and Hiberno-Romanesque design in their form and character. The rock is significant for the events that are believed to have taken place historically. The conversion of the King of Munster Aenghus is thought to have occurred in the 5th Century under the auspices of St. Patrick himself. The highest part of the structure is the round tower which soars 90 feet, while sharp angular lines define the magnificent cathedral portion of the complex. Steeped in legend, the rock on which the castle and graveyard are located is said to have been the result of a battle between St. Patrick and the Devil in ancient times.
5. The Aran Islands
Ireland is made even more special by some culturally and geographically unique islands close to the mainland. The Aran Islands form an archipelago of three small islands in Galway Bay, positioned by the mouth. These spectacular islands offer a remote wilderness experience coupled with landmarks of historic interest and constitute the Barony of Aran. Known as the “Islands of Saints and Scholars,” the Aran Islands are home to hardy inhabitants who are bilingual, speaking Irish Gaelic and English alike, and well adapted to the harsh conditions.
Comprised of ancient limestone formations once connected to the main island of Ireland, the three islands are desert-like, with bare, windswept rock forming the majority of the landscape. Inis Mór Island translates to Big Island, while Inis Meáin Island is Middle island, and Inis Oírr Island is East Island. Inis Mór Island contains somewhat terrifying 300-foot cliffs, beside which the historic fort of Dun Aonghasa is located, with concentric stone walls. Inis Meáin Island is sparsely populated with only 200 residents, making it an escape into a wilder place. The tiny Inis Oírr Island may be less spectacular, but contains appealing pastures and village scenes contrasted with accessible beaches and often turbulent ocean waters.
Ireland is not exactly a spot in the Himalayas or the Rockies, but this island that calls to mind images of lush pastures and quaint towns is not without its most striking mountain ranges. Standing tall at 3,407 feet, Carrauntoohill is Ireland’s largest mountain and located in County Kerry, close to Munster in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland. Carrauntoohil is spelled as Corrán Tuathail in Irish Gaelic, translating to “Tuathal’s sickle” and is the peak located centrally amongst the highest mountain range in Ireland, the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. Carrauntoohil is both a destination for Irish mountaineering enthusiasts and mountain climbers from around the world.
While Carrauntoohil is not a tall mountain compared with the world’s highest peaks, it is a mountain to be reckoned with. Snow and ice are scarce compared to many mountaineering sites due to the proximity of warmer Atlantic air, yet the flip-side of this is unpredictable weather thanks to ripple effects from oceanic storms. The mountain can therefore severely punish the unprepared with harsh conditions that combine fierce winds, shrouding mist with treacherous inclines among the rocky and slippery terrain.
3. No. 2 Internment Camp
Few may be aware that Ireland was neutral during World War II… but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have some involvement, if only to host a military camp that held captured Allied and Axis prisoners of war. “K Lines,” officially named the No. 2 Internment Camp, was built at Curragh where German airman and Allied airmen were housed under a form of detention that was quite unique in the course of World War II. The camp makes for an interesting place to visit given its neutral role in war history. Rather than being officially classified as prisoners of war, German airmen who had ended up in Ireland were regarded as “guests” of the neutral state of Ireland and thus enjoyed numerous liberties and privileges.
The obligation of the Irish state was to prevent combatants from going back into battle. Prisoners were even granted parole on the basis of their honor, promising not to get involved in the war. With the commitment to neutrality, British airmen who made a mistake and ended up in Ireland were interned as well. Numbers rose to 45 interned German airman and 47 British internees, until a secret release of some British airmen. German airmen were not released, but some were permitted to enroll in higher education as a way to “match” the release of British fliers.
2. Kilmainham Gaol
In the troubled history of Ireland, many sites of interest have emerged over time, notorious as flashpoints in the ongoing conflicts. Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin was the site of many executions of prominent Irish revolutionaries by British authorities. The gaol has a colorful history, being opened in 1796 and finally closing in 1924. Throughout the Anglo-Irish War, which lasted from 1919 to 1921, numerous Irish Republican Movement organizers were arrested and sent to Kilmainham Gaol, where British troops kept an eye on them.
Previously, Irish revolutionary leaders were frequently executed at Kilmainham in the years 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916, when rebellions were underway. Kilmainham saw further service during the Irish Civil War that lasted from 1922 to 1923. Now a museum run by the department of public works, the gaol is becoming an increasingly popular — if not somewhat dark — tourist destination. Kilmainham Gaol also held ordinary “criminals” convicted of minor offenses, as well as bonafide criminals including murderers and terrorists. Now, travelers can tour the halls where cells occupied by both the infamous and forgotten offer a different kind of visitor experience.
1. Blarney Castle and Blarney Stone
Located near Cork, Blarney Castle is the building in which the famous and myth-shrouded Blarney Stone is placed. Legend says that this stone, a carboniferous black limestone piece that was installed in the castle in 1446, will give the gift of the gab, or great speaking skills to those who… ahem… kiss it. Blarney Castle itself was constructed approximately 600 years ago by the great Irish chieftan Cormac MacCarthy, made much more interesting by the addition of the mysterious stone. The stone has been kissed for more than 200 years by world leaders, artists, writers, and the simply curious, hoping to gain the ability to speak more eloquently.
The stone has been rumored to have a variety of extraordinary origins. These include being an artifact imported to Ireland from the Crusades, the very stone which the Jewish King David used to hide from his pursuer, Saul, and even the ill-fated rock which the prophet Moses struck against the God of Israel’s instruction according to the Bible when he was impatient in a search for water. Kissing the Blarney Stone involves awkwardly leaning back while holding onto iron bars, an activity which requires thorough safety precautions to prevent striking one’s head or falling.