Ireland is ancient. Civilization on the little island at the edge of the European continent dates back to 12,500 years ago. It goes without saying that such a long history has left its marks everywhere on the land. Ireland is full of ruins, of remains of past human settlements that have long outlived their primary inhabitants. The most common feature that we noticed during our Ireland road trip were the dry stone walls that line the meadows. Built as boundaries to delimit land property and fence off cattle, some of these dry stone walls can easily be a few centuries old.
Castles are another feature that is pretty common to see. We had actually planned to see more, but were eventually forced to cut some of the detours needed to reach some of them. So we ended up seeing less than planned. Some destinations just need more time once you get there, and I favoured dedicating the right amount of time to certain places rather than rushing through all the items on my itinerary. It’s good to have a plan, but travel needs also to be a little spontaneous.
Ireland displays even more ancient testimonies than castles or other medieval ruins. The most famous one is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne, which includes the famous passage grave of Newgrange. We did not explore any prehistoric site, as we did not focus our trip in the Eastern part of the island. On our Northern and Western itinerary we mostly stopped to see churches, castles and cemeteries. Here are those that we visited.
The Rock of Cashel
Originally a fortress and the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster, the Rock of Cashel is an impressive site to visit. In the 12th century the fortress was donated to the Church and its architecture grew since then. The oldest building in the complex, the round tower, dates back to 1100. In order to visit the Rock of Cashel one needs to pay an entry ticket and join a guided tour. They are not extremely strict about it and when we arrived a tour had already started. We were able to join them a little late without problems. One can as well just leave the tour anytime. Surprisingly, to the contrary of what one would expect, by the end of our tour more and more people had actually joined our group.
At first I had not planned to visit the Rock of Cashel, but a few weeks before my trip I randomly stumbled upon pictures of it in a facebook group I belong to. The girl who posted those pictures warmly recommended the place and recommended to join the guided tour because it was really worth it. Cashel conveniently happened to be located between Midleton and Tullamore, two stops on my Irish whiskey distillery tour. The only problem was – would we have enough time for it? At first we thought we’d just join the guided tour for a little bit and then hit the road again. But the guide was so good and the whole place so interesting that we just decided to stick around and spent a full hour at the Rock of Cashel. This left us with less time for other things on our way to Tullamore, but then again, let’s be spontaneous.
The place is home to a colony of crows. I don’t know if they nest there all the time or only during a certain time of the year, but many kept us company during our visit. I was quite fascinated and aimed at taking photos when they happened to fly by. I took home quite some interesting pictures with the birds in them. They were as much a part of the landscape as the ruins. And they totally ruled the photo of the graveyard outside the cathedral.
Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland
We started off our trip in Northern Ireland. Dunluce Castle was the first ruin we visited, but not the first castle! On our first day we paid a visit to Ballygally Castle, a real castle from 1625 now turned hotel, where we stopped for afternoon tea. You should really take a look at the lovely treats we had there! After that, we also drove to Belfast Castle, which is much more modern and far from being a ruin. Dunluce Castle has been in ruins since 1690. Originally the home to the families of Scottish chiefs, it was abandoned after some portions of it collapsed into the sea.
We didn’t go inside, but only visited it from outside. The way it is perched on top of the cliffs is impressive, and the thought that part of it one fateful day just crumbled into the sea down below is a fearful one. Legend has it the first chamber to plummet to the sea was the kitchen, but among the ruins there is evidence of the kitchen still being where it was supposed to be. The legend might be false, but a whole section of the castle, even if it was not the kitchen, still did collapse and was the main reason why that castle was abandoned many centuries ago.
Dunluce Castle is located on the Causeway Coast, a ten-minute drive away from the Giant’s Causeway. After visiting the Giant’s Causeway and its incredible rock formations, we headed back to the hostel to have a quick breakfast and got back on the road. There were two ruins waiting for us on the Causeway Coast.
Mussenden Temple and Downhill Demesne
Another short ride away from Dunluce Castle lays this other incredible ruin in Northern Ireland. Surprisingly, I had no idea about it until the night before, when we got to talk to a very nice girl in the hostel and she was warmly recommending the place. I say surprisingly, because the Mussenden Temple appears in Game of Thrones and I had done some research about filming locations prior to my trip. This must have slipped my attention.
The Downhill manor was built by the eccentric Earl-Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey in the 18th century. It was inspired by Italian architecture and it housed a great collection of books and paintings. It went all up in flames in 1851, and at the begninning of the 20th century the house was completely abandoned. Since we knew nothing about the place, as soon as we faced the ruins of the manor we struggled to place it in history. It looked fairly modern – of classical inspiration, clearly – but too run down to be only a couple of centuries old. We later learned that it had been destroyed by a fire, and suddenly the advanced state of destruction of the villa made sense.
This was probably the darkest place we visited. Not the cemeteries, not the flocks of crows at Cashel – this. When we stopped there the sky was dense with rain-bearing clouds and a strange light surrounded the ruins of this manor. It was as if that fire had tried to erase all the excesses that this places had come to represent. Once a display of wealth, it now stands crumbled and destroyed, bared to the bones. I almost felt pity; fire terrifies me. Of course it started raining quite heavily and we didn’t venture any further to reach the Mussenden Temple, that I only photographed from a distance before hiding the camera from the torrential rain. (How incredibly dark that a place be completely destroyed by fire in a land where water falls from the sky continuously.)
The only stop we made on the tiny portion of the Ring of Kerry we drove was to see Muckross Abbey. The Ring of Kerry is Ireland’s most famous drive, but sadly there was no way we could fit that into our itinerary. We chose to drive the Dingle peninsula to get a taste of the beauty of western Ireland, and were happy enough with our little stop at Muckross Abbey.
This was a fairly quick stop, these ruins lay a short walk from the nearest parking lot and the exploration of the place didn’t take long. The good thing is that many walls still stand and it is possible to see quite a lot of this complex, not just the church. My favourite part was definitely the cloister, and the beautiful tree that grows in the inner garden.
I didn’t mean to mention the weather all the time, but then again – of course – it started raining and we had to find shelter under a tree nearby. The car was not parked far away, but we still didn’t want to get drenched on our way to it. Why didn’t we take our umbrellas, you ask? Go back to the first photo and marvel at that blue sky. 15 minutes later it was pouring. Eventually we didn’t wait until the rain completely ceased and made our way back to the car in a softer pour. Tempted by the sun, when I intentionally left the umbrella behind I had also considered leaving the jacket. I’m glad I didn’t, it still protected me from the rain we got walking away from this place.
Kilmacrehy Cemetery in Liscannor
This was a totally unplanned stop. It actually took me some time to locate it again on the map once we came back. On our way from the Cliffs of Moher to the Dingle peninsula we passed by Liscannor, a tiny village on the coast. At some point I noticed this small deserted cemetery and I decided to pull over and pay it a visit. I have a deep fascination for cemeteries and I was captivated by this one. Just by the sea, guarded by tall (and slightly crooked) Celtic crosses, it looked like a very peaceful resting place for eternity.
The ruins of a church stand by, very covered in green and clearly abandoned since decades. I like visiting cemeteries when I travel someplace new. They can teach you something more about the culture of the place. Every culture and civilisation in the world has their way of dealing with death and cemeteries are that ultimate place where you get to see this side of a culture. There is a lot of architecture, sociology and anthropology enclosed in a cemetery.
I was completely alone when I explored this ancient resting place. In some parts of the cemetery the graves are literally one over the other, so little was the space to accommodate the departed members of the Kilmacrehy parish. As I made my way to the church ruins I recognised on many a tomb a familiar Scottish family name. The interior of the church housed even more tombs, showing it had long been dismissed as church and had been converted into extra burial ground. Silently I made my way out, back to the parking lot where my boyfriend was waiting for me.
Ireland is an incredible place when it comes to ruins. To see them all one would never stop exploring. Some of the best sights happened by chance – either because someone mentioned the place the night before, or because we just drove by and decided to stop and explore. As much as I love laying out itineraries and having plans, in Ireland I was reminded once more that some of the best things happen by chance.
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