Ireland is home to a wealth of Neolithic and megalithic sites ranging from tombs like Newgrange to standing stones, dolmens and fairy forts. Interest in these ancient places peaks around the Summer Solstice, when the midsummer sun brings their secrets to life.
The Summer Solstice falls on June 21st in Ireland. This is the longest day of the year, when the Sun is at its highest point of the year in the northern hemisphere. In ancient pagan societies the Summer Solstice was hugely significant, it was a time when the power of the Sun was at its highest and was seen as an important time for fertility, when the harvests of the coming year were blessed.
This significance is mirrored in the places of worship and burial sites, from standing stones to pyramids and tombs, that Neolithic pagan cultures built throughout the world and many were designed in alignment with the sun at this sacred time of the year, when the sun was at its most powerful.
There are some 40,000 ancient megalithic and Neolithic sites across the British Isles and Ireland, from burial chambers, to stone circles and former dwellings of ancient societies.
Ireland’s most prominent Neolithic site is Newgrange an ancient passage tomb, dating back nearly 5,000 years, predating the Egyptian pyramids by 6 centuries. Newgrange is the best example of a Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland and one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Europe. The burial mound is some 80m in diameter and 13m high, and is similar to sites built around the same time at Maes Howe in Orkney and Carnac in Britanny. The purpose of Newgrange is unsure, is it a burial place of kings? A centre of ritual? or an astrological calendar? Which like Stonehenge is in alignment with the sun during the solstice.
Over 200,000 tonnes of earth and stone were used in the construction of Newgrange, with stones believed to have been quarried and transported from Wicklow, 80km to the south and the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Newgrange also plays a role in Irish Mythology, as the burial place of the lovers Dairmuid and Grainne, as well as the place where the great warrior Cuchulainn was conceived.
Newgrange is one of a number of Neolithic sites within a hugely significant area known as Bru Na Boinne – the Boyne Palace. Other similar burial structures can be found at Knowth and Dowth, where archaeological excavations are currently ongoing. These excavations unearthed at Knowth, what is regarded as the greatest collection of passage grave art in Western Europe. Knowth has been an important site throughout many periods, as a burial site from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, a ring fort of the early Celts and even a motte and bailey built by the Normans in the 12th Century.
Also close by, are the important ancients sites of the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane. Commanding a sweeping view across the plains of Meath, Tara is hugely significant in Irish folklore. Tara was once the political and religious centre of Ireland, the High Kings of Ireland held court here, and Tara was associated with the pagan goddess Maeve. On the northern side of the valley is the Hill of Slane, where huge pagan festivals were held and where one of St Patrick’s legendary feats is said to have took place. It was while converting the pagans here that St Patrick plucked a shamrock from the ground to explain the Holy Trinity, after which the Hill of Slane was covered in shamrocks, which was later adopted as the Irish national symbol.
Though, Bru Na Boinne and Newgrange are Ireland’s most celebrated Neolithic sites, they are not the country’s oldest. In County Sligo there are the remnants of ancient burial sites predating Newgrange by 700 years. The Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery covers some 5km square and is one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe. The site contains some 60 dolmens, passage tombs and stones, though many are on private farmland. Carrowmore is also linked with nearby Carrowkeel and Carrowmore is situated at a central point between ancient stone cairns on top of surrounding mountains.
Further down the western seaboard, prehistoric burial sites have also been discovered in the rugged Burren area of Co. Clare, most notably the Poulnabrone Dolmen. This portal tomb is one of Ireland’s most photographed Neolithic sites, recognised on many a postcard and dates back over 5000 years. In 1986 the site was excavated and the remains of 16 people were found, dating back to 3800 BC.
Further south just 18km from Limerick City on the shores of Lough Gur are the remains of an early settlement dating back 4000 years. The site includes The Lois a stone circle of some 113 stones, the largest of its kind in Ireland along with numerous burial mounds, wedge tombs and standing stones. A thatched replica of a Neolithic dwelling houses the Lough Gur Interpretive Centre, with a display of artefacts including a replica of the famous Lough Gur Shield (original housed in Dublin) dating back to 700BC.
Many of Ireland’s ancient sites can be found in coastal areas. The Aran Islands off the Galway coast are famed for their archaeological sites, most notably the 2000-year-old Iron Age fort of Dun Aengus, on Inish Mor. While the coast of West Cork is dotted with standing stones and stone circles. One of the more prominent of these is the Drombeg Stone Circle, overlooking the sea just outside the fishing port of Glandore. The site also features the remains of a fulachta fiadh, an Iron Age cooking pit. On the Beara Peninsula just outside Castletownbere is another impressive monument, the Derrennataggart Stone Circle, consisting 10 upright stones.
Ireland’s archaeological finds and Neolithic sites attract thousands of visitors each year, if you want to visit any of these sites on your vacation to Ireland ask one of our vacation specialists for details.
Situated eight kilometres east of the village of Slane, the Passage Grave of Newgrange is regarded by some as one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world.
As well as the less famous Knowth and Dowth, Newgrange boasts the fact that it is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, having survived over five thousand years. Almost ninety metres in diameter and eleven metres in height and covering an area of almost one acre, the main burial mound of Newgrange is surrounded by the remains of three smaller passage graves. It is situated on a low hill and commands breathtaking views of the Boyne Valley. The passage only extends for a quarter of the total diameter of the mound. It opens out into a central chamber with three adjoining smaller chambers to the west, east and north.
One of the main reasons for the importance and fame of Newgrange is its richness in megalithic art which can be seen all over the chamber especially on the east recess. The most remarkable feature of Newgrange, however, is the roof-box over the entrance which, at first glance, seems insignificant. However, its precise alignment and location reveals the incredible depths of knowledge which this ancient civilization possessed. It measures 90cm by 1m and is perfectly aligned to catch the first rays of the rising sun on the morning of the winter solstice on the 21st of December. On that morning the rays of the sun pass through the roof-box, make their way down the passage-way and light up the central chamber for about fifteen minutes after which the passage and chamber are once again engulfed in darkness.
Bru na Boinne
Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre, open in 1997, is designed to present the archaeological heritage of the Boyne Valley, which includes the megalithic passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth. The Centre is the starting point for all visits to both monuments, and contains extensive interpretative displays and viewing areas.
All visitors wishing to visit Newgrange and Knowth must begin their visit at the Visitor Centre. There is no direct access to these monuments.
All admission tickets are issued at the Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre.
* Last tour of monuments 1hour 30mins before closing time of the Centre.
* Last admission to Visitor Centre 45 mins before closing.
* All groups of 15 or more must book in advance.
Please note that this is a very busy site and visitors must expect a delay in the summer months if visiting Newgrange and Knowth and access is not guaranteed. Groups which have pre-booked are expected at Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre at the appointed time, not at the monuments.
Hill of Tara
Though best known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, the Hill of Tara has been an important site since the late Stone Age when a passage-tomb was constructed there. Tara was at the height of its power as a political and religious centre in the early centuries after Christ. Attractions include an audio-visual show and guided tours of the site. Exciting new research and excavations by the Discovery Programme team continue to add to our understanding of the site.
As much of the tour is outdoors, visitors are advised to wear protective clothing and shoes suitable for walking over uneven terrain.
Restricted access for people with disabilities.
Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery
This is the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland and is also among the country’s oldest. Over 60 tombs have been located by archaeologists – the oldest pre-date Newgrange by some 700 years. A restored cottage houses a small exhibition relating to the site.
Restricted access in centre for people with disabilities (Tombs are inaccessible to people with disabilities).
Visitors are advised to wear shoes suitable for walking on uneven terrain.
The Burren, situated in north-west County Clare, covers over 300 square kilometres and is of extreme importance to geologists, botanists and archaeologists from Ireland and beyond. As the largest karstic limestone area in Western Europe, the Burren is an anomaly in the Irish landscape and continues to fascinate geologists who come to study its limestone patterns, underground rivers and grykes (cracks).
To the botanist, the Burren is home to rare alpine plants, delicate wonders that grow in the thin soil and crevices – gentians, mountain avens and maidenhair ferns amongst others. The survival of both alpine and Mediterranean plants in this unusual habitat continues to arouse debate and to delight the careful walker.
Those interested in the ancient history of Ireland will find a wealth of material in the Burren – megalithic tombs, Celtic crosses, a ruined Cistercian Abbey and more than sixty wedge tombs. Detailed maps of the Burren, such as that by the famous Irish map-maker Tim Robinson, are dotted with sites of archaeological interest, as well as the potholes which attract more and more adventure-seekers each year.
Walkers on the Burren Way enjoy a route along dry, hard limestone paths with spectacular views north towards the Aran Islands and Galway Bay.
The spectacular stone fort of Dun Aonghasa is perched on the cliff edge of Aran Island; Inishmore, dating back over two and a half thousand years, beaten by the constant swell of the Atlantic Ocean.
Dun Aonghasa is one of the most important and distinctive ancient sites of Ireland. A huge ancient ring fort seemingly cut in half by the sheer cliff face of Inishmore, at the mercy of the elements and the encroaching Atlantic Ocean. The late Bronze Age fort is a succession of stone enclosures covering some 14 acres, protected by an outer defence of jagged stone known as a Chevaux de frise. The outer enclosure spans far and wide and would have protected livestock, whereas the middle and inner enclosures were more defensive in purpose. The inner wall measures some 5m in width and would have been 6m high; it took some 6,500 tonnes of stone to build. At the heart of the fort, situated right on the cliff edge is a rock platform, which formed the focal point in the rituals and lives of those who dwelt here.
Little is known of the fort’s original inhabitants, recent excavations date the earliest human inhabitation as around 1500BC – 1000AD, though the most important period is believed to have been around 800BC. It is believed to have been the political and ritual centre for a group of peoples of common ancestry and only those elite members would have lived at Dun Aonghasa. However the name of Aonghasa comes from a much later period of the 5th Century when the fort was again inhabited. It is believed the name is associated with that of Aonghus Mac Natfraich, King of Cashel in the 5th Century, who had dynastic connections with Aran.
Dun Aonghasa is a fascinating sight; an atmospheric place with unrestricted views along the battered Atlantic coastline of Inishmore and is the most prominent sight of the Aran Islands.