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Fact or FictionAncient Monuments

All archaeological remains in Ireland are under state care and most can be easily visited, including those on private land. Please take care to close gates, not to disturb farm animals and to respect the landowner's property. A good detailed map, a pair of stout shoes or boots and occasionally a torch will be useful, especially for the more remote examples. Once you are in the area ask the locals for directions. They will tell you exactly where to find the monuments - and a lot more besides.

There are vast numbers of ancient monuments including dolmens, crannogs, forts, clochans, tumui, cairns, passage graves, stone circles, round towers and high crosses. It is well worth visiting at least some of these, as they reveal much about how people have lived in Ireland over the last 5,000 years.

A brief explanation of each type of monument now follows.

Grianan of Aileach, Burnfoot, County Donegal

Forts were ramparts built of clay (raths) and stone (cahers or cashels). They have given their name to many Irish towns, for example Rathgall, Rathfriland, Cahirsiveen and Cashel. Since there are said to be 40,000 forts it would be hard to miss them. This term was used for any strengthened structure including stockades and cattle enclosures. Staigue Fort in Kerry, Garranes in Cork, Grianan of Aileach in Donegal and Navan Fort near Armagh City are among the best. Tara, once the palace of the high kings of Ireland, has a number of raths.


Dolmens are tombs dating from about 2000 BC and consist of two or more unhewn stones supporting a flat capstone. There is a huge one at Kilternan, Co. Dublin. Others are at Proleek, Co Louth,Knockeen,Co. Waterford and Legananny, Co. Down.


Passage Graves are set in a mound of earth or stone with a passage leading to the central chamber, and often have side chambers. Many are 4,500 years old and show a sophisticated knowledge of construction, design and astronomy. They are often decorated with geometrical motifs, spirals, concentric circles, triangles, zigzags, the human face and, of course, the sun. Their meaning has not yet been deciphered but presumably they are connected with the religion of the people who built them.

Newgrange, County KildarePassage graves often occur in groups and those found in the Boyne Valley are superb: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Newgrange is a vast earthen mound penetrated by a long narrow passage. The tumulus is surrounded by a ditch with a number of the original pillar stones in place. A kerb of 97 huge stones (many with spiral motifs) supports a dry wall. The threshold stone is carved with a triple spiral, circles and diamonds about whose meaning we can only speculate.

The passageway is narrow and low and the central chamber artificially lit. However, on one day of the year, the Winter Solstice (21 December), a shaft of light enters the passage at dawn and for a few minutes strikes the centre of the floor illuminating the chamber. It is by all accounts an extraordinary experience.


Stone Circles (Cromlechs) are quite rare but can be visited at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, whose shores have a large number of ancient monuments including forts and tiny remains of stone-age dwellings.


Pillar Stones (gallans) can often be seen in fields alongside the road. The most interesting are indicated by a signpost. Some have tracks of carving and many have inscriptions in ogham writing. The letters consist of up to five lines cut above, below or across the stem line and may record a name or event in Irish. They date from about AD 300 and are the earliest form of writing known in Ireland. While it is easy enough to transliterate ogham the meaning is often unclear because the Irish use is very obscure. Dunloe, Co. Kerry, has a number of ogham stones in good condition. One inscription reads 'Cunacena' - probably someone's name. There are many more in Kerry and Cork.


Crannogs are lake dwellings built on a small island, sometimes reached by a causeway. There are crannogs at Fair Head, Co. Antrim and a splendid reconstruction at Quin, near Shannon Airport in Co.Clare. There, the Craggaunowen Project has recreated a number of ancient dwellings and ring forts, which vividly show the lifestyle of people in Ireland 3,000 years ago.


Clochans are the distinctive beehive huts built of stone that were used as monk's cells. Many are on offshore islands such as Bishop's Island, Co. Clare, High Island,Co. Galway, Innishmurray, Co. Sligo, and the breathtakingly beautiful Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry. There are many more accessible ones on the Dingle peninsula, including the delightful Gallarus Oratory.


Round towers are spread evenly across the country, with about 65 examples to be seen. Many are still intact with the distinctive conical cap. They were used as places of refuge and as belfries, usually with the entrance high off the ground. Once the occupants were inside the ladder was drawn up. It is worth climbing at least one round tower just for the view of the surrounding countryside. Among the best are those at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ardmore, Co. Waterford, Devenish, Co.Fermanagh, Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly and that beside St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny town.

Dromore High Cross, Banbridge, County Down

High Crosses vary from small, inscribed stones to massive free-standing sculptures with beautifully detailed carvings and a celtic circle around the head of the cross. Good examples are Muiredachs's Cross at Monasterboice, Co. Louth and Clonmacnois, where a number of inscribed crosses are individually displayed. Both sites have round towers and extensive monastic remains. Another high cross and the stump of a round tower are located at Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, the burial place of the poet William Butler Yeats.


Cairn: A standing stone dating to the Neolithic ("new stone age") period, often referred to as part of the preCeltic period in the context of Ireland. These stones can be found all over Europe, but the 'Celtic Fringe' to the West, and particularly Ireland, is the best place to find these stones in good condition.


Gallery Graves: These are long rectangular areas marked out in stone. Originally a large earthen mound covered these graves, with the stones making a passage into the mound. It appears that the dead were disposed of by cremation, and then the remains placed in the centre of the grave. A few graves are still covered by the mound, but in most cases the mound is no longer there and the stones are exposed.


Some of these graves have a semi-circular area in front of the entrance were it is believed rituals would have been enacted before the ashes would have been buried. Such graves are referred to as 'Court Graves'.


Priory: This was a religious house ruled by a prior or prioress. They were used by those early Christians who had chosen to live separate from the rest of the world in meditation and prayer. They were sometimes under the control of an abbey or convent, but sometimes independent.


Monastic sites: Monasticism was very common amongst the Early Irish Christians, and monasteries quite often developed into towns, such as the famous monastery of St. Kevin in Glendolough. Monks played an important role in Irish history; they had a dramatic influence on religious life in Ireland by converting the Irish to Christianity, and later converting much of western Europe, and ironically much of the information we have of pre-Christian Ireland comes from the written versions the monks made of older oral traditions. All of the mythological tales of Celtic Ireland comes to us from the pens of these monks.

Ennis Friary, Ennis, County Clare

Friaries: A type of monastery or convent, inhabitted by friars. The word 'friar' can apply to any monk, but is most often used for members of the 'mendicant' orders; Franciscans, Augustines, Dominicans and Carmelites.


Bawn: An fortified enclosure, generally attached to a castle or fort, which offered protection to people and cattle in times of peril.


Motte: A raised mound, generally surrounded by at least one ditch, which offered a defensive advantage to inhabitations on top of it. 'Motte' refers to defensive structures of this kind from the bronze age right up until Norman times, though the inhabitations built on them were very different.


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