A land of 10,000 tales and a 100,000 memories, Ireland is littered with cairns and forts, dolmens and abbeys, standing stones and high crosses, monastic hermitages and feudal castles, with the oldest dating back thousands of years. But though the earliest traces of early life here date from about 6000 BC, it was not until about 3000 BC that humans built on a scale large enough to leave memorials to themselves. Those that survive are tombs of a type known as court cairns long chambers divided into compartments.
The earliest structure that grips the visitor's imagination is the passage grave. Found in groups, each under a huge mound, these typically consist of a long passage leading to a central space onto which other chambers open on three sides, with a roof of large stones, one or more stone basins inside, and, on all the stones, great numbers of incised geometric motifs and even stylized human faces. The group in the Boyne Valley of County Meath, which includes the magnificent Newgrange, is striking.
Equally arresting are Ireland's great standing stones, or dolmens. Outlined against the sky, crowned by an enormous capstone, they were built in about 2000 BC, probably as tombs. Men in pubs call them beds of Diarmuid and Grainne, referring to the Irish king's daughter who, betrothed to the venerable giant Finn MacCool, eloped with the younger Diarmuid on her wedding night and slept in prehistoric tombs during a furious yearslong chase that ended with Diarmuid's death at the snout of an enchanted boar and the wayward lady's marriage.
Later, during the Bronze Age, at about the time the Celts arrived here, there were stone circles like the piper's stones of County Wick low, Where, it was believed, the little people played the bagpipes for dancers. Hill forts like Tara, the legendary dwelling of the high king of Ireland, came later, in the Iron Age, around 500 BC.
A hill fort's outer fortifications enclosed a large area, so the owner was certainly an important figure. Ring forts, of which there are some 3,000 scattered around the country, are smaller, ranging in scale from the Grianan of Aileach in County Donegal to the occasional odd shape in a field.Christianity in Ireland
Christianity came to Ireland in the 5th century, and with it the nation embarked on an era of great building. Monasteries sprang up all over Ireland. Bearing little resemblance to their more modern counterparts, they consisted of simple clusters of stone huts and a sheltering wall, like those on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry and at Glendalough in County Wicklow. Round towers, also seen at Glendalough, were put up as refuge from Viking raids.
The devout also built crosses which at first were just cross-shaped slabs or slabs incised with a cross motif. Later came the increasingly more . ornate high crosses, which had geometric designs and even scenes from the Bible, with a circle around the intersection of the horizontal and vertical arms.
In the 12th century, Irish Romanesque architecture made its debut on the ecclesiastical scene. Examples like the Chapel of Cormac at Cashel, in County Tipperary, and Ballintubber Abbey, in County Mayo, show the distinctive signs: roundheaded doorways, fantastic animal and human masks in stone, with intertwining beard and tail, chevrons, and foliage decorating arches, doorways, capitals, and sometimes church windows.
The cathedral towns of Ireland
In the 13th century, Franciscans and Dominicans arrived with Gothic ideas in their saddle bags. In cathedral towns like Kilkenny, Kildare, and Limerick, many of the older parish church buildings still in use abound in lancet windows and other distinctive marks of the style. By the 15th century, the Cistercians had risen to the glories of Holy Cross in County Tipperary.
Meanwhile, a more durable class of fortress, the castle, was'developing. The Norman invasion sparked the creation of fortresses like Carrickfergus Castle, in County Antrim, and the round keep at Nenagh, in County Tipperary.
There was no stopping the masons and their masters of this period. Between 1450 and 1650 every family who was anyone built a castle. Very few of these structures disappeared entirely from the landscape, and some most notably Bunratty Castle in County Clare are in splendid shape.Early architecture in Ireland
Whether ecclesiastical or secular, each type of building has its saga and its place in Irish history, and with a little imagination, they spring vividly to life when you visit them. Those listed below, in roughly the order in which they were constructed, include some of the most important and most colorful.
NEWGRANGE, Newgrange, County Meath, Irish Republic: Very few relics of the daily life of the people of the Neolithic Age (ca. 3700-2000 BC) survive in Ireland today; it seems as if all the creative energies of the communities of this period were directed toward the construction not of homes for the living but of monumental repositories for the remains of the dead, and the whole valley of the river Boyne, about 30 miles north of Dublin, is scattered with cairns, standing stones, and earthworks both large and small. Of these, Newgrange is the most impressive by far.
In fact, this passage grave ranks among the most important of its type in Europe, and scholars have spent centuries studying it. Literature of the ancient Irish links it to a mysterious personage who is sometimes called Oengus an Brogha (Oengus of the palace) and sometimes dubbed Oengus mac an Dagda (Oengus son of the good god); some archaeologists have suggested that Newgrange and similar tombs on the Continent were constructed for the important personages in groups of traders and prospectors who first migrated from Spain or Portugal around 4000 BC.
Certainly, they had a civilization far more highly organized than our widespread assumptions about our primitive ancestors would credit them at least if they are to be judged from the sophistication of the building and decorative techniques evidenced here.
HILL OF TARA, near Navan, County Meath, Irish Republic: Little but legend and a handful of earthworks and stones remain of the glories of Tara but of legend and conjecture there is plenty, and this 512-foot hill about 25 miles from Dublin, commanding a fine view of a vast expanse of lush meadows, is well worth a visit.
Already a significant burial place 2 millennia before Christ (as revealed by the excavation of one of the site's most notable monuments, the Mound of the Hostages), it ranked among Ireland's most important political and religious sites for almost 2,000 years. It became the center of priestly rulers even before St.Patrick came to Ireland in the 5th century and long served as a residence for anyone strong enough to make himself at least nominally High King of Ireland.
Tara enjoyed one of its most glorious periods in the first centuries after Christ, when the celebrated Cormac the Wise constructed the wooden palaces that are mentioned in some of Ireland's early literature. (It was his daughter who, though betrothed to Finn MacCool, eloped with Diarmuid O'Duibhne and gave rise to the wonderful stories about the lovers' flight from one end of Ireland to the other.) Later, after St. Patrick triumphed in a contest of feats with the druids of High King Laoghaire, whose authority the saint had challenged, the King allowed his subjects to be converted to Christianity (although he himself remained a pagan until his death).
Tara's importance declined until its abandonment in 1022. Relics of all of these eras can be seen today. The Mound of the Hostages (Dunha na n Giall), an early passage grave (ca. 1800 BC) with a l7-foot long corridor, covered by a mound that measures 72 feet in diameter, is at one edge of the large, circular Iron Age ring fort called the Royal Enclosure (Rath na Riogh), at whose center are two other earthworks the Royal Seat (Forradh) and Cormac's House (Teach Cormaic), where visitors will see a modern statue of St. Patrick and the 5-foot Iong chunk of granite known as the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fail). The latter, according to popular legend, would roar when the king being crowned upon it was acceptable.
Adamnans Stone is a 6-foot high chunk of sandstone bearing the incised likeness of a human figure perhaps the horned Celtic Cernunnos or a type of fertility figure known as a sheilanagig.
The Grianan of Aileach (the sunny place in the territory of Aileach), one of the most important antiquities in the northern part of the country, is among the most noteworthy. Perched atop 800-foot Gnanan Mountain, not far from Londonderry, this fortification measures about 77 feet acoss; the 13 foot thick walls, restored in the 1870s by the bishop of Derry to their height of I7 feet, contain galleries and guard chambers and enclose a series of stairway-connected terraces. The views afforded by the top look out over the blue reaches of loughs Foyle and Swilly, are glorious fully worthy of the O'Neills, the Kings of Ulster, whose northern branch made this fortification its base from approximately the 5th century AD through to the 12th.
Already badly battered In 676 during an attack by the southern O'Neills, under Finechta the Festive, the structure was finally destroyed by Murtogh O'Brien, the King of Munster, who, avenging the pillaging of his own residence, instructed each of his men to carry away a single stone of the fort.
The round shape has inspired the church nestling at the foot of the mountain at Burt, one of Ireland's most interesting modern structures. It was built In 1967 after designs by Liam MacCormick and Una Madden. Similar and equally impressive fortifications include Dun Aengus in the Aran Islands and Staigue Fort in County Kerry.
The earth mound that is the most immediately obvious feature of Newgrange, entirely man made, using alternate layers of turf and stones, is unusually Iarge 40 feet high and 300 feet in diameter; estimates put the quantity of stones required for the whole undertaking at 180,000 tons. Now covered with grass, the mound was originally paved with white quartz pebbles so that it glistened brightly enogh In the sun to be seen from afar (as indeed it does now, thanks to a careful restoratlon In the 1960s).
Inside, leading into the depth of the hill from the entrance on the southeastern frontage, is a 62 foot long, yard wide passage.
High enough to let a person walk uprght and lined with a series of orthostats, or upright stones, 5 to 8 feet high, It ends at a generally circular burial chamber, whose notable features include its beehive-shaped ceiling paved with overlapping stones (following a method of constructio found over and over again at Irish ruins of this period) and, adjoining the main chamber and giving the tomb's interior a roughly cruciform shape three recesses containing stone troughs or basins probably once used to contain the ashes of the dead. On the morning of the shortest day of the year, rays of sun shine directly up the passageway to the center of the burial chamber a design that required some sort of calendar to calculate.
The decoration throughout further confirms that sophisticated minds were at work. The ceiling of the north recess, covered with carved spirals, lozenges, triangles, zigzags, diamonds, and other shapes, is particularly noteworthy, as are the gigantic threshold stone, at the entrance to the tomb, and many of the orthostats.Megalithic Stones Ireland
The fact that similar motifs appear on many other megalithic stones (and on Mycenean tombs as well) has prompted scholars to theorize that, far from being mere ornament, the designs, probably rooted in the pre-Mycenean civilization of the 3rd millenmum BC, are magnificent abstract representations of gods, goddesses.
GLENDAlOUGH, County Wicklow, Irish Republic: Nestled deep in the Wicklow Mountains about 30 miles south of Dublin, this valley of the two lakes is the beautiful setting for one of Ireland's important early Christian monasteries, particularly striking in May when the gorse is in full bloom. Born on the site where St. Kevin settled to renounce human love and live as a hermit during the 6th century, Glendalough, like many other Irish monasteries, was pillaged and sacked many times by the Vikings and assorted other marauders. Famous as a seat of learning, like Clonmacnoise, it was particularly vulnerable and, as at Clonmacnoise, the ruins are extensive: more than half a dozen churches, crosses, grave slabs, a priest's house, a round tower, and old wells.
The stone of which most of these are constructed, granite and micaschist, has chipped and crumbled over the centuries, giving the walls a rough texture and providing a fine medium for the growth of the pale, soft local lichen, so that the buildings at Glendalough have that particularly antique look that many folks imagine all ruins have until they find out otherwise.
It's certainly pleasant to spend a day here, poking around among the broken walls, wandering along the pathways between them, and admmng the glasssmooth waters of the upper and lower lakes. Especially noteworthy are the 7th-century cathedral, Ireland's largest pre-Romanesque church; St. Kevin's Church (popularly known as St. Kevin's Kitchen), with its round towerlike belfry rising up above a stone roof; the small, 12th-century Priest's House, perhaps originally a mortuary chapel or even the saint's shrine; the Reefert Church, around whose walls sleep many Leinster kings; and, farther down the valley, accessible via a narrow sylvan path, St. Saviour's Monastery, a 12th-century church probably built by Laurence O'Toole, former abbot of Glenda Lough, archbishop of Dublin, and Ireland's first canonized saint.
There are especially fine walks around the upper lake, which is picturesquely backed by the steep cliffs of 2,296-foot Camaderry and Lugduff Mountains, ribboned by the rushing Glenealo Stream and a waterfall.
ClONMACNOIS, Shannonbridge, County OHary, Irish Republic: Founded by St. Ciaran in the mid-6th century on a large, serenely beautiful site on a reed-edged curve of the river Shannon between loughs Derg and Ree, Clonmacnois has been plundered and burned by Vikings, desecrated by Danes, harassed by the Normans, and, much later, during the Dissolution, carried away, piece by piece. But until this consummate act of vandalism, it grew strong, flourished, and became the Oxford of medieval Ireland.
Fine manuscripts were created here, and some of the country's greatest scholars and intellects came here to live, pray, work, and be buried. What remains are the most extensive monastic ruins in Ireland: eight churches, two round towers, a cathedral, and a castle, as well as three high crosses, parts of two others, and more than 2000 12th-century gravestones vividly illustrating the many types of graves used in early Ireland.
Of all the structures here, the celebrated Flann's High Cross, carved with scenes of the Last Judgment and the Crucifixion, is exceptionally beautiful, and the Nun's Church, whose doorways have capitals crawling with fiercelooking beasts, has the most interesting story: This was where the pathetic Dervorgilla retired in penance after eloping with Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster thereby setting off the Norman invasion.
Rising in lonely tranquillity above the lush green landscape, the ruins possess an air of peace and dignity, as befits a national treasure.
ROCK OF CASHEL, Cashel, County Tipperary, Irish Republic: Even in Ireland's earliest days, before any fortresses or cathedrals or castles were built atop this chunk of carboniferous limestone, the Rock must have looked a bit unreal, rising precipitously a block of slate gray above the surrounding rockstudded green plains. Now, capped by the spare and broken remains of structures once frequented by saints, kings, and bishops, the Rock provides a visual experience that is, quite simply, one ofIreland's most stupendous. The long time capital of the Kings of Munster, the Rock was visited In 450 by St. Patrick, who baptized King Aengus and his brothers.
Later, Brian Boru, who defeated the Norsemen in the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin in the 10th century, was crowned king here, and, though it stayed in the hands of his descendants, its political importance declined as its ecclesiastical significance grew; in 1101, it was presented by Brian's grandson, King Muirchertach, to the church, which is responsible for most of the buildings in the tightly grouped complex seen on the Rock today. These are as impressive when viewed at close range as they are from afar.
Dominating the group is the cathedral, begun in the 13th century and abandoned in 1749. The central tower offers fine views into the distant mountains and to the Devil's Bit the mountain pass said to have been created when the Dark Angel took a large bite. (The size of the Rock is said to match the void in the mountain exactly.)
A very well-preserved round tower, probably from the 10th century, stands at the corner of the cathedral's north transept; and the massive, rectangular, three-storied archbishop's palace, honeycombed with passageways to explore, adjoins the west end of the cathedral's nave, which was never completed. Nearby is the newly restored 15th-century Hall of the Vicars Choral, used to house laymen who participated in the chanting of the cathedral's services and now home to the 12th-century Cross of St.
Patrick, which was recently transferred to this site. Tiny Cormac's Chapel, wedged into a corner between the cathedral's choir and its south transept, is especially interesting. Built in 1127 by Cormac MacCarthy, the Bishop of Cashel and the King of Desmond (in the realm created after a defeat by the King of Connaught divided Munster in half), it is considered by many to be the nation's best example of the Irish Romanesque style, and volumes have been written tracing its origins.
Visitors are often most impressed by the elaborate carvings, the ribbed vaulting, twisted capitals, and richly embellished blind arcades; the tympana (the surfaces between the arch and the lintels) surmounting the south door through which visitors enter today, and the far grander north door, through which worshipers gained access to the nave until the construction of the cathedral, are strikingly beautiful.
The lions and centaurs seen here are even more exotic than the human heads that peer out from around the chancel.After completing a tour, don't fail to see some of the older structures in Cashel proper.
BALLINTUBBER ABBEY, Ballintubber, County Mayo, Irish Republic: The site of this Augustinian community has long been important; tradition tells us that St. Patrick baptized local peasants with water from its well. Later, the monastery became the departure point for pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick. Now it is noteworthy because Mass has been said in its church ever since the community's founding by Cathal Crovdearg O'Conor, the King of Connacht, for the Canons Regular of St. Augustine in 1216 despite the suppression of the abbey under Henry VIII and the depredations of the Cromwellians in 1653. That there has been no interruption in religious rites for over 760 years makes the church unique in the English-speaking world, and, in addition to its special history, it is also an exceptionally handsome structure.
Thanks to sensitive restoration work begun on the initiative of a former priest, Father Egan, and finished in 1966, a new wooden roof was constructed for the nave and the interior walls whitewashed in the ancient fashion, so that the church looks much as it must have upon its completion.
The carving around the three lancet windows in the gable and on the capitals of the chancel exemplifies the best work of a school of talented late Romanesque carvers who worked in the province of Connacht in the early 13th century after the rest of the country had adopted the Gothic style; and the Augustinians, who were more permissive than other orders, allowed the artists more latitude in their designs which the results reflect. The wonderfully monstrous snakes twined around each other on the capitals between the triple roundheaded window in the front of the church (to see them in those distant gloomy recesses requires field glasses) and the grotesque creatures creeping along the corbels that uphold the chancel's ribbed vaulting are just two examples.
Nearby is the well where St. Patrick did his baptizing, as well as the attractive cloisters reconstructed from the ruins of the 15th-century originals with the aid of fragments that came to light in the course of archaeological excavations in the 1960s.
CAR RENTALS IRELAND
There is so much to see and do in Ireland that visitors should take their time to explore this intriguing and diverse land. The best and most economical way to get around Ireland is to hire a car from the airport. Airport car hire in Ireland, including Dublin Airport, Shannon Airport, Knock Airport and Cork Airport can be pre-booked before you travel to save you from delays and hassle when you arrive in Ireland.
MELLIFONT ABBEY, Drogheda, County Louth, Irish Republic: Near the banks of the narrow river Mattock, 6 miles west of Drogheda, are the meager, but moving and exceedingly graceful, remains of this abbey, Ireland's first of the Cistercian order. There are ruins of rounded chapels in the transepts of a church of continental European design, a fine 2storied chapter house with a handsomely groined roof in the Norman style, a tall, massive gate house, and other interesting finds, including a crypt under the abbey church, unusual for a structure built in 12th-century Ireland.
The whole complex, reputedly commissioned by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and consecrated with great pomp and circumstance in the presence of a papal legate in 1157, initiated a program of reform that quickly took hold and sprouted daughter establishments all over Ireland. At the time of the Dissolution, the abbey was acquired by Edward Moore, and from him it was passed on to the Balfours of Townley Hall, who never lived here. A century ago it was used as a piggery.
HOLY CROSS ABBEY, Thurles, County Tipperary, Irish Republic: Ireland certainly has no shortage of ruined abbeys, their gray silhouettes standing stark against the sky. But this one, on the shores of the river Suir, is among the country's most beautiful and best preserved. Founded in 1169 by Donal O'Brien, the King of Thomond, on the site of an earlier Benedictine property, it came into possession of a fragment of the True Cross that Pope Pascal II had given to the founder's father, Donogh O'Brien, the grandson of none other than Brian Boru, in 1110.
Because of the presence of this relic the monastery quickly grew, nurtured by gifts brought by the pilgrims who came in multitudes in the 15th and 16th centuries. The glory of the abbey today is its church, which was re-roofed with Irish oak and slate and otherwise restored for public worship beginning in 1971. It has magnificent stone carvings, lively Flamboyant traceries, an elaborately groined roof, and handsome windows and arches, along with one of the few wall paintings to be found in any Irish church.
(As befits the complex's setting in Tipperary's famous sporting country, the mural depicts a hunting scene.) The chancel, with its ribbed vaulting and fine east window, is considered to be among the best examples of 15thcentury architecture in Ireland.
CARRICKFERGUS CASTLE, County Antrim, Northern Ireland: Along with Trim Castle in County Meath, Carrick fergus Castle remains the mightiest symbol of the Norman presence in Ireland after the invasion of 1169. Situated strategically on the shores of Belfast Lough, it is one of Ireland's strongest castles, and its name repeatedly crops up at a number of important junctures in Irish history. Founded in 1180 by John de Courcy, the first Norman Lord of Ulster, it was besieged in 1210 by King John of England, who feared the rising independence of his Norman barons.
A century and a considerable amount of construction later, it fell to Robert the Bruce, whose brother Edward had invaded Ireland from Scotland in 1315, but it was returned to the Crown with the defeat of the Bruces a few years later. For nearly 3 centuries, it existed in comparative quiet and increasing decay. Then in 1690, William of Orange landed here during his campaign to defeat the Stuart kings for the possession of Ireland; some 70 years after that, it was taken by a French expeditionary force. In 1778, the American John Paul Jones, captain of the Ranger, defeated the HMS Drake, which was moored beneath the castle.
In the 18th century, the castle was used as a prison for United Irishmen and others. Visitors enter the impressive structure through a gate flanked by two rounded towers and then proceed through the outer ward past a handful of 16thcentury storehouses into the middle ward. Adjacent to the middle ward, the inner ward is dominated by the squarish keep 5 stories, about 90 feet high, 56 feet across, and 58 feet deep.
Inside the 8 foot thick walls is a stairway that climbs from the ground level (where there is an early 20thcentury steam engine and an antique wooden dugout canoe) to a group of military exhibits on the floor above and into the great chamber, a spacious room with large windows. Also worth a visit are the walled town's handsome late 18th century Town Hall and its Church of St. Nicholas, which dates from the 12th and 17th centuries and houses a not to be missed monument to Sir Arthur Chichester, who built the town walls and figured importantly in the establishment of modern Northern Ireland.
Labels: CAR RENTALS IRELAND, Christianity in Ireland