Here are some of the most interesting archaeological sites to be found throughout Ireland.
An early, possibly one of the oldest extant examples of Irish figure sculpture, standing forlornly in the gloom of an old burial ground near the south-west shore of Boa Island in Lower Lough Erne. It depicts two dwarfish figures gazing in opposite directions and probably represents a Celtic deity. But while the influence of the pagan Iron Age seems unmistakable, it is doubtful if the carving can be as early as the first century AD date sometimes claimed for it. Nonetheless, the stone evidently personifies and ancient pre-Christian cult which may have survived here in isolation into the Dark Ages. The idol is 29 inches high and comprises tow back-to-back figures with disproportionately large heads and flat pointed faces.
The most celebrated and dramatic site in the county. It was purchased by the state from the estate of Lord Congleton about four years ago, and taken into its care and protection. Its name is from Dun Masg “the fort of Masg”. An important fortress before the Normans, it was granted to Strongbow in 1170 by Diarmait Mac Murchada as part of his daughter Aoife’s dowry, and became the Normans’ most important fortification. Wiliam Earl Marshall, the most famous and honourable Norman, lived here in the early thirteenth century. In the fourteenth-century it was burned at least twice by the Irish. In 1609 the castle was granted to Donal O’Brien, Earl of Thomond. The violence of the 1640s enveloped it: In 1641 it was captured from O’Mordha.
Lough Gur was the site of a Neolithic settlement which was inhabited in 3000 BC and the Lough is surrounded by ancient standing stones, burial mounds, megalithic tombs, and perhaps most impressively, a 4000 year old stone circle just outside the park. A mock Stone Age hut holds an interpretative centre with audiovisuals and models to help visitors understand what archaeologists have learnt from the settlement. From the more recent history of the Lough survives 13th and 15th Century castles.
An Iron Age promontory fort, one of the most sophisticated monuments of its class, remarkable for the ingenious nature of its defences. It stands on a V-shaped headland in the south-west of the Dingle peninsula and while not difficult of access is unsignposted because of its hazardous condition, to which warning notices on the site draw attention. The position of Dunbeg is very exposed and parts of the cliff have been severely eroded, carrying sections of the masonry into the sea. The landward defences consist of a massive drystone wall almost 150 feet in length, extending in a roughly east to west direction across the promontory. A series of earthen banks with intervening fosses form a complex outworks. The most noteworthy feature of the fort is its entrance.
St Tola founded a monastery here in the seventh or eight century. The present church on the site is a late Medieval reconstruction of an earlier, Romanesque building whose magnificent west doorway is incorporated in the south wall. The finely carved motifs of the arch include geometric designs and unusual human masks. Close behind the north wall of the church is a shattered Round Tower built in the twelfth century. On rising ground not far to the east of the church is an interesting High Cross. It also dates from the twelfth century and comes right at the end of the Celtic High Cross series. It is of the ringless type found elsewhere in Co. Clare, and is elaborately decorated with interlace and geometric designs, as well as figurative panels in high relief. An inscription on the base records that it was repaired in 1683 by a member of the O’Dea family.
Famous as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, the Hill of Tara has been an important site since the Stone Age, when a passage tomb was constructed. Tara was a political and religious centre in early Christian times and though it declined in importance as Christianity spread in Ireland, the site still retains its air of mysticism.
Today the ruins are sadly deserted, poignant reminders of what once was, but from atop the hill the visitor can still experience some of the magic which first drew kings to Tara. A magnificent panorama unfolds before the eye, though the concept of an all-powerful High-King of Ireland is largely mythical, there can be little doubting the importance of one who controlled such a strategic location as Tara. Primarily an Iron-Age fortress (circa 500 B.C.) remains of an older neolithic passage-grave (c.1800 B.C.) have also been unearthed. However, it was not until the reign of the legendary Cormac MacAirt in the 3rd century A.D. that Tara reached the pinnacle of its splendour.
The Burren Centre introduces you to the unique Burren District, with models, displays and an audio-visual reveal its complexities. Visitors can explore its geology and geography, learn about the rich diversity of Burren flora and fauna and the history of man in the landscape. The presentation is available in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish.
The Burren centre located in the ancient Cathedral town of Kilfenora boasts one of the greatest concentrations of high crosses in Ireland including the famed Doorty Cross and is the gateway to the whole North Clare Region.
Distributed over many acres and extending into adjoining townlands, Carrowmore represents the largest grouping of megalithic monuments in Ireland, and immense Neolithic burial ground where once there may have been more than a hundred tombs. Casual exploration in the last century and present day gravel quarrying in the vicinity have devalued the archaeological potential of the site; but it is still a rewarding place to visit, steeped in atmosphere and evoking a sense of the past.
The surviving monuments, some much more despoiled than others, comprise truncated passage tombs whose megalithic character derives from the huge ice-transported erratics used in the construction of the chambers. The equally massive kerbs of vanished cairns are sometimes mistaken for ritual stone circles, which they resemble. A number of the tombs here have lately been the subject of controversial dating by a team of Swedish archaeologists, whose findings suggest that they may have been built before 400 BC. To the north-west of the Carrowmore group rises the prominent hump of Knocknarea (1,014 feet), a cairn-crowned hill traditionally held to be the burial place of Queen Maeve of Connacht.