Ireland is home to some of the most fascinating ruins of ancient civilizations dating back thousands of years. Before the Pyramids of Giza were built, before Stonehenge mysteriously erected, tombs, shelters, and altars were risen by Irish peoples at the beginning of civilization. Ireland even has physical evidence of an evolutionary feat dated before the dinosaurs ever roamed the Earth. Steeped in so much history, it’s no wonder people from all over the world come to wander these lands. Here are eight of the best prehistoric sites in Ireland that you can trek to on your next adventure.
1. Tetrapod Tracks, Valentia
Four hundred million years ago, life began to transition from the aquatic animals to land dwelling tetrapods, changing the face of evolution forever. Ireland is home to an amazing record of this evolutionary feat. In 1993, an undergraduate geology student discovered 370 million-year-old tetrapod tracks on the island of Valentia. These tracks represent the transition from life in the water to life on land, when vertebrates first started walking on four limbs and breathing air. The Valentia Island Tetrapod fossilised footprints are the oldest record of vertebrate life on land and are of international significance.
Visitors can witness this ancient site by a pathway that leads down to the rocks. Head for the Valentia Radio Station first, and then signposts will direct you towards the Tetrapod Track. Be prepared for a steep, sloping path that is manageable for most abilities. Depending on sea conditions and the tide schedule, you will then be able to have a glimpse into evolutionary history. Absolutely no reproductive work has been carried out on the prints, so what you are looking at is truly a window to 370 million years ago.
Find out more about the Tetrapod Trackway.
2. Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara was once a throne of ancient power in Ireland. In Irish mythology, it is said that this place was a sacred dwelling for the gods and was the entrance to the otherworld. There are over 30 monuments on this hill that represent thousands of years of Irish history.
Standing tall on the very top of the hill is the Lia Fail or “Stone of Destiny,” an ancient coronation stone that was said to be brought to the site by the godlike people, the Tuatha Dé Danann. According to Irish mythology, when the rightful King of Tara touched the stone, it would roar.
The oldest monument at this site was the Mound of Hostages – a megalithic passage tomb dating back to 2,500 BC. The name derives from the king’s custom of retaining important people from subject kingdoms to ensure their submission. One of the legendary kings of Tara was named Niall of the Nine Hostages in recognition of the fact that he held hostages from all the provinces of Ireland and from Britain. Also, thanks to new advances in archaeological technology, archaeologists were able to detect a temple made of 300 wooden posts directly under the Hill of Tara.
It is said that on a clear day, one can see the features of half the counties in Ireland from the top of the hill. So, grab your backpack and hike on up, because this is one piece of history that you don’t want to miss.
3. Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne
Newgrange is a massive, prehistoric passage tomb built 5,200 years ago in Boyne Valley. This magnificent tomb is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramid of Giza and was a place of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance.
According to The Old Stones: A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland by Andy Burnham, in the 1960s the site’s excavator, Professor Michael O’Kelly, discovered its orientation to sunrise on the winter solstice. The solstitial alignment is centred on a feature above the passage known as the roof-box, the origins of which may be the result of an extension to the passage during a late Neolithic phase of enlargement at the monument. Each year, during the solstice, the sun illuminates a passageway in the tomb – a symbol for the farmers of the land to mark the beginning of a new year.
This archaeological phenomenon has been the focus of human settlement for at least 6,000 years. Three large passage tombs dominate the landscape. Built about 5,000 years ago, the Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth tombs contain the largest assemblage of megalithic art in Western Europe and give us a peek into the ritualistic habits of the ancient Irish people.
The construction of the passage tomb cemetery in Brú na Bóinne began around 3300 BC. At that time, the area had developed into a domesticated land with farms and houses. Take a stroll along the beautiful river Boyne and breath in the ancient landscape. Along the river, there are very few paved paths, so make sure you have some hiking boots and are prepared for some uneven ground. Step back in time as you witness the tombs and even take a look inside!
4. Boa Island Figure
Boa Island, off the coast of Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, is home to a magnificent stone figure highly regarded as one of the most enigmatic stone forms in all of Ireland. Thought to represent Celtic deities, each side of this figure has a face and a torso. Where the two images connect on the sides of the stone, there is an intricate design that is believed to represent hair. The faces are carved as large, pointed ovals with massive eyes, open mouths and extended tongues. Some people attribute the figure to Janus, the Roman two-headed goddess, due to the similarities in representation. To reach the figures, you will have to walk on some slushy, uneven ground, so make sure that you’re wearing comfortable, durable shoes.
Find out more about the Boa Island Figure.
5. Poulnabrone Dolmen
The Poulnabrone Dolmen, a prehistoric portal tomb, is the second most visited location in Burren after the Cliffs of Moher, and it’s not hard to see why. A portal tomb is classified as a structure with two large stones standing on either side of an entrance topped with another, massive, sloping stone. During the 1980’s, archaeologist Anne Lynch discovered the remains of 21 people in the main tomb chamber of this ancient portal tomb. Radiocarbon dating of these bones revealed that this tomb was in use for over 600 years between 5,200 and 5,800 years ago. This makes this portal tomb the oldest megalithic structure in all of Ireland.
Walk around the Glacio-karst landscape features, which are the combined result of glacial activity and rainwater dissolution features as you stare across the wide expanse of the Irish landscape in the Burren.
6. Drombeg Stone Circle
Drombeg is the best-known stone circle in Ireland, dating between 153 BC and 127 AD. The axial stone circle has incredible views spanning over the sea, making it not only a place of unique history but also of magnificent beauty. According to The Old Stones: A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland by Andy Burnham, this stone circle is characterized by the positioning of a recumbent stone – the axial – usually in the southwest of the circle, directly opposite the two tallest stones, the portals which mark the circle’s entrance, with the stones reducing in height from the portal stones to the axial stone.
The remains of two hut circles, a fulacht fiadh (burned mounds) and a hearth were found near this site, suggesting festivities with cooking and feasting took place here. According to Burnham, all the perimeter stones that remain today are positioned so that at sunrise on 16 dates of the year, shadows are cast either upon the horizontal stone (in the summer) or upon a grand lozenge stone (in the winter). The circle gives some clues as to what religious beliefs were practised here. For instance, one stone has phallus carved into it, while another has a vulva carved upon its surface, indicating a fertility religion.
7. Baurnadomeeny Wedge Tomb
This tomb, located in Tipperary, is a wedge tomb that dates back to the Neolithic era and has multiple chambers that align with different significant sunrises. The tomb is an extremely large structure with a septal stone creating a portico and the main chamber. The capstone at the front of the structure is carved on the inside to create a small channel, and some cairn material remains on the top.
8. Kilclooney More
The Kilclooney More, with its high concentration of neolithic portal tombs, is a rich land steeped in history in the west of Co Donegal. Back about 5,000 years ago, when these portal tombs were built, the communities around were built around farming. Many pieces of Neolithic pottery have been found in the large chamber of one of these tombs, further exposing these ancient peoples’ way of life.
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