I’m not sure why so many people think history is boring. Sure, a dull teacher can ruin any good story, but history, in the right setting is not only intriguing, but it is alive. You’ll be amazed at the history you can discover during a driving tour of Ireland. The lens of history is incredibly long in Ireland, stretching back to thousands of years BC, into the Neolithic period – or late Stone Age. Far from being dull, these attractions will draw you into Ireland’s vast history and lively culture.
Despite being a young city – only 400 years old in 2013 – Belfast, County Antrim, has a history that stretches much further back. A 5000 year old henge and Iron Age hillforts can be found near the city, though the settlement was of little importance through the Middle Ages. Belfast’s recent history is what is most alluring, beginning with it being named as the capital of Northern Ireland in 1921, the Belfast Blitz attack during World War II and ‘The Troubles,’ – the heights of which were seen in the 1970s when paramilitary groups and violence made Belfast the European capital of Terrorism. Today Belfast is recovering from these horrors and tourists are beginning to visit the city, many to explore her shipbuilding past in connection with the Titanic. Above: Crumlin Road Gaol held many political prisoners (men, women and children) until it closed its doors in 1996.
9. National Museum of Ireland – Archeology
The wet ground of Ireland reveals her amazing treasures piece by piece, and many of them end up at the National Museum of Ireland Archeology in Dublin. Amazing bronze jewelry, ornamentation, and gifts for the gods can be found here (including the famous Tara Brooch, the Sun Shield of Lough Gur, and the Broighter Boat), as can full suits of clothing and medieval books. One of the most stunning exhibitions is tucked in a back room – “Kingship and Sacrifice” showcases bog bodies and explores theories of human sacrifice, sovereignty, and kingship in Iron Age Ireland.
8. Lough Gur
One of the most magical spots in Ireland, Lough Gur has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Large ancient megalithic tombs and stone circles share the area with more recent pieces of history such as Catholic persecution and climbs to Hangman’s Rock (a very beautiful view before you die). Begin your visit at the newly remodeled Visitors Centre with its interactive exhibits to gain an understanding of the area. Plan ahead and join a guided tour, filled with facts and legends. Or grab an iTrails guide to lead you through Lough Gur history. If you do nothing else, stop at The Grange, Ireland’s largest stone circle. Walk along the outside of the circle and enter through the matching entry stones; it’s almost otherworldly.
Not often a part of the tourist trail, Craggaunowen, in County Clare, isn’t far from some of western Ireland’s more popular attractions. Set up as a self-guided walk, the passage through Craggaunowen leads you from the late Bronze Age through the Elizabethan Period. Though quite a few of the sites are recreations, they are very well done. Information plaques stand at all sites, providing additional information, while costumed characters offer hands on demonstrations of tools and techniques of Irish life long past.
6. Waterford Treasures
Few realize that Waterford is actually Ireland’s first city. Within the Viking Triangle – Waterford’s cultural and heritage quarter – a trio of museums offer a look at over 1000 years of Waterford history. Reginald’s Tower houses the treasures of Viking Ireland, the Medieval Museum‘s history stretches from 1096 – 1650, with The Bishop’s Palace picking up the history from 1650 until today. While the museums are very interesting on their own, a character led tour explores and explains Waterford’s history with storytelling – which makes the fact that the only surviving piece of clothing worn by Henry VIII is in Waterford even more delightful.
5. Doagh Famine Village
There wasn’t an area of Ireland left untouched by the Great Hunger. While remains of Famine Villages can be found across the country, the Doagh Famine Village on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal has been restored and tells the tale of hardship nearly unimaginable in modern Ireland. The only original cottage in the village was inhabited until 1986, having no electricity or running water when it was left. As the children of that cottage’s inhabitants lead you through one of Ireland’s darkest periods, telling you of harvesting seaweed and living in the farthest reaches of Ireland, you’ll be left in awe.
4. Connemara History and Heritage Centre
Not far from Clifden, the unofficial capital of Connemara in County Galway, the Connemara History and Heritage Centre offers a taste of 19th century Ireland when native Irish weren’t allowed to own land. You can explore a recreated crannog, oratory, and dolmen tombs while you wait for your tour. The tour of the hill farm centers on Dan O’Hara’s Cottage. A prosperous tenant farmer, Dan O’Hara refused to pay increased window taxes and was evicted. His story, told in the Ballad of Dan O’Hara, is heartbreaking. At the end of the tale an illegal bottle of poteen is removed from its hidden cubby and, with tears in your eyes, you raise your glass in a toast to Dan and his family.
3. Dingle Peninsula
History lies around every bend in the Dingle Peninsula. Though the drive, itself, is short, you’ll need at least half a day to fully explore the sites. Following Slea Head Drive, you’ll pass the Iron Age Fort of Dun Beg, bee hive huts of hermit monks, and the remains of a famine village, all within the first few kilometers. The Blasket Islands Visitor Centre offers a look at the very recently deserted islands off the coast and the Gallarus Oratory is a marvel of architecture. Exploring deeper you’ll find the spot where St. Brendan launched his exploration (and discovered America) and the Kilmalkader Churchyard with its Ogham stone and early Christian cross.
2. Bunratty Folk Park
Set on the grounds surrounding Bunratty Castle near Shannon in County Clare, the folk park offers a glimpse of rural life in Ireland during the past couple centuries. Cottages and homes from across the country have been moved to Bunratty, each with its own story and history. You can explore the castle from top to bottom, see how a fisherman’s family lived, wander a traditional village, and even pretend to be Lord of the Manor. Extend your day with their Medieval Banquet in the castle or Traditional Irish Night in the Corn Barn.
1. Enniskillen Castle
Enniskillen Castle in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, has grown since the McGuire chieftans built a castle there to maintain control over their territory in the 15th century. It was added to during the Plantation Years of the early 17th century when the English needed defensive shelters to protect themselves when they confiscated land. After a fire in the 18th century, the castle was used as a military barracks until 1926. Today a self-guided tour leads you through the history of Enniskillen Castle, from the earliest settlers through its modern military usage.
A vacation to Ireland can be far more than breathtaking views and cozy evenings in a pub. It can open your eyes to a magical past.
By Jody Halsted