In August 2004 I visited another country in Western Europe, Ireland, for the first time, one of the very few European countries I had not visited before. I rented a car in Dublin and drove counterclockwise around Ireland in 6 days. I had good and bad experiences. Visiting old Stone Age sites and medieval castles was the good part of the trip. The people however were sometimes less than nice.
On the first day I drove north from Dublin to visit Mainistir Bhuithe (Monasterboice) Abbey in County Louth. It has a beautiful Round Tower and two of the best High Crosses in Ireland. After that I visited Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, an extensive Neolithic site, with the main passage tombs Newgrange and Knowth, dating from around 3200 BCE. There are beautifully decorated kerbstones around the main tomb in Knowth. This neolithic necropolis is 1000 years older than Stonehenge, and is one of the most extraordinary sites in Europe. Brú na Bóinne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From there I drove north to Boyle, County Roscommon to visit the beautiful Drumanone Dolmen, one of the largest in Ireland. It was difficult to find since there are no signs for it, but it was well worth the effort tracking it down.
The first over-night stop was in Boyle. The next morning I visited the abbey in Boyle, one of the largest and best Cistercian abbeys, founded in the 12th century.
North-west of Boyle, on the way to Sligo City is the Carrowkeel passage tomb cemetery. The passage tombs are located on top of a hill with a great view of the surrounding country side. The directions to the site are posted, so they were easier to find than the Drumanone Dolmen. The cemetery dates from the late Paleolithic (3000 - 2000 BCE).
Near Sligo are two interesting Stone Age sites, the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery and the Knocknarea Cairn. Carrowmore has a large number of stone circles and dolmens. It is one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe, dating from around 3900 BCE. The largest passage grave was unfortunately closed for renovation.
Looking around Carrowmore you can see cairns on almost every mountain top visible form there. The largest of these is Knocknarea Cairn, dating from around 3000 BCE. Legend has it that the legendary Queen Maeve is buried in that cairn. If so, she was buried in the existing cairn, since the cairn is from the Stone Age, while Queen Maeve supposedly lived in the 1st century BCE.
From Sligo I drove west towards Ballycastle and then south to Newport, County Mayo. Rockfleet Castle and Burrishoole Abbey are located near Newport. After that the next stop was Cong, County Mayo. It has a nice Stone Circle, and the Ballymacgibbon Cairn.
The next overnight stay was in Galway City, County Galway. Unfortunately it was raining, so I couldn't get around town to see some of the pubs with traditional Irish music there.
From Galway I checked out the Turoe Stone, a small phallic standing stone, carved in La Téne style, from between 300 BCE and 100 CE. It was a bit difficult to find, but worth the search.
From there I drove into the Burren. The Burren is a region with between Galway and Clare Counties. It has fantastic scenery. At the entrance to the Burren, near Kinvara, County Galway is Dunguaire Castle, in excellent condition after extensive restoration. Next stop in the Burren was Corcomroe Abbey, County Clare, a fine Cistercian abbey from the 12th century.
The highlight of the Burren in my opinion is the Poulnabrone Dolmen. For me this was by far the most beautiful Dolmen of them all.
On the way out of the Burren to the south was Carrigafoyle Castle, near Ballylongford, County Kerry. It is nice, but probably not worth the detour you have to make to get to it. Even less worth the visit is Listowel Castle, County Kerry. There is basically nothing but one small wall in some backyard. The next overnight stop was in Killarney, County Kerry.
From Killarney I drove around the Ring of Kerry, a road around the Kerry Peninsula, County Kerry. The first stop was Ballycarbery Castle. This was the most scenic castle ruin that I saw on the trip. Close-by are a couple of Ring Forts (Leancanabuaile from the 9th century and Cahergall from the 10th century). Cahergall is restored and well worth visiting.
A ring fort is, in its simplest form, a circular space surrounded by a bank, with possibly a fosse or ditch outside the bank. (In stony areas such as the Burren, where the bank is of stone, there would frequently be no fosse, as the amount of excavation would have been excessive.) Sometimes the earthen banks were faced or reinforced with stone. In the Irish language, a variety of words were used to name these structures, and since these often survive in the modern place name (e.g. Liscannor, Dunmore), the existence of a fort or forts can often be deduced. The most common Irish names were lios, ráth, dún, cathair and caiseal. The typical ring fort was used as a dwelling-place, and would have contained one or more simple houses made of upright wooden posts interlaced with a wattle-and-daub lattice construction. At night the domestic animals would have been herded into the enclosure through a gap in the bank, which would have been closed by means of a simple gate or other barrier. Apart from some larger examples, which by reason of their elaborate banks and ditches we know to have had a defensive significance, most ring-forts were simply an early type of farmstead, giving protection against predators such as wolves. Many forts have one or more souterrains within the structure, and some of the stone forts have wall chambers. As a general rule, earth forts are more common towards the east of Ireland, and stone forts are more common towards the west, as the land is more stony. Only the very mountainous areas do not possess ring forts. The dates are uncertain: perhaps late bronze age into the iron age.
On the south side of the Kerry Peninsula is the Staigue Ring Fort. It is also restored and well worth visiting. It is at a strategically very important location, hidden from view from below, but with great visibility in all directions.
The next part of the day was the Ring of Beara, a road around the Mor Choaird Bheara (Beara Peninsula), Counties Kerry and Cork. If you want to see Stone Circles, that is the place to go. I saw four very nice examples on that road, the Srón Bearraín (Shronebirrane), Caiseal Coíllte (Cashelkeelty), An Rath Chruinn Dha Dhroim (Ardgroom), and Doirin an t'Sagairt (Derreenataggart) Stone Circles. I can highly recommend visiting them. Up the road from the Derreenataggart Stone Circle, out of Castletownbere, County Cork, also is a Ring Fort. This one is not excavated, so it is interesting to see what a Ring Fort looks like in that state.
From here I skipped the Sheep's Head and Mizen Head Peninsulas and drove south to the south coast of Ireland. The Dromberg Stone Circle, near Rosscarberry, County Cork, is a must see. It is from the 1st century CE or even earlier. It is in a very scenic location, with a superb view of the land below. It has the remains of several buildings next to it.
The next over-night stop was in Kinsale, County Cork. Kinsale has a huge star shaped Fort, the Charles Fort, one of the largest and best preserved star forts in Europe.
From Kinsale I headed north-east to Cahir, County Tipperary. Cahir Castle is the nicest well preserved castle that I saw on the trip.
Next stop was the Rock of Cashel. It overlooks the city of Cashel, County Tipperary. It is spectacular archaeological site with an abbey, a Romanesque chapel, and a complete Round Tower. It is certainly worth a visit.
The next stop was Kilkenny Castle, County Kilkenny. This is a fully restored castle. It is not as much a fortification like Cahir Castle, but more of a palace.
From there I drove to the Dolmain Chnoi an Bhrúnaigh (Browne's Hill Dolmen), near Carlow Town, County Carlow. This is the largest Dolmen in Europe. The cap stone weighs over 100 tons. This 5000 year old Dolmen is HUGE.
Going north, I passed through Castledermot, County Carlow. It has a 9th century abbey with a Round Tower, a Romanesque doorway and two nice 9th or 10th century High Crosses.
One of Ireland's most important monastic cities is Cluain Mhic Nóis (Clonmacnoise), County Offaly. It was founded in 548 CE by St. Ciarán. It has a very nice Round Tower and a couple of superb High Crosses, as well as a large cathedral, originally built in 909 CE.
My last over-night stop was in a small village west of Dublin called Tyrrellspass. From there I headed north to Trim, County Meath to visit the Trim Castle. This is another very nice castle, founded in 1173.
From there I headed back to Dublin airport for the continuation of my trip to Germany.
I did quite a bit of driving in Ireland and have to say that it was somewhat exasperating. I hardly ever saw anybody speeding (which is a good thing). Unfortunately they take the slow driving seriously. You can bet that it won't take you more than a few miles before you are behind somebody dawdling along at 50 km/h (31 mph) or less. Passing is often very difficult on the small roads, so you have to dawdle along behind him. That was no fun! Many drivers are also very hesitant and indecisive. They are standing at an intersection and waiting for a car that is half a mile down the road, plenty far enough to cross the road without any problem. This hesitant and indecisive driving was very prevalent everywhere in Ireland.
Talking about 30 mph (miles per hour for the imperial-measures-handicapped non-US and non-Irish): the Irish have a strange system of measures in that respect. Speeds are posted in mph, and speedometers are marked in mph. Odometers in the cars therefore count in miles. However, distances on road signs are in kilometers!! That makes for constant mental gymnastics to convert miles in kilometers and vice versa. On top of that, some older road signs are still in miles, which really got confusing.
I had some problems with the Irish people. I am a crossdresser, so I was wearing skirts at times. In a few places they didn't like that and were a few times somewhat intolerant and rude. Over the six days that accumulated to a negative impression of the Irish people for me. Fortunately there were also a few instances where I had a great time, for instance in the bar in Boyle with traditional Irish music. After an initial surprised reaction to my skirt, everybody was back to the music and story telling.
The weather in Ireland was mixed, with quite a bit of rain. That is presumably not unusual, as somebody from Ireland put it: "Ireland would be a really nice country if it had a roof over it." I guess there is a reason why Ireland is so green
If you are interested in Stone Age and Celtic stuff, and medieval architecture, Ireland is certainly a country that you should visit. If you wear unusual clothes, be prepared to sometimes find a less than open welcome.