There are hun­dreds of less well- known heritage sites and build­ings around Ire­land, all worth a visit, writes Manchán Ma­gan

While we’re all fa­mil­iar with high- pro­file lo­ca­tions like Glen­dalough and New­grange, there are 750 less well- known heritage sites around Ire­land, all worth a visit. Manchán Ma­gan gives a taster of just a few of the best of the rest

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE -

Ire­land is for­tu­nate to have so many ar­chi­tec­tural re­mains of our an­ces­tors sur­viv­ing still i n the l and­scape, stretch­ing right back to when we first set­tled here af­ter the last Ice Age. We are mostly aware of the high- pro­file sites, such as Glen­dalough, New­grange and the Rock of Cashel, but the Of­fice of Pub­lic Works ( OPW) man­ages 780 his­tor­i­cal sites in to­tal – how well do we know th­ese?

While the busiest sites at­tract half a mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, oth­ers only get a few thou­sand, or even hun­dreds. As in­her­i­tors of a bam­boo­zlingly rich heritage, we owe it to our­selves to fa­mil­iarise our­selves with, at least, the 75 sites that have staff and fa­cil­i­tates to help in­ter­pret them. Places like Newmills Corn and Flax Mills, Scat­tery Is­land, Tin­tern Abbey and Des­mond Hall are just wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

We’ll start with Scat­tery Is­land as it is the only is­land owned and run by the OPW, and this tiny patch of land in the Shan­non Es­tu­ary that few of us have ever seen is al­most ridicu­lously well- en­dowed with heritage sites. There’s the ru­ins of six churches, a round­tower, a light­house, El­iz­a­bethan mil­i­tary build­ings, 18th- cen­tury sol­diers’ bar­racks and nu­mer­ous de­fen­sive bat­ter­ies that were erected over cen­turies to pro­tect the mouth of the Shan­non. All of this just a short ferry ride from Kil­rush, Co Clare.

The prin­ci­pal fo­cus of the is­land is a monas­tic set­tle­ment founded in the early sixth cen­tury by St Se­nan, and his cult is still as strong here as Elvis’s is in Grace- land. The saint’s grave, his well, and nu­mer­ous build­ings are all pre­served, in­clud­ing a gor­geous 12th- cen­tury Ro­manesque chapel, and one of the high­est round tow­ers in Ire­land, which sur­vived at­tacks by every­one from the Vik­ings to Brian Boru. This mi­nus­cule is­land even has a cathe­dral with Se­nan’s head carved into the out­side of it.

For the past 500 years, the same nine fam­i­lies of skilled river pilots and ex­pert cur­rach han­dlers lived on Scat­tery un­til they aban­doned it in 1978, and the mark of their habi­ta­tion and their pre­de­ces­sors, right back to 534AD, are clearly vis­i­ble, with per­haps the most re­mark­able fea­ture be­ing Team­pall na Marbh, which dis­plays the ef­fects of their un­ortho­dox burial prac­tices.

For Pádraig Ó Ruairc, the site’s su­per­vi­sor, it is the tran­quil­lity of the site that has the great­est im­pact. “There’s com­plete iso­la­tion and peace here. We run a free tour and vis­i­tors cen­tre, but you can just as eas­ily wan­der off on your own, bird watch­ing, study­ing the flora or wan­der­ing the ru­ins. Keep an eye out for kestrels when you’re here.”

Newmills Corn and Flax Mills, near Let­terkenny, Co Done­gal, is an­other OPW oddity, in that it is one of the few mon­u­ments of in­dus­trial ar­chae­ol­ogy in State care. It con­sists of two sep­a­rate wa­ter- driven mills, one for grind­ing oats and bar­ley, and the other for ex­tract­ing the fi­bres from flax plants. The State now owns the en­tire com­plex, con­sist­ing of the mills, a forge, a farm, gro­cery store mill­house and a ‘ scutcher’s cot­tage’, where work­ers pro­cessed the flax for li­nen mak­ing. The mill was dry­ing, grind­ing and siev­ing two tonnes of grain per day un­til the 1960s. If you go at the right time you’ll see the mill stones grind­ing, the sacks be­ing hoisted, the sieves shak­ing and fans blow­ing.

The direc­tor, Seán McLoone, urges peo­ple “to stand back and watch the wa­ter from the mill race on the River Swilly fill­ing each bucket on the gi­ant wheel to make it turn, and you’ll feel the whole build­ing vi­brat­ing with the power of it.”

Cor­lea Track­way near Keenagh, Co Long­ford, of­fers pos­si­bly the most vis­ceral mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence in Ire­land, with 18m of orig­i­nal Iron Age bog road pre­served in a cli­mate- con­trolled space. Noth­ing is repli­cated or ‘ in­ter­preted’: the mas­sive oak planks lie just as they were 2,000 years ago across the bog to form a track to­wards the Shan­non.

Al­though wide enough for two char­i­ots to pass side by side, the tim­bers, dat­ing from 148BC, mys­te­ri­ously, show no sign of use.

For Mary Forbes, a guide at Cor­lea, it is this mys­tery that is most al­lur­ing: “There is no other pre­served track­way like this on dis­play in Europe, let alone Ire­land. Some be­lieve it was an av­enue con­nect­ing the royal site at Croghan, Co Roscom­mon, to the Hill of Uis­neach in Co West­meath. There is also a the­ory that it is to do with rit­ual, that just as but­ter and bodies were buried in bogs as vo­tive of­fer­ings, the track­way may

Scat­tery Is­land, a tiny patch of land in the Shan­non Es­tu­ary that few of us have ever seen, is ridicu­lously well- en­dowed with heritage sites

have been a sim­i­lar thing.

The fact it is made of oak, the most sa­cred of trees, is sig­nif­i­cant. It seems like a state­ment of power, a sym­bolic of­fer­ing to the gods, per­haps, and a demon­stra­tion of the abil­i­ties the peo­ple had at the time.” Forbes rec­om­mends vis­i­tors take the time to ex­plore the ex­cel­lent walk­ing trails that Long­ford County Coun­cil has now built out across the bog, in­clud­ing one that links to the Royal Canal Green­way.

The Swiss Cot­tage out­side Cahir, Co Tip- per­ary, i s the ul­ti­mate child- pleaser amongst the OPW sites. This fairy- book cot­tage orné is a fan­tasy play house, with a curv­ing thatched roof, like some­thing a very neat ott er might make, and a tree- branch trellis which ap­pears to be knit­ted out of the sur­round­ing wood­land. Its po­si­tion on the banks of the River Suir at the end of walk through ma­ture wood­land and an­cient yews in the grounds of Cahir Cas­tle make it an ideal fam­ily ex­cur­sion, as the doll’s house in­te­rior will ap­peal to chil- dren, while the rus­tic, hand­crafted ex­te­rior has a timely hip­ster al­lure.

For Karen Shee­han, a guide at the site, the most i ntrigu­ing el­e­ment i s that, “though it has two bed­rooms, a tea room, a mu­sic room and wine cel­lar, Lord and Lady Cahir never ac­tu­ally spent a night here”, al­though she is more coy about whether his lord­ship may have en­ter­tained his mis­tresses here on oc­ca­sion.

An­other ro­man­tic in­dul­gence is Teach an Phiar­saigh, Pa­trick Pearse’s sum­mer cot­tage, in a glo­ri­ously re­mote part of Con­nemara by Loch Oir­iúlach. Though seem­ingly cen­turies old, it was built by Pearse in 1909 in the tra­di­tional style, with an iron crane over its enor­mous hearth, cubby holes built into the thick walls and a sim­ple iron bed with well- worn, patch­work


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