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
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
PHOTOGRAPH: JANE POWERS