Ancient Ireland is a land filled with myths, memories, legends, tales of giants and fairies, butter witches, saints and sacred places. When travelling through Ireland you will come across many places that somehow speak to you of other times and ancient Irish history. Pagan sites in Ireland can be found all over the country along with sites that may have been featured in Druidic rituals.
The Roman’s ancient name for Ireland was Hibernia, other names were Ierne, Iouernia and (H)iberio. All these are adaptations of a stem from which Erin and Eire are also derived.
In 1937 the state’s name officially became Ireland in the English language and Éire in the Irish language. The name came from the three sister goddesses who ruled Ireland back before time began.
Éiriú was chosen by the Bard of Armagh whose name was given to the whole of the Island but her sisters Fola’s name would refer to literary Ireland, and Banba would be associated with poetic Ireland. Sometimes the name of the goddess was spelt Éirinn or Erin.
Who founded Ireland?
The origins of the Irish race and the people of Ireland who lived in prehistoric times dates back to around 10,500 BC which is the Paleolithic period. Bear bones found in County Clare have been dated back to 10,500 BC and the bones bore the cutting marks made by the first humans in Ireland.
Ancient Ireland’s Mesolithic period was from 8000 to 4500 BC and it was originally believed that these people had come from Scotland. But obviously, now earlier finds have indicated that people were already in Ireland.
During this period of time in Ireland, the people were hunters and fishers and sustained themselves with the collecting of fruits, berries and nuts.
It was during Ancient Ireland’s Neolithic age that farming was brought to Ireland by new arrivals in canoes and animal-skin covered boats. They brought with them animals such as cattle, sheep and goats along with their knowledge of pottery, basket weaving and carving.
Tools became more refined around this time and porcellanite which is harder than flint was made into polished axes. This stone was mined near Cushendall on the Causeway Coast and Rathlin Island, over 18000 of these axes have been found in Ireland.
Discoveries of agricultural groups and wooden houses have been found in County Tyrone, Limerick and the base of the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal. The Ceide Fields in Mayo that have been designated a World Heritage site by Unesco gave clues to how these communities were laid out along with monuments to the dead.
60 Best Northern Ireland tourist attractions
Found all over the country are Neolithic burial sites, dolmens and passage tombs. There are standing stones and complex burial chambers found everywhere in Ireland. These sites include the Passage Tomb of Newgrange, Maeve’s Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain in Sligo and the Poulnabrone Dolmen Megalithic Tomb.
The Bronze Age in ancient Ireland brought the working of metal to the people and evidence suggests that it was copper that was used. The Irish people made copper axe heads and tools which were used to trade for other goods. In the late Bronze age swords, shields and halberds were produced along with beautiful gold jewellery and ornaments.
When the Celts arrived in Ireland between 300 – 250 BC, – there is much debate about this time – it is believed that they brought with them a new language and how to make iron which was used for tools and weapons.
The celts and the Vikings were not the same people although they had things in common. The Vikings lived in northern Europe and were dominantly from Scandinavian areas. The Celts dominated East, Central and West Europe (all the way from modern-day Ukraine to France and the modern-day UK). Both of them were divided into different clans or communities.
The Celts brought with them their beautiful distinctive artwork which can be found on everything from standing stones to burial mounds, jewellery and early artwork.
101 Landmarks in Ireland to see
The History of the Druids in Ancient Ireland
Along with the common Celtic people were the Druids. They were the religious leaders of the Celtic peoples and of Irish paganism but they were also legal professionals, adjudicators, keepers of legends and folklore as well as medical experts of the times. Since there are no written records and ancient Celtic traditions were oral historians have depended upon the Roman culture to give insights into what the ancient Druid culture was.
It is now commonly believed that Druids may have been around during the earliest periods of human history with anthropologists suggesting that the cave art in Lascaux, France could have been part of druidic rituals. Much of the Megalithic monuments you can visit in Ireland were quite possibly constructed on the recommendations of the Druids. At that time their knowledge of astrology was used to aline the monuments with the Celtic calendar and to mark sacred times of the year.
What Does Druid mean?
Important Romans wrote of the Druids – Cicero, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus wrote about the Druids in the lands that the Romans conquered under Tiberius and Claudius.
The origin of the name is thought to have come from the Celtic words for “to know” and “tree”. Trees were hugely important in the Celtic traditions because the Druids revered the natural world above all else. Trees, particularly oaks are considered sacred, and rituals were always in sacred forest groves.
Druids were the intellectuals of pre-Christian Ireland’s Celtic people, associated with following the Tuatha De Danaan (People of the Goddess Danu), who are were the Celtic gods.
As early as 500 BC, Hecateus of Miletus identified the “Keltoi,” having come from the headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine, and the Rhone rivers, as the mythological and legendary people known as the Tuatha de Danann.
Pre-Christian Sacred Places in Ireland
Since ancient times, monks, scholars, saints and pilgrims have been attracted to Ireland for the same reason that today’s tourists make the journey; the wild and elemental beauty of the mountains, valleys, bays, rivers and bogs and the sense of a closeness to nature and history.
101 Landmarks in Northern Ireland
30 sacred places – Ancient Ireland
Derry – N. Ireland
Mountsandel in County Derry is one of the earliest settlements in ancient Ireland. During the 1970s behind the iron age fort at Mountsandel, Coleraine, archaeologists discovered evidence of a Mesolithic settlement dated to 7600-7900BC.
Mountsandel Wood is the earliest known settlement of humans in Ireland dating to between 7600 and 7900BC. Flint tools were found here, indicating that Stone Age hunters camped here to fish salmon in the natural weir.
The iron-age fort here is thought to date back to Norman times. Built with a clear view of the river, the large oval mound has a deep ditch, and the flattened surface at the top may indicate it was used as a motte and bailey.
Antrim – N. Ireland
The Giant’s Ring
Easy to find and only around 7km from Belfast centre The Giant’s Ring is a massive monument believed to be one of Ireland’s few henges. It is thought that the Ring was built by the late Neolithic people and was a centre of great ceremonial and ritual importance. Within the centre of the enclosure which is a high bank is a small passage tomb and to the east of that is a huge broken standing stone.
Ossian’s Grave – Lubitavish Court Tomb
The tomb itself is named after the mythical warrior and poet Ossian, a son of Finn MacCool (of Giant’s Causeway fame). It is supposed to be easier to find these days but you need to look for the Lubitavish Court Tomb which is marked.
Legends say that Ossian lies here it was believed that Ossian was actually a poet who wrote a series of epic poems (published as The Poems of Ossian in the 1700s) which launched a new school of poetry but that is just myth the poems were all the work of a James Macpherson.
Boa Island – Caldragh Cemetery
Boa Island is located in Lower Lough Erne that runs into the sea in Donegal through Ballyshannon. Within the lake are several beautiful and mysterious islands including Boa Island, Lusty Beg, Lusty More, Devenish and White Island.
The Janus Stone on Boa Island predates Christianity and it is believed that it goes far back in time to pagan Ireland. The stone itself is over 2000 years old and is one of the most famous carved stones in Ireland today.
Held within the mysterious Caldragh Cemetery, which is said to be one of the “thin places”, stands the two curious figures that have caused scholars to scratch their heads for many years.
Boa Island is believed to be named after Badhbh, Caillech Bhéarra the Celtic goddess of war. Badhbh was known to shapeshift and take the form of a crow, who was seen upon the shoulder of, Cúchulainn after he died in battle. At other times she is pictured as a wolf.
She is one of three Celtic war goddesses that included her sisters, Macha and Morrigan. Their mother was the goddess, Ernmass who was said to be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The smaller figure is known as “the Lustyman” because it was found on the nearby island Lusty More was moved to the cemetery in 1939, but it may well be a female figure. It is this smaller figure that appears to have only one eye fully carved that has allowed historians to develop the theory that it represents the “divine hag” or Boa and like the sky-god Odin of the Norse was blind in the left eye.
Ireland’s ancient east is home to 5000 years of history and it stretches from Newgrange and the Boyne Valley in the northeast and ranges through the midlands all the way down via Kilkenny’s Medieval mile to Waterford’s Viking Quarter and Cork.
Westmeath and Meath
Ley Lines of Ireland
A megalithic researcher Michael Poynder noted that Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Sliabh Dá Eán, Sheebeg, Loughcrew, Tara and the Hill of Howth are all on a great ley line crossing the country from west to east.
The Hill of Uisneach
All the ley lines in Ireland meet at Uisneach and from this sacred hill, it is said you can see 20 of the 32 counties on a clear day.
It is believed that the word Uisneach predates the Irish language. It is translated as “place of the hearth” or “angular place”, which would likely indicate a sacred ritual space.
In early written sources dating back to Roman times, the location of Uisneach was called ‘Mide’, meaning ‘the middle’. Originally this was a name for the hill itself but over the centuries the territory became the Medieval Kingdom of Mide which eventually became the Counties of Westmeath and Meath.
The ceremonial & sacred centre of Ireland Uisneach roots pre-date recorded history and its surviving monuments and relics date back to the Neolithic.
In the legends and mythology of Ireland, Uisneach is the resting site of the earth goddess Ériu and the sun god Lugh and as such was regarded as sacred ground. Uisneach was seen as a gate to the mythical fifth province, Mide.
Uisneach became the seat of the High Kings in later years and ancient writings state that the person who claimed the high throne must “marry” Ériu at a ceremony on Uisneach. This ceremony may have been part of the ‘Dail Mór Uisneach’, a great assembly and fair held at the beginning of May (Bealtaine) when a great fire was lit on the hill to mark summers arrival.
When Tara later became the seat of the High Kings, Uisneach was still the royal centre of Ireland it was the centre of Ireland and where the ancient rulers met to agree on the laws of the land.
Uisneach is linked to Tara by a ceremonial road, a section of which remains today. The Hill of Uisneach is part of a working farm and on private land. The only access to the Hill is via a guided tour.
The Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara, known as Temair in Gaeilge, was once the ancient seat of power in Ireland – 142 kings are said to have reigned there. In ancient Irish mythology, Temair was a sacred place for the gods and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to convert the pagans to Christianity.
According to Mythical Ireland the Lia Fail or “Stone of Destiny” was brought here by, the Tuatha Dé Danann, as one of their sacred objects. It was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara.
The “Mound of the Hostages” is a megalithic ‘passage tomb’ like Newgrange and is the oldest monument on the hill, and one of Ireland’s most famous historical sites dating to around 2,500BC. The name “Mound of the Hostages” comes from the custom of Kings keeping important people or family members from other royal families as hostages to ensure that the families followed the King’s rule. 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.
The Hawthorn Wishing Tree
There is an old Hawthorn tree on the slopes of one of the embankments at Tara and in Ireland, the Hawthorn is associated with the fairies and the Celtic goddess Danu. This Hawthorn has become a tree of wishes and healing where folks come today to tie their offerings to the tree. These days these Holy Wells have become the healing wells of Christian Irish saints.
At the entrance of Tara, there are two standing stones, in St. Patrick’s churchyard which are believed to be ancient. The taller of the two stones is thought to feature a figure of the Celtic fertility god Cernunnos and is similar to many of the ‘Sheela na Gigs found across Ireland.
Newgrange is a Stone Age (Neolithic) monument in the Boyne Valley, it is the jewel in the crown of Ireland’s Ancient East and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Newgrange is a Neolithic monument that was constructed about 5,200 years ago (3,200 B.C.) which makes it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Newgrange is a large circular mound 85 meters (93 yards) in diameter and 13.5 meters (15 yards) high with a 19 meter (21 yards) stone passageway and chambers inside. The mound is ringed by 97 large curbstones, some of which are engraved with symbols of megalithic art.
At dawn, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the passage. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.
Each year the winter solstice event at the Newgrange tomb is a remarkable celebration, there are many who want to attend the solstice happening and they gather at dawn to see this event. There are so many and the tomb is so small that Newgrange holds a lottery every year to grant access to the few that can fit in the tomb. It must be one of those life events that will live in your memory forever.
Beltany Stone Circle
Near Raphoe, you will find the Beltany, Stone Circle which sits on top of a small hill with superb views of the surrounding countryside. It has around 64 stones with a height of about 1.8 m and in the centre is what might have been a burial cairn.
The monument takes its name from the spring festival of Beltane, which has been celebrated by the lighting of fires on hilltops to symbolize a rekindling of the sun and a move into summer. The circle probably dates to the Late Bronze Age, about 1400 to 800 BC. This area has been a place of ritual worship for thousands of years.
An Grianan Fort
Donegal is famous throughout Ireland for Grianán Ailigh. The origins of the Fort date back to around 1700 BC. It has always been connected to the Tuatha de Danann who invaded Ireland before the Celts and built stone forts on top of strategic hills. They worshipped Dagda (the Good God) and he too is associated with the origins of Aileach.
Carrowmore, Moytura, Kesh & Heapstown Cairns
The Cairns include Moytura, the Kesh Corran caves and Heapstown Cairn. The great Irish battle of Moytura is said to have left great granite pillars on the battlefields. These pillars are said to be the slain warriors of this great battle of good vs. evil.
There are two cairns here dating back to Neolithic times. Legend says that the ancient pagan festival of Lughnasa, which is celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season, began here.
Sligo is the home of the largest and oldest collection of stone circles and dolmens known from Neolithic Ireland. Carrowmore is the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland and is also among the country’s oldest, with monuments ranging from five thousand to five thousand eight hundred years old. Archaeologists have recorded over 60 tombs of which 30 are visible.
The stunning cairn topped mountain of Knocknarea is 4 km to the west of Carrowmore, while the smaller, but equally important Carns Hill is 4 km to the east. There are more Neolithic buildings on the summits of the Ox Mountains to the south.
The flattish summit of the mountain Knocknarea is topped by the massive Queen Maeve’s Cairn, The ancient stone cairn looms over Sligo town. It has not been excavated but it is thought to cover a passage tomb similar to that of Heapstown Cairn.
The Grange Stone Circle
The Grange Stone Circle near Lough Gur in County Limerick is one of Ireland’s most impressive stone circles with its almost perfect shape and a post hole found in the very centre of the circle. There are 113 standing stones in this circle with a huge pair of slabs that lean towards each other to form a V.
Scientists have calculated that these stones are aligned with the Samhain sunset in late October early November. The Grange Stone Circles has been compared with the British henges and like those align with both solar and lunar events in the pagan calendar.
In the Republic of Ireland, 187 stone circles have been found. The majority of these circles are in County Cork where there are 187, County Mayo which has 11 and County Kerry with 20.
In Northern Ireland, there are over 147 stone circles and standing stones listed with various heritage and historical sources.
Drombeg Stone Circles
The Drombeg Stone circle is known locally as the “Druid’s Altar” and is probably Ireland’s most famous stone circle. It has seventeen closely spaced pillar stones of which 13 are still standing.
After some archaeological excavations in 1958, a pot was found with the remains of a child that were dated back to 945-830BC. They also found a Fulacht Fiadh, which is a pit used for cooking. Hot stones from the fire would be dropped into the trough to help boil the water.
Labbacallee Wedge Tomb
The wedge tomb at Labbacallee is the largest of all the Irish wedge tombs. Local folklore links this site with the Celtic Hag Goddess – Cailleach Bheur. Leaba Caillighe in Irish means The Hag’s Bed.
Ogham stones can be found in Cork at Greenhill, Kilcullen South and Templebryan and they are believed to be the earliest form of the Irish language. The Ogham alphabet is made up of a series of strokes along or across a line.
Ogham is sometimes called the “Celtic Tree Alphabet” because many of the markings are linked to old Irish names particular trees. This writing was carved onto large standing stones which appear to be used to mark Early Irish laws which allow claims to a piece of land.
Historians and archaeologists believe that Ogham began in southwest Ireland and moved with the Irish who left the area. Sadly, many of the Irish Ogham stones have been re-used and found near churches and abbeys which indicates that they might have been incorporated into the Christian religions of the time.
Stone Circles – Beara Way
On the Beara Peninsula, there is an ancient road – known as the Green Road or the Beara Way that follows the peninsula. The Beara Way is studded with ancient ruins that include the Ring Fort in Bonane Heritage Park with its stone circle. You can visit the ancient stone circles and wedge tombs of Cashelkeelty, the Ardgroom Circle, Uragh Stone circle and several others.
The Hag of Beara
The Hag of Beara is said to have lived seven lifetimes before being turned to stone. She is mentioned in a poem by Padraig Pearse “Mise Éire Siné mé ná an Cailleach Béara” The rock lies beside the coast road from Eyeries to Ardgroom on the Kilcatherine Peninsula.
The Ring of Kerry is equally rich in archaeological remains. Fine examples of Iron Age forts can be seen at Staigue near Caherdaniel and Cahergal and Leacanabuaile at Cahersiveen.
Archaeological sites are scattered throughout Kerry’s landscape: passage tombs on the hilltops, ancient copper mines, promontory forts on the sea cliffs, ogham stones and 20 stone Circles.
The Ring of Kerry is a scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry. Taking you through some of the most breathtaking vistas in Ireland the route is a circular 179 km on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Staigue Ring Fort
Off the main Sneem Waterville road by about 13 km lies the Staigue Fort. This is one of the finest ring fort ruins in Ireland. It’s located on a low hill with amazing views of Kenmare Bay. The fort has a massive circular rampart and the wall is up to 18 feet or 5.5 metres high and 13 ft thick it circumscribes a 90 ft diameter circular area.
It is believed to have been built during the Celtic period and one of its outstanding features is a flight of 10 steps that are built in an X shape leading to the top of the ramparts.
The Dingle peninsula has been home to various tribes and populations for almost 6,000 years. Because of the peninsula’s remote location, and lack of specialised agriculture, there are an incredible 2,000 plus monuments.
Loch A’-Dúin Valley
The Loch a’-Dúin valley near Cloghane is a valley that contains 90 stone structures dating from 2500BCE to the present day. From archaeological excavations and pollen studies, it has become clear that the Loch a’-Dúin Valley was used for intensive agriculture dating back to 1600 BC.
During this time habitation huts, fulachta fiadh (also known as burnt mounds), standing stones and enclosures were erected to house both humans and animals. Even earlier are the wedge tomb and the cup and circle rock art (of which there are nine examples), making it the largest concentration on the Dingle Peninsula.
Dunbeg Ring Fort
The promontory fort of An Dún Beag, at Fán, dates back to the Iron Age the cliffs have eroded since it was built, and much of the fort has been lost to the sea.
The only evidence of human inhabitation is a group of clocháns which are the stone beehives that monks used to live in and they appear to have been built around 1000 BC.
The prehistoric fort atop the cliffs on Inis Mór is clearly a defensive position the location of Dún Aengus suggests to historians that its primary purpose was religious and ceremonial rather than military. It may have been used for seasonal rites by the druids, perhaps involving the bonfires that could be seen from the mainland of Ireland.
Dún Aonghasa is over 3,000 years old. Excavations have revealed significant evidence of prehistoric metalworking, as well as several houses and burials. The whole complex was refortified in AD 700-800.
Athgreany Stone Circle
The Piper’s Stones or Athgreany stone circle is located in County Wicklow. The name comes from local legends that say the stones are the petrified remains of a piper and dancers who stayed out on the Sabbath and were turned to stone. There is an aura around this site that will make you believe in the Irish faerie folk with whom the site is associated. There are 14 stones here out of an original 17 and it is believed that there used to be another stone circle within the fields.
Athgreany or Achadh Greine in Irish translates to Field of the Sun there is a magical good luck hawthorn tree within the centre of this circle. It is believed that the circle was used to celebrate solar events such as the Equinoxes and the Solstice.
Glebe Stone Circles
The Glebe Stone circles are found in County Mayo Glebe where you can see a group of four of these just north of Cong. There are a large number of cairns, standing stones, caves, forts with cashels and these 4 stone circles with the Gleve North Stone Circle are the easiest to find and visit.
Ancient Ireland has so many places that may be considered thin places and when you think about all the stories and legends of Celtic history and festivals such as the summer solstice, Samhain and Bealtaine you can’t help but be awed by these ancient sacred sites. Ireland does have a history of witches although thankfully the country was not subjected to the horrific witch trials that decimated the population of women across Europe.
What was your favourite place in Ancient Ireland? Mine tend to be up in Donegal, my first stone circle was at Beltany and I remember stepping over the piles of sheep poop and standing in awe of something that was older than time itself.
You may also like
10 Ancient Celtic Holidays to Celebrate in Ireland
Famous Irish saints
Irish Witches – famous Celtic witches
Ireland’s Ancient East – an epic road trip