The 15 Most Mysterious Sites in Ireland
From ancient kings and fairies to ghosts and giants, discover the secrets of these mythical spots on the Emerald Isle.
The Hill of Tara
From above, the Hill of Tara in County Meath looks like a message to the gods carved in the earth. In reality, this ancient mound was the seat of the Celtic High Kings of Ireland, who ruled over all the lesser kings of the land. But Tara’s mythical importance goes back even farther, as the stronghold was built over Neolithic tombs. The ancient people believed gods dwelt here at the entrance to an other-world of eternal joy. And the place continues to inspire today: Archaeologists are still locating new sites underground, and people gather on the hilltop to celebrate their pagan ancestors on the summer solstice. (Ireland is also one of the best places to go in Europe for spring break.)
Of course, there’s a perfectly logical scientific explanation for the strange interlocking columns that reach out into the sea at this UNESCO World Heritage site in County Antrim, Northern Ireland: The basalt columns were created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. But the legend of Giant’s Causeway is more fun: that the blocks are huge stepping stones the giant Finn McCool used to cross the water to Scotland. Check out these stunning photos of naturally gorgeous rock formations around the world.
This imposing, often-fought-over medieval fortress has a turbulent past: The precarious perch of Dunluce Castle in County Antrim led to the kitchen falling off into the sea one night, taking several cooks with it—or so the legend goes. The ghost of a defeated English captain is said to haunt Dunluce’s ruins, and the cries of a banshee, or Irish spirit, of young Maeve Roe have also been heard. She was locked in a tower here for refusing to marry a man she didn’t love—when her true love rescued her, they set off in a rowboat from the “Mermaid’s Cave” beneath the castle, but were dashed on the rocks. You can visit the cave today, if you dare. Don’t miss these gorgeous castles you can rent on Airbnb.
Strange circles of stone pop up all over Ireland, the sites of mysterious ancient rituals. The Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork, also known as the Druid’s Altar, consists of 17 standing stones, in the center of which cremated remains have been found. One of the stones also lines up with the winter solstice. But despite its shadowy past, the spot today takes on an ethereal quality, nestled among rolling green hills.
It’s not hard to imagine why Saint Kevin came to the serene Wicklow Mountains’ “valley of the two lakes” to live as a hermit in peace and solitude in the sixth century. Interestingly, “St. Kevin’s Kitchen,” so named for its chimney-like bell tower, is actually a small church in the monastic site that developed here—no food was ever cooked in the building. Seek the natural tranquility of Glendalough for yourself as you walk along flowing streams, waterfalls, and wildflowers.
Courtesy Aidan Quigley, copyright 2016
Going from the serene to the scary, Ireland has more than its share of haunted houses. Top among them is the creepy Loftus Hall in County Wexford, where a young woman is said to have met the devil. When she dropped a card during a game and bent to pick it up, she saw his cloven hooves under the table, and he took off through the ceiling. The mansion plays up its macabre past with regular ghost tours. One visitor to the hall allegedly captured a ghost’s photo, which went viral in 2014. If you’re not too creeped out, read more spooky stories from the most haunted places in the world.
If you pass a lone hawthorn tree in the middle of the field, chances are it’s home to one of the “wee folk”—which is why landowners won’t cut them down. Also called a fairy bush or fairy thorn, these trees are where fairies go to get from our world to their hidden realm, according to Irish mythology. So if you pass by a fairy tree, keep a look out and you might spot one of the tiny creatures!
Off the coast of Galway, the windswept Aran Islands are little pockets of pure Irish culture, where the Irish language is still spoken. On the edge of the cliffs of Inishmore (also spelled Inis Mor) lies the Bronze Age fort of Dun Aengus (also spelled Dun Aonghasa). It’s shaped like a half-circle that backs up to the sea and there’s no guardrail, so watch out. The rock platform at the cliff edge may have been used for rituals or offerings to the gods. These stunning photos of Irish islands will have you planning a trip this year.
The Rock of Cashel
At first glimpse of the Rock of Cashel rising up out of County Tipperary’s Golden Vale, it’s hard to believe it’s real. But the majestic mount holds an important place in Ireland’s history—and its myths: The devil supposedly created the rock when he took a bite out of a nearby mountain (a spot called “Devil’s Bit”) and spat it back out. Although the current ruins are medieval, the rock was previously an ancient royal site of Irish kings. St. Patrick is said to have converted pagan King Aengus to Christianity here, mistakenly jabbing him with the pointy end of his staff—but the king thought it was all part of the ceremony. Here are other enchanting places that look straight out of a magical fairy tale.
The seemingly barren, moon-like landscape of the Burren looks out of character for the Emerald Isle. And the limestone-covered area in County Clare, scattered with ancient tombs from the prehistoric area through the Bronze Age, certainly has an unearthly feel. The most iconic sight of the Burren is the Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb that looks like a doorway to another world. It was used for a whopping 600 years, and the remains of 21 people have been found inside.
courtesy Séamus Ó hUltacháin
Where mountain streams flow into the start of Shannon, Ireland’s longest river, stands a sacred pool called the Shannon Pot. According to myth, Sionnan, who was the granddaughter of the Celtic god of the sea, Lir, sought to catch the Salmon of Wisdom at this spot. But the salmon made the water rise, and Sionnan was drawn into it, creating the river named after her. The site is now part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark in County Cavan. See more of the most beautiful natural pools in the world.
Surprisingly, it’s not the tales of battle and bloodshed that haunt Charles Fort, a star-shaped citadel in the charming town of Kinsale, County Cork. Instead, the site is known for one of the most famous ghosts of Ireland, the White Lady of Kinsale. When her new husband was shot for falling asleep on duty on their wedding night, the distraught bride threw herself off the battlements. Her ghost is said to roam the fort, still in her wedding dress. The White Lady Hotel in town is named after the local specter. (These chilling real ghost stories will make you believe.)
Star Wars fans might recognize the endless stone steps climbing up the cliffside as Luke Skywalker’s hideaway in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The UNESCO World Heritage site Skellig Michael, a craggy island jutting out of the sea off the coast of County Kerry, is uninhabited—and practically uninhabitable. But astonishingly, medieval monks managed to build a monastery on the mountaintop. Visiting is not for the fainthearted: Accessible by a rough boat ride, there are 600 slippery steps to the top, and no facilities.
The grassy mound known as Newgrange is the highlight a cluster of Stone Age passage tombs in the Boyne River valley in County Meath. At 5,000 years old, it’s older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt. Visitors can explore the chambers within and marvel at the Neolithic engineering—the roof is still waterproof—and at stones carved with swirling designs. During the winter solstice, the tomb is filled with light as the sun aligns with the “roof box,” an opening above the entrance. You can apply to be one of the lucky few randomly chosen to witness this ancient spiritual experience.
Along with castle ruins and fairy trees, Ireland’s landscape is dotted with round towers—door-less cylinders that have somehow remained standing since the Middle Ages. Often accompanying monastic sites and churches, round towers likely had several purposes: as bell towers, lookouts, beacons for visitors, and a place to hide from marauders. But how did the monks get in if there were no doors? They’d use a ladder or rope to reach an opening high above the ground, then pull it up after them. Want more Irish history? Check out the lessons about St. Patrick’s Day you didn’t learn in school.