Crossing the large grassy field, I dodged my way around piles of sheep poop. The poop was everywhere, which means I wasn’t entirely successful. Little turds lodged themselves into the tread of my hiking shoes. I thought about how this was going to make my rental car smell for the next two days. I wasn’t entirely thrilled by the prospect. In the end, I hoped all this crap would be worth the effort I was expending to see Ireland’s famous Celtic ruins.
The sheep stopped eating and gazed my way. I imagined their looks taunting me, saying, “this is our field.” When I made it across the tall grassy field, I reached a massive stone castle wall. The wall bore the telltale signs of refurbishment, but was in remarkably good shape. I walked along the base of the wall to where it made a 90 degree left turn. There, the embankment dropped down a steep slope.
Trusting my instincts, I made my way to the bottom of the hill, crossed through a stone archway. Before my eyes, the ruins of the massive Kells Priory complex spread out before me. I’d come a long way for this. One of my favorite activities in Ireland is photographing the Celtic ruins and this visit to Kells would be the biggest highlight of all!
The Celtic Ruins in Ireland
Having cross the island several times, here are some of our favorite Irish ruins to visit.
The Priory of Kells
The massive Priory at Kells is the largest and most important of the Augustinian monastic sites in Ireland. Kells was believed to be founded by Baron Geoffrey FitzRobert in 1193. The priory was attacked and destroyed many times between the mid-1200s and the mid-1300s.
In 1540, King Henry VIII dissolved the priory and divided the lands, which were further dispersed by Oliver Cromwell. Currently, the Priory at Kells is being restored by Ireland’s Office of Public Works (OPW) as part of an initiative to protect the Celtic ruins in the countryside.
The most striking factor of Kells is the lack of visitors. During my nearly two hours exploring the site, I saw only one other visitor – an elderly gentleman who lives nearby walking his dog. That left me plenty of time to wander the complex taking photos and imaging what life must have been like here.
The monastic settlement of Glendalough was founded in the 6th century by St. Kevin and is noted for its massive round tower standing on the valley floor in the Wicklow Mountains. Glendalough is on the tourist trail and makes a very popular lunch stopover for folks driving from Dublin to Kilkenny.
Glendalough is special for us because it was our very first Celtic ruin on our first trip Ireland. We were disappointed because it was pouring rain on the day we visited. When I learned I would be coming to the Emerald Isle again, I added a day to my Ireland itinerary so I could revisit Glendalough – hopefully in better weather. This trip did not disappoint. I had perfect weather on this visit – the sun shone brightly in the valley, and it was a perfect day for taking photos.
Between Glendalough and Kilkenny is the small village of Baltinglass. As I planned my route, I noted on the map that there was a ruin in the town. Intrigued, I decided to stop for a visit, which turned out to be one of the great adventures of my trip.
The Baltinglass Abbey is not manned by staff from the OPW and only a rudimentary sign at the entrance gives any information about the site. The site is next to a modern church (St. Mary’s Church) and I arrived on a Saturday as the congregation was deep in preparations for the annual harvest feast. The parishioners are very proud of both the ruins as well as the new modern church and gave me an extensive tour of both.
One of the parishioners (Mr. Abraham Carpenter) spoke up and indicated he had a booklet about the site and wanted me to have it (the booklet is called Baltinglass and Its Abbey by The Rev. Canon Claude Chavasse). I was to follow him in my rental car to his house, which was “just over there” – a flourish of the arm in the general direction of the town.
But Mr. Carpenter’s house was not in town. So, we went over the river and through the woods before arriving at his stunning farm in the countryside. Meeting locals is always a highlight of a trip and meeting Abe and seeing his home was a fantastic adventure.
From the booklet, I learned that The Baltinglass Abbey was completed in the 12thCentury in the Irish Romanesque style. At one point in time, the Baltinglass Abbey was one of the richest in all of Ireland and one of the richest in all of Europe.
The Rock of Cashel
Few sites in Ireland have as much historical significance as the Rock of Cashel. On this site above the Tipperary plain, St. Patrick converted and baptized the King of Munster in the 5thcentury. For centuries, the Rock was the seat for the Kings of Munster – and was fought over by the various Celtic tribes.
In the early 1100, one of the Kings of Munster (Muirchertach Ua Briain) donated the Rock to the Catholic Church, and the rest is history. The round tower dates from ~1100 and the other buildings were added shortly thereafter.
We enjoy the Rock of Cashel so much that we’ve visited on each of our trips to Ireland. There’s just something magical about this place towering above the plains.
One of the defining characteristics of countryside is its ring forts, the curious ancient ruins in Ireland. We first discovered them on The Ring of Kerry. Our innkeepers in Derry recommended we visit Grianan Aileach atop a hill just west of the city and back in the Republic of Ireland (County Donegal).
Grianan Aileach was the seat of the Kingdom of Aileach, but was destroyed by the King of Munster Muirchertach Ua Briain in 1101 (the same King who donated the Rock of Cashel to the Catholic Church).
We arrived before the posted the opening time, but the gates were already open. This ring fort is completely intact (restored in the mid-1800s) and offers incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. Grianan, like other ring forts, just feels so ancient.
Jerpoint Abbey was completed in 1180 by the King of Osraige, dedicated by the Blessed Virgin. Like Baltinglass, Jerpoint was a Cistercian monastery. In fact, Jerpoint was a derivative “daughter” monastery that actually reported into the “mother” Baltinglass.
This was the only Celtic site I visited that wasn’t undergoing some form of reconstruction or renovation.
Like Grianan Aileach, the Staigue ring fort is a prehistoric structure dating from around 300 AD and overlooks Kenmare Bay. Of all the ancient sites in Ireland, this ruin has the best preserved example of interlocking stone work. Local lore has it that this structure might have been some kind of trading post.
During our visit, we found the fortification to be open for exploring, by both man and sheep. Given it’s location on the popular Ring of Kerry, this is one of the most visited Celtic ruins.
This unusual building on the Dingle Peninsula overlooking Ard na Caithne/Smerwick dates from the 12th century. This small structure is believed to be an early Christian church or chapel. Discovered in 1756 by Charles Smith, there has been some controversy over the age, origins, and purpose of the building.
This is the only intact oratory in Ireland. While others may have existed at one time (and local writings and lore attest to that), this is the only one to exist.
We visited on a cool, windy morning and found the place to be very remarkable. The views of the nearby farms (with sheep!) and of the harbor below makes this one of the more remarkable Celtic sites in Ireland.
We were the guests of the Irish National Tourism Authority (Fáilte Ireland) and the Irish Office of Public Works (OPW), which administers Ireland’s national treasures. As always, all opinions of the scatological and the beautiful are our own.