The Ireland Diaries: The Ancient East
"I could wish that the English kept history in mind more, that the Irish kept it in mind less." -- Elizabeth Bowen
During my second day in Ireland, we said goodbye to cosmopolitan Dublin as we headed towards the country's ancient east, which houses centuries of history in the rolling green hills and peaceful mountains of the countryside.
Not only can you discover remnants of human culture and artwork even older than Stonehenge, but unsuspecting travelers will also learn that the Ancient East is also a decidedly magical place, with screaming stones, mythic kings, and fairy trees that grant wishes.
Keep scrolling to check out my top four must-sees in the ancient east before heading to Galway, the Cliffs of Moher, and Kilmore tomorrow to enjoy beautiful beaches and some of the best seafood in Ireland.
Hill of Tara
My first trip through the scenic countryside of Ireland fittingly began with a visit to the Hill of Tara, which was once the seat of the High King of Ireland.
After we sampled our first traditional Irish breakfast at an adjoining cozy cafe, complete with the scones and brown soda bread which we would come to enjoy during much of our journey, we made our way up the hill in the drizzling rain (sporadic sprinkles followed by brilliant sunshine would become a mainstay of our trip).
At the top of the Hill of Tara, we found the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Lia Fail. According to legend, the stone will roar with approval if a worthy contender for the throne puts his hand on it, and the sound can be heard all over Ireland.
In slightly more modern times, the Hill of Tara is also thought to be where St. Patrick (the one who allegedly drove all the snakes out of Ireland) appeared to lead the pagans towards Christianity in 433 A.D., and the spot was marked with a statue of the saint as well as a small ancient church.
As if shouting stones don't already make the Hill of Tara a pretty magical place, the landscape of this area is also dotted with hawthorns, which are known as wishing trees or fairy trees.
In May or June, the wishing trees will usually be covered in colorful fabrics and random trinkets from optimistic travelers hoping for a special wish to be granted by the wee folk or a local deity. In some cases, we saw pacifiers and other similar tokens from thankful visitors who'd returned after they had their prayer come true!
The Passage Tomb Knowth
Our journey through time continued with a visit to the Boyne Valley's passage tomb Knowth, which is significantly older than both England's Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids and boasts a spot on National Geographic's rankings of the top historical sites in Ireland.
The neolithic-era site, which is believed to have been built around 3,200 B.C., is the largest passage tomb in the area and sits between its neighbors, Newgrange and Dowth.
While Newgrange -- known for its cool winter solstice alignment when the sun rises -- is often a more popular and crowded spot, Knowth is said to contain more prehistoric art compared to any other spot in the country, with over 200 huge boulders around its perimeter decorated with ancient artwork including crescents and other astrological symbols.
Unlike in Newgrange, visitors to Knowth can actually go into an inner chamber and climb on top of the mushroom-shaped mound!
It was fascinating to realize that this passage tomb has been repurposed from period to period starting with the Bronze age and through the advent of Christianity, and that there is still so much that is unknown about the monument. At the site, I was strongly reminded of the incredible workmanship of the Egyptian pyramids as modern archaeologists still struggle to understand how builders transported all the boulders and other materials across the Boyne Valley to craft this mysterious place.
Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains
Driving down south, we started making our way through the glaciers of the Glendalough Valley and the Wicklow Mountains, where I previously mentioned is where Guinness sources its water.
Many visitors hike through the stunning peaks for reflection or to visit historical sites, including one of the valley's most notable attractions, an ancient village known as the Glendalough monastery. The early Medieval monastic settlement was founded by the hermit St. Kevin, a former nobleman who gave up his royal lifestyle for a life of quiet prayer in the mountains.
It's hard to believe that the quiet spot -- which has stood thousands of years through Viking invasions and the ravages of time, thanks to a tall, door-less tower where the monks could hide from invaders -- was once a bustling community attracting disciples of the hermit for almost 1,000 years.
Today, little remains but the forgotten stone structures and an ancient graveyard, which are a stunning addition to the scenic backdrop. We spent a relaxing afternoon exploring the landscape, which ended up being one of my favorite spots of the day.
Rock of Cashel
While the Rock of Cashel, also known as St. Patrick's Rock and Cashel of the Kings, lies farther afield in Cork, it seemed fitting to put it on this list because of its historical significance.
While there's evidence that the spot was in use as early as the 9th century, it wasn't until 1101 that the former castle became a major player for the church and eventually became the seat of the archbishop in 1111.
Originally the seat of the kings of Munster before King Muirchertach O Briain donated the castle to the church, the Rock of Cashel is said to have been created when St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave, and the resulting rock landed in the town.
The stone fortress is currently said to house some of the best examples of medieval art and architecture in the country.
Notable Eat of the Day: Byrne and Woods ****
Nestled in the Wicklow Mountains, the second highest pub in Ireland has earned itself a spot on the Michelin Guide with "fresh and straightforward" cooking. After a long day on our feet, we basked in the cozy atmosphere and had a bottle of Chianti alongside our meal. I thoroughly enjoyed the honey glazed duck, which was served in a duck jus with a salt baked turnip, savoy cabbage puree, and sliced vegetables.