Since you’re reading this post, it’s likely one or all of the words mystical, mythic, or magical resonate with your soul. If so, Ireland is a place you need to visit. There’s more—much more—to it than pubs, shamrocks, and leprechauns. Don’t get me wrong. I think those three things are pretty great in themselves, but I am more drawn to ancient sites and mystical, magic-infused places. Today’s post is about a few such places you can find in Ireland. And let me be clear. The list below is just a small sampling, but I trust it will whet your appetite. So, here goes.
For most people, the phrase “stone circle” conjures up an image of Stonehenge. Yes, it’s the most famous one, but stone circles are scattered all across the British Isles and Ireland. Craigh Na Dun, the portal through which Claire in Outlander time travels is said to have been inspired by the Cava Cairns near Culloden in Scotland (other Scottish stone circles also are in contention for this honor). I’m not promising that the stone circles in Ireland will enable you to time travel, but they are a living piece of history thousands of years old. Standing among them should quicken your heart and excite your imagination. Might you experience anything mystical or magical at these sites? The only way to know is to go.
There are stone circles throughout Ireland. Some are small, sitting quietly in a field to the side of the road. Others are larger, more complex, and enjoy more PR. Here are three to explore.
Ballynoe in Co. Down is said to be the most impressive stone circle on the island of Ireland. Built somewhere around 2000 B.C., it is complex and composed of fifty standing stones. In the center of the main circle is a burial mound that scholars say was added during the Bronze Age. The backdrop to this ancient monument is the breathtaking Mourne Mountains.
Drombeg is among one of Ireland’s most visited stone circles and is considered a national monument. Smaller and younger than Ballynoe, it is thought to have been constructed around 1100 B.C. Comprised of seventeen pillar stones, it forms a perfect circle. Scholars believe one of its stones is set to line up with the sunset on winter solstice. The site is alternatively known as the Druid’s Altar.
Beagmore is the largest stone circle in Co. Tyrone. I’m intrigued by the name. The Irish Central article “The Best Mythological Sites to Visit in Ireland” translates Beagmore as “the moor of birches” but, in the Irish language, the word beag means “small.” This site, however, is big! It’s a complex of seven stone circles with a total of 1269 stones. While it is thought that the circle was constructed circa 1600 B.C., archaeological digs at the site have found tools that scholars say date from around 2900 B.C. Like Drombeg, this site aligns with the sun. A row of stones line up with the midwinter sunset.
Passage tombs are found throughout Western Europe. These structures are covered burial chambers with one or more narrow passageways. There are two types of passage tombs. Burial mounds are covered with earth. Cairns are covered with stones.
The Brú na Bóine World Heritage Site in Co. Westmeath has three passage tombs—Knowth, Dowth, and the most famous one in Ireland: Newgrange.
Knowth has a large collection of megalithic art, two passages, and eighteen satellite burial mounds. Scientists believe there was a community at this site as far back as 6,000 years ago.
Dowth is the smallest of the three tombs. It has two burial chambers and prehistoric art. Myths and folklore are associated with Dowth. It is said to be the burial place of Boann, the goddess whose death created the river Boyne (you can read that story in my post here). Dowth also is said to be an entrance to the Otherworld and has come to be called “the fairy mound of darkness.” Despite that, during the winter solstice, sunlight moves through one of the passages and into a chamber, spotlighting three stones.
Newgrange, the most celebrated of the three Brú na Bóine sites is over 5,000 years old. Built around 3200 B.C., it was constructed before the pyramids of Egypt. During the winter solstice, sunlight lights up the floor of a chamber for seventeen minutes. Like Dowth, Newgrange is said to be a fairy mound and, according to Irish mythology, it was built by Dagda, the father /creator god.
But these three aren’t the only passage tombs in Ireland. Among the most notable outside of Brú na Bóine is the Great Cairn of Knockarea in Co. Sligo. According to legend, this is the burial place of Queen Maeve (aka Mebd) of Connacht. Maeve is best known for starting the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain Bo Culainge) by stealing a prized bull to one-up her husband. This led to a war between Connacht and Ulster involving one of Irish mythology’s greatest heroes, Cú Chulainn. The tomb is located on top of the mountain of Knocharea, stands over 1000 feet above the sea, and is thought to be about 6,000 years old.
Maeve’s tomb is visible a mile away at Carrowmore, the largest megalithic gravesite in Ireland. Nearby is Carrowkeel, located on top of the Bricklieve Mountains. This site is comprised of fourteen passage tombs.
A final passage tomb to explore is the Mound of the Hostages located at the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath. There you will find ancient engravings and a stone believed to have been a prehistoric calendar.
Even if tombs aren’t your thing, you shouldn’t miss visiting Tara. It is the most sacred site in Ireland and the place where Irish High Kings were inaugurated. Located at the top of the hill is the Stone of Destiny (aka the Lia Fáil). According to legend, when a king placed his foot on this stone, it would sing (or screech, depending on which version you read) if the man was the rightful High King of Ireland. At the top, you’ll also find the Faerie Tree. People come from all over the world to make a wish on the tree and leave an offering for the Good People. It is said you might even see a faerie.
Throughout Ireland, you can find places and things associated with faeries. While some of this is commercialism, much of it is not. The faeries are said to have been early inhabitants of the island of Eire, a magical race who were forced underground by invaders.
There are many places believed to be entrances to the Otherworld, the land of the faerie race, such as the passage tombs that I mentioned above. But some trees also are thought to be portals to the Otherworld. Hawthorn trees in particular are believed to be pathways to the home of the Fair Folk.
Then there are trees that, for whatever reason, are sacred or important to the faeries. Faerie trees can be recognized because they grow alone in a field. And, if you treasure your health and happiness, you’ll leave them alone. The Fair Folk don’t take kindly to anyone messing with their trees. I’m not kidding. Farmers will plow around these trees. City planners have built roads to go around them. Pity the fool who cuts one down. There is considerable oral history—and historic—documentation of people who have ignored this advice, much to their sorrow.
In addition, you will find fairy forts. There are over 60,000 mounds in Ireland that are considered to be fairy forts, a notable one is Knockainey Hill in Co. Limerick. It is associated with the Irish goddess Aine, (who is described in some versions of Irish folklore as a faerie queen) and has a history of faerie and pixie sightings. Another reputed area of faerie activity is the woods at the foot of Ben Bulben in Co. Sligo.
The sites that hold the most appeal for me are thin places. In Celtic spirituality, a thin place is an area where this world and the Otherworld meet. The Otherworld is more than a fairyland. It is a place that exists parallel to the human world. It is an eternal land to which souls travel after this life. It is the home of the Divine. In thin places, one can see and even crossover into the supernatural world. In these places, one can encounter the Divine and be changed by that encounter.
These are places, according to Celtic belief, where anyone, regardless of their usual perception or openness (or lack thereof), can stumble into God or see the Otherworld. This happens not because of the person but because of the place itself. Anyone who goes to that place has a heightened chance of connecting with the Divine or the supernatural because the veil between the worlds is thin in that spot, that specific location.
In-between places, such as crossroads or the border between neighbors’ yards have a higher-than-average chance of being thin places.
One major crossroad in Ireland is the spot where the four ancient provinces of Ireland—Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht—meet. This spot is known as the Navel of Ireland and is said to be a thin place, an entrance to the Otherworld, and a portal to Mide (“middle”), the mystical fifth province of Ireland. It is at the geographic center of Ireland and is marked by the Cat Stone (the Uisneach) beneath which, it is said, Eiru, the goddess for whom Ireland is named, is buried. The Hill of Uisneach is located in Co. Westmeath about five miles east of the village of Ballymore.
There are several other places said to be mystical thin places. To find out more, read my post on thin places by clicking here.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this small peak into the mystical, magical place that is Ireland. Please LIKE and SHARE. To SUBSCRIBE for FREE, just click on the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of the page.
Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.