Traveling to Ireland is a pilgrimage to a lot of Americans, for many reasons. A lot of us can’t wait to visit, because frankly – it’s our ancestral home. Over 10% of the US population claims Irish ancestry. That’s about 36 million people! Meanwhile, the population of Ireland is less than 5 million. That’s a lot of far removed cousins coming to visit, but the Irish tourist industry is well prepared for them.
Other reasons to visit Ireland is to see the amazing countryside and the ancient fortifications, scenic villages and for a lot of Catholics, it’s a chance to see one of the earliest and some of the most devoted places of worship in Europe outside of Rome.
Christian faith came to these green shores on in 432 AD. It has been long accepted that it was St. Patrick who evangelized on this land for the first time, and he is the official saint of Ireland. Everybody knows what St.Patricks day is and that you should most definitely wear green on that day. But not many people know the historical and religious figure.
There are a few places in Ireland that do not carry the mark of his legend – he seems to have become a very popular subject of local tales, and the Irish do love their tales and legends. Everything from St.Patrick’s time seems to be veiled by the mists of time, and we will never know for sure who he really was if he was only one person, and who were the snakes that the stories say he drove out of Ireland. When we travel to Ireland today, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the rich Christian heritage at every step.
What we know for sure is that after the fifth century, monasteries started to spring up all over Ireland, and they became the source of some of the most incredible illuminated manuscripts in the history of man. There are places you can visit today that carry some of Ireland’s ancient history within and remind travelers of the Christian heritage that is as Irish as the rolling green hills.
Here are some of Ireland’s most amazing and historic spiritual sites that are well worth a visit:
Holy Island, or Inis Cealtra
On this now abandoned island once lay a bustling monastic settlement. It was started less than 100 years after St. Patrick is rumored to have come to spread Christianity on these shores. It became the center of learning in the region. Monasteries were often built on islands in order to have solitude, reflection, and a good setting silent prayer. In short, to concentrate on God’s work in peace. This wasn’t to be for the early inhabitants of Inis Cealtra. The island was raided multiple times in the sixth and seventh century. But apart more than Viking raids, what really took its toll was the reformation. The island hasn’t been inhabited since. By the living that is. The island’s cemetery is still being used, with new inhabitants being brought in from County Clare.
You can visit the island and St. Caimin’s and Brigid’s church ruins by boat. They are well worth a visit – the site is well preserved and prepared for tourist traffic. You can wander amongst ruins and almost catch a glimpse of their past glory. You can see a beautiful and intricate Romanesque archway, a tall round tower that’s typical to ruins of the period. Ireland has several of these, and they look positively magical. It seems like a miracle that it withstood the test of time on this windy strip of land. St. Caimin’s Church is the only building on the island with a roof and was rebuilt many times – last time in the 1980’s. You can go inside for quiet contemplation. There are ruins of six churches in total on the island. Because of the importance of this site, it is now on the list of properties submitted to UNESCO for consideration to the World Heritage List. Boat tours can be caught from Mountshannon on a daily basis from April to the end of September when the weather allows.
If you need reflection and you are longing for a break, you will be welcomed here. Whether you’d like to make a quick day-stop at this abbey or stay longer, the monks will be happy to accommodate you. If you have time, we wholeheartedly recommend that you stop here for a few days for a retreat. You can recharge your spiritual batteries and reflect, pray and rest. There is no formal charge for the stay – you pay what you feel you can give. Most of the rooms in the Abbey are singles, with only a few twins.
The Abbey itself is a Benedictine monastery built in the Norman Revival style – it’s a massive building with a medieval feel and picturesque surroundings. It is inhabited by about 33 monks who have taken vows to keep a life of prayer, recollection, and quiet. The order of Saint Benedict is a confederation of separate monasteries. They have no “leader” as such and are led by their separate abbots.
The Glenstal Abbey was established in 1927. The grounds are very large, and you can explore the woods, lakes, and gardens. The Abbey runs a boys’ secondary school as well as a fully operational dairy farm. The monks have chickens, keep bees and have an impressive shop with books (in case you didn’t bring one) products that they make. You are welcomed at their table.
Even if you come to Ireland for a busy vacation, the Glenstal Abbey is waiting for a few days of rest and quiet meditation. No wonder that a lot of people make it their main destination. If you feel like you’re in need of a spiritual holiday, this might be a perfect idea.
Let’s go back to the middle ages. This monastery was founded in the sixth century, only a few generations after St. Patrick walked the green hills of Ireland. It lies in the very center of the island, and its location helped to make it the most famous monastery in the country. It was a place visited by people from all over the known Christian world, a landmark for manuscript creation. The Book of the Dun Cow was written here in the 12th century, as well as the Annals of Tigernach in the 11th century.
Before coming to these ruins, it is a good idea to read a little about these books in order to truly feel the power of this place. The Book of the Dun Cow is a book of Irish stories, meticulously copied by a young scribe named Mael Muire. It has a rich history, and there are stories not only written within it but about it. There are a lot of books available on the history of Clonmacnoise, and it’s good to do a lot of research and reading before you go, or while you’re there. Seeing historic places always needs a context. Who was here? Who built this? Who are we? How can we relate to them?
Gallarus Oratory and Medieval Sites of Dingle
The Séipéilín Ghallarais is a haystack shaped oratory located on the Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry. Not much is known about it, which perhaps makes the visit a little bit mysterious and the reigns of your imagination are set free to ponder what went on here a very long time ago. The oratory is carefully built of what looks like random stones, but the slabs are actually cut carefully, to fit into place.
Some theories as to the use of this place include an early church, a funerary chapel, a shelter – no one seems to agree on one purpose. Perhaps it was used for many purposes over the centuries. There are local legends associated with it: if you climb out the small window on the other side of the oratory, your soul will be cleansed. The site is Pre-Christian, dating back about 1200 years.
The Gallarus Oratory is a great place to visit because of its relative remoteness. Nestled among the rolling green hills, the small stone structure is just something that you’d expect to find in Ireland. Mysterious, ancient, and very photogenic. It makes for a great day trip to ponder some of the unexplained parts of early Christian settlement here. You will find the Gallus Oratory Visitor Centre where you can rest, hide from the wind and get some refreshments.
If you travel to Dingle, it probably won’t be for just one ancient site. The peninsula is a great place to recharge your batteries and tour many early medieval sites like Ballywiheen, ruins of an early monastic settlement, Kilmalkedar which is a National Monument witch a church that dates back to the mid-12th century – well worth a visit.
The Dingle Peninsula is a part of the Wild Atlantic Way – one of Ireland’s most scenic road trip routes. A road trip is probably the best way to travel this part of Ireland. There are prehistoric ruins, ring forts, early Christian chapels, monuments, holy sites scattered throughout this ancient landscape and a tour bus would probably not do it justice.