From archaeological gems to stunning strolls - exploring Ireland's beauty (PHOTOS)

Lough Gur, County Limerick. Some off the beaten track discoveries for intrepid explorers of Ireland’s beauty and history.

However, the last O’Neill to be inaugurated here was the famous Hugh O’Neill in 1595. Hugh was the powerful Earl of Tyrone, and he led a massive rebellion against the Crown forces in Ireland in an attempt to stop the plantations of Ireland and the erosion of the powers of the Gaelic chiefs.

This series of conflicts became known as The Nine Years War. After some initial successes, like the Battle of the Yellow Ford, by 1601 the Gaelic Forces had suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Kinsale. Lord Mountjoy led the Crown Forces here, to the Royal Inauguration site of Tullaghoge, and smashed the Leac na Ri, the sacred inauguration stone of the O’Neill’s, thereby symbolically breaking the O’Neill sovereignty.

The site was said to have been completely abandoned by 1622 and today it is an incredibly atmospheric place to visit. When you enter the center of the enclosure and are shut off from the modern world by the trees and earthen banks, you can really get a sense of the history of Tullaghoge, a place of celebrations, ceremonies, inaugurations and gatherings for centuries.

Tullaghoge is just around 4km south of Cookstown in County Tyrone, off the B162 (Cookstown to Stewartstown Road), and you’ll see signposts for the site. There is a small area to park at the base of the hill, and a well made stone path leads nearly the whole way to the site. At the end of the path just pass through the small kissing gate. For more images and information please click here.

Grianán of Ailech, County Donegal

The Grianán of Ailech is one of the most iconic sites of North-West Ireland. This was the former residence of the powerful Kings of Ailech, the Uí Néill dynasty. In the early medieval period, the Uí Néills controlled vast swathes of territory in the northern half of the island of Ireland. However as their power began to wane they became locked in a bitter dynastic war with the Kings of Munster.

The Grianán was recorded in the Annals as being destroyed in AD 676, and then more thoroughly in 1101.

The name Grianán roughly translates to ‘Palace of the Sun,’ unfortunately the day we visited was heavily overcast with showers, though even the low cloud couldn’t obscure the quite magnificent views over the Inishowen Peninsula, Lough Swilly, and Lough Foyle. The site absolutely dominates the skyline from a great distance. Entering the central cashel you pass through the massively thick drystone walls that tower above you. Stone steps lead to the top of the walls allowing you to look upon the stunning landscape that surrounds you

You can find it around 8km north-west of Derry, it is well signposted from the N13 between Derry and Letterkenny. For more information about its history and how to get there, see here.

Kilcooley Abbey

Kilcooley Abbey is one of Ireland’s true hidden gems and one of Ireland’s finest examples of a Cistercian monastery. It was founded in 1184, when the King of Thomond Donal Mor O’Brien, granted the lands to the Cistercian order.

Kilcooley Abbey thrived through its early history, but suffered attack during the turbulent years of the fifteenth century. It is recorded as being attacked and burned in 1418 and it was recorded as being almost completely leveled by an armed force of men in 1444. After this attack, the powerful Butler family, Earls of Ormond, instigated a program of reconstruction which removed the nave aisles and added a new north transept and tower.

Most of the stunning Gothic style sculpture around the Abbey dates to this period of reconstruction and renovation under the patronage of the powerful Ormond Butlers. The works were carried out under the eye of the Abbot, Philip O’Mulwanayn, and on the north wall of the chancel you can see his grave slab dating to 1463. It shows him holding his bishop’s crozier and book of prayer.

The Butlers were rewarded for their patronage by having their tombs placed inside the sacred areas of Kilcooley. The most stunning of which is the incredible tomb of Pierce Fitz Oge Butler. He is depicted in his armor, at his feet a small dog indicates his faithfulness and loyalty, and ten of the twelve apostles are depicted below.

The tomb is just one of a number of outstanding examples of medieval sculpture that you can discover at Kilcooley. For example, the beautiful east window in the chancel is ornately carved in a style known as flame tracery, and the Abbot’s Chair (known as a sedilla) is one of the finest in Ireland. Perhaps most striking of all is the sacristy wall in the south transept. Here you can see several distinctive carvings in five panels. They include a mermaid with a comb and a mirror, a crucifixion scene, an abbot and St. Christopher holding the infant Jesus.  The presence of the Butler coat of arms here is testament to their patronage of Kilcooley.