Ireland is a land rich with mystery and myth, intriguing sites and stories - and we're not just talking leprechauns and pots of gold.
From the ancient seat of the Celtic High Kings, to the Mountain of the Witch; from the Celtic severed head ritual to the warrior Queen Maeve’s tomb, there are countless Irish mystical sites waiting to be explored, all of which have tales of pagan Celtic warriors, fairies and magic associated with them.
Here, we take you through a tour of some of Ireland’s most magical mythological sites:
Stop 1: The Boyne Valley: Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Hill of Tara & Hill of Slane, Co. Meath
Brú na Bóinne (the Boyne Palace) spreads over Counties Meath and Louth. The Boyne Palace contains some of the most important historic sites and monuments in Ireland, including the massive, ancient passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, the pagan headquarters of the Hill of Tara and the legendary Hill of Slane.
The Main Attraction: Newgrange
Newgrange is Ireland's most famous prehistoric site. As with most of the passage tombs in Ireland, archeologists believe that it was built around 3200 B.C., which means that Newgrange predates the construction of Stonehenge in England and the Pyramids in Egypt.
Newgrange was built so that during the winter solstice (dawn on the shortest day of the year), a narrow beam of sunlight illuminates the floor of the chamber at the end of the long passageway for about 17 minutes.
Celtic myth says that Newgrange is a fairy mound, or a sidh. A group of ancient people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, or “people of the goddess Danu,” dwelled there. Newgrange was built by the god Dagda and named for the goddess Boann.
Some say that the famous Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn was conceived in Newgrange.
Access to Newgrange begins at a visitors' center, from where you can take a guided tour of the site. The center hosts a re-enactment of the winter solstice at Newgrange through the use of electric lights situated within the tomb. A lottery is held annually for tickets to be allowed into the tomb during the actual event.
The Great Mound at Knowth is the second of the three major passage tombs in the Boyne Valley. Built over 5,000 years ago, the mound is younger than Newgrange, but older than Dowth. Knowth is similar in size to Newgrange.
The mound has two passages (unlike Newgrange, which has one), with entrances on the east and west sides. Recent scientific data says suggests Knowth had a lunar function when it came to ancient rituals.
Knowth is best known for its impressively large collection of stones carved with Neolithic art, which comprises a quarter of all known Neolithic art in Europe.
It is said that a noblewoman named Bua is buried at Knowth, and a “great hill” was built up over her, creating the Great Mound at Knowth.
You can access the Knowth site through a guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Center.
The third passage tomb site in the Boyne Valley is Dowth, or the “Fairy Mound of Darkness” (sounds appealing, eh?). It is similar in size to Newgrange and Knowth, and like the two complexes, was built 5,000 years ago.
The Dowth mound has two small passages, both located on the western side. Like Newgrange , the southernmost passage of Dowth is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice.
Dowth is not included in the Brú na Bóinne Visitors Center tour, and you cannot enter inside the tomb, but you can directly access it (it’s a short way from the Slane to Drogheda road) and meander around the peaceful site.
Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara, also in the Boyne Valley, is the ancient seat of power in Ireland, and contains over 30 visible ancient monuments, including the Stone of Destiny and the Mound of the Hostages.
The Hill is said to be the actual seat of the High Kings of Celtic Ireland and the sacred dwelling place of the gods.
It is believed that St. Patrick went to Tara - the most powerful Celtic pagan site - in order to confront the religion of the Celtic pagans.
One of the most famous monuments at Tara, the Stone of Destiny, is known as the Lia Fáil. The stone, which is thought to be a symbol of fertility, once stood in front of the passage tomb at Tara, the Mound of the Hostages. High King legend says the Stone of Destiny would sing and roar in praise if it approved the inauguration of a worthy high king.
The megalithic passage tomb at Tara, the Mound of the Hostages, is the oldest monument of the site. Evidence of at least 200 individual cremations have been uncovered at the mound.
Engravings within the tomb are thought to represent the sun, moon or stars as religious symbols, and one of the stones may have been used as a prehistoric calendar.