Revealing the hidden charms of our ancient land
The latest figures suggest Ireland's tourism industry is thriving, as a new book uncovers 150 forgotten ancient monuments.
This year is still young, but it already looks like being a bumper one for Irish tourism. Official figures just released show the number of visitors from overseas has rocketed by 7.3pc since last year, with more than 1.3 million trips made to these shores in the first three months alone. Tourist numbers from North America have jumped by 6pc, no surprise given that a new survey by TripAdvisor says Ireland is in the top three 'dream destinations' for Americans.
Tourism Ireland plans to capitalise on our popularity by marketing some of our top tourist attractions abroad. But while landmarks such as Newgrange and Blarney Castle may be on many visitors' list to see, a new book shows this country has countless undiscovered ancient treasures, which have a unique charm of their own. And you don't have to join the back of a long queue to experience them.
Fiona Reilly and her husband, Tarquin Blake, have compiled a list in a new book, Ancient Ireland – Exploring Irish Historic Monuments. And Fiona passionately believes that visitors from home – and abroad – should make an effort to see them, before they disappear forever.
One of Fiona's favourite hidden gems is Struell Wells in Co Down and her description of it in its heyday would put the goings-on at any Electric Picnic or Oxegen festival in the shade.
It was once said to have been visited by St Patrick, who stood in the water, stark naked, singing psalms and spiritual songs. Then every midsummer in olden times, a thousand people would have flocked to the wells every day to bathe in their waters, which were said to contain miraculous powers. Huge crowds also gathered in the hope of witnessing a miracle. It led to a party atmosphere and the holy wells became anything but holy.
"All sorts of shenanigans went on," explains Fiona. "Tents were put up and whiskey was for sale. People believed you couldn't commit any new sins when you were there at midsummer. All sorts of drinking and debauchery went on and riotous orgies were not uncommon," she says.
"In the late 1800s the Catholic Church decided enough was enough and a bishop had the field in front of the wells ploughed up so people could no longer erect their tents. The gatherings – and all the scandal that came with them – died out then."
Fiona and Tarquin have spent time visiting, photographing and researching the history of 150 sites across the 32 counties. Some, like Kilmainham Gaol and the Hill of Tara, are well known, but others are bound to be far more mysterious. And Fiona found the more popular heritage sites weren't always the most interesting.
She is intrigued by Carrowkeel Passage Tomb, which lies on an isolated hillside in Co Sligo. The extensive Neolithic passage tomb was excavated in 1911, but has been undisturbed ever since. "It's a really special place," Fiona says. "It's made up of about 20 cairns scattered over the mountain-side and is probably the remains of a village. One of the cairns even has a roof-box over the door, similar to Newgrange, to let the light in during the summer solstice. It's a bit eerie when you go in first, but it's really magical."
"Monuments like Carrowkeel haven't been commercialised in any way," she adds. "You really do feel you could be the first person to visit them since they were closed up. You don't feel that at Newgrange any more."
Putting together this book was a labour of love for archaeologist Fiona and her photographer husband Tarquin, both Co Cork-based.
"We've always loved going around sites of historical interest. It's what we did at the weekend for enjoyment," she says. "It struck us that there were so many beautiful sites that were easily accessible and people didn't seem to know a lot about them, so we decided to put this book together. We've travelled the length and breadth of the country and spent a year doing the photography. We even took some of the photos on our honeymoon."
She admits that working together so closely did result in some heated moments at first, but eventually the couple found their respective viewpoints balanced each other out. "I was trying to be too academic," she says.
"Archaeologists tend to talk about what was found at a site and to forget about the people who once used it. Tarquin would focus on humanising things as much as possible, by researching the folklore."
Fiona admits that some of the sites are a little spooky, but she's yet to encounter the ghosts of any of the characters associated with them – even the more formidable presences like Máire Rua, whose spirit is said to live on in Leamaneh Castle in Co Clare, another site featured in the book. In the 1640s, she and her husband built a large four-storey gabled house onto a 15th century tower house.
"There are lots of interesting stories about Máire Rua," says Fiona. "She's known for bumping off the odd husband by pushing them out of one of the windows of the castle. Apparently the locals had enough of her at one stage and locked her up in a hollow tree.
All of the locations featured in Ancient Ireland – Exploring Irish Historic Monuments are sites taken care of by the State. They range from megalithic tombs to round towers, monasteries, castles, ancient churches, as well as Martello towers and windmills.
Fiona fears that the importance – and even the very existence – of these sites will fade from people's memories as the years go on.
"We're becoming more urban," she says. "Stories used to be passed down through the generations and those stories would help people feel more connected to their homes and keep people in tune with their past. As people move away from their home areas, the stories aren't being passed down any more. It's so important to point out that these sites are accessible to the public and most of them are free," she says.
Many of the monuments show that past generations had a sense of humour, like those who used the Tirkane Sweat House in Co Derry. The 18th century building was used to treat ailments like rheumatism. "People would light a fire inside to heat up the whole structure.
"Then they'd put the fire out and someone would undress and crawl in to sweat it out, before emerging to cool off in a nearby stream," says Fiona. "The doors were often blocked up with the person's clothes while they were sweating it out. It was a very popular trick to take the clothes down and run off with them while their poor owner was inside."
Irish tourism — who is visiting our shores?
According to new figures from the CSO:
More than 1.34m tourists visited between January and March
That’s an increase of 7.3pc on last year
Trips from Britain increased by 11.5pc
Visitor numbers from Spain, Germany and Italy were also up significantly
There was a 6pc hike in numbers from the US
Tourism from outside Europe and the US rose by 17.5pc
ANCIENT IRELAND - EXPLORING IRISH HISTORIC MONUMENTS BY TARQUIN BLAKE AND FIONA REILLY IS OUT NOW