The Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are probably one of Ireland’s most iconic sites and a true natural wonder.  With evidence of human activity stretching back at least two thousand years and the recognizable backdrop appearing in films such as The Princess Bride and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, it’s easy to see why this landmark’s a must see for anyone exploring Ireland’s County Clare.

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North branch of the Cliffs, August 2011.

At their highest point, the Cliffs reach 214 meters (702 feet) before plunging straight down to the Atlantic Ocean.  But as one would expect from a signature point along the Wild Atlantic Way, the Cliffs are in a constant state of change – constant waves erode the mix of sandstone, siltstone, and shale at the Cliff’s base, causing higher levels to crumble and fall away.  For this reason, the very edge of the Cliffs is considered a protected area, and stone barriers have been erected to help prevent visitors from venturing too close to the edge.

The Cliffs are also home to mainland Ireland’s largest seabird colony, attracting thousands of pairs of breeding seabirds representing more than 20 species during the summer months.  Many of the seabirds have declining populations worldwide, further prompting sections of the Cliffs to be designated a protected area.  A worn footpath does extend past the barriers into this protective area, and visitors can cross over the barrier to reach it with little difficulty, but doing so is generally discouraged for both safety and conservation reason.

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The Cliff’s edge.  The dirt path on the left side of the shot is what we were walking on once past the barrier.

On the southern branch of the Cliffs, O’Brien’s Tower serves as a viewing platform.  Built in 1835 by Cornelius O’Brien in the hopes of bringing tourism to the area, the tower offers one of the best views of the Cliff’s northern branch, and on clear days, allows visitors to see as far as Connemara to the north and county Kerry to the south.

Hag’s Head, the Cliff’s southernmost point, is also visible from the tower, as is Moher Tower, built where a 1st century BC fort once stood.  It’s from this fort the Cliffs get their name – “mothar” means “ruined fort” in old Irish.

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View of O’Brien’s Tower from the Cliff’s Northern branch.

The hours my family spent at the Cliffs back in 2011 was definitely a highlight of our trip, even if the second half of our walk was nerve wracking for me.  I’m afraid of heights and prone to moments of vertigo, so when my family followed other tourists past the walled region of the cliffs to the protected area, I was a bit uneasy.

We didn’t push too far into the protected area, mainly due to time constraints, so I can only imagine what the views would have been like from farther out.  No matter how far we walked, the Cliffs stretched on and on, remaining hazy in the distance even though my telephoto lens.  And looking out at the Atlantic Ocean with its strong breezes, the Aran Islands clearly visible in the fair weather…  It’s a treat a landlocked midwesterner such as myself holds close to their heart, even long after the moment’s passed.

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Looking out at the Aran Islands from the Cliff’s North branch.

Admission to the Cliffs of Moher and visitor center is 6 for adults, but free for those under 16.  It’s an additional 2 for adults and 1 for children to visit O’Brien’s Tower on the south side of the cliff range.  The site is open year round from 9:00 am onward, with hours extending to 9:00 pm during July and August.


Additional Links & Resources:

Cliffs of Moher official site

Discovering Ireland:  The Cliffs of Moher

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 80-81

Ireland.com:  Wild Atlantic Way

The Wild Atlantic Way

Mountains of Mourne

But for all his great powers he’s wishful like me / To be back where the dark Mournes sweep down to the sea…”

Sometime before my first trip to Ireland back in 2011, I remember stumbling upon Celtic Thunder’s version of “Mountains of Mourne.”  Like many other songs, the words captured my imagination and even inspired my senior quote in high school.  I became overjoyed, then, when our tour guide told us we’d skirt them on our way south from Belfast, quoting the song with a grin in my direction.

Unfortunately, we did exactly that – we skirted the mountains, avoiding the more scenic routes in order to make good time.  So when my mother and I visited again this summer, we made a point to see the Mournes up close.

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Situated in County Down, the granite mountain range provides beautiful views of both the sea and forest protected by The National Trust.  Many hiking trails exist, some gentle enough for a relaxed afternoon stroll versus a more grueling endeavor.  Its tallest peak, Slieve Donard, stands at 850 meters (2,789 feet), making it the tallest point in Northern Ireland and the 19th highest peak on the island.

The Mournes have also served as inspiration for writers for centuries, ranging from Percy French’s song to the well known Narnia series by CS Lewis.

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With time getting away from my mother and me on our second visit, we ended up taking the costal route rather than a road through the mountains themselves.  Shortly after leaving Ballynoe for our bed and breakfast in Carlingford, we found ourselves sandwiched between the Irish Sea to the left and the mountains to the right.  Even when the sea gave way to Carlingford Lough, the mountains remained, dominating the landscape as we drove around their base.

And looking across the lough, at the southern arm of the mountain range, it was impossible to conjure any description better than that first penned so many years ago. 

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Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland

Down District Council:  Scenic Drives

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 123-124

Ireland.com:  The Mourne Mountains

Ballynoe Stone Circle

Anyone who’s followed my blog for a while has probably noticed my mother and I visited a fair number of megaliths on our most recent trip to Ireland. There’s just something about these ancient sites that mystifies me, whether it’s Loughcrew and Carrowmore’s cairns or the portal tombs at Proleek and Browneshill. But in large part due to GPS trouble we only made it to one stone circle, tucked away in Ballynoe.

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Like many other sites, Ballynoe was almost impossible to find. By this time in our trip, we’d learned to question every suggestion our GPS made and were quick to follow road signs, hopeful they’d see us through. Unfortunately, we were wrong – the signs led us in the right direction for a while, but disappeared without warning right when we needed them most. Left with only our GPS’s suggestion to drive through a fence and the field beyond to reach the stone circle, we decided to instead find the nearest house and ask for direction.

A kind woman quickly pointed us in the right direction, and then a man helped us again further down the road when he realized we were lost. He didn’t seem surprised at all, asking with a laugh if we were looking for the stone circle before we could say a word. Still seeming quite amused, he pointed to a small gap in the hedges and told us we’d made it.

Somewhat cautious, we pulled into the drive he’d indicated and sat for a few moments before climbing out, careful to avoid the rampant stinging nettles. It didn’t look like anyone had been through in quite some time, but when we finally found a sign stating this really was the place, we started up a small hill and entered the first field.

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The walk to the ring was an interesting experience all its own – rather than cut directly across the pasture, the path led to a sunken track through a tree tunnel. Evening light filtered in, glinting off of bells and wind chimes left tangled in the canopy. But other than the buzzing of gnats and other insects, all was silent. The path made a sharp turn and we followed, a sense of giddiness hitting me when another sign came into view at the field’s edge.

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Though the ring was somewhat obscured by uncut grass, its size still left my mother and I standing in awe for several moments.  We walked to the circle’s center for a better look, and more of the sixty-some stones became visible, peaking out from lower spots in the periphery.

My mom remarked that she felt this site was special just because it was untouched and left simply as it was – gigantic stones standing in the open, without explanation.  To stand and wonder how they’d got there, why they’d been arranged so carefully…  That was more enjoyable in some ways than listening to even the most knowledgeable guide at other sights could have been.

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We lingered in the ring for a while, soaking in the view and silence before turning back to the tree tunnel and our waiting car.  Our bed and breakfast back in the Republic was still quite a drive away, on the other side of the Mourne Mountains, but the quick break at Ballynoe was certainly worth the time spent searching for it.


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Sligo – Reflections

After multiple posts about my plans in and around Sligo, I feel it’s only fitting to dedicate a post to reflect on that part of our trip.

We arrived in Sligo around lunch time after a lengthy drive from our B&B in Galway.  Once again, our GPS favored a meandering route once we left the motorway, but I didn’t mind this time, heart and mind too caught up in soaking up every detail as we hugged Knocknarea’s base.  The rest of Sligo town sprawled below us, Benbulben looming in the distance.  We’d made it to Yeats Country at last.

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Looking out the car window at Sligo town and Belbulben in the distance.

Before setting off to see all that the town had to offer, we made our way to Strandhill per the suggestion of a local we’d met during our tour of the Gap of Dunloe a few days earlier.  She’d assured us the promenade was the best in town and the perfect place for a Yeats lover to begin their journey.

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We stopped in at The Strand Bar for some Guinness Irish Stew and were simply blown away by both the flavor and the portion size – one order would have been enough for both of us!  The meat was cooked exactly the way it should be, tender while still retaining texture, and the vegetables were too rich to want to waste a single bite.  I can certainly see why the bar boasts their stew’s famous – I know if I’m ever in Sligo again, I’ll definitely seek it out a second time.

Afterwards we walked the short distance to the promenade and ventured down to the beach along the Wild Atlantic Way.

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We couldn’t walk on the beach itself easily as there was little sand, only large water-rounded stones, but we did pick our way down worn paths through the grassy hills for a time.  Knocknarea dominated our view on the right, even more impressive from a distance.

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From Strandhill we headed back inland to see Carrowmore, the large megalithic complex I had imagined would be one of the trip’s highlights.  However, I must admit, I was a bit disappointed, especially now with Loughcrew for comparison.

We arrived shortly before a tour group did and were invited to wait for them and tag along on their guided walkthrough.  Unaware that the group was rather large, we’d decided to take the guide up on the offer but quickly regretted our decision.  We’d become used to walking at our own pace and avoiding large crowds for the most part (a definite advantage when taking photos), but with the group, we had little choice but to maintain the pace or risk missing what the guide had to say.

I’d still recommend visiting the site, especially if in the area, and do acknowledge I might have enjoyed seeing it more had we not gone with the tour group.  Even going on a cooler day might have helped – Ireland was in the midst of a heat wave, and I had been badly sunburned the previous day in the Gap of Dunloe.  But as it was, it had a very developed feel to it, especially inside Listoghil, where the rebuilt cairn’s stones were held in place by wire mesh.

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Listoghil at Carrowmore, with Queen Maeve’s Cairn on Knocknarea visible in the background.

After getting turned around once again, we decided to check in at our bed and breakfast before time got away from us.  Mary at St. Martin de Porres made us feel welcome the moment we stepped out of the car.  Originally we’d planned to merely drop in long enough to introduce ourselves and get our room keys, but Mary had tea and cookies ready and invited us to unwind a while.  It was a nice, surprising bit of calm in what sometimes felt like a constant race to do all we’d set out to accomplish, and something I’m quite thankful for.

From there, we followed the edge of Lough Gill to Slish Wood, experiencing some more GPS troubles along the way.  (A hint:  When the GPS says to drive through a barbwire fence into the lake to reach Slish Wood, don’t listen – it’s really the next left.)  But the trouble along the way was worth it, merely for the quiet beauty that awaited us.

Walking through Slish Wood reminded me of walking through the woods back home in some ways, just without the risk of my mom catching poison ivy.  But at the same time, the forest’s age is clearly evident.  Thick moss blankets most of the older trees, and barely any sunlight reached the trail.  What did filtered in through the trees nearest the lake, not through the canopy above.

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One thing puts me ill at ease about Slish Wood’s future, and feel even stronger about encouraging anyone who wishes to see it to go when they can -we found wild rhododendron bushes growing near the trail’s mouth.

It might sound strange to worry about a seemingly harmless plant like the rhododendron, but in our travels we quickly learned they crowd out native plants.  No matter where we went, if there was a rhododendron, someone was complaining about them, simply due to their invasive nature.  Ireland unfortunately provides optimal growing conditions for the plants, and due to their prolific seed production, once you have one rhododendron, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll have nothing but rhododendrons.

Slish Wood in particular, with its acidic soil due to its ancient oaks, is the perfect environment for rhododendrons to thrive.  Hopefully the plants at the trailhead won’t spread, but if they do, I believe it unlikely the woods will ever look the same again.

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With the evening quickly slipping away, we left Slish Wood behind and sought out Rosses Point.  As the woman we’d met in the Gap had said, the Point wasn’t as interesting to explore as Strandhill, but we found another wonderful restaurant to eat at for dinner.

Harry’s Bar and Gastro Pub looks right out on the bay and serves local seafood, as would be expected.  But it also handles other dishes well, as my mom learned when she tried their ribs.  Still very stuffed from lunch, I opted for an appetizer only and tried their seafood chowder.  The portion size was on the large side, filling me quite easily, all while giving a peak at what creatures lived in Sligo’s waters.

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Looking out from Rosses Point

The next morning, we made one final Yeats stop before starting our journey to the North. Skirting the other side of the peninsula, we headed to the Sligo-Letrim border, where the Glencar Waterfall straddles the two counties.  It was just as beautiful as I’d imagined it would be, the waterfall’s spray keeping the air cool and the ferns moist even with the ongoing heatwave.

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Our short walk there and back certainly became the highlight of our day, as we’d soon become so hopelessly lost we’d give up on seeing any other sights, ready to simply eat and fall into bed.


For more information about Carrowmore and following Yeats’ Stolen Child, please see my previous blog posts and their additional links here and here.  Also, many more pictures from my Sligo adventures are available on my dA account here.

Lost in Sally Gap

My mother and I quickly learned something about driving in Ireland – don’t trust your GPS to get you where you need to go.  Of course, that’s easier said than done in unfamiliar places, especially when traveling to some fairly remote sites.  Finding ourselves lost in the rural countryside became a fairly common occurrence, but perhaps the most stunning of these misadventures was our drive through Sally Gap.

Until darting in from a sudden shower at Glendalough, I’d never heard of Sally Gap.  We merely assumed the narrow road winding its way through the mountains was the only way to St. Kevin’s Monastery from Dublin.  Imagine our surprise, then, when we learned we’d taken the scenic route and could’ve beaten the rain if we’d gone a different way!

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Sally Gap is one of only two passes running east to west through the Wicklow Mountains, connecting Dublin and Glendalough.  Its views are absolutely stunning, ranging from sheer drop offs to heather-filled bogs and evergreen forests as far as the eye can see.  It’s no wonder the Gap’s also one of Ireland’s most filmed scenic locations, boasting ties to movies such as Braveheart, PS I Love You, and Leap Year.

But the road originally built by the British Army in the late 1700s remains narrow and winding.  There were multiple times during the trip I felt uneasy vertigo grip me, even from my relatively safe place in the passenger’s seat.  Getting out to walk or take pictures left me with feelings of dread, imagining what one false step could lead to.

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“Oh, Rachel! You’ve got to take a picture of this!”  “Ok.”  “No, no!  Come over here closer to the edge to really appreciate how far it goes!”  “No, I’m good.  I like life.”  “Coward.”

Later that evening at dinner with a local friend in Bray, she couldn’t help but laugh hearing about our ride – a 50 minute trip that took nearly three hours. “There’s no cell reception out there!  If you’d broken down, you would’ve had to walk for miles and hope you found a house to get help from!”

Though I know she’s right and wouldn’t want to live that nightmare, I’m glad we found our way to that lonely stretch of road.  The views took our breath away more often than not and made for one last surprise before driving back to the airport the next morning.


If you wish to see more of photos from Sally Gap, please check out my dA account here.


Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Ireland: Sally Gap

Wicklow Tourism: Sally Gap

Proleek Dolmen & Court Tomb

The sights at Proleek were another unexpected treat during my latest trip.  I hadn’t heard of the dolmen or court tomb prior to the trip, and only learned about its existence after my mother made an offhand comment to our B&B host at The Highlands, Marie, that I seemed determined to drag her to every megalith in Ireland.  Marie took interest immediately and asked if I’d heard of the dolmen just 15 minutes away.  When I shook my head, she assured me she’d have directions for us in the morning.

The site, she explained, is kept somewhat a secret due to its location.  Rather than on a remote hilltop like Loughcrew, or out in the middle of a field like the Browneshill Dolmen, Proleek sets in a very ironic spot – the middle of a golf course owned by a high-end hotel.

That’s right – a 5,000 year old sacred site now can only be reached by dodging golf balls. But the hotel provides easy access to visitor, even if they don’t advertise their hidden attraction.

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Still tired from our long drive the night before, my mom decided to rest in the car and sent me on down the trail alone.  It had a different feel to it than walking to Loughcrew, less like stepping back in time and more like setting off on an ordinary stroll down well manicured garden paths.

I passed several golfers on my way to the dolmen (and even more signs reminding visitors to watch out for golf balls), but met no one else on the path.  After wondering if maybe I’d somehow taken a wrong turn, I rounded one last corner and the court tomb came into sight.

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The sign beside the site offered no information, merely a reminder to keep off the grass.  And though small compared to other megaliths, it left me renewed and eager to push onward.

I didn’t have to wait much longer to see the dolmen, however, as it came into view almost as soon as the court tomb fell out of sight.  The concrete path curved around the dolmen before circling back, allowing me to look at it from every angle without stepping on the hotel’s golf course.

Unlike the court tomb, the dolmen did have a signpost that told a little about the site.  It explained that Proleek gets its name from a word meaning obscure, because not much is truly known about it.  It’s suggested a cairn might have once covered the monument, though no evidence of one has been found.

It’s also worth noting that the site has been altered – one of the portal stones has been reinforced with concrete and smaller stones sometime since the dolmen’s discovery.  And, if you look closely at the capstone, you’ll notice a number of smaller stones.  Local superstition holds that if you toss a stone on it and it stays, you’ll be married within the year.

Proleek Dolmen

Unfortunately, even after returning to the States, I’ve not been able to find much information about either the dolmen or the court tomb.  Multiple sites refer to Proleek as being one of Ireland’s most easily recognized dolmens, but little else is ever said.  The site lives up to its name in that sense, retaining obscurity in even such an open, modern space.


Admission to both the dolmen and court tomb is free during daylight hours.  However, as these sites are on the hotel’s grounds, please remember to be respectful and stay on the designated walkways.

If you wish to see more of photos from Proleek, please check out my dA account here.


Additional Links & Resources:

Ancient Ireland: Proleek DolmenCourt Tomb

Discover Ireland: Proleek Dolmen

Megalithic Ireland: Proleek

Mythical Ireland:  Proleek

Loughcrew

Looking back on this trip to Ireland, my time at Loughcrew was perhaps the most unexpected highlight. It was the last Neolithic site of our trip, the last of several ancient stone circles and similar sites, and yet by far the most impressive, even if just for its location.

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Panoramic view from my hike to Loughcrew.

Loughcrew sits on the Slieve na Calliagh hills, the highest point in County Meath.  The site originally included approximately 30 cairns with some estimates dating them back as early as 4,000 BC.  Thus, it’s widely accepted the cairns are at least 5,000 years old.

Two of the hills, Carbane East and Carbane West, hold the largest concentration of individual cairns.  Of these, Cairn T and Cairn L are the most complete and, like Newgrange, are illuminated for short periods of time each calendar year.  Cairn T aligns with the spring and autumn equinoxes (Ostara and Mabon, respectively), while Cairn L corresponds to sunrise on Samhain and Imbolc.  The other cairns, now mainly visible as stone circles, are also believed to have corresponded with certain days, leading to the theory that the monuments were used to mark time rather than burry the dead.

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The illuminated back stone of Cairn T, spring equinox 2005.  Image Credit:  Knowth.com.

Cairn T on Carbane East is open to the public and managed by the Irish Office of Public Works.  However, Carbane West is situated on private land, making Cairn L inaccessible to most visitors.

Unlike Carrowmore in Sligo or Newgrange fifty minutes to the east, Loughcrew boasts no visitor center. Travelers, instead, start their journey at the bottom of the hill in a nondescript parking lot. Or, like me, even farther down the hill at a small café I mistook for the visitor’s center at first glance.

Ireland’s rains finally made their appearance as we reached the café, leading my mom to decide I should go to the site on my own.  So after a quick word to get direction from the serving staff, I was off, hood thrown up to keep the rain from soaking me to the bone.

A staircase cut into the hillside greeted me when I reached the site’s empty parking lot, quickly giving way to open pasture.  The way to Cairn T is clearly marked – I merely followed the trail up the gentle slope.  Before too long – definitely not the 45 minutes the serving staff had mentioned – I saw a small capstone come into view.  No one had mentioned this smaller site in my previous research, so I was thoroughly confused.  It felt too small to be the right site, but with the rain and wind buffeting me this way and that, I made up my mind to quickly take some pictures and head on back down.

Quickly, I knelt and got out my camera, tucking it inside my raincoat so the casing wouldn’t soak and ruin. I had to run a dry cloth over the lens every few shots to keep the rain at bay all the same, but it gave me a chance to look around some more.  Then I noticed the trail continued, turning sharp enough to the left that I hadn’t noticed at first.  The dolmen was all I’d focused in on, nothing more.

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I couldn’t see where the trail led, as it disappeared near the top of another hill, steeper than the part I’d climbed so far.  But with nothing to lose except a few more dry patches, I repositioned my camera bag and kept climbing.

The rain eventually slacked then died away completely.  As I looked out on the surrounding hills and valleys, all was veiled in beautiful hazy mist.  And still the path led on.

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Looking back down the path.  The structure in the distance is the capstone pictured above.

Finally, a fence came into view, the gate unlocked.  I couldn’t help but giggle and let out a small shout, certain I was still alone.  Cairn T sprawled out before me, the remains of other cairns clearly visible near it.

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I wandered around the perimeter of the site for a while, simply looking on in awe before I approached the main cairn.  One of the two government workers at the site noticed me then, and I followed him around Cairn T’s base to its entrance, where I met his coworker.  She was busy pulling their information booklet and tickets out of the cairn – the rain had caught them off guard, and expecting everyone to turn around to wait the shower out they’d decided to store their equipment there.  They seemed quite surprised when I showed up!

We talked for a few minutes about the site and how my trip had gone thus far, then she asked if I wanted to go inside and handed me a flashlight.

I have a tendency towards claustrophobia, and am afraid of both the dark and being buried alive, so I didn’t stay inside the cairn for very long.  But I’m definitely glad I did – the overwhelming sense of awe at the cairn’s existence and the mystery surrounding its purpose leave me with chills even now.

After returning the flashlight, I wandered around the site a while longer, alone for the most part.  I felt a sense of fulfillment, like a major chapter of our trip had come to a close.  I’d only known of Newgrange’s illumination when I started the trip, but to see it repeated again and again across Ireland, from Listoghil at Carrowmore to Cairn T and Loughcrew…  That’s something that will stick with me and fuel my novels onward.

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As I made my way back to the gate, I noticed other tourists had climbed the hill while I explored.  The silent spell passed, and with one last look at the cairn, I made my way back to the car, ready for the next adventure.


Admission to Cairn T is free.  OPW employees are on site from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm daily during the summer months.  However, it is possible to see the cairn during other parts of the year – simply visit the café at the bottom of the hill and ask for the key.  You’ll need to leave your driver’s license as a deposit, but there is otherwise no fee.

If you wish to see more of photos from Loughcrew, please check out my dA account here.


Additional Links & Resources:

Heritage Ireland: Loughcrew

Ireland Legends & Folklore, pages 172, 190-191

Loughcrew Tombs website

Knowth – Loughcrew Megalithic Cairns

Megalithic Ireland: Loughcrew Passage Tombs