Christianity has a long history in the Republic of Ireland, having graced its shores as far back as the 5th century when Palladins (Ireland’s first bishop) arrived to spread Catholicism among the Celts.
It was during this early period (400-1200 AD) that vast religious buildings started sprouting up across the land, often designed in Benedictine, Franciscan and Augustinian styles. These sites weren’t just places of prayer, however, they were also social hubs, checkpoints and gateways to Ireland’s towns and villages, meaning today’s visitors can now discover a time capsule of medieval history.
Getting There & Around
Direct flights go from many UK airports to Dublin. Flight time is from one hour; fares from £26 return. Regular ferries also go to the capital from Holyhead, north Wales (three hours; from £79 one way), and Liverpool (seven hours; from £59 one way).
Dublin is linked by a rail network that covers the country, with a four-day Trekker Pass offering unlimited train travel. A Leap Visitor Card allows free travel on all buses, trains and trams within the capital.
Dublin may be the gateway to the Republic, but the capital has its own marvels. The 12th-century St Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the icons of medieval Ireland, and still the country’s largest church. Others have not been so lucky, though. The 9th-century St Mary’s Abbey was once a vast estate until Henry VIII dissolved it in 1539. Today, its two surviving rooms are visitable beneath the streets of the city centre.
Further exploration reveals Dublin’s Viking past, when raids and Norse settlements occupied the Irish coast. The finest legacy of this era (800-1170AD) is Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest building in Dublin, founded in 1030 AD by the Hiberno-Norse king Sitric Silkenbeard (albeit later rebuilt). Look for St Michan’s, too, the former site of a Norse chapel now famed for its crypt full of mummified remains.
Outside the capital, religious sites often used to mark pit stops along medieval routes. South of Dublin lies the 30km St Kevin’s Way, winding the weather-beaten Wicklow Mountains NP to the monastic city of Glendalough.
Meanwhile, Kerry’s old pilgrimage trail of Cosan na Naomh winds the12th-century monastic ruins of KilmaIkedar, set on the scenic, windswept Dingle peninsula.
Ireland isn’t short of piety sites, from Tipperary’s vast Rock of Cashel complex to Offaly’s 6th-century Clonmacnoise monastery and the strange ‘beehive’ retreats found on Skellig Michael (and seen in Star Wars), off the coast of Kerry. Exploring them reveals not just their own history, but that of Ireland itself.