Holy Ireland: A religious site itinerary for heritage lovers

Visitors exploring an ancient holy stone fortress overlooking the ocean on a clear day with islands in the background.

Ireland is unique in the sheer wealth of sacred sights it offers. You can seemingly find a religious site around every corner, and with them, gripping ways to connect with the country’s history and culture through a more spiritual lens.

Ready for a holy holiday? We’ve compiled some of the most unmissable religious spots across nine of Ireland’s counties, along with places to stay nearby. Take a look.

County Donegal: Lough Derg

Station Island in Lough Derg has been a pilgrimage destination and religious site since at least the 12th century, named for local legend which claims that the lake is “Dearg” (Gaelic for “red”): reddened by the blood of the last serpent of Ireland, which St. Patrick is said to have slain here. Over the past 150 years, over two million people have visited the holy island to take part in a variety of one to three day pilgrimages, and it’s due to this that Lough Derg is still considered to be one of the most religiously significant places in all of Ireland today.

Love the lough theme? Wrap up your visit at Lough Derg with a night or two at Rathmullan House, a quaint four-star hotel overlooking Lough Swilly. This tranquil locale is one you’ll want to visit again and again, as evidenced by the hotel’s many regular visitors who credit the hotel’s friendly staff and individual charms among the reasons they so often return. The Tap Room, which opened in 2014, has already been recognised by the McKennas Guide as one of the top 100 places to eat in all of Ireland, as well. Don’t miss it.

County Kildare: Moon High Cross and St. Brigid’s Sacred Sites

St. Brigid´s Cathedral, Tower, High Cross

In Moone stands the second tallest High Cross in Ireland. Unique in shape, the cross consists of three parts, each with their own story to tell. The upper part and base were discovered in the graveyard of the abbey in 1835, and re-erected as a complete cross – however, over fifty years later (in 1893) the middle section of the shaft was discovered, and the cross was then reconstructed to its original size. Now standing at 17.5 feet, the cross resides within the remarkable ruins of a medieval church, believed to have been founded by St. Palladius in the fifth century.

There’s far more to see in County Kildare, too: particularly if you travel there in early February. Mary of the Gael – the patroness of Ireland – has a five-day festival dedicated to her by the Brigidine Sisters here, which involves a pilgrimage to St. Brigid’s Well, a peace and justice conference and more. Even if you don’t make it to the festival, there are still lots of sacred sites to explore in this area – including St. Brigid’s Cathedral and Round Tower, the latter of which is Ireland’s highest accessible tower of its kind.

After busy (but satisfying) days, enjoy peaceful nights at Barberstown Castle. Conveniently close to Dublin, this majestic property is a brilliant base for your Ireland trip. Its 55 rooms each reflect the castle’s heritage while catering to contemporary needs: a fusion of old and new influences that are bound to inspire every culture lover. Time to relax.

County Wicklow: The Seven Churches of Glendalough and St. Mary’s Church Gowran

Churches of Glendalouogh

If you’re a fan of the outdoors as much as you are a fan of a religious site or two, a trip to Glendalough should definitely be on your list. The “valley of the two lakes” is rich with incredible scenery, archaeology, wildlife and history, including its very own “Monastic City”. In the sixth century, St. Kevin lived here as a hermit in isolation, but accumulated so many followers that a city was required to house them. Much of this still remains – and is collectively referred to as The Seven Churches of Glendalough – including the cathedral, round tower, and a church that was referred to as St. Kevin’s Kitchen.

St. Mary´s Church Gowran

Close by, explore the one-of-a-kind site, St. Mary’s Church Gowran. Built in the late 13th century, this church was originally served by a “college” – clerics who lived together but didn’t follow the rules of a monastery. See elaborate medieval tombs and impressive ruins on an in-depth tour of the carefully-restored building, and pass a riveting afternoon before making your way back to your hotel for the night, Rathsallagh House.

The sightseeing aspect of your day doesn’t stop when you step through the doors of this hotel. Archaeological evidence suggests that Rathsallagh has been continuously occupied for at least 3,000 years, though it was first recorded in 1172-76 when it was listed as a farm belonging to Glendalough. By the early 1200s, the estate passed into the control of laymen, and by 1326 the earls of Kildare rented Rathsallagh for 70 shillings “and two pounds of wax”! Now, of course, it acts as a hotel for historic travellers, with perks such as a delightful restaurant and spa.

County Tipperary: Rock of Cashel and Holy Cross Abbey

The Rock of Cashel, with its well preserved ecclesiastical remains, is one of Ireland’s most spectacular landmarks. There’s so much to see: a 12th-century round tower, high crosses, a Romanesque chapel, a 13th-century Gothic cathedral, a 15th-century castle and the restored Hall of Vicars Choral, to name a few. For the people of Ireland, the Rock of Cashel serves as a reminder of spiritual strength and Irish courage – and it’s a place you’ll want to see at least once in your lifetime.

photo credit: Dermot13 on Wikimedia

Just 15 kilometres away, you mustn’t miss Holycross Abbey. It’s believed that the physical remains from the cross on which Jesus was crucified had made their way here in the 12th century, and after being preserved elsewhere for a number of years, returned to the abbey where it was joined by similar remains. The relic of the “True Cross” made Holycross one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Ireland during the Middle Ages, and – rich with history and folklore – it now functions as a truly memorable religious site.

After so much activity, you’ll probably be feeling like a little luxury. Cue, No.1 Pery Square. This boutique townhouse is one of the country’s most characterful hotels, with rooms named after Irish poets and writers, an “organic urban spa” and picturesque placement on the verge of the tree-filled People’s Park. There’s a lot to love.

County Cork: Timoleague Abbey

Timoleague Abbey

On the bank of the River Argideen and overlooking a glittering bay, Timoleague Abbey occupies an enviable slice of the Irish countryside. Within, you’ll find several fascinating corners to explore, like mysterious wall passages, tall arches and a typical Franciscan bell tower. The cellars are also an interesting sight. One of them leads to an outbuilding which would have opened up onto the river, which would have received fish and other goods back in the abbey’s heyday.

Between its centuries of remarkable history and gorgeous offerings, Fernhill House is a worthy contender for your place to stay. Further – through its food and gardens – the hoteliers have masterfully captured the magic of West Cork. You’re sure to make some marvellous memories. Elsewhere, there’s the charming Blue Haven Hotel or Old Bank House, both based in the town of Kinsale.

County Kerry: Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael (or “Michael’s Rock”) is a steep rocky island about 15 kilometres west of the coast of County Kerry. It’s the larger of the two Skellig Islands, and for 600 years, was an important centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. If you’re willing to brave a difficult walk, you’ll be well-rewarded. An Irish Celtic monastery is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Here, the monks lived in stone “beehive” huts, perched above nearly vertical cliff walls. Skellig Michael illustrates – as no other religious site really can – the extremes of Christian monasticism.

Back on level ground and overlooking Kenmare Bay, travellers can book a room at Park Hotel Kenmare: winners of The Historic Hotels of Europe Best Spa Award in 2013. Indeed, a spa visit will probably be just what you’re after following your demanding hike up Skellig Michael, and this hotel promises to revive you with its healing and therapeutic treatments. If you’re staying for a few days, there’s lots to do, too: the hotel’s leisure facilities include a huge pool, sauna and 18-hole golf course.

County Mayo: Croagh Patrick and Ross Errilly Franciscan Friary

Croagh Patrick Mountain

Croagh Patrick was a sacred place long before the arrival of Christianity. It was regarded as a main site for the harvest of Lughnasa, and women visited the summit to encourage fertility. Early Christian stories tell of Saint Patrick spending 40 days and nights on the summit, banishing snakes, dragons and pagan demons. Currently, it’s estimated that almost one million pilgrims take on the climb to the summit each year, with as many as 40,000 making the trek on the last Sunday in July, often barefoot.

Ross Errilly Francisan Friary

Founded around 1460, Ross Errilly Franciscan Friary is well worth seeing. It’s one of the most impressive and complete Franciscan friaries, with particularly well-kept domestic buildings and two large chapels on its grounds. Thanks to the remarkable way in which this religious site has been preserved, visitors can immerse themselves in the spirit of the place: picturing what it would have been like to serve as a friar within its walls, encased by the rolling Irish countryside.

Sightseers have two extraordinary hotels to choose from in this county, too. Ice House Hotel gets its name from once being a 19th-century ice store, though it now functions as an ultra-modern and chic haven for travellers from all over the world. Treat yourself to a Heritage Suite to enjoy “monsoon” showers, cast-iron baths and other luxurious features.

Alternatively, there’s Renvyle House Hotel. Located on 150 acres of land – including a private lake, beach, woodlands and more – it’s a great option for outdoorsy types. Its restaurant leaves nothing to be desired, either. Managed by an award-winning chef, you can choose from a range of tantalising dishes, many of which are made with ingredients from the kitchen’s own gardens and orchard.

County Sligo: Drumcliffe and Sligo Abbey

The picturesque village of Drumcliffe belonged to a family of monasteries, and its spiritual origins can still be felt today. Pay special attention to the village’s High Cross – on the road towards the church – which includes engravings of Adam and Eve, unusual animals and more – before you pay your respects to the poet W.B Yeats, who’s laid to rest in the church’s graveyard.

Sligo Abbey

If ornate carvings are a particular interest of yours, Sligo Abbey should be the next religious site on your agenda. This landmark was founded over 700 years ago, and contains Gothic and Renaissance tomb sculptures along with the only sculptured 15th-century high altar in any monastic church in Ireland. Damaged over the years by fire and rebellions, legend claims that worshippers at the abbey salvaged its silver bell and threw it into Lough Gill, and that only those who are free from sin can hear its heavenly chime.

Coopershill House is like something out of a storybook. Find it at the end of a winding woodland road, surrounded by pastures that occupy dozens of deer. Built in the 1700s, the hoteliers have taken great care to ensure the historic atmosphere of the house has been retained, which is why you’ll find original antique furniture and TV-free rooms throughout, enabling you to truly disconnect and unwind.

County Galway: Kylemore Abbey and Clontuskert Augustinian Priory

Kylemore Abbey

Against a stunning backdrop of cliffs and trees is Kylemore Abbey, an eighteenth century home and 1900s Benedictine monastery that grows more beautiful with each year. Aside from the house itself, visitors can explore the nearby Victorian walled gardens and Gothic church, primed for inspiring fantasies of the past. Guided hikes above Kylemore Abbey are available, too, and offer some of the best views in the whole of Ireland.

Clontuskert Priory, Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert on Wikimedia

Close by, more ruins await. Clontuskert Augustinian Priory sits within the medieval territory of Hy Many. Resplendent with impressively-restored architecture, and having passed through many hands and famous families – including the O’Kellys – there’s plenty to see and to learn at this religious site.

Afterwards, you can once more choose to stay at the nearby Renvyle House or take a regal route with a room at Gregans Castle. This oasis of Irish hospitality is the ideal spot for foodies, as the onsite restaurant has won several awards, including three rosettes from the AA for “culinary mastery and excellence” in 2018 and the RAI Restaurant of the Year “Best Hotel Restaurant” award in 2017. Are you (and your tastebuds) ready?


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