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Republic of Ireland: A Historic Path

Unique among European nations, Ireland has treasured and protected its ancient past, and its mysterious stone circles, cairns, and huge stone tables called "dolmens" are still to be found, perfectly preserved, in pastures and on hillsides all over the island. These are precious connections to our own long-lost pasts, as they provide a window through which we can catch a hazy glimpse of what life was like very long ago. Some of the oldest tombs predate the Egyptian pyramids by centuries, and, in many cases, the sites are preserved but their meaning has long since disappeared, making them intriguing and elusive in equal measures. Exploring these rocky symbols can be the most memorable part of any trip to Ireland.

Day 1: Knowth & the Boyne Valley

After an early breakfast, head north to the rich rolling Boyne Valley, about an hour's drive north of Dublin off the N2, to the Brɐ na BɃinne Visitor Centre -- the essential center of an extensive Neolithic burial ground. This huge necropolis holds numerous sites, with three open to visitors -- Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Register at the center to tour Newgrange first -- a tour here, early in the day before it gets crowded, is spectacular. Next, tour the burial ground at Knowth, with its extensive collection of passage-grave art. In the afternoon, head down the N3 to the Hill of Tara, where mounds and passage graves date to the Bronze Age.

Day 2: Cȳide Fields

It will take a couple of hours to drive to the remote location in north County Mayo, but your efforts will be rewarded at this extraordinary ancient site. It holds the stony remains of an entire prehistoric farming village on top of a cliff with breathtaking views of the sea and surrounding countryside. Spend the day exploring the 5,000-year-old site, and lunch in the excellent visitor center.

Day 3: County Sligo

In the morning, drive east to County Sligo. On the N4, south of Sligo Town, visit the Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery, on a hilltop overlooking Lough Arrow. It has wide, sweeping views, and its 14 cairns and dolmens are often very quiet early in the day -- with luck you might have it all to yourself. Then head on to Sligo Town, and follow signs to Carrowmore. This extraordinary site has 60 stone circles, passage tombs, and dolmens scattered across acres of green pastures, and is believed to predate Newgrange by nearly a millennium. In the afternoon, if you're feeling energetic, climb to the hilltop cairn of Knocknarea nearby -- it's believed to be the grave of folklore fairy queen Maeve.

Day 4: Inishmurray Island

After a relaxing morning, travel by boat to the island of Inishmurray off the coast of Sligo. There you can spend the day wandering the impressively complete remains of the early monastic settlement founded in the 6th century. You can still make out its chapels and churches, its beehive cells and altars. If the weather is fine, pack a picnic lunch, and eat on the sunny beach.

Days 5 & 6: Skellig Michael

Right after breakfast, head south to County Kerry, where this starkly beautiful Ireland sits 13km (8 miles) offshore, standing sternly as a kind of memorial to the hardy souls who once eked out a living amid its formidable cliffs and stony mountains. Deeply observant early Christian monks punished their bodies by living here in miserable conditions, and spent their days carving 600 steps into the unyielding stone, so that their walk up to their beehive huts and icy chapels could be made somewhat safer. Today it is an unforgettable landscape, and the ruins of their homes are deeply evocative and profoundly moving. A trip out here by boat, and an afternoon's exploration, will take up much of the day. Once you return to the mainland, reward yourself with a relaxing evening in Kenmare.

Day 7: Glendalough

Drive east today to County Wicklow, where the evocative ruins of the monastery at Glendalough are so large and sprawling, spread around two peaceful lakes on the side of a mountain, that they can fill your entire day. Get a map and information from the visitor center before beginning your exploration of the round towers, chapels, and huts dotted around the wooded site. Don't miss the ancient chapel known as St. Kevin's Kitchen. If the weather is warm, bring your lunch and picnic by the lake.

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