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Republic of Ireland: The Best of Ancient Ireland

  • Newgrange (County Meath): Poised atop a low hill north of the River Boyne, Newgrange is the centerpiece of a megalithic cemetery dating back 5,000 years. The massive mound and passage tomb were constructed, it seems, as a communal vault to house cremated remains. The tomb's passage is so perfectly aligned with the solstice sun that the central chamber, deep within the mound, is illuminated for several days at the winter solstice.

  • Hill of Tara (County Meath): Of ritual significance from the Stone Age to the Christian period, Tara has seen it all and kept it all a secret. This was the traditional center and seat of Ireland's high kings. Although the hill is only 154m (512 ft.) above sea level, from here you can see each of Ireland's four Celtic provinces on a clear day. The site is mostly unexcavated and tells its story in whispers. It's a place to be walked slowly.

  • Loughcrew (County Meath): At this little-known site, not far from Newgrange, a series of cruciform passage tombs crown two hills. On the east hill, a guide unlocks the door to one of the domed tombs, answering your questions with a personal touch not possible at the larger sites. More rewarding, however, is a hike up the west hill to a second, more solitary series of tombs where you can make your own imaginative reconstruction.

  • Lough Gur (County Limerick): This lakefront site will convince you that the Neolithic farmers of Ireland had an estimable sense of real estate. Inhabited for more than 4,000 years, the ancient farming settlement offers a number of prehistoric remains. The most impressive of these is the largest surviving stone circle in Ireland, made up of 113 stones.

  • Dɐn Aengus (County Galway): No one knows who built this massive stone fort, or when. The eminent archaeologist George Petrie called Dɐn Aengus "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe." Facing the sea, where its three stone rings meet steep 90m (295-ft.) cliffs, Dɐn Aengus still stands guard today over the southern coast of the island of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.

  • Carrowmore and Carrowkeel (County Sligo): These two megalithic cities of the dead (Europe's largest) may have once contained more than 200 passage tombs. The two together -- one in the valley and the other atop a nearby mountain -- convey an unequaled sense of the scale and wonder of the ancient peoples' reverence for the dead. Carrowmore is well presented and interpreted, while Carrowkeel is left to itself and to those who seek it out.

  • Navan Fort (County Antrim): There is no longer much remaining here to reflect the great past of this fort, though it was once the ritual and royal seat of Ulster. Thankfully, the interpretive center here is nothing short of remarkable, and it offers a great introduction to the myth and archaeology of the fort, known in Irish as Emain Macha.

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