Ireland’s ancient past whispers from its ruins, fallen remnants of war and religion, fragments of communities that flourished centuries ago.
Quiet here, at Kells Priory. So quiet you can hear the sheep tear the grass as they graze. Birds flit about the massive stone walls, chirping and tweeting.
Birds and sheep only, where once hundreds of people lived and worked and prayed. But those throngs have been gone for about 450 years. They left crenelated walls encircling the shells of several buildings, with guard towers marking the corners.
Amid the chunks of fallen stone, dandelions and smaller flowers dot the grass. Walls of buildings that may date to the 12th century reach so high that windows have been cut on six levels. Livestock were kept in a wide courtyard bounded by the outer walls.
Archaeologists report that the fragments still standing define a mill, an infirmary, a brewery. Over there was a graveyard, over here are cellars, above are the arched windows of a large chapel.
Few visit now because of its isolated location, about nine miles from Kilkenny, a bustling town of about 23,000. But the Kells is almost a ghost town. On this Wednesday in May, I have all the ghosts, their buildings, the sheep and the birds to myself.
It is far different at the dramatic Rock of Cashel, urban Kilkenny Castle and the wooded, former monastic village that is Glendalough. Also ancient sites, they must have better press agents, for though their stories are different from that of the Kells, the other places are not more intriguing to anyone with an imagination.
Ireland is filled with such centuries-old places, remnants of successive invasions and notable religious developments. They give us clues to life when inland settlements grew up in the shelter of castle walls and monastery towers, and simple people eked out a living from the soil or livestock bartered among themselves and with passing traders.
These stone walls also protected the inhabitants from the arrows and battering rams of invaders and rebellious locals.
The briefest of looks at other worthy destinations:
▪ The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most photographed landmarks. The ruins are in an excellent state of partial restoration, with work progressing as governmental funds are allocated, and the site is spectacular.
When construction started early in the 12th century, the bishop-king of the region set Cashel (it means stone fort) atop a limestone hill that suddenly juts about 200 feet above surrounding plains. Cashel’s round tower, church and castle buildings make for a striking and much-visited scene.
▪ An undistinguished village nestles below the Rock of Cashel, but a true town surrounds Kilkenny Castle, making its riverside location less imposing.
Originally the site for a castle started in 1172 by the great Norman leader Strongbow, this structure was renovated several times and now resembles a 17th-century chateau. The interior rooms open for touring have been refurbished in a Victorian motif. The No. 1 tourist site in this ancient town, the castle draws about 345,000 visitors a year.
▪ Kilkenny has grown up all around its castle, but the ruins of Glendalough (GLEN-duh-lock) sit in quiet splendor in a lovely valley.
Forests and brilliant yellow gorse form the backdrop, and a swift stream is one of the boundaries for the monastery, founded in the 6th century. It drew thousands of faithful over the centuries, until falling into ruin about the time Columbus was heading toward the New World.
Most of the original buildings are gone or are mere foundations, but Glendalough has one of Ireland’s great round towers (102 feet high), which were typical of the ancient Christian communities and served as bell towers, lookouts and landmarks for pilgrims.
Also at the site, a graveyard contains timeworn Celtic crosses, and nearby paths lead to two lakes, from which the site takes its ancient name.
As restful as its setting is, Glendalough suffers from its proximity to Dublin — less than 20 miles to the north — so that by noon on weekdays, it can be awash in irreverent schoolchildren on field trips and busloads of tourists.
Weekends, the site belongs to daytrippers out for a picnic in the country.
Not such a bad way to embrace history.
Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the Tampa Bay Times.
Travel information: www.ireland.com
Kells Priory: www.visitkilkenny.ie/kells_priory
Kilkenny Castle: www.kilkennycastle.ie
Rock of Cashel: www.cashel.ie