The Republic of Ireland has a well-deserved reputation for beautiful landscapes and ancient monuments, so you might be surprised to learn that it has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are the Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne, which includes megalithic sites such as Newgrange that boast the world’s largest collection of prehistoric megalithic art, and Skellig Michael, a 7th century monastery on an isolated island.
Impressive sites, both of them, but surely the Emerald Isle has more to offer?
The Irish have decided to remedy this poor showing and have proposed seven sites or groups of sites for the UNESCO tentative list. Here’s a brief rundown:
The Burren: both a geological and a cultural landscape, The Burren on the west coast presents an imposing terrain of exposed limestone carved into weird shapes by the wind and rain. Nowadays it attracts hikers and other outdoorsy types, but in early times it attracted a succession of cultures that grazed their animals there and left more than 2,700 monuments. Still used by locals for their flocks, a large body of myth and folklore has grown up around this unique landscape.
The Historic City of Dublin: Ireland’s capital has a well-preserved historic center full of Georgian-era buildings. These eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings are some of the finest of their type. Add to this generations of writers (Swift, Sheridan, Wilde, Stoker, Yeats, Beckett, etc.) and the fact that it’s the setting for James Joyce’s Ulysses, and you have one of the cultural capitals of the world. Dublin is full of atmospheric views, like the one caught here by user patrodz from Gadling’s flickr pool. You can even go on a literary pub crawl of Dublin.
The Céide Fields and North West Mayo Boglands: It’s strange to think that an entire Neolithic landscape, complete with boundary walls, farm fields, and monuments could survive intact for almost 6,000 years, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. Much of the landscape is buried under a thick layer of peat that preserves organic materials such as pollen, leather, wooden tools, even human bodies. It’s been the playground of archaeologists for generations, and every year new discoveries are made.
Western Stone Forts: a network of Early Medieval (700-1000 AD) ringforts, circular stone walls that defended the homes of the petty rulers whose lands made up a patchwork of kingdoms on the island. These were dangerous times of constant raiding and brigandage, and regular folk made ringforts too. These Western Stone Forts are on a more grandiose scale than those of the commoners and are often better preserved, such as the impressive stone fort at Dún Aonghasa.
The Monastic City of Clonmacnoise and its Cultural Landscape: This monastic city in central Ireland has yet to be swallowed by the juggernaut of modern “development.” Founded in 545, it became a major center of arts and learning and a royal burial site. There are many churches and a castle still standing.
Early Medieval Monastic Sites: Ireland is famous for its early medieval monasteries that helped keep the lamp of learning lit after the fall of the Roman Empire. While books such as Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization exaggerate the Irish role (the Byzantines and Arabs helped preserve and enhance Classical learning too) there’s no doubt that Irish monks were one of the bastions of culture during a low period in European history. Six monasteries have been chosen for the tentative list owing to their historical importance and degree of preservation.
The Royal Sites of Ireland: Ireland spent much of its medieval history as a group of small kingdoms whose borders constantly fluctuated due to the fortunes of war. The competing royal families gave rise to a rich body of literature and folklore. Five royal sites have been chosen for the tentative list. They are Cashel, Dún Ailinne, Hill of Uisneach, Rathcroghan Complex, and the Tara Complex. Each was a royal center for one of the great royal houses of medieval Ireland.
An impressive list. Here’s hoping UNESCO recognizes their global cultural value. There’s a downside to this, however, as was recently pointed out in the latest issue of Northern Earth magazine. which advised, “Go now–if they get listed, they will enter the tourism industry and become subject to inflation and packaging!”