Donegal offers a perfect mix of history and mystery and is in itself Ireland's own hidden gem. There are over 2000 archaeological sites and monuments in Donegal, 2000! To put this figure in perspective, imagine if out of all the night clubs in Ireland 10% of them were in Donegal, that's what we're talking about here, the place is literally rife. We love this kind of stuff at mng - mind blowing hidden gems and facts about our history and early christian heritage. Who better to quiz on such topics than the man who has been studying the lore and legends of Colmcille for over 40 years, Dr. Brian Lacey. I met with up with Brian recently in Dublin and we got to talking about about his favourite historical destinations. Here's 6 of them:
1 - Croaghan Hill - It is the equivalent of the Tara of Donegal.
Situated between Lifford, Castlefin and Raphoe, Croaghan Hill is of huge importance in terms of mythology, history and archaeology. In legend it was the place where in the 5th century King Conal, who gave his name to Tir Chonaill (more or less Co. Donegal) divided up the territories of the county and made the headquarters of his family. On top of and all around the hill are many archaeological sites and monuments. The hill overlooks the River Finn and the land around it is some of the most fertile in Ireland. That fertility was the source of the wealth that made Conal's family (Cenél Conaill) one of the most important in early Irish history with at least three of the first people to be called 'kings of Ireland' coming from this dynasty.
. Cross Slab at Fahan:
At Fahan on the shore of Lough Swilly, is a small graveyard which contains a number of features dating back to the early medieval period. Among these is a an elaborate cross slab which has beautiful intricate carvings on both sides. It's roots are carved down to the earth with the branches reaching up high, as if connecting heaven and earth. The cross is also famous because it has the oldest inscription in Greek language anywhere in Northwestern Europe. Some of the design features of the cross are similar to stone carvings from the Pictish areas of North Eastern Scotland and there is said to have been some kind of treaty between the Picts and the rulers of Inishowen in the 8th Century.
2 - Shalwy Valley - Killybegs & Kilcar:
This is a small valley running down to the coast that lies between Killybegs and Kilcar, just where the underlying geology changes from limestone to quartzite. The valley contains three important neolithic (stone age) tombs. The top tomb (Bavan) is beside the road to Glencolumcille/Kilcar but sadly much of it has been destroyed but the other two are magnificent structures. Called court tombs - because they had a little courtyard where ceremonies would have been held -, they date back to appox 4,000 to 3,500 BC, that's 1,000 years before Stonehenge was built! They were constructed by the first people who practised agriculture in Ireland - the first farmers - who used the extra wealth they were able to generate to build these magnificent structures which have lasted for more than 5,000 years.
4- Ray Cross, Ray Church, Falcarragh: (mng's favourite site of all!)
The largest early medieval stone cross - High Cross or Celtic Cross - in Ireland. The folklore of the cross says that St Colmcille made it with the intention of bringing it to Tory island. However the Ray cross almost certainly dates back to the end of the 8th century and was modelled on Saint John's Cross on Iona which is usually understood to be the first of the ringed crosses of the Celtic world. However, the ring on Saint John's Cross was a secondary feature to give support to the arms, whereas the ring on the Ray Cross is an original feature. This makes the Ray Cross probably the oldest of the ringed crosses in Ireland. Several of the abbots of Iona in the 7th and 8th centuries came from this area of Donegal.
4 - Cead Imeacht Colmcille, Gartan Lake:
Around the beautiful Gartan lakes, there are a whole series of sites that reflect the very early years of one of Ireland's best known saints. Among these is a sacred secret place called 'Céad Imeacht Cholmcille'. On a piece of bare natural rock are two small marks cut in the rock, these are said to be imprints of the very first footsteps Colmcille took as a baby. The whole district oozes ancientness as it was the birthplace of Saint Colmcille (St Columba 521-593AD). He was an Irish abbot and missionary, credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and cultural institution in the region for centuries.
At the head of the harbour on Tory Island is a large stone cross with a peculiar shape. It is known as a Tau Cross. Tau crosses are very rare in Europe – In Ireland there are three. The one on Tory is the largest and most distinctive – the legends of Tory Island say it was Saint Colmcille that erected the cross, but it is possible it was not erected until late medieval times possibly by Franciscan monks who used the Tau Cross as a symbol. Either way it is a sight to behold as you arrive on the magical Island of Tory. Rumour has it there will be some sort of celtic/medieval style matchmaking event in Tory this September, stay tuned to mng for details. shhhhh.
What do you think of those apples? Isn't it just amazing? If you want to dig in to more of this kind of thing and would like to spend time with Dr. Brian Lacey, check out the Connecting Colmcille Tour in August 2015. Or contact mng and we will design a personalised tour or holiday tailored around our abundance of archaeology or adventure, self guided or locally guided. You decide. We've got it all here in Donegal.