Ireland's mighty monuments are an extraordinary feat of prehistoric architecture

Older than recorded history, the great pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, Ireland's magnificent megaliths — the mighty stones — are an extraordinary feat of prehistoric architecture.

These Neolithic monuments are scattered across the country – linear chambers to the dead that pay tribute to the deities of the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars. And anyone can visit.

They're a homegrown tourist attraction etched in stone, and they draw kings and queens, gawping politicians and the occasional rock star.

"Since prehistoric times people have acknowledged their special nature, an unbroken link from ancient sun-oriented monuments to the present," writes author Christine Zuchelli in Stones of Adoration, Sacred Stones and Mystic Megaliths of Ireland.

"Some are considered the abodes of deities or otherworld ladies, some are memorials to mythical heroes and historical kings, others are reminders of the miracles of early saints."

After the darkest night of each year, the light of the rising sun shines through the entrance of a mound in County Meath, and illuminates the length of a man-made passage and stone chamber hewn back into the mountain.

As it has done for more than 5000 years, on the first day of the winter solstice, this precise beam shines onto a flat altar stone placed at the back of the passage and as the sun rises in the east, its rays flood the chamber, its glow and warmth illuminating a series of Stone Age engravings. The spotlight moves diagonally to highlight another etching – and then, after less than an hour, the light is gone.

There are four main types of megalithic monument: chambered cairns (also known as passage tombs or passage graves) with between 300 and 500 in the country. Court cairns, (court tombs), about 400, dolmens (portal tombs or cromleacs), some 190 examples, and wedges, around 400 monuments. The fifth much smaller group, called Linkardstown cists, are not very common.

Although well-known sites such as Newgrange and Tara, less than an hour away from Dublin, attract thousands of international visitors  – with demand so high to witness the winter solstice sunrise, entry is done by lotto — many Neolithic sites aren't so famous, and in the off-peak months you stand a good chance of being the sole visitor.

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In Sligo, clambering inside solitary cairns on a lonely mountain, even your breath quietens as you creep deeper into the dark to crouch inside, away from the rain, kept dry by an intricacy of stones that are like a passageway back through time.

Touch the grey layers of sandstone and limestone at a Burren passage tomb in County Clare, and get goose bumps as you feel the strength of an ancient race that could haul into place capstones weighing up to six tonnes to form stone talismans that were once the spiritual and social heart of the communities that lived here.

And they were responsible for intricate monumental forms of burial architecture.

There are three distinct styles of these megalithic tombs: Court — generally wedge shaped, portal — simpler upstanding stone formations, and — most impressive — passage tombs where burial took place in the central chambers with cremation favoured over inhumation.

The spiral patterns found inside some of these ancient stone talismans are similar to the shapes people describe when they hallucinate. Some say this shows the ancients liked to get high – possibly aided by mushrooms or opium poppies – and sit inside the chambers.

"We think they were using hallucinogens to travel to other worlds," says Dr Carlton Jones, an academic from California, author of Temples of Stone.

There's no written record or design to tell us what these Neolithic sites truly represent, but they did work to a template, and the results are a powerful legacy for many visitors.

"I felt like weeping when I stood inside the passageway – it's quite an emotional sight," says Dublin visitor Joan O'Sullivan, who is here with her 12-year-old grandson, Ruairi, who lives in Australia.

There are hundreds of megalithic sites across Ireland to see. Here are the pick of the bunch.

Newgrange (the most famous of all)

Where The Newgrange visitor centre is two kilometres west of Donore village on the south side of the river Boyne, about 45-60 minutes' drive north of Dublin. Newgrange is a popular destination, and tickets are first come, first served.

The experience Newgrange is a heart-shaped mound covering half a hectare and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, large boulders averaging three tonnes apiece, It's estimated this tomb took up to 50 years to build – Neolithic people had a life expectancy of 30 years. Newgrange predates Stonehenge by a thousand years and there are many theories as to how a people with no machinery managed to drag the white quartz stones that make up the outer wall from Wicklow (80 kilometres south) and the granite cobbles from Rathcor (50 kilometres north). Bru Na Boinne, the great passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, are said to be the finest examples of their type and resonate with insights into the organised and highly skilled Neolithic people who built them – often travelling more than 80 kilometres to collect stones to decorate their landmarks as ritualised testimony to the living and the dead.

See heritageireland.ie/en/midlands-eastcoast/brunaboinnevisitorcentre/

Loughcrew (Hill of the Witch):

Where Oldcastle, Co Meath. There are 32 cairns (the mounds of stones on top of passage tombs). Like other passage graves, some have clear astrological alignments.

The experience The Loughcrew Cairns date to 3000 BC and the best known of them, Cairn T has a 10-tonne roughly hewn stone known as the hag's chair which is the witch's seat, and few venture up to see its ghostly white shape after dark. "Most locals wouldn't come up here at night," admits our guide Fechin Heery. During the vernal and autumn equinox (March 20-22 and September 20-22) sunlight enters the chamber and illuminates the interior. On a clear day, you can see 18 of Ireland's 32 counties from this site. There are fantastic Office of Public Work tour guides in summer, but in winter you can obtain the key from the nearby cafe at Loughcrew gardens for a refundable deposit. Free entry.

See loughcrewmegalithiccentre.com/loughcrew-cairns/

Poulnabrone

Where The iconic portal tomb of Poulnabrone, whose four side stones and delicately balanced capstone make it look like a giant's house of cards.

The experience The tomb is instantly recognisable from postcards and travel brochures. It's much more than mere decoration, as archaeologists found when they repaired one of the cracked side stones. Hidden beneath the rocks were the remains of at least 33 adults and children buried inside the tomb at The Burren, Co Clare, on Ireland's west coast. Free entry.

See burrengeopark.ie

Queen Medbh's tomb, Co Sligo

Where The tomb sits high above the town on a mountain named Knocknarea (Mountain of the Moon). You can't miss it, but it's signposted between Sligo town and Strandhill.

The experience Called the "ultimate monument", spectacular cairn visible from afar.

Like most tombs, this one has a story attached: Medbh (Maeve) killed her sister, who was a rival for the attentions of a local chieftain. She was later attacked by a vengeful nephew, who shot a hardened piece of cheese from his slingshot, hitting the queen on the head and killing her. She is said to be buried standing up in the cairn, in full armour, holding her shield and spear.

Free entry but you'll pay in sore muscles for the steep climb

See megalithicireland.com

Cloghanmore court tomb, Co Donegal

Where The nearest town is Carrick, via Glencolumbkille

The experience The circular tomb in a boggy Donegal valley has stone walls rounding like arms on each side that wrap around the forecourt leaving only a narrow gap for the entrance. Entry is free.

irishmegaliths.org.uk/donegal.htm

Labbacallee wedge tomb, Co Cork

Where The nearest town is Glanworth. Turn east at southern edge of village, drive for two kilometres. Tomb is beside road.

The experience A thick-walled wedge-shaped tomb. Leaba caillighe (Labbacallee is the English approximation of the Irish name) translates as the bed of the hag, and one of the bodies found in this tomb was of a woman whose body and head were buried in separate chambers. Entry is free.

See megalithicireland.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/ireland

ireland.com

newgrange.com for tours and booking as groups are kept small.

FLY

Etihad flys from Sydney and Melbourne to Dublin, with a brief stop in Abu Dhabi. See etihad.com

STAY

Rockfarm, a self-catering farmhouse in Slane, with beautiful river walks, right beside a castle, is a great base to trawl the more than 400 nearby Neolithic sites in Co Meath, just an hour away from Dublin.

This eco farm uses fantastic bio-dynamic techniques so you can buy delicious fresh eggs daily and wave hello to the cute and curious pigs and piglets and rescue horses. For the adventurous and well insulated, there's even a huge, natural outdoor pool. From $190 a night for families of four.

See: rockfarmslane.ie

DINE

The farm has a fantastic kitchen to make your own meals, but Slane offers a great bakery, a good deli offering meats and dairy from Rockfarm, and family-friendly restaurants including Coyningham Arms. See conynghamarms.ie

Amanda Phelan travelled at her own expense and with some assistance from Tourism Ireland, Rockfarm and Enterprise car hire.

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