As destination for pilgrims, Holy Cross Abbey, near Thurles, County Tipperary, has a rich history. Pilgrims travelled here for eight centuries to venerate the relic after which the abbey and surrounding villages are named – a piece of the True Cross of Christ’s crucifixion.
Today this working parish church is a peaceful landmark and a place for quiet contemplation and historical discovery. As well as inspecting the relic of the cross, you can marvel at the building’s ornate stonework. The chancel is possibly the finest piece of fifteenth-century architecture in the country. The abbey also houses one of the only surviving medieval wall paintings in Ireland.
Scattery Island Centre
Off the northern bank of the Shannon Estuary lies Scattery Island, the site of an early Christian settlement founded by an extraordinary man.
St Senan, who was born in the area, built his monastery in the early sixth century. It included a mighty round tower, which at 36 metres is one of the tallest in Ireland.
There are six ruined churches on the site too. The Church of the Hill stands on a high spot, the very place where, legend has it, an angel placed Senan so that he could find – and then banish – the terrible sea-monster called the Cathach. It is believed that Senan is buried beside another of the medieval churches.
Scattery was invaded many times over the centuries. The Vikings in particular believed that the monastery held many riches and returned several times to ravage it.
A short boat trip will take you to the island, where you can explore its multi-layered, 1,500-year history.
The O’Briens of Thomond, who once ruled much of north Munster, founded this medieval Franciscan friary. It grew quickly into a huge foundation, with 350 friars and a famed school of 600 pupils by 1375. It was the very last school of Catholic theology to survive the Reformation.
The building contains an exceptional wealth of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sculptures carved in the local hard limestone, including one of St Francis himself displaying the stigmata. An arch between the nave and transept bears a remarkable image of Christ with his hands bound.
Don’t forget to visit the sacristy, an impressive structure with a ribbed, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Take especial note of the beautiful east window, with its five lancets, as it lights up the chancel.
St Audoen’s Church
Nestled in the heart of the walled medieval city of Dublin, St Audoen’s Church is the only remaining medieval parish church in the capital. It is dedicated to the seventh-century bishop of Rouen and patron saint of Normandy.
St Audoen’s Church was crucial to the life of the medieval city. Here papal bulls were pronounced and public penances carried out. The Guild Chapel of St Ann houses an award-winning exhibition on the importance of St Audoen’s to medieval Dublin.
Visitors to St Audoen’s can examine the part of the church still in use by the Church of Ireland. They can also view the stunning fifteenth-century tomb to Baron Portlester and his wife.
The magnificent Skellig Michael is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Republic of Ireland.
On the summit of this awe-inspiring rock off the Kerry coast is St Fionan’s monastery, one of the earliest foundations in the country. The monks who lived there prayed and slept in beehive-shaped huts made of stone, many of which remain to this day.
The monks left the island in the thirteenth century. It became a place of pilgrimage and, during the time of the Penal Laws, a haven for Catholics.
Following in the monks’ footsteps involves climbing 618 steep, uneven steps. Getting to the top is quite a challenge, but well worth the effort.
As well as the wealth of history, there is a fantastic profusion of bird life on and around the island. Little Skellig is the second-largest gannet colony in the world.
No less a figure than St Brendan the Navigator was born in the Ardfert area in the sixth century. He founded a monastery there not long before embarking on his legendary voyage for the Island of Paradise. It was Brendan’s cult that inspired the three medieval churches that stand on the same site today.
The earliest building is the cathedral, which was begun in the twelfth century. It boasts a magnificent thirteenth-century window and a spectacular row of nine lancets in the south wall.
One of the two smaller churches is an excellent example of late Romanesque architecture. The other, Temple na Griffin, is named for a fascinating carving inside it – which depicts a griffin and a dragon conjoined.
Anyone with a passion for architecture will find Ardfert Cathedral well worth a visit.
In a tranquil valley in the village of Fore, about a 30-minute drive from Mullingar in County Westmeath, you can visit the spot where St Feichin founded a Christian monastery in the seventh century AD.
It is believed that, before Feichin’s death, 300 monks lived in the community. Among the remains on the site is a church built around AD 900. There are also the 18 Fore crosses, which are spread out over 10 kilometres on roadways and in fields.
Seven particular features of the site – the so-called ‘Seven Wonders of Fore’ – have acquired legendary status. They include: the monastery built on a bog; the mill without a race (the saint is said to have thrust his crozier into the ground and caused water to flow); and the lintel stone raised by St Feichin’s prayers.
St Feichin’s Way, a looped walk around the site, provides an excellent base from which to explore these fabled places.
This Cistercian monastery was founded c. 1200 by William, Earl Marshal on lands held through his marriage to the Irish heiress, Isabella de Clare. This abbey, founded as a daughter-house of Tintern Major in Wales is often referred to as Tintern de Voto.
The nave, chancel, tower, chapel and cloister still stand. In the 16th century the old abbey was granted to the Colclough family and soon after the church was partly converted into living quarters and further adapted over the centuries. The Colcloughs occupied the abbey from the sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth.
Conservation works have included special measures to protect the local bat colonies. The abbey is set in a special area of conservation and is surrounded by woodland within which are walking trails. Not to be missed is the restored Colclough Walled Garden situated within the old estate.
Glendalough Visitor Centre
In a stunning glaciated valley in County Wicklow, in the sixth century, one of Ireland’s most revered saints founded a monastery. The foundation of St Kevin at Glendalough became one of the most famous religious centres in Europe.
The remains of this ‘Monastic City’, which are dotted across the glen, include a superb round tower, numerous medieval stone churches and some decorated crosses. Of particular note is St Kevin’s Bed, a small man-made cave in the cliff face above the Upper Lake. It is said that St Kevin lived and prayed there, but it may actually be a prehistoric burial place that far predates him.
Learn all about this hallowed place in the fine interpretive centre before exploring the site for yourself. If you do, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the two lakes and a uniquely spiritual atmosphere.
St. Mary’s Church Gowran
This church was built in the late thirteenth century as a collegiate church and was served by a college - clerics who lived in a community but did not submit to the rule of a monastery.
The church was patronised by the Butler family and many early family members are commemorated here with elaborate medieval tombs. The impressive ruins were decorated by the Gowran Master whose stone carvings are immortalised in the poetry of Nobel Laureate Séamus Heaney.
The once medieval church was later partly reconstructed in the early 19th century and functioned as a Church of Ireland church until the 1970’s when it was gifted to the State as a National Monument. Today the restored part of the church preserves a collection of monuments dating from the 5th to the 20th centuries.
Take a free in-depth tour in the company of one of the church’s famously engaging guides.