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The best hidden gems in Ireland

The best hidden gems in Ireland

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois Game of Thrones fans will relish the atmosphere of this ruined fortress on a rocky outcrop, which dates from at least the ninth century. It was here that Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster, brought the wife of the rival King of Breifne, after kidnapping her, an event that precipitated the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. On a clear day you can see the Timahoe round tower to the south, the Wicklow mountains to the east and the Slieve Bloom mountains to the west, but even when the skies are hazy, the views are majestic. Scenes from the Amy Adams film Leap Year (2010) were shot here. Moone High Cross, County Kildare Ireland's high crosses were the blackboards of the Celtic Christian age and the stories on them can often still be seen today. The 5.3-metre-high granite cross at Moone stands inside the ruins of a medieval church. One of the panels shows Abraham about to kill his only son, Isaac, on God's orders. You can see the angel behind him saying: "No, Abe, don't do it! Kill this lamb instead." That was a hugely symbolic tale when it first appeared, because it showed people that Christianity was a new sort of religion, in which human sacrifice was not on the menu. When Saint Patrick visited Moone, he was so unimpressed by his reception that he placed a curse decreeing that no man born in Moone would ever become a king or a bishop - and none ever has, so far. Timoney Stones, County Tipperary If you want to be truly baffled by the ancients, try these 200 or so standing stones randomly spread through cattle-speckled pastures in the hills of north Tipperary, near Roscrea. The stones vary in height from 30cm to two metres and have neither identifiable pattern nor purpose. There's also a circle of 16 stones with a diameter of nearly 70 metres in nearby Cullaun. A further 90 standing stones and five cairns also stood here but were later destroyed. You'll need permission from the farmer to walk on his land but this should be irresistible for anyone game on to solve a megalithic mystery. Leenane-Delphi-Louisburgh drive, County Mayo The drive from Leenane through Delphi to Louisburgh is one of the most beautiful road trips in Ireland, with the light bouncing off Doo Lough and leaping into every crevice and bump of the Sheeffry hills and the Connemara mountains beyond. Known as Fionnloch (White Lake) in Irish, the name "Delphi" was coined by the Marquess of Sligo, a pal of Byron, who owned the land here. The journey reminded him of a visit to the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. Complete your journey with a pint in Campbell's at the foot of Croagh Patrick and then onwards into the always lively town of Westport. Caves of Kesh, County Sligo It is said that the first people who settled in Ireland arrived on the north-west coast in present-day County Sligo. It's certainly an exceptional county in terms of stone age monuments, such as Queen Maeve's cairn and the Neolithic necropolis of Carrowkeel. The Caves of Kesh are profoundly hypnotic. There are 16 caves of varying size runnign along a white ridge in the side of a mountain, crowned by the passage tomb of Keshcorran. It's a steep climb but there is no finer place to watch the setting sun. The sensation that mankind has stood in this same spot for a thousand generations is overwhelming. Dursey cable car, County Cork Dursey Island is a walkers' paradise, celebrated for its nesting colonies of seabirds, the eminently climbable Cnoc Bólais hill and a signal tower built over 200 years ago to keep watch for Napoleon's fleet. But for most visitors the outstanding memory is how they got there: a 10-minute journey across open sea on Ireland's only cable car. And it's not just people the cable car carries: sheep and cattle are frequent fliers, too. If you are Dursey-bound, try to get there as early as you can. The Jealous Wall, County Westmeath What would you do if your despicable brother built a house directly opposite yours? For the Earl of Belvedere, the only solution was to block it from sight by building a massive wall. Deliberately ruinous in style, this is the largest folly in Ireland and stands in the grounds of Belvedere House, where the same loathsome Earl locked up his wife for 31 years after accusing her of adultery with another brother. As well as the restored mansion and its gardens, there's a cafe, shop, picnic areas and other follies to explore. Huntington Castle and Temple of Isis, County Carlow Several worlds collide at this enchanting and offbeat Jacobean castle in the pretty village of Clonegal. The gardens outside offer divine peace amid burbling streams. Songbirds chatter in the intertwining branches of a yew walk planted over 500 years ago. A grand tour through the diminutive castle culminates in the former dungeon, now a shrine to the Fellowship of Isis, a cult founded in 1976 by the present owners' grandfather Lawrence "Derry" Durdin-Robertson and his sister, Olivia, to promote the female aspect of divinity. The Temple offers a kaleidoscope of incense-scented mayhem, where golden centaurs and exotic urns sprawl alongside zodiac drapes and musky shrines to the Virgin Mary, Lakshmi and other female icons. Gowran Races, County Kilkenny If you enjoy horses, plan your itinerary around a visit to an Irish race meeting. One of the most atmospheric racecourses is Gowran Park, near Kilkenny City, which opened in 1914 and hosts top-class National Hunt and Flat racing throughout the year. The course is a right-handed undulating track one mile and four furlongs long. The stand boasts excellent views across the racecourse to the Blackstairs mountains, the bookies are friendly and fun, the food hits the spot and the drink flows appropriately. The Denny Cordell Stakes in September makes for a particularly fine day out. River Blackwater, County Cork There is something deliciously old world about the Blackwater, which rises in the mountains on the Cork-Kerry border and flows for 100 miles before reaching the sea at Youghal. The final stretches between Cappoquin and Youghal are particularly fine, the banks supporting several Georgian mansions and ruined abbeys. These waters were once frequented by Sir Walter Raleigh, Mayor of Youghal, and other ruff-wearing Elizabethans, who sailed to the New World from here. If the weather and tides are in your favour, hire a kayak or take a cruise on amateur historian Tony Gallagher's boat the Maeve Óg. Mussenden Temple and Downhill House, Castlerock, County Derry, Northern Ireland On the north-west coast of Ireland stands a remarkable pair of buildings. The cliff-side Mussenden Temple is a folly that was modelled on the Temple of Vesta in Rome and built for the Earl Bishop of Derry (one of Lord Bristol's eccentric forbears), in 1785. It is dedicated to the lady he loved. He reputedly made portly members of his clergy run along Benone Strand and swim in the sea. They must gained fitness because Benone is one of the longest and finest beaches in Ireland, sheltered from the Atlantic winds by a rugged ridge of sand dunes. Just beside the temple are the epic 18th-century ruins of Downhill, the Earl Bishop's enormous mansion, upon whose lichen-stained walls great works by Rubens and Raphael once hung. The House of McDonnell, Ballycastle, County Antrim This is a proper old world classic (the interior was last revamped in 1870) - Bakelite switches and coat hooks beneath the counter, a keyhole clock that gongs above the bar, shelves of bottled miscellany, distillers' mirrors, daylight filtering in through red Bristol glass. There are some useful modern touches though, not least somewhere to sit. "I took over from an aunt who didn't approve of stools," says current landlord Tom O'Neill, whose family has been running the pub since its opening in 1766. "She reckoned it meant people would sit around too long." This gem is only open on Friday evenings (with a traditional music session thrown in) and all day Saturday.

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