The Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Giant’s Causeway are all tourist attractions that are frequently on tourist wish lists, and to be honest, they should be. They are all fantastic attractions.
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But what about those destinations in Ireland that might not be as well known?
Ireland on a Budget is all about showcasing the lesser-known places and tourism-related businesses that are often overshadowed by the bigger travel brands.
Here are 8 overlooked destinations in Ireland that are worth visiting.
Explore Ancient Abbeys in North Mayo
A series of monasteries that emerged along the banks of the River Moy between the towns of Ballina and Killala in North County Mayo tells a story of both resilience and destruction.
The monasteries in this area of Ireland are not unlike many of the other monastic sites scattered throughout the country that were all dissolved by Henry VIII to increase the income of the Crown and to fund his military campaigns.
Indeed, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a decree that was made between 1536 and 1541 resulted in the closure of monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries across England, Ireland, and Wales.
What makes this group of monasteries worth visiting, however, is their location.
A trail in the area known as the Monasteries of the Moy Greenway highlights the Christian heritage of the region as well its natural beauty.
Cyclists or walkers can follow the path of the River Moy, passing Moyne and Rosserk abbeys along the way, the Killala Round Tower, where St. Patrick is said to have spent some time, as well as the Augustinian Abbey near St. Muredach’s Cathedral, and The Priory of the Holy Cross at Rathfran outside of Killala.
The route starts in Belleek Woods located in the town of Ballina and will take you through the forest and its off-road tracks and trails, perfect for exploration.
The cycle incorporates two stretches of greenway linked by a quiet off-road route that will bring you up close to the Rosserk and Moyne Abbeys, both of which were constructed during the 15th century.
Cruising Ireland’s Waterways
Seeing Ireland’s beautiful countryside and its ancient heritage sites by boat is an often overlooked activity that many tourists who are eager to see Ireland by car or public transportation don't often think of.
The Shannon-Erne Waterway is a popular destination for boating enthusiasts and for those who want to see Ireland a little differently.
You can begin in County Fermanagh along the 39-mile (63 km) route that also takes in County Cavan, eventually connecting with the River Shannon in Leitrim.
Along the way, explore villages like Belleek on the banks of the River Erne, the home of Belleek Pottery and known for its distinctive Parian china.
The Lough Erne region contains many small islands and peninsulas, as many as 90 of them in Upper Lough Erne and 109 in Lower Lough Erne.
Devenish Island contains one of the finest monastic sites in Northern Ireland.
It includes a round tower that dates from the 12th century as well as the walls of the oratory of Saint Molaise, the founder of this 6th-century Christian site.
If you’re a lover of ancient history, there’s plenty to keep you enthralled in the region. Carved stones from as early as 800 A.D. are still visible on Devenish and Lough Erne’s other secluded islands.
The Crom Estate, a National Trust Property, is another not-to-be-missed attraction before crossing into the Republic of Ireland on the border between Fermanagh and Cavan.
The most secluded part of this beautiful waterway is when you enter Co. Leitrim. The scenery is absolutely stunning in this region.
At Lock 4, be sure to stop off and visit the Glenview Folk Museum, where you’ll find over 4,000 artifacts and exhibitions depicting early 20th-century life in Leitrim.
Contact Discover the Shannon for more information on booking your Shannon-Erne Waterway cruise.
Discover the Island of the White Cow
Inishbofin Island off the coast of Connemara in County Galway is not nearly as well-known as its neighbors about 42 miles (69 km) to the south (the Aran Islands).
The island belonged to the O’Flaherty clan until 1380 when the infamous seafaring O’Malleys captured it.
The most notable attraction on the island is called Cromwell’s Barracks in an area of Inishbofin known as Port Island.
The star-shaped fort, built by Oliver Cromwell, was where captured Catholic priests were kept during the period in Irish history known as the English Statute of 1655, which declared them guilty of high treason.
They were housed in the barracks and then transported to the West Indies or other English-owned colonies.
Traces of Grace O’Malley’s lost castle, believed to have been built opposite the barracks, was found a few years ago.
O’Malley and her ally Spanish pirate Don Bosco may have built the fortress and then stretched a chain boom across the harbor to trap and loot ships with valuable cargo trying to enter it.
The island eventually fell to the British.
This Special Area of Conservation, a known breeding ground for endangered birds, is perfect for walking, cycling, or horseback riding on the beach.
Along the coast, you’ll also find two seal colonies, one near Stags Rock and the other near the island of Inishgort, about a mile west of the Inishbofin Harbour. Unfortunately, the second one is only accessible by boat.
Visit the World’s Second-Oldest Working Lighthouse
Imagine the Anglo-Normans arriving on the shores of southeastern Ireland in the 12th century guided by a beam on the Hook Head Peninsula.
The beam is believed to have been the first warning beacon for sailors plying the nearby waters in the early days of Ireland's conquest by the Vikings and later the Normans.
It was erected by St. Dubhan, a Welsh monk who established a church in the area during the 5th century.
The beacon was maintained by the monks for 700 years until the current lighthouse was constructed in the 12th century by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, making the Hook Head Lighthouse the world’s second-oldest working lighthouse.
A guided tour of the lighthouse recounts all of this and more.
Climb the 115 steps of its spiral staircase for views across Wexford’s rugged coastline and then listen as costumed guides take you back in time through Wexford’s medieval history.
The lighthouse visitor center offers a number of themed group tours, including a sunrise and sunset tour experience, a Seafood Banquet Tour Experience, and a Fish and Chip Supper Tour Experience.
The lighthouse and visitor center are open year-round.
Explore Lough Gur, Ireland’s Lesser-Known Archaeological Site
There is plenty of evidence that humans have been living around Lough Gur since about 3,000 B.C.
The Grange Stone Circle, which is the largest one of its kind in Ireland, as well as a dolmen, are located near the lake, in addition to the remains of at least three crannogs.
Stone Age houses and a number of ring forts also point to an ancient civilization that survived and thrived here.
In addition to its archaeological significance, Lough Gur has also been designated a Wildfowl Sanctuary by the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service and you will see a wide variety of birds in the area, including gulls, songbirds, crows, dragonflies, and more.
Tourists who visit Lough Gur can first stop at the award-winning Heritage Centre. The center’s exhibits tell the story of Lough Gur through audio guides, interactive touchscreens, and more.
Curious to know what to expect from a visit to Lough Gur? You can now take a virtual tour of the site and listen to experts talk about the significance of the area.
Exploring the MacDonnell Castles in County Antrim
Did you know that Kinbane Castle on the dramatic County Antrim coastline was the only castle built by the MacDonnell clan, a powerful family who first came to Ireland from Scotland in the mid-1500s?
Over time, they acquired other lands and properties, most notably Dunluce Castle and Red Bay Castle.
While Kinbane is not as well-known as Dunluce (both castles are about 14 miles/22 km apart), it’s an important reminder of how powerful the family actually was.
To begin your exploration of the MacDonnell castles in Northern Ireland, you should start at the Red Bay Castle located near the pretty village of Cushendall located on the Causeway Coast.
The first version of the castle was actually built by John and Walter Bisset in the 13th century. The Bissets arrived in Northern Ireland after being banished from Scotland in 1224 for the murder of their uncle.
The remains you’ll see at this location, however, were built by James MacDonnell around 1561.
It was the scene for various battles in the years following, culminating in its temporary demise in 1565 when rival Shane O’Neill of the equally powerful Gaelic O’Neill clan burned it to the ground.
Sorley Boy MacDonnell rebuilt it but it later fell into disuse. The castle was finally destroyed by Cromwell’s army in 1652.
The castle is located on private land, so it may not be possible to get up close to it, but you’ll certainly get great views from the surrounding area.
Colla MacDonnell built the two-story Kinbane Castle in 1547. He was a brother of Sorley Boy, the most well-known of the MacDonnells.
The castle, which, in its original state would have included a courtyard, guardroom, and perhaps an attic, was partially destroyed in 1551 by the English.
Archaeologists who excavated the site found burned medieval pottery and animal bones, among other artifacts.
The hollow below the castle is known as “Lag na Sassenach” (Hollow of the English) and refers to a garrison of English soldiers who surrounded the castle and were later massacred with the help of other local clansmen.
The castle is free to visit and explore.
Exterior shots of Dunluce Castle were used in the popular HBO series, “Games of Thrones” and it was also used in the popular Hollywood movie “Artemis Fowl,” but of course there is much more to Dunluce than that.
Dunluce was the former home of the MacQuillen family who controlled much of Northern Ireland during the 16th century and was more specifically known as Lords of the Route, a medieval territory that stretched between Coleraine and Ballycastle.
However, it was later seized by Sorley Boy, who proceeded to update it in the Scottish style.
Dunluce is located on a precarious spot, at the edge of a basalt outcropping between the coastal towns of Portrush and Portballintrae.
A small town actually grew up around the castle during the 17th century.
In recent years, archaeologists discovered medieval pottery that points to an earlier community of people living outside the castle’s main gates.
Dunluce Castle is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Dec. 25th and 26th. You can purchase tickets when you arrive at the attraction.
Experience the Beauty of Falcarragh in Northwest Donegal
While driving through Donegal, don’t miss the Irish-speaking area in the northwest of the county known as Falcarragh.
Donegal border collie Iggy and her owner James O’Donnell, a photographer, call this area home and highlight the region’s special attractions on a daily basis through their massive following on Facebook and Instagram.
Located about 23 miles (38 km) from Letterkenny and 45 miles (72 km) from Derry in Northern Ireland, this strikingly beautiful spot is blessed with glorious mountains to one side and untouched beaches and bays on the other.
Tory Island and Inisbofin (not to be confused with the island of the same name off County Galway) are just a hop and a skip away and, you should check those destinations out as well.
Together with its glorious scenery, there’s a ton of history and heritage packed into this region, including tombs, castles, and other artifacts dating back thousands of years ago.
The Derryveagh mountain range includes Muckish and Errigal Mountain, its tallest peak.
O’Donnell frequently climbs the peak with Iggy and from the top, you’ll get some amazing views of the valleys below as well as the Donegal coast.
The trail is a tad challenging but nonetheless manageable, says O’Donnell. Wear boots and suitable clothing, and bring water and nutritious snacks with you.
Falcarragh is also known for its pristine beaches, including the “Green Coast” beach called Drumnatinney located along the shores of Ballyness Bay and known locally as the Back Strand.
Iggy has been photographed on the beach plenty of times. At sunset, it’s particularly beautiful.
The area around the beach is a Special Area of Conservation.
Magheroarty Beach is another one of O’Donnell’s favorite destinations. The nearby pier is where you can catch the ferry to Tory Island.
You can get to Tory Island year-round from Magheroarty on the “Queen of Aran” passenger boat, owned by the Arranmore Ferry. The journey takes about 45 minutes.
Download the Tory Ferry app to check on the ferry schedule.
View the Night Sky from Cork’s Blackrock Castle
While Blarney Castle is sure to be on every tourist’s itinerary, Blackrock Castle, only 20 minutes away, is not nearly as well-known.
The castle, which is located on the banks of the River Lee, was originally built in 1582 as a fortification to “repel pirates and other invaders” and later in 1600, a round tower was constructed to add an additional level of defense.
Over the years, the castle was used for a variety of reasons, and in 2001, the Cork City Council acquired it, turning it into a museum and observatory.
Today, the award-winning science and discovery center is known as the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) Blackrock Castle Observatory the Space for Science.
Visitors love the combination of outer space exploration and ancient Irish history that make this place unique.
There are several interesting exhibits to see, including Cosmos at the Castle, Journeys of Exploration, and more. It is also home to The Comet Chaser, Ireland’s first interactive theater that includes a cool space game.
To see areas of the building that still remain as a castle, there are “Behind the Scenes” guided tours available for visitors.
Have you visited the above list of 8 overlooked destinations in Ireland? If so, let me know in the comments below.