Do you know why they call Ireland the Land of Saints and Scholars? Follow the pilgrims’ routes across Ireland’s Ancient East and early Christian history is revealed. But some sacred sites are even older, and still burn brightly …
Cross of Scriptures and the Round Tower at Clonmacnoise
It’s a dramatic entrance. The boat winds through beautiful water meadows. (On colder days, you’ll stay snug under blankets provided by the crew.)  
Then it appears.
In the green fields at the water’s edge are clusters of stone churches and round towers, early Christian crosses and carvings, and medieval ruins. Clonmacnoise.
Some modern-day pilgrims still walk to Clonmacnoise. Others arrive at this idyllic place by water from nearby Athlone or Banagher.
This is Ireland’s original university, built in the 6th century at the Ancient Crossroads where the route from Dublin to Galway crossed the mighty Shannon river.
Visitors exploring Clonmacnoise
Illuminated illustrations of the Christian Gospels in The Book of Kells
Left: Visitors exploring Clonmacnoise. Right: Illuminated illustrations of the Christian Gospels in The Book of Kells
“The Land of Saints and Scholars” refers to that time. Between the 6th and 10th centuries, protected by her seas, Ireland was a bastion of early Christianity – a beacon of light in the so-called Dark Ages.
Philosopher-monks held the old religion close, and developed an intense brand of learning whose influence was felt across the Continent. Unique styles of architecture emerged – Irish Round Towers and Celtic High Crosses. Stunning illuminated manuscripts – such as the world-famous Book of Kells – were produced.
Ireland sent monks and friars out across the known world. Pilgrims came here from across Europe in search of knowledge and enlightenment.
Tourists at Ardmore Round Tower, Waterford
Tourists at Ardmore Round Tower, Waterford
Today you can still criss-cross Ireland’s Ancient East on pilgrims’ routes, and feel the presence of those early Saints and Scholars at every turn.
Around the next bend in a narrow lane you’ll see, soaring above you, a monastery’s round tower – its door high up in the wall in case of Viking attack. In the next small town, locals are passing the time of day beside a 7th-century high cross.
Celebration of The Gathering at the Uisneach Festival
Celebration of The Gathering at the Uisneach Festival
And like so much in this part of the world, there’s an even deeper story to tell.
Alongside Christian settlements and symbols are sacred sites from ancient pagan Ireland – places where bonfires were lit to spark the land into fertility or to mark the turning of the year. 

And again like so much here, rituals and traditions live on. Sacred hills are still climbed to mark special days; bonfires are still lit.