Sites to see before you die

Sat, Jun 21, 2008, 01:00

A new book packed with World Heritage sites includes 16 spots in Ireland. Will you agree with its selection, asks Rosita Boland

THERE ARE almost as many novelty books on bookshop travel shelves as there are guidebooks and travelogues. It has become a little industry in itself. A Million and One Places to See Before You Die of Exhaustion! A Thousand and One Hotels to Sleep in Before You Nod Off Forever! A Hundred and One Travel Experiences that You Never Thought of Having!

A new entrant to this pack of books with hyperactive titles is 1001 Historic Sites You Must See Before You Die. Note the stern instruction in its name. Gone are the days when you picked up books to lose yourself from worries of all kinds, including mortality.

Introducing the declaration in titles that you are going to die is certainly one way of arresting potential readers, although we are now so used to seeing it on books that it has become a tiresome cliche.

The 1,001 sites in this book have been chosen in collaboration with Unesco; 400 of them are World Heritage sites. Ireland features 16 times, including for one site in Northern Ireland. The editors' criterion was that no scenery or landscapes were to be included - so no summit of Mount Everest, even though you could argue that it is a culturally historic site. Nor are there conventional museums or art galleries. Everything on the list is accessible, in theory, to all, which is why any religious sites listed are open to non- practising members.

What the list does include is something in between, with sites ranging from the ancient African caves of Sterkfontein to Petra, in Jordan, and from New York Public Library to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Lord's cricket ground, in London, is there, alongside Sydney Harbour Bridge, Versailles, the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the Nazca Lines, in Peru.

Every list is subjective, and with a brief as wide as this you could include almost anything. Irish readers may wonder why no Skellig Michael, no Grianán an Aileach and no Dún Aonghasa yet both the Guinness brewery and the Jameson distillery. But lists are like that. They provoke discussion.

1 Yeats's GraveDrumcliff, Co Sligo. He had good taste, Yeats. The carefully planned location of the Nobel laureate's final resting place hunkers beneath the dramatic slope of Ben Bulben, itself a beautiful place that arrests attention as drivers - modern versions of the horsemen referred to in the poet's famous epitaph - pass by on the road from Sligo. Whether or not the bones that are interred there are really Yeats's - a periodic rumour that this book recounts - makes for a good story.

2 Hill of TaraCo Meath. This is the most newsworthy of all the sites listed here, but there is no mention of the controversy about the motorway planned for the area. The book's opening sentence about the Hill of Tara declares: "Nowhere in Ireland had richer associations than Temair, the ancient site of Tara." Certainly, no other historic site in Ireland has generated so much domestic and international media coverage in recent years.

3 NewgrangeDrogheda, Co Louth. The most coveted place in Ireland to be on the day of the winter solstice, Newgrange probably comes top, or close to it, for most people's idea of a classic historic Irish site. Whether you go there first on a school tour or visit it later as an adult, the ancient tomb, with its mysterious carvings of spirals and chevrons, its narrow passage and corbelled roof, is an unmissable place.

4 ClonmacnoiseCo Westmeath. Round towers, the ruins of a castle, magnificent carved high crosses: the Clonmacnoise site has all the classic elements of historic Ireland. Clonmacnoise was one of Ireland's earliest monastic settlements, founded by St Ciarán in the sixth century, and is famous for the quality of its metalwork, manuscripts and carvings. The best-known surviving example of this work is the highly decorated Cross of the Scriptures, which is carved with biblical scenes.

5 Guinness breweryDublin.Even if you have never been inside St James's Gate, you will almost certainly have sampled its wares at some point in your life. Although Guinness as a brand does not have the same place in the home market that it used to, it is still synonymous with Ireland, and a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, where the black stuff has been brewed since 1759, is one of the most popular stopping-off places for tourists.

6 Oscar Wilde's BirthplaceMerrion Square, Dublin. No argument that Oscar Wilde was a great Irish writer, but it is strange for a list that refers to both Yeats and Wilde to make no mention of Joyce. This distinctive corner house on Merrion Square, now owned by a private college, was home to Wilde throughout his childhood. It faces a statue of Wilde in Merrion Square that, 1001 Historic Sites You Must See Before You Die notes, "is the object of much sardonic comment". It is too polite, however, to report the statue's memorable monicker, the Quare on the Square.

7 Trinity CollegeDublin It would be interesting to find out how many people living in Ireland have seen the college's world-class asset, the illuminated Book of Kells. Given the queues that line up on campus each summer to view the Old Library and its many treasures, including the Book of Kells, it's virtually certain it has been seen by more foreign tourists than the entire population of the island.

8 Kilmainham GaolDublin. The prisoners once held here, including Robert Emmet, could never have imagined that this notorious jail would become such a popular tourist attraction. Kilmainham is redolent with grim atmosphere: the cell where Parnell was incarcerated is still there, and so is the infamous Stonebreaker's Yard, where several of the Easter Rising leaders were executed. More history here per square metre than possibly anywhere else in Dublin.

9 Glasnevin CemeteryDublin. More than a million people, apparently, are interred in the State's biggest cemetery - referred to as Prospect Cemetery in this book. Among those buried here are Parnell, Daniel O'Connell, Michael Collins, Maud Gonne, Eamon de Valera, Brendan Behan and Countess Markievicz.

10 GPODublin. The iconic building on O'Connell Street - rallying point for marches, viewing platform for parades and sorting office for millions of items of post over the generations - will forever be connected with the Irish Volunteers occupation in the 1916 Rising.

11 Old Jameson DistilleryDublin. The most nebulous entry of the 16 on the list, this distillery has been closed since the 1960s. Apparently, at the height of its output in this location, more than two million gallons of whiskey were maturing under the surrounding Dublin streets. A museum has stood on the site since 1997.

12Dublin CastleDublin Castle has seen all kinds of historical action over the centuries. Once the main base of British rule, it has been a treasury, a prison, a law court and a gunpowder store, among others things. It's now the place where our presidents are inaugurated and where heads of state are regularly hosted. There is no mention of the modest building across the courtyard where our infamous planning tribunals have been heard for years, and which now surely deserve their own historic listing.

13 Jerpoint AbbeyThomastown, Co Kilkenny. Founded in the 12th century, Jerpoint was a Cistercian monastery for much of its history. Its restored cloister is known for the quality of it carvings, which include images of saints, knights, dragons and, most famously, a prone man clutching his stomach in agony.

14 Blarney Castle, Blarney, Co Cork. As long as the castle stands Americans will troop up and down the spiral stairs to air-kiss the stone that allegedly makes you talk nonstop. Although the stone is the most famous bit, the castle is one of the country's most picturesque. Despite 1,000 people having stripped off in the grounds this week for the US artist Spencer Tunick, it's a fair bet to hazard that even fewer Irish people have kissed the Blarney Stone than have seen the Book of Kells.

15 Rock of CashelCashel, Co Tipperary. That dramatic lump of rock, topped by a round tower and ruined towers, commands the Cashel horizon. The collection of medieval buildings, which includes the 12th-century Cormac's Chapel, are on the itinerary of every round-Ireland bus tour.

16 Derry City WallsCo Derry. The only Northern Ireland site in this book, the walls of Derry are listed here as the most complete town walls in Ireland.

Right or wrong?
Would other Irish sites have been better than the 16 in the book? E-mail and we will publish a selection of your suggestions.