Medieval castles built atop earlier viking forts can be found all over Ireland, from downtown Limerick, to the green Irish countryside, and even in the heart of Dublin. But for those looking to discover even more ancient history, Craggoaunowen in County Clare is an open-air museum of prehistoric Ireland. The restored 16th century castle in this rural, wooded area stands side-by-side with reconstructions of lake dwellings from the Bronze Age, as well as early Irish boats and more.
To make the most of your visit, follow this complete guide to Craggaunowen, including what to see, how to visit, and what else to do nearby.
The first castle was built at Craggaunowen in 1550 but fell into disrepair over the years as it passed from owner to owner. Set on a craggy hill (Creagán Eoghain in Irish means "Owen’s rocky hill"), the ruined castle was eventually purchased by one of Limerick’s wealthiest residents.
The plan to turn the old castle and its surrounding land into an Irish history experience began with John Hunt in the 1960s. A well-known antique collector, Hunt first restored and expanded the castle to house part of his extensive eclectic collections (which also make up the Hunt Museum in Limerick), before building the reconstruction of the crannog and ring fort to create a historic educational experience for the Irish people.
Part castle, part animal exhibit, and part living history museum, Craggaunowen is now one of the major tourist sites in County Clare. Set on 50 wooded acres between Ennis and Limerick, the open air museum houses recreations rather than authentic artefacts. However, the overall impact of being able to walk through homesteads and monuments as they would have existed in Ireland 1,000 years ago is a valuable and memorable experience.
What to See There
Craggaunowen is best known as a place to experience living history, and its star structure is the gloriously recreated crannog. Crannogs were lake dwellings built above the water on man made islands. Excavations have shown that the first crannogs were built during the Mesolithic era and some continued to be used through medieval times. They were built in inlets or small lakes because the surrounding water provided a natural kind of defense for early residents.
The crannog replicas at Craggaunowen are built in the style of the Bronze Age. You can explore the round structures with their conical stick roofs by crossing a bridge over lily pad-covered water. In ancient times, residents would have accessed their lake dwellings by using a secret causeway submerged under the water. Once you arrive, costumed performers are usually available to share more details about ancient life in this lakeside setting.
In addition to the crannog, the self-guided history experience includes several other recreations of ancient Irish structures and artefacts, including a Fulachta Fia cooking site, a dolmen (neolithic tomb) and the ‘Brendan boat’ – a boat made of hides which was used by Saint Brendan in the 6th century to sail from Ireland to Newfoundland, all the way across the Atlantic.
The site also has a ring fort complete with a souterrain, an underground area which could have been used by early farmers to store food or to seek shelter during an attack on their homesteads. Children may particularly enjoy the boars and sheep who also call Craggaunowen home.
How to Visit
Craggaunowen is managed by Shannon Heritage, a private organization which runs several other major attractions in Ireland including Dunguaire Castle and Bunratty Castle. It is located in County Clare, outside of the village of Quin.
The living history museum is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. from Easter through August. (Because the site is entirely outdoors, it is only open during the warmer, drier summer months). Tickets can be purchased online or on the spot. During peak times, costumed guides will accompany you through the site to provide information on what life would have been like here during the Bronze Age.
There is a parking lot and a small café at Craggaunowen, and the best way to reach the museum is to self-drive given its off the beaten track location. Plan for around one or two hours for the full experience.
What Else to Do Nearby
Craggaunowen is located in a rural, forested area in County Clare. The largest nearby city is Limerick, about 15 miles away.
The outdoor, prehistoric museum is often overshadowed by Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, another living history experience which is also worth a visit if you are in the area. The medieval themed folk park is only about a 20-minute drive away.
The open-air museum is also only about 20 minutes east of Ennis, the county town in County Clare, which is well known for its live music tradition.
To experience one of Ireland’s most amazing natural wonders, skip the nearby towns and head straight for the Burren — a national park with an otherworldly landscape.