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The Treasures of Ireland before the Vikings

  • View some of Ireland’s most treasured historical relics—from the Tara brooch to the Book of Kells—on a guided tour of Dublin’s National Archaeology Museum and Trinity College 

  • Gain an expert’s insights into some of the world’s most important Stone Age sites, including the passage tomb of Newgrange and the 6,000-year-old farming community at the Céide Fields. 

  • Explore Ireland’s pagan rituals at the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Ward, the site of an ancient ceremony considered the origin of Halloween, and examine the mysteries surrounding the ring fort of Dun Aengus in the Aran Islands. 

  • Discover sites of both history and legend in Northern Ireland: trace the life of St. Patrick in the town he founded; tour the Titanic Belfast museum and the 17th-century walls of Derry; and encounter the astonishing geology and mythology of Giant's Causeway, said to be created by the giant Finn McCool. 

  • Journey in the convivial company of Professor Jennifer Paxton, who knows the land and its people and traditions intimately.

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Jennifer Paxton is a Clinical Associate Professor of History at The Catholic University of America. She is also the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and director of the University Honors Program. She was previously a Professorial Lecturer in History at Georgetown University, where she taught for more than a decade. Jennifer received her PhD in History from Harvard University, where she also taught and earned a Certificate of Distinction in Teaching. She is a widely published, award-winning writer and a highly regarded scholar, earning both a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities and a Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship. 

Jennifer lectures regularly at the Smithsonian Institution and serves as an expert on programs to Scotland and Ireland. Her research focuses on England from the reign of King Alfred to the late 12th century. She is particularly interested in the intersection between the authority of church and state and the representation of the past in historical texts, especially those produced by religious communities. She is completing a book that examines how monastic historians shaped their narratives to project present polemical concerns onto the past. She is also working on a project that examines changing views of abbatial leadership across the Anglo-Norman world in the 11th and 12th centuries. 



Starting at $6,475 per person

9 Days, 8 Nights | May 20-28, 2024 

Jennifer Paxton

The mystical landscapes of Ireland are infused with an enduring mythology spun from pagan rituals, tales of early Christian saints, and a rich folklore that has descended through the centuries. Follow in the footsteps of high kings, heroes, and saints, exploring Ireland’s fascinating past with Great Courses expert Jennifer Paxton, a renowned scholar in early Irish and English history and lecturer on our popular course, The Celtic World. Through Professor Paxton’s engaging and often entertaining talks, we will discover that ancient Celts are very much alive in the literary and artistic traditions of today.

Her talks will reveal new historical understanding to long-held beliefs about the Celts, as she carefully separates fact from myth. As we make our way from Dublin to Derry to the Aran Islands, venture to a range of celebrated and lesser-known sites that shed light on the civilizations and spiritual traditions that have shaped Ireland over the millennia. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Newgrange and the Giant’s Causeway, and discover Neolithic standing stones and Celtic high crosses amid the lovely hills of Donegal. Gain insights from local experts on private tours of the Céide Fields and Downpatrick, and get a closer look at rare treasures of insular art such as the Book of Kells through the eyes of our expert.


Fly into Dublin and transfer to our hotel in the city center upon arrival. After time to settle in, meet the group and Great Courses expert Jennifer Paxton and delve right into Ireland’s history, encountering some of the country’s most important treasures from the Stone Age to the medieval era. Start with a guided tour of the National Museum of Ireland’s Archaeology Museum, where highlights include Bronze Age gold ornaments, as well as the Ardagh chalice and the Tara brooch. Continue to Trinity College for a viewing of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript dating back to the eighth century. Jennifer Paxton, who has studied manuscript illumination in depth, will elaborate on the artistic context of this iconic book and share insights into its significance to early Irish Christians. Return to the hotel in the late afternoon, then gather for a welcome dinner at a nearby restaurant. 

Included Meals: Dinner 

Accommodations: Camden Court Hotel

After breakfast, journey north into County Meath, where landscapes steeped in legend harbor some of Ireland’s most magnificent ancient sites. Our first stop is the Hill of Tara, where the High Kings of Ireland, accompanied by priests, poets, and athletes, came together to decide matters of the state. Learn about this third-century festival, known as a feis, during a private tour of the site. On a visit to Brú na Boinne, discover a series of magnificent passage tombs that have stood on the banks of the River Boyne for some 5,000 years—long before Stonehenge was built. Venture into the inner chambers of the most famous of the tombs, Newgrange, to admire its highly sophisticated stonemasonry and hear theories about the ceremonial role of the site. After lunch on your own, take a private walking tour of the Hill of Ward, or Tlachtga, with Dr. Ciara Ni Crábhagáin, an anthropologist and expert in medieval Irish history. As we explore this center of Celtic worship, hear about the pagan fire ceremonies and costumed feasts that signalled the Celtic new year—and gave rise to the modern-day tradition of Halloween. Drive on to Belfast this afternoon and check in to our hotel before dinner at a local restaurant. 

Included Meals: Breakfast, Dinner 

Accommodations: Europa Hotel

Set out on an excursion to the town of Downpatrick, founded by St. Patrick when, according to legend, his boat was accidentally blown ashore here in AD 432. Delve into the life and legends of Ireland’s patron saint on a tour of the Saint Patrick Center in the company of its director, Dr. Tim Campbell. Our visit includes a showing of the IMAX movie, In the Footsteps of Saint Patrick, which features stunning aerial footage of sites associated with Saint Patrick across Ireland. See the town’s cathedral and the graveyard that some believe holds the remains of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid. Enjoy time to walk through Downpatrick and have lunch at your leisure. Upon our return to Belfast, jump forward to a more recent era in Irish history with a self-guided visit to Titanic Belfast, which tells the story of the ill-fated cruise ship, in an interactive exhibit adjacent to the site where the ship was built. Later this afternoon, sit down with Jennifer Paxton for an engaging discussion on the many lives of St. Patrick, before dinner on your own. 

Included Meals: Breakfast

Accommodations: Europa Hotel

This morning, travel to the northern shores of County Antrim to encounter the UNESCO World Heritage site of Giant’s Causeway. Here, some 40,000 polygonal basalt columns create a natural path into the sea—a wonder of geology that inspired the myth of Finn McCool. Hear about this giant, who is said to have used the flat-topped columns as stepping stones to reach Scotland, and explore the natural forces behind these unusual rock formations. Drive on to Derry, the second largest city in Northern Ireland. Once a hotspot of the Troubles that plagued the country for more than 30 years, Derry is now a vibrant center of culture. Join a local guide for a walking tour of the 17th-century city walls, taking in views of medieval rooftops and belltowers and learning about the many sieges and attacks the walls have seen. Trace the events that shaped the city as you visit the Diamond war memorial and the murals of Bogside and the People’s Gallery. After checking in to our hotel, listen to Jennifer Paxton’s insights and thoughts on Irish Myths and Modern Politics, before heading out for dinner on your own. 

Included Meals: Breakfast 

Accommodations: City Hotel

Cross back into Ireland on an excursion off the beaten path to the ancient treasures of County Donegal. With local expert Martin Bradley, discover how ecology, archaeology, and mythology intersect in this windswept region of rugged peaks and rocky headlands. Step into prehistory as we explore the intriguing Bronze Age stone circle at Beltany, then look for pagan and Celtic iconography at St. Eunan’s Church in Raphoe. In Inishowen, uncover layers of history at An Grianan of Aileach, a hilltop ring fort used by the kings of Ulster for ceremonial rituals. Sit down to lunch at a cozy rural pub before traveling to Carrowmore to see its primitive Celtic crosses, considered some of the oldest in Ireland, as well as the towering high cross at Cloncha. Return to Derry for an evening at leisure. 

Included Meals: Breakfast, Lunch 

Accommodations: City Hotel 

A scenic drive brings us to the wild landscapes of County Mayo this morning. Here, beneath boglands on the edge of the Atlantic, archaeologists continue to excavate the Céide Fields, a 6,000-year-old farming community that is one of the largest known Stone Age sites in the world. Scattered across more than 4.5 square miles, the site’s field systems, dwellings, and megalithic tombs offer a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life and spiritual beliefs of farmers in Neolithic Ireland. Visit the visitor’s center and enjoy an inside perspective on a private tour led by Gretta Byrne, who has directed surveys and excavations at the site. After lunch, continue south to the city of Galway. Check in to our hotel and take advantage of a free evening to get acquainted with this captivating hub of Irish music and art. 

Included Meals: Breakfast, Lunch

Accommodations: Galway Hotel to be confirmed 

Begin the day with a ferry ride to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. Covered in massive slabs of limestone and a patchwork of fields and age-old stone walls, Inishmore harbors a wealth of prehistoric and early Christian relics. The island is part of the Gaeltacht and offers a time capsule of traditional Ireland where residents speak Irish and carry on a timeless way of life adapted to the harsh conditions. On a driving tour, witness the majesty of its dramatic western coast, where sheer cliffs drop hundreds of feet into the crashing sea. Enter the Celtic ring fort of Dun Aengus, perched at the very edge of these cliffs, and hear Jennifer Paxton’s unique perspective on the enigmatic site. Stop for lunch at a favorite local pub before catching the ferry back to the mainland. Spend the evening in Galway as you choose. 

Included Meals: Breakfast, Lunch

Accommodations: Galway hotel to be confirmed

Travel inland to Clonmacnoise, an early monastic city with a stunning setting overlooking the River Shannon. Founded by St. Ciaran around AD 545, Clonmacnoise was an important center of learning that grew to include seven churches and a cathedral by the 13th century. On a tour of the site, explore remarkably well-preserved ruins of churches and round towers, high crosses and graveslabs, discovering the symbolism and art immortalized in these ancient stones. Drive back to Galway and enjoy a final afternoon at leisure. Gather for a final presentation by Jennifer Paxton on Women in Early Ireland. Toast our journey deep into Ireland’s past at a festive farewell dinner. 

Included Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Accommodations: Galway Hotel to be confirmed 

After breakfast, transfer to the airport in Shannon for your flight home. 

Included Meals: Breakfast 

City Hotel – Derry, Ireland (2 nights)

Perched on the banks of the River Foyle, this four-star hotel is the perfect base to explore the beauty of northwest Ireland. 158 modern guest rooms offer a flatscreen TV, hairdryer, and equipment for brewing fresh tea and coffee, as well as complimentary access to the Health & Fitness Centre featuring an indoor swimming pool, steam room, Jacuzzi, and gym. Thompson’s Restaurant and Coppin’s Bar both serve the freshest and finest in local cuisine. CityHotel Derry is committed to building a sustainable future and uses recycled, fair trade, and locally sourced products when possible. 

Europa Hotel – Belfast, Northern Ireland (2 nights)
Situated in the heart of Belfast for over 50 years, the Europa Hotel is ideally positioned amongst Belfast's entertainment and shopping areas. Having undergone major refurbishment, the hotel now boasts 272 bright and stylish bedrooms with a midcentury-modern vibe. The Piano Bar Restaurant uses locally sourced produce and has magnificent views over Great Victoria Street. Dining options are also available at the Causerie Bistro and Lobby Bar. Hotel Europa has received Silver-level accreditation from the Green Tourism board for its sustainable practices.

Camden Court Hotel – Dublin, Ireland (1 night)

A modern four-star hotel located in the heart of Dublin’s City Centre. Fresh and contemporary rooms feature luxurious bed linens, flat-screen TVs, and tea and coffeemaking equipment, while an onsite Leisure Centre includes a heated indoor pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, and fully equipped gym. Enjoy an evening meal in the elegant Iveagh Restaurant or a nightcap in Camden Yard, the hotel’s newest heated outdoor gathering space.

Galway hotel to be confirmed (2 Nights)

The Savoy Hotel 

a 4-star deluxe property, located on the elegant Via Veneto is an easy walk to the Spanish steps or the Villa Borghese, close to fine dining, cafes and elegant boutiques. A sophisticated hotel in a former 19th-century palace that blends a classic style with some contemporary touches. The 120 rooms are furnished in neutral, welcoming tones with all modern comforts, including complimentary wi-fi, kettle, flat screen TV, minibar with free water on arrival, air conditioning and a safe. The top floor offers a cozy restaurant and a roof garden with a magnificent view. 


The information imparted to us and the cultural experiences were both exciting and eye-popping. On this trip, we were able to completely relax and enjoy each day because The Great Courses planned and executed this tour so well.

–Mark & Rachel H.

The Great Courses delivers. If you're looking for an educational adventure with like-minded people, then this is a go-to.

–Karyn A.

Due to the well-planned pacing and cultural aspects, it wasn't just a canned touristy event but really showed a lot of the localities. The Great Courses really went all out to make this a great tour.

–Teresa L.

Stuart Sutherland 

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