The area of Rathmichael Woods has a variety of highly interesting archaeological features, ranging from prehistory through to the later medieval period. The woods themselves surround the base of Rathmichael Hill, and a hillfort that encloses the summit of the hill may date as far back as the Late Bronze Age. Hillforts are thought to have been important places of gatherings, celebrations and ritual in late-prehistoric Ireland. A fine socketed spearhead that was discovered here reflects the high status of the site. At the centre of the hillfort, a smaller enclosure may be a ringfort from the early medieval period, or it may represent an inner enclosure of the late Bronze Age hillfort. With such spectacular views over Bray Head and the Irish Sea, it is easy to see why this has been such a favoured place for millennia. Near the eastern entrance of the wood stands a medieval wayside cross.
Rathmichael has been a place of worship for millennia, and this important church site is a National Monument. It is believed that St. Comgall of Bangor, an influential early Irish saint, founded the first monastery on this site some time in the 6th century. Part of the ancient monastic enclosure can still be seen in the gently curving stone walling to the north-west of the church. Other evidence of the early phase of the monastery here is in the form of the stump of a round tower that once stood here in around the 10th century. The remains of the tower became locally known as The Skull Hole as in more recent centuries it became the repository for all the disturbed and disarticulated skulls and bones from the graveyard. Rathmichael also has a number of unusual gravestones known as the Rathdown Slabs. These graveslabs bear abstract decoration, which is believed to have been influenced by Hiberno-Norse art. Also within the graveyard you can see traces of an inner monastic enclosure and a depression which may mark a souterrain – an underground stone-lined chamber that served primarily as a cool dark place ideal for food storage, and potentially also as a place of refuge. The remains of the church which you can see today are believed to date to around the 13th century and possibly stands on the site of an earlier church.
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