For ages, Ireland’s west coast has hogged the limelight. The Wild Atlantic Way has truly become a household name – and when you consider just how breathtaking those dramatic coastlines, sweeping views and powerful seas are, it’s not hard to see how they’ve captured the imagination and the hearts of many a tourist and local alike. But now the East has its own answer to this success story…
Yes, the West coast is gorgeous! But in recent times it’s been fantastic to see that we’re also rediscovering the incredible wealth of history and the lovely, picturesque countryside on the other side of the island too. Fáilte Ireland have been putting lots of time and effort into making sure that the East gets plenty of love too. The Wild Atlantic Way may have more of those dramatic landscapes, but in the Ancient East you’ll be able to really get to explore Ireland’s identity and its rich history, one which spans thousands upon thousands of years.
There’s no better way to discover it than packing your hiking boots, filling up the car and heading out for a proper roadtrip! Rather than just going from A to B like the Wild Atlantic Way, the Ancient East spans a massive region that stretches from Cavan to Cork, so there’s a countless number of routes you could take. Today I’ll be having a closer look at my favourite landmarks in Ireland’s Ancient East, and helping you plan your own little adventures through time!
Brú na Bóinne & the Hill of Tara – an archaeologist’s dream
History is never just confined to textbooks and lectures. In fact we’re lucky in the sense that a lot of our history has been incredibly preserved, whether it be a medieval Gothic castle or a hill fort. You just have to go out there and get up close and personal – you’ll literally be walking in the footsteps of your ancestors! Co. Meath in particular is very lucky when it comes to Ireland’s neolithic past. There are two fantastic archaeological sites that should be on any east coast itinerary – and since they’re just a half an hour drive away from each other you can easily do them both without having to lose much time.
The first is mighty Brú na Bóinne. Situated just a few kilometres west of Drogheda, this archaeological site has been an area of human activity and settlement for over 6,000 years – in fact it’s roughly 1,000 years older than Stonehenge! Until the Normans arrived and started constructing their castles and fortresses, the burial mounds and tombs of Brú na Bóinne were actually the largest artificial structures in Ireland. The site was heavily involved in the burial and funeral rituals of high-ranking members of tribes, with one of them, the Newgrange site, arranged in such a way that the sun illuminates the inside of the tomb at dawn during winter solstice. How incredible is that?
The next site in Co. Meath that you should definitely see is the legendary Hill of Tara. I love it not just because of its archaeological relevance, but for the myths and legends that surround it. It’s probably most famous as being the seat of the old High Kings of Ireland – apparently over 100 of them where crowned here. It’s hard not to fall in love with that sense of history and mysticism – and the impressive archaeological remains are a treasure trove for history lovers.
As well as a fantastic tomb complex there are remnants of various ring and hill forts and the iconic Stone of Destiny, which would roar with approval should it consider a new High King worthy. Archaeologists have also discovered that the entire site of Tara was surrounded by a massive version of Stonehenge made out of wood – so big in fact that it would’ve been a similar size to a modern-day football stadium. As you cancan see, this place was a pretty big deal back then!
It takes just under an hour to drive from Dublin to the two sites in Meath, so why not combine your adventuring with a mini break to the capital?
Glendalough & the Monastic Settlement – a sanctuary by the lakes
Nestled between the pine-fringed ridges and rugged valleys of the Wicklow Mountains are the remains of one of Ireland’s most important monastic sites, a small settlement that was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th Century. It served as both a place of refuge and one of learning. Only a few of the original buildings remain, but at its peak this monastic settlement featured everything from guest houses and workshops to even infirmaries and houses for people to live in. As soon as you step through those gorgeous arches of the old perimeter wall you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped into another time.
There are several buildings spread out by both the lower and upper lakes of Glendalough, so pack your hiking boots and discover some breathtaking nature along the way! The buildings’ beautiful setting means that you could easily spend a whole day combining the sightseeing with a gorgeous hike through what I consider to be one of the prettiest spots on the whole island.
Again, Glendalough’s location lends itself well to staying in Dublin, taking just 45 minutes to drive there. But why not stay right in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park and have this incredible monastic city right at your doorstep? The Glendalough Hotel is located right next to the visitors’ centre and it’s a stone’s throw away from the monastic site and both the lower and upper lakes. It’s quite a popular choice with visitors to the area, so it doesn’t hurt to check it out!
Perched on a hill overlooking the rolling countryside and mountains of Co. Tipperary, the mighty Rock of Cashel is another incredibly beautiful medieval structure. Much like the monastic site at Glendalough, the Rock of Cashel also features a dry stone round tower which stands at a height of 28 metres. It’s the oldest structure of the site, the rest being various chapels, a cathedral, castle and a hall that are all tightly clustered together and added as time when on. There’s a massive mix of architectural styles too, but that’s what gives it that charm – you’d be forgiven to think it looks like something out of a fairy tale.
The whole site is enclosed by fortifications, giving it that amazing castle-like atmosphere. And again there’s plenty of history behind the venerable stone walls – local legend has it that the Rock itself was formed after the Devil had taken a bite out of Bearnán Éile mountain (hence the name Devil’s Bit in English!). King Aengus was baptised by St. Patrick at the Rock of Cashel, with it also serving as the seat of the kings of Munster. There were even disputes between several local clans as they strove to control the rock before Murtagh O’Brien donated it to the Church in 1101AD. Inside you can admire the beautiful vaulted arches of the many chapels and go for a wonder between the impressive headstones and Celtic crosses in the graveyard.
It’s just a short walk to the castle from the town centre of Cashel, so be sure to definitely sit down for a coffee and a delicious lunch. There are several excellent B&Bs and hotels close by so you’re spoilt for choice. And why not pop up to the Slieve Bloom Mountains for a hike? As well as being one of Europe’s oldest mountain ranges, it’s also just over an hour away from the Rock of Cashel – perfect for the outdoorsy types!
Waterford Greenway – the perfect day out
OK, so this one may seem a little weird to add to the list – it’s by no means ancient! – but this is still an absolutely fantastic day out when you’re exploring the Ancient East! Earlier this year this beautiful 46km-long cycling path was opened, making the Waterford Greenway the longest cycling path in Ireland. It takes you on a stunning route along the former Waterford-Dungarvan railway line – you’ll be running, walking or cycling across old viaducts, past ruined castles and along some of the scenic and peaceful coastal landscapes in the area.
Along the way you’ll still have the chance to stop off and learn a little more about the history of the local area – places such as Waterford’s Viking Triangle, the Woodstone Viking Site and the Suir Valley Heritage Railway are close to the greenway and they’ll make the perfect little place to stop off, get some rest and even have a bite to eat. One of my favourite parts of the route has to be the amazing Ballyvoyle Tunnel, built in 1878. Walking through the tall, fern-covered cliffs as you approach the entrance and seeing the many alcoves – it’s quite the feat of engineering!
Having to drive a little further afield to get here? Then why not make yourselves cosy in Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, or book yourselves in for a lovely coastal stay in a fantastic Airbnb?
This is just scratching the surface – as I’ve said before, Ireland’s Ancient East stretches as far north as Cavan and Monaghan and all the way down to Cork, so you’ve got a massive area that’s open to you to explore. Definitely check out the official website, since they have an excellent map with all of the attractions listed on it, and you can use one of their pre-made itineraries or plan your own. It’s an absolute gem when organising your own trips.
Do you have your own favourite places in Ireland’s Ancient East that I haven’t mentioned yet? Then let me know in the comments below! :)
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