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!
Most famous for its castle, Kilkenny is a thriving city within easy reach of Dublin and perfect for a weekend-break. The city is proud of its food culture, so make sure to visit Kilkenny when one of their food festivals is on, such as “Savour Kilkenny”. The city’s medieval links are visible everywhere. From the Medieval Mile you get to the old anglo-norman castle automatically. Visit the new Medieaval Mile Museum located in St. Mary’s Cathedral on the Mile to find out about Kilkenny’s history. The city also offers a great variety or crafts and arts – even for you to get creative. Take part in a pottery class, or have a look at how a Celtic brooch is crafted. Nicholas Mosse, e.g. has a studio just outside the city in Bennetsbridge village, which you should definitely visit. Even for more active visitors Kilkenny won’t let you down. Travel down to Graiguenamanagh to try out kayaking, hiking and SUP.
Powerscourt House & Estate
If you live in Dublin, this is an easy one and the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Situated in Wicklow, more specifically Avoca, the beautiful privately owned gardens are such a great place to unwind. The gardens are beautiful to wander around with ornamental lakes and flowers gardens elegantly dropping down from the Estate. In the mansion you can find a wonderful Avoca shop and they serve delicious food out on the terrace where you can overlook the stunning gardens.
Hook Head Lighthouse
Located on the peninsula Hook Head in County Wexford you will find the oldest active lighthouse in the world. Since 800 years it has been leading the way for sailors in the dark. You can visit the lighthouse, take a guided tour and enjoy the amazing views from its balcony across the sea.
In Co. Offaly you find the quaint town of Tullamore where the famous Whiskey had its birth place. Visit the distillery of Tullamore D.E.W. that is home to this iconic Irish whiskey blend. The visitor centre will take you through all the steps of the production process and you can maybe bring home a bottle as a souvenir.
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 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.
Probably the most iconic landmark in Ireland’s Ancient East, Brú na Bóinne in the Boyne River valley is a landscape of ritual sites erected 5,000 years ago. The World Heritage Site brings you back to the very beginnings of Ireland’s ancient history. Visit the mysterious passage tomb where you can witness the spectacle of the sun shining through its roof on winter solstice. During a guided tour they simulate this fascinating event for you to experience. The scientific precision with which those ancient architects have built the whole site is simply mindblowing and should be on top of the bucket list of your Ancient East tour.
Hill of Tara
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!
Kells High Cross
You might have seen the Book of Kells in Trinity a few times, but how about visiting its actual heritage location. The famous Kells High Cross is located in Boyne Valley in Co. Meath and definitely worth a visit. Dating back to the 9th century it boasts with religious significance. It was one of 4 crosses built by Scottish monks, that surrounded Kells Monastery, but today you can find it just outside Kells Courthouse. The beautiful carvings of the cross tell the story that every fugitive should be able to find shelter inside the monastery.
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!
Rock of Cashel – the stuff of legend
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!
Events & Festivals
Ireland’s Ancient East Events in 2019:
Smithwick’s Kilkenny Roots Festival: May 03-06
Mayday Mayhem in the Maze: May 06
West Wicklow Festival: May 15-19
Vantastical: May 31 – Jun 315-28
Cork Midsummer Festival: June 12-22
Savour Kilkenny: Oct 24-28
What’s on in Ireland’s Ancient East? Anything you can think of, music festivals, as well as artisan and street food festivals. Some of them include the historical heritage of the area into their festivals and you can explore what life was like 2000 years ago. Whatever you pick, it will make a great addition to your Ireland’s Ancient East tour. Especially when you travel with kids I would take a look at the events and festival calendar. There are some great offers for families. With Easter coming up there are also a lot of events on for the whole family.
Ancient East for Families
If you need to entertain the little ones I can recommend Waterford Greenway. The kids are old enough to cycle? Then you can just take it easy as the path is mostly flat so that the young ones should be able to manage it. In case you do not want to risk it, you can also hire a tow-along cycle where the little ones can enjoy the speed and scenery in the back.
If your kids love to climb, then stop by Carlingford Adventure Centre. There you and the little ones can challenge their climbing arts and test their tolerance of heights. Another option is to drive inland and go kayaking and fishing. There are even courses that are offered that teach children how to fish and release the fish unharmed into the water.
In Laragh, Co. Wicklow you find a kids trail running session. This simply looks class and will get your little ones exhausted with fun, so all you need to do is tuck them up in bed and put your feet up :D
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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