Route: Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Wicklow, Kildare, Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Meath, Louth, Monaghan, Cavan
Features: Lough Gur, Rock of Cashel, Waterford Viking Triangle, Kilkenny Medieval Mile, Dunbrody Famine Ship, Glendalough, Irish National Stud, Clonmacnoise, Athlone Castle, Brú na Bóinne, Cavan Burren Global
This is a tour of epic proportions, delving deep into our past and sweeping through more than 5,000 years of history. Along the way you’ll be blasted with sea air at lighthouses, walk through haunting passage graves, visit iconic monasteries and get to grips with the mighty Vikings as they swept through the island. It’s a journey that will bring you through dramatic green landscapes, peaceful gardens and lovely coastal villages. Welcome to Ireland’s Ancient East – and 5,000 years of history.
Route: Cork to Tipperary via Limerick
Points Of Interest: Titanic Experience, Cobh Queenstown Story, Spike Island, Lough Gur, Rock of Cashel
Looking out over Cork Harbour, you can almost hear the history whispering on the salty sea breezes. Legend has it that around 1000BC, one of the first colonists of the island, Neimheidh, landed on these shores. He and his followers were wiped out in a plague, but Cobh has thrived ever since, and today is a colourful town with deep connections to the past. As last port of call for the Titanic, as well as historic departure point for hundreds of thousands of emigrants over the centuries, Cobh’s history is laden with heartache.
Step inside the Titanic Experience Cobh, and Cobh, The Queenstown Story – to explore the story of both. The past looms large on Spike Island in Cork Harbour, where guided tours reflect the significance of the military fort housed here in Ireland’s revolutionary history. Having served as the site of a regional prison for decades, Fort Mitchell is now an enthralling and historic tourist attraction.
Heading north you’ll pass through the busy town of Fermoy, with its 13th century Cistercian abbey, before reaching the horseshoe-shaped Lough Gur. Rippling with myth and legend, the area here has a history stretching back 6,000 years. Look into the waters and see if you can see any sign of Gearóid Iarla, who was banished to the depths by the Goddess Áine… or so the legend goes.
Let the beautiful greens of the scenery wash over you as you drive into the heart of Tipperary’s Golden Vale next. Soon you’ll see the Rock of Cashel emerging out of the landscape like a fairytale castle. It’s one of Ireland’s most iconic sites and as you walk up the steep hill to the entrance, you’ll get a sense of why. Huge, craggy and imposing – this is where St Patrick is said to have converted the King of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century, accidentally stabbing him in the foot with his crozier in the process. Walk the Gothic cathedral, see Ireland’s oldest frescoes in the 12th century chapel and take in the stunning views of one of the greenest parts of Ireland.
Stop off at Mitchelstown Caves, and enter a world without sun, without time, a world where man almost feels an intruder and where nature reigns supreme.
Route: Waterford to Kilkenny via Wexford
Points Of Interest: Waterford Treasures, Dunbrody Famine Ship, Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile
Leaving Cashel, head south to Waterford and the turbulent era of the Vikings. Often referred to as “Ireland’s oldest city”, Waterford was founded by Norse invaders in 914AD. In its Viking Triangle of historic monuments, you can trace the city’s past within the fascinating trio of Waterford Treasures, including the Medieval Museum, Reginald’s Tower and Bishop’s Palace.
Walking around, you’re likely to notice a “blaa” or two. Part of the city’s history, it’s thought they were introduced by the Huguenots in the 17th century. Enjoy one at the Bodega Restaurant and Wine Bar before hitting the road to New Ross, the country’s only inland port in Wexford.
Perched on the River Barrow, New Ross is a small but bustling place, anchored by the Dunbrody Famine Ship, a replica of an 1840s emigrant vessel. Step on board to uncover the truly emotional history of Ireland’s emigrant past.
Next it’s north to Kilkenny, following the scenic route through the Nore Valley. Now you’re into beautiful terrain studded with pretty villages, such as Thomastown and Bennettsbridge. Next stop: Kilkenny. As well as its lively nightlife, great restaurants and traditional old pubs, Kilkenny’s star is the Medieval Mile – hear tales of witch trials, alms-houses and besieged castles as you tour this city at a leisurely pace.
Make your way to Hook Head and Lighthouse – the amazing lighthouse is over 800 years old and is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world, with knock-out views of the sea.
Route: Carlow to Wicklow
Points Of Interest: Altamont Gardens, Wicklow Gaol, Powerscourt House & Gardens, Glendalough
Setting the tone perfectly for today’s trail is a gentle wander around 5,000 plants and flowers in Carlow’s stunning 19th century Robinsonian-style Altamont Gardens.
This verdant theme is followed through as you continue on to the “Garden of Ireland”, where Wicklow’s hills bloom with beautiful greens flecked with purple heather. But first, the town of Wicklow regales with somewhat brutal tales from the early 18th century at Wicklow Gaol. Among them, stories of convicts transported from Wicklow to Australia, sometimes just for the crime of stealing bread.
From these so-called ‘Gates of Hell’ back to the heart of Wicklow serenity in Glendalough, famed for its two lakes and spiritual atmosphere. At the monastic village, cast your mind back to what Glendalough must have been like in its heyday – when it was a retreat for peace-seeking monks. But as you wander off into the surrounding hills, spare a thought for St Kevin who was drawn here in the 6th century by the serenity and beauty of the landscape. Walk to the water’s edge at the upper lake, before heading to the fern-green hills around Poulanass waterfall, which cascades gently over mossy rocks.
Back on the road, pass through the villages of Laragh, Annamoe and Roundwood and weave down towards Enniskerry. On its outskirts is one of the county’s jewels – Powerscourt House and Gardens. The magnificence of the estate here really is quite something, with its grand Palladian frontage and baroque domed towers – so much so that one architecture historian described it as possessing “the massive dignity of a great Italian Renaissance villa.”
Enjoy a coffee on the terrace overlooking the gardens, before stepping down the grand staircase into the world-famous gardens, complete with Japanese garden, pet cemetery and gracious statues. A perfect end to a perfect day.
The views you’ll catch are breath-taking. Rebuilt in the early 18th century, Borris House in Carlow is called home by the McMorrough Kavanaghs, former High Kings of Leinster. Dermot MacMurrough.
Route: Kildare to Offaly via Laois
Points Of Interest: The Curragh, Irish National Stud, Emo Court, Birr Castle
From one grand expanse of green to another – this time into the heart of Ireland’s horse country in County Kildare.
The flat pastures of The Curragh have made it world-famous for its thoroughbreds, and it’s one of the finest racing tracks in Europe – so make it to a race day if you can, or tour early in the morning and witness the spectacle of long lines of thoroughbreds training across miles of flat, rich plains.
There’s still plenty of equestrian-related enjoyment to be had nearby at the Irish National Stud, where the winners of five Classics were produced and the tale of Colonel William Walker is revealed. A true character, he used astrological charts to determine the futures of his foals – any born under an undesirable chart were sold.
Move from horses to horticulture next at the Japanese Gardens. Designed to represent the “Life of Man”, the gardens were created by Japanese master horticulturalist Tassa Eida, and force you to adjust and adapt to a slower, more peaceful pace. Walk the tranquil woodland and wetlands of the restful St Fiachra’s Garden, before moving on to Laois’ Emo Court Demesne. Here, listen for the echoes of the 1798 Rebellion that once permeated the stillness of these magnificent neoclassical parklands.
West again, past the scenic Slieve Bloom Mountains and through the village of Kinnitty, which according to legend has the head of a princess buried beneath it.Birr Castle, though, resides firmly in the realm of science with its huge Great Telescope sitting at the heart of this vast and beautiful demesne. Designed and built in the 19th century by the Third Earl of Rosse, this telescope was the largest in the world from 1845 to 1914 and was appropriately known as the “Leviathan”. Finish the day with a walk through the gardens, which bloom with roses, wisteria and 300-year-old box hedges.
A gift to Norman Lord Strongbow in 1172 upon his marriage to Aoife, daughter of the King of Leinster, The Rock of Dunamase has got to be one of Ireland’s more impressive wedding presents. As legend goes, there’s even buried treasure lying beneath the castle – guarded by a fearsome hellhound.
Route: Offaly to Longford via Westmeath
Points Of Interest: Clonmacnoise, Athlone Castle, Hill of Uisneach, Corlea Trackway
The bones of Christian saints and ancient kings rest side by side at Clonmacnoise, founded in 544 by St Ciarán.
This site by the River Shannon has withstood raids by unruly Gaels and plundering Norsemen during the centuries, but also managed to produce some impressive sacred texts along the way.
Move from round towers to regal battlements at Athlone Castle next. The fortress was built in the 13th century in honor of a visit by King John of England, who never arrived! Don’t emulate the monarch, though: the keep and walls of this historic site now house a lively museum and are not to be missed.
Moving on, let the past light your way at the Hill of Uisneach, Ireland’s mythological centre, where even today the pagan fire festival is celebrated to herald in the summer; and these mythic knolls are said to have supplied the towering rocks used in the construction of Stonehenge.
The wild terrain of Ireland’s heartlands seems to have changed very little around the Corlea Trackway. This bog road was built from oak beams in the Iron Age, some say to carry cargo, others for sacred ceremonial purposes. Follow in the footsteps of our most distant ancestors when you reach this structure that has lasted through the millennia.
Try your hand at the art of bogwood sculpture and feel 5,000 years of history in your hands at Celtic Roots Studio, Ballinahown, Westmeath. Or visit St Mels Cathedral, Longford – destroyed by fire early on Christmas Day in 2009, the Cathedral has been so spectacularly rebuilt, that some say it’s now nothing short of spell binding.
Route: Meath to Louth
Points Of Interest: Loughcrew Cairns, Hill of Tara, Brú na Bóinne, Monasterboice, Carlingford Heritage Centre
Over 5,000 years old, the Loughcrew Cairns are the unsung stars of Ireland’s Neolithic era, and tours explore the Cairns’ ancient artwork, the Hag’s Chair and even a witch.
Next, and in the middle of a swathe of pristine green fields, lies a site that touches at the very heart of Irish history, the Hill of Tara – a place with a 5,000-year history, seat of Ireland’s High Kings and capital of the mythical god-like race of Tuatha de Danann.
Equally haunting are the passage tombs and sweeping vistas of your next stop: the UNESCO world heritage sites around Brú na Bóinne. Admire the views with a light lunch in the Visitor Centre, before you enter this treasure trove. Once you’ve come to terms with the archeological feat that is Newgrange, discover the artistry and secrets of the nearby Great Mound of Knowth, which also dates to 3,000BC.
Keep the monastic theme going at Monasterboice, founded in the late 5th century by Saint Buithe. The big draw here is the magnificent Muiredach’s High Cross, divided into panels decorated with vivid and lively scenes. There are 124 figures on the cross, but only one appears in headgear – see if you can find Goliath in his conical hat, as well as the few other bearded characters, Adam, Cain, Moses and Saul?
Carlingford’s Peninsula is next and aim straight for the Carlingford Heritage Centre, found in the beautifully restored medieval church of the Holy Trinity. Starting from 850AD, you can uncover the incredible story of Carlingford from its Viking beginnings to the present day, before soaking up the views from the hillsides. Or you could take to the water for some high-speed thrills with Louth Adventures.
When it comes to grisly relics, none is more legendary than Saint Oliver Plunkett’s preserved head in St Peter’s Church Drogheda – a must visit in this Louth town.
Route: Monaghan to Cavan
Points Of Interest: Carrickmacross Lace, Killykeen Forest Park, Cavan Burren UNESCO Global Geopark
Sprinkled with lakes and beautiful scenery, Monaghan is one of Ireland’s lesser explored counties but is full of hidden gems.
For starters, it’s the site of one of Ireland’s most delicate and intricate crafts – lace making. Here in Carrickmacross in the 1820s Mrs. Grey Porter of Donaghmoyne introduced it as a way for local women to make money. Since then, industry flourished and the lace became a favorite of royalty, from Queen Victoria to Princess Diana. The lovely, hand-stitched lace is still a prized possession today.
Onwards to lovely Lough Oughter and Killykeen Forest Park, where anglers, hikers, walkers and cyclists can breathe in the absolute beauty of this Cavan spot. There are more incredible landscapes, too, when you move onto the Cavan Burren UNESCO Global Geopark in Blacklion. This time, though, it exudes a rather prehistoric atmosphere. And rightly so: fossils from a coral sea 350 million years ago have been found in the limestone, while human habitation can be traced back to Neolithic times. With five walking trails through this exceptional landscape, you can explore at your own pace, or step into the past with a guided tour from one of the very knowledgeable Geopark guides.
From here, you can make your way to the Shannon Pot, the source of Ireland’s magnificent Shannon River, which is located in the karst landscape of the nearby Cuilcagh Mountains in County Cavan.
Drop into the Patrick Kavanagh Centre dedicated to Inniskeen’s most famous son, and take in a tour of Kavanagh Country.