Castle-Hop through Ireland’s Ancient East

Apr 12, 2018

In a stretch of Ireland that lies east of the River Shannon -- a gorgeous, storied swath that touches on 17 counties and five millennia -- the castles have particularly good tales to tell.

So we've put together a best-of anthology for you: a road trip that packs thousands of years' worth of lore -- and plenty of 21st-century fun -- into a few amazing days.

Kilkenny Castle

You are here: Kilkenny City, County Kilkenny

On the site of a medieval wooden castle built under the direction of a Norman knight nicknamed Strongbow (yes, the hard cider was named after him), Kilkenny Castle later became the principal Irish residence of the powerful Butler family. Fun trivia: The Butlers descend from Theobald FitzWalter, dubbed Ireland's first Chief Butler -- a hereditary title and eventual last name that comes from the French Le Boitiler (or the guy in charge of the wine bottles, as FitzWalter was for King Henry II). Along with this prestigious position came a substantial cut of any imported wine duties and serious familial wealth. Ironically, in the 1960s, Kilkenny Castle was sold to the Castle Restoration Committee for a paltry £50. Three of the original four towers are still here, as is at least one reported ghost: the corridor- and garden-roaming White Lady, who many believe to be Lady Margaret Butler. Born here in the 15th century, she was the paternal grandmother of famously ill-fated Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII.

Following in Lady Butler's footsteps, you can hardly blame her for wanting to continue wandering these grounds: You'll find, among other things, lovely woodland paths, a lake, a rose garden and exhibit spaces (a few former servants' rooms have been transformed into the Butler Art Gallery, where you'll find century-spanning Irish and international art). Through April 29, you can catch "At Some Distance in the Direction Indicated," a multimedia exhibit by Kildare artist Martina O'Brien; from May 12–July 29, check out "The Breadwinner" exhibition by the Cartoon Saloon.

While you're in the neighborhood: Visit well-preserved churches and monasteries, explore Trail Kilkenny’s Scenic Walks, shop the tiny boutiques or large Kilkenny Design Craft Centre -- and take the Smithwick's Experience Kilkenney ale-tasting tour, on the site where this beloved brand began brewing in the 1700s.


Birr Castle

You are here: Birr, County Offaly

Built by the Anglo Normans in the 1100s, Birr Castle housed various families and factions through the centuries until Sir Laurence Parsons became resident baronet in 1620. And his descendants turned the castle into, of all things, a hotbed of science.

In 1845, William Parsons created what was then the world's largest telescope and observed a dramatic spiral of stars. The resulting sketch was so widely publicized that some say it inspired the whorls in Van Gogh's "Starry Night." For his part, William's son Charles was best known for inventing the steam-powered turbine.

Not that the Parsons men were the only ones making history at Birr Castle: In the 17th century, Dorothy Parsons, wife of Sir Laurence, compiled what's believed to be Ireland's oldest surviving cookbook. And Mary Rosse, William's wife and financial backer, was a pioneering photographer who set up what's now the oldest surviving darkroom in the world. No surprise then that the Castle is now known as Birr Castle Gardens & Science Centre, where you'll find the aforementioned darkroom, complete with trap-door ceiling, an old lead sink and cupboards full of chemicals. You'll also see Parsons' 19th century telescope -- as well the ultra-modern I-LOFAR, the Irish station in a continent-wide network of radio telescopes.

Encompassing 123 acres, the grounds include rivers, a lake, waterfalls and a planet's worth of plants. Be sure to walk through the in-progress Giants Grove, which aims to be the largest grove of giant redwoods outside of California. You'll also find Ireland's largest treehouse on site.

While you're in the neighborhood: Add a bonus castle to your lineup at the aptly named Leap Castle, reportedly one of the most haunted in Europe. Get some liquid courage first at Thatch, a traditional thatched pub. Or, for a walk on the mild side, visit the Bellfield House Gardens, home to a famed walled garden and a Victorian glasshouse.

Waterford Castle

You are here: The Island, Ballinakill, County Waterford

Before 1170, only monks and Vikings lived on the small, unnamed island in the River Suir near Waterford City. But after Maurice Fitzgerald -- cousin to our old friend Sir Strongbow -- was imprisoned there during the Norman invasion, things changed. A rescue allowed Fitzgerald to rejoin the victorious Norman army, and his eventual rewards included that same island, where he built Waterford Castle for centuries' worth of Fitzgeralds to come. In fact, the Fitzgeralds didn't sell the property until the 1950s. It changed hands a few times until the current owner bought it in 2015 and created the lavish Waterford Castle Hotel & Golf Resort, where the Fitzgerald coat of arms crest still hangs in the Great Hall. On this 310-acre resort, you can explore woodland trails, hit the stunning 18-hole golf course, take afternoon tea in the garden-view castle conservatory and all the while, see why the island has become a renowned bird-watching spot (and that's not even taking into account the resident falconry program).

While you're in the neighborhood: Take a short ferry ride to Waterford City and visit the home of Waterford Crystal on the famed factory tour. You should also see the Waterford Treasures, a trio of museums that includes the Viking artifact-filled Reginald's Tower, the Georgian-era extravaganza that is the Bishop's Palace -- and the nation's sole purpose-built Medieval Museum (don't miss the Great Charter Roll of Waterford, a 13-foot series of royal portraits that dates to the 14th century).

Cahir Castle

You are here: Cahir town, County Tipperary

Considered one of Ireland's best-preserved medieval castles, the 13th century Cahir Castle occupies another island in the River Suir, where an earlier stone fort once stood. The castle was long owned by the aforementioned Butlers and captured three times -- once by Cromwell. Even so, it was considered an exceptionally well-protected castle, complete with an engineering feat of a portcullis (you know, that heavy castle grate that slides up and down) which still works. In 1964, after the last of the Cahir Butlers had died, the state purchased the castle and made it a national monument. As you take the guided tour, which you should pre-book, the grounds may strike any entertainment buffs in your travel party as eerily familiar -- whether from Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon", or from "the Tudors", "Excalibur" or "Moonfleet."

While you're in the neighborhood: Take a 2.5-mile stroll down from the castle to the Swiss Cottage, a relic of the 19th century cottage orné movement that begat some serious decking-out of Romantic-era cottages. Further out, walk among the fabulous formations of Mitchelstown Cave and the largest monastic ruins in Ireland at Athassel Abbey.

Trim Castle

You are here: Trim, County Meath

Construction began on Trim Castle -- Ireland's largest Anglo-Norman castle -- in 1176, at an important fording point on the River Boyne. Initially a stone tower, or keep, Trim was expanded to include curtain walls that stretch over 3 acres. In those days, it was a symbol of Norman strength at the edge of the Anglo-Norman Pale -- thus the likely origin of "beyond the Pale" (read: "the barbarism just over the border"). Today, the place is better known as one of the "Braveheart" filming locations. While you're in the neighborhood: Kayak, raft or simply walk along the beautiful River Boyne. For a curious local legend, head to the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral, where the 16th century "Tomb of the Jealous Man and Woman" is reported to possess skin-curative powers.

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