Why Ireland's Ancient East Will Feel Like Home (Even if You're Not Irish)
Irish or not, the average American has endless connections to the Emerald Isle—some well known, others total surprises and many pointing to one particular region: Ireland's Ancient East. Everything from those Waterford tumblers you registered for when you got married to the Jameson you’ve since served in them leads back to this storied stretch that lies east of the River Shannon and touches on 17 counties.
Of course, if you have actual Irish ancestry, it may lead you here, too: Countless emigrants to North America (not least, the Kennedys) set sail from the Ancient East. But whatever your family’s origin story, these six stops will connect you to your inner Emerald Islander.
1. House of Waterford Crystal
You are here: Waterford, County Waterford
Little did the Penrose brothers know when they founded Waterford Crystal in 1783 that their legacy would bling up the likes of the White House (President Reagan’s beloved jelly beans filled a Waterford centerpiece during cabinet meetings) and Times Square (the ball dropped at the turn of the millennium was the first of a series crafted from Waterford crystal).
Nor could the brothers have predicted the legions of fans who'd turn up for the House of Waterford visitor center experience and factory tour. See what all the buzz is about as red-hot glass is blown, molded, cut, polished and engraved by artisans whose methods haven’t changed much since the founders’ days.
While you're there: Spend an afternoon at the Waterford Treasures, a trio of museums that tells the 1100-year-old saga of Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city. Arguably the best: Reginald’s Tower, built stone by stone in the 13th century and now home to Viking and early medieval artifacts such as Ireland’s oldest dog collar (12th century). Spend a luxurious night at Waterford Castle, a resort on a private island with a golf course, nature trails and a falconry program.
2. Dunbrody Famine Ship & Kennedy Homestead
You are here: New Ross, County Wexford
Millions live in the U.S. today because their great-great-great-grandparents fled Ireland on leaky, overloaded ships during the Great Famine of 1845-52. On the New Ross quayside, step aboard the replica Dunbrody Famine Ship to get a poignant taste of the six-week-long North Atlantic voyage.
Re-enactors tell of cramped conditions, rampant typhus and cholera, lack of food and endless quarantines. In fact, famine ships were often called “coffin ships” due to their passengers’ high fatality rates, but the three-masted Dunbrody was an exception, thanks largely to the captain’s reported skill and humanity.
The nearby Irish Emigrant Experience houses the Irish America Hall of Fame, where honorees include President John F. Kennedy, whose great-grandfather left Ireland for America in 1848 on a famine ship. See the forebears’ birthplace at the Kennedy Homestead, a Dunganstown farm and visitors center. In 1963, JFK reunited with his extended Irish family here and became the first serving U.S. president to visit Ireland.
While you're there: Take the Ring of Hook Coastal Drive for a megadose of bucolic beauty, and catch sunset at the medieval Hook Lighthouse, the second oldest working lighthouse on earth. You should also take in the views of the River Barrow and New Ross quayside over a meal at the Captain’s Table restaurant.
3. Arthur’s Way Heritage Trail
You are here: Leixlip, County Kildare
Contrary to popular belief, Arthur Guinness’ first brewery opened not in Dublin, but in County Kildare -- three years before his move to the big city.
Go celebrate the stout maker who changed drinking history along Leixlip’s Arthur’s Way Heritage Trail, a scenic 10-mile mix of footpaths, tracks and canal towpaths. The trail begins near the confluence of the Liffey and Rye rivers, where—in 1752—Arthur found his pot of gold: startup money from his godfather, the Archbishop Arthur Price.
You can also visit Arthur Guinness' sculptural likeness in his hometown of Celbridge, where he learned to brew at his father’s side. And at the Hazelhatch Bridge, marvel at the Victorian-era Grand Canal, the waterway that allowed the Guinness operation to expand.
The trail ends with a climb to the Oughterard graveyard, Arthur’s hilltop resting place and the perfect spot to survey Kildare’s verdant landscape.
While you're there: Take a short side trip to the corkscrew-shaped Wonderful Barn, constructed in 1743. Wander through Ireland’s largest Palladian-style estate at Castletown House. And visit the grand Lyons Estate At Hazelhatch, where the Kings of Leinster ruled during the Iron Age.
4. Old Midleton Distillery/Jameson Heritage Centre
You are here: Midleton, County Cork
Triple-distilled and aged in oak, Jameson is the magic potion that turns ordinary coffee into a classic Irish coffee (well, that and a little whipped cream)—but purists insist the whiskey be quaffed straight.
However you take your Jameson, it likely began its life at the Old Midleton Distillery, where a disproportionate share of the output goes to the U.S. (we're the largest—by far—of the distillery's 130 markets). Tour this hallowed ground, and you'll see the world's largest pot still (now retired) and the distillery's 1790s cut-stone, among other treasures. You'll end with a tasting that will leave you convinced: This stuff is uisge beatha—Gaelic for “water of life.”
While you're there: Walk along the sands of 5-mile Garryvoe Beach, where—if conditions are right—stoked kitesurfers make for a beautiful aerial display. And time-travel in Ardmore, where you’ll find the ruins of St. Declan’s Monastery on a headland above the bay and an 800-year-old round tower that stands sentinel over a graveyard and church ruins.
5. Halloween’s Roots in the Boyne Valley
You are Here: Athboy, County Meath
Whether your household leans more superhero or wicked witch on Halloween, your traditions evolved from the festival of Samhain. The ancient Celts believed that as summer turned to winter, the boundary between the otherworld and this one started to thin, allowing the souls of the dead to pass through. And because not all returning spirits were benevolent, the living wore masks to disguise themselves from the not-so-dearly departed. But why the candy corn and Hershey’s minis? The ancient Irish offered food to honor their departed ancestors and ward off evil spirits.
To see where these and other Halloween traditions got their start more or less 2,000 years ago, visit the presumed birthplace of Samhain: Athboy’s Tlachtga (the Hill of Ward), where the physical and spiritual worlds were believed to be closest to one another.
In druid days, people would gather around a huge ceremonial bonfire here and use its sacred flames to light fires across the land on Samhain—but now, you’ll just have to use your imagination as you take in the impossibly emerald landscape. If you come at Halloween, you can also partake in any number of festivals and haunted tours.
While you're there: Get in the ... spirit at the Brú na Bóinne burial mounds, where you can take a guided tour of two passage tombs—Newgrange and Knowth—that predate the Egyptian pyramids. Also visit the Hill of Tara, where more than 100 Irish kings claimed their power and St. Patrick preached, according to legend. Another neighborhood must-see: the medieval Trim Castle, built by Anglo-Norman potentates, made famous a second time by Scots (it's a backdrop for "Braveheart").
6. Titanic Experience Cobh
You are here: Cobh, County Cork
Though it never really receded from our consciousness (see: #imkingoftheworld), the first film to gross more than $1 billion—and tie the long-held record for Oscar wins—has Americans newly obsessed. After the recent 20th anniversary of "Titanic"—when theaters across the country screened a remastered version of the blockbuster and National Geographic aired "Titanic: 20 Years Later with James Cameron"—we (once again) can’t get enough of Jack, Rose and company.
One of the most edifying ways to indulge this obsession? A visit to Cork Harbour, the real Titanic’s last port of call, where she anchored just four days before colliding with that fateful berg. In the original White Star Line ticket office, which now houses Titanic Experience Cobh, you can stand on the spot where 123 passengers boarded the ship, then walk through replica cabins—and read testimonials from survivors of the doomed maiden voyage.
While you're there: Admire the stained-glass windows, marble carvings and 49 carillon bells of the neo-Gothic Cobh Cathedral. Or make way for kangaroos and ring-tailed lemurs at the Fota Wildlife Park, where some of the 90 species roam free. And piece together a picnic from the fresh-baked bread, just-picked fruit and decadent chocolates at Cork’s 200-year-old English Market.