The captivating legends & folklore of Ireland's Ancient East
Ireland's Ancient East stretches from Newgrange through the Midlands and southeast to Cork, and spans 5000 years of Irish history. Its lush green landscapes are filled with ancient sites, medieval monuments and Palladian architecture that tell the story of the region’s rich cultural heritage.
You'll uncover magical tales of high kings, heroes, modern-day poets, saints, scholars, ramblers and fishermen...
Our must-visit list
From castles, round towers and monasteries to Viking raids, Irish mythology and swashbuckling high kings, Ireland's Ancient East isn’t short of a legend or two. Here’s our pick of the attractions that recount these fabled tales:
The passage tomb of Newgrange, hidden in a quiet part of County Meath, was built in 3200BC, which makes it older than the Egyptian Pyramids. On a tour of the site, you’ll learn how Stone Age farmers built the 13.5-metre high mound and visit a chamber in the middle of the tomb which becomes filled with sunlight on the Winter Solstice each year.
You’ve no doubt heard of the Blarney Stone and the legend that surrounds it: kissing the stone is said to endow the kisser with “the gift of the gab”. But the stone is only a small part of the Blarney Castle & Gardens estate. There’s Badger’s Cave, to which the castle’s inhabitants escaped when Cromwell’s general broke the tower walls, a labyrinth of underground dungeons and the Poison Garden, which contains a collection of poisonous plants from all over the world.
Rock of Cashel
This spectacular group of medieval buildings is set on an outcrop of limestone on the Tipperary Plain, also known as the Golden Vale. The Rock has been woven into legends and stories throughout history – it is said that it was discarded by the Devil, and warriors, chieftains, kings, princes, saints and bishops have all marked it as a seat of power. The sturdy walls encircle a round tower, a 15th-century castle, a Gothic cathedral and a 12th-century Romanesque chapel, home to some of the land's oldest frescoes.
The aptly named Waterford Copper Coast, part of the Celtic Coast area, is now a UNESCO Global Geopark. The cliffs were mined for copper in the 19th and 20th centuries, and at Bunmahon you can still see remnants of the mineral tramway route. Along the spectacular coastline you’ll find scalloped beaches and coves, as well as the impressive rock formations that are the result of different geological events over 460 million years.
Wander around the 6th-century monastic settlement, now scattered with haunting ruins after the Viking raids and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. There’s also a lake, which is particularly majestic at dusk. Deal Expert Michelle Brister recommends visiting this scenic site in Wicklow Mountains National Park at the end of October, to coincide with the Footfalls Wicklow Walking Festival, which organises guided hikes from 15€ per person. Stop off at Glendalough Green, five minutes’ drive away, for warming soups and homemade cakes.
Kilkenny Medieval Mile
The Medieval Mile – which runs from the 13th-century cathedral to the imposing castle on the banks of the River Nore – is best strolled with one of Kilkenny’s local guides, who are full of captivating stories, from tales of witch hunts to cursed almshouses. Climb up the 9th-century Round Tower for the most impressive views of the city. You might smell hops as you wander along – the craft of ale-making was mastered by 13th-century monks and still continues at the Smithwick’s brewery, where you can take an interactive tour.
When in Ireland’s Ancient East, make sure you stop off to explore Powerscourt Estate -- the grounds were voted the third-best Garden in the World by National Geographic. Look out from the 19th-century terraces over the Italian Garden and past life-sized winged horses guarding the Triton Lake, all the way to the Sugarloaf Mountain. Once you've had your fill of the views, take time to learn about how the estate developed over 800 years.
And while you're in Ireland's Ancient East, don't miss...
The southeast of Ireland is also home to two of Ireland’s big-hitting cities. Deal expert Michelle Brister (MB) has just returned from Dublin, while Felicity Pont (FP) visited Cork and Killarney (not strictly in Ireland’s Ancient East, but this lovely little town is doable on a day-trip from Cork). They shared their top tips…
- The Guinness Storehouse is a must-see – you get a free pint at the top, plus there’s a tasting area. We walked there through The Liberties, which is one of the city’s most historic areas
- We strolled around Trinity College, which is lovely, but the queue to see the medieval Book of Kells was quite long, so I’d recommend booking ahead
- Sweny’s Pharmacy is a funny old building in the centre of Dublin, right between the National Gallery and Trinity College. It was mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses and now it’s a second-hand bookshop run by volunteers. They also hold regular readings of Joyce (in various languages)
- The Hugh Lane modern art gallery is worth a visit – Francis Bacon’s studio is there permanently, but the other exhibitions change regularly
- Don't miss the Little Museum Dublin – an intriguing place on Stephen’s Green
- My favourite places to eat are The Cake Café, which serves homemade cakes and has a pretty patio; Sophie’s, where the rooftop restaurant is great for swanky cocktails; and Fumbally, a top spot for brunch
- Learn how butter is made at the Butter Museum. After all, butter is one of Ireland’s biggest exports
- On your way back from the museum, climb the bell tower (this costs 4€). There’s a book of tunes to pick from to play the bells - rather randomly, we played "Don’t Cry For Me Argentina"
- Go to the English Market (it’s actually Irish) for lunch. It’s a bit like a small Borough Market, with plenty of stalls to browse
- One of the nicest pubs we visited was the Arthur Mayne – from the outside, it looks like a chemist or apothecary's shop
- Try seafood chowder (with beautiful buttermilk soda bread) and the traditional dish of bacon, cabbage and mash
Killarney -- beyond Ireland's Ancient East (FP)
- You can hire bikes to cycle around the national park, walk, or hire a horse and cart. It’s fairly big, and the trails vary in length from around 4km
- My highlights were Ross Castle and the boat trip we took from there around Lough Leane
- We loved just roaming amongst the deer and cows – if you’re lucky, you might also see one of the eagles that were introduced from Norway
Here are three pre-planned routes through Ireland's Ancient East...
Louth to Laois
Itinerary: Louth, Kildare, Wicklow, Wexford, Kilkenny and Laois
Suggested length: Five days
Highlights: Powerscourt House & Gardens, Wicklow Gaol and Medieval Mile
Kilkenny to Waterford
Itinerary: Kilkenny, Wexford & Waterford
Suggested length: Three days
Highlights: St Canice’s Cathedral & Dunbrody Famine Ship
Cork to Meath
Itinerary: Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Laois, Offaly, Westmeath, Meath & Louth
Suggested length: Three days
Highlights: Rock of Cashel and Athlone Castle