Eastern Ireland: 5,000 Years of History, Gardens and Medieval Towns
Explore the land of the Vikings and Normans in easy day trips from Dublin or spend a few days in the quaint historic towns of Ireland’s southeast region.
By Ginger Warder
Darkness comes late in Ireland during the summer. It was after 10 p.m. when the stars came out as we strolled along the narrow, winding streets of Wexford—once paths used by the Vikings—and heard a crystal clear male Irish voice singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah:
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Like moths to a flame, we followed the ethereal sound to the Foggy Dew Inn, a small pub located on Main Street in Wexford, and the only establishment on the street that wasn’t shuttered for the night.
Inside, locals packed the bar and tables enjoying a last pint and an informal session with tunes that ran the gamut from Johnny Cash’s Walk the Line to the Irish favorite, Whiskey in the Jar. With a pint in my hand and my foot tapping, I sighed happily …now I was truly back in Ireland.
Something in the land here calls to me—the love of language and song, the deep respect for history and the incredibly warm and welcoming people—and makes me feel at home the moment I step onto the verdant island. And while I’ve spent considerable time in Dublin and more recently on the Wild Atlantic Way in the west, I had never explored the seaside and river towns or the castles and abbeys of East Ireland.
With Dublin as a convenient starting and ending point, forays into this historic region are easy. To the north, Kells, Trim Castle and Slane Castle are within or less than a 2-hour drive and to the south—also less than two hours away — the medieval towns of Wexford and Kilkenny are worth exploring. For a multi-day road trip or getaway, both areas offer B & B’s and historic boutique hotels along the way. Or you can create your own itinerary according to your interests.
Sacred Sites and Historic Fights
Kells: Seat of Learning
Ireland’s moniker “the Celtic Tiger”, referring to its enormous economic growth in the late 20th century, would have been just as appropriate 1200 years ago. Columban monks in Kells toiled over the ornate illustrated version of the four gospels, the Book of Kells, and spearheaded the spread of both the gospel and education throughout Europe before the Dark Ages. This history as the birthplace of Ireland’s scholars has landed the town of Kells on the short list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 554 A.D., St. Columcille built his monastery in Kells and in the 9th century, the Book of Kells was completed in the 3-story St. Columcille house. The roof space housed three well-lit chambers accessible only by a retractable ladder, where monks toiled to finish the most revered religious relic in Ireland. Today, the honor of opening the house to visitors is passed down from mother to daughter in the Carpenter family. Other important town sites include the 9th-century Market Cross, the 10th-century round tower and a collection of high crosses, all featured on the historic walking tour.
Beyond the Pale at Trim Castle: Battles and Braveheart
The largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, Trim Castle stood at the edge of the Pale, the area of Anglo-Norman influence on the eastern coast. The saying “going beyond the pale” harks back to this time. More recently, Trim Castle was the film location for the Mel Gibson blockbuster, Braveheart. Built in the 12th century, the massive castle is open to visitors, but note that the climb to the roof is somewhat treacherous. Anyone with mobility issues or a fear of heights should skip the trek on the narrow, winding stone stairs.
Trim was the New York of its day and was originally slated to be the home of Trinity College. Containing more medieval buildings than any other town in the country and one of the oldest unaltered bridges, the forward-thinking Trim once had modern amenities like its own mint and advanced sewer system.
One of the most enjoyable attractions is the Braveheart-centric mini-museum staffed by volunteers who were extras in the movie. Kids can try on the costumes and touch the swords and crossbows used in the film. Movie-lovers will enjoy the getting inside “scoop” on the filming from the volunteers. The guided Floating Through Time Boyne River cruise is also a great way to learn about the history of the region.
The Rock Legend: Slane Castle
The t-shirts that list a venerable who’s-who of musical performers including U2, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Bon Jovi and the Foo Fighters simply says “Slane Rocks”. And it does…
The castle was built in 1785 and has been home to the Conyngham family for more than 800 years. U2 recorded their album Unforgettable Fire here and ironically, a large wing of the castle was destroyed not long after in a tragic fire.
A new distillery—scheduled to open in late 2016— is under construction and soon visitors will be able to enjoy a taste of Slane Castle Irish Whiskey. Local lore claims that the Dublin road to Slane is the straightest in Ireland, designed by King Georg V to facilitate speedy visits to his mistress who lived in the castle.
Nearby, Rock Farm Slane offers glamping in yurts and shepherd huts, as well as electric bike tours and kayak trips. The farm also features organic produce, farm-raised cows and pigs and a variety of local artisanal cheeses and breads from the Slane Food Circle. Nearby at The Cider Mill, local resident Mark Jenkinson makes the internationally acclaimed Cockagee Cider from more than a dozen varieties of apples. This boutique farm and tasting room are well worth a stop, but be sure to arrange a tour and tasting in advance as it’s not open daily to visitors.
Also located in County Meath is one of the most sacred destinations in Ireland, the Hill of Tara. Once the seat of the high kings and the home of the pillar stone (the stone of destiny) where kings were crowned, the hill is topped with a statue of St. Patrick.
The several large mounds—which may contain the remains of former kings’ homes—remain untouched out of respect. Maguires Café here is an excellent choice for lunch or a coffee break, and is often filled with local cyclists.
My Wild Irish Rose
In Ireland, you’re never more than 74 miles from the sea and there are more cows than people. Ireland’s eastern coast appealed to Viking raiders for its temperate climate and rich agriculture and roads in this region are lined with the famous wild roses honored by the song of the same name.
Cows and sheep graze in lush green fields bisected with handmade stone walls and dotted with Norman ruins. Dairy farming is a mainstay, and Ireland is the largest producer of beef and dairy products in Europe, with more than 90% of its yield exported to other countries.
The seaside town of Wexford is known for its strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and currants, while County Wicklow (which means Viking meadow) is called the Garden of Ireland for its fabulous flowering displays. Medicinal plants like yew trees—which produce the cancer-fighting drug tomoxifen—foxglove (digitalis) and sphagnum moss, used for clotting wounds, also grow here in abundance.
The calmer seas and milder climate of the east produce fabulous gardens, from formal displays at historic homes and castles to abundant fruit and vegetable plots like the walled garden of Colclough at Tintern Abbey.
Kilruddery House, home to the Earl of Meath since 1618 and still owned by the Brabazon family, has one of Ireland’s few remaining 17th century gardens and the world’s first water-powered clock. The only original room in the house is the library— featured in the movie Far & Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman—but the informative tour highlights the various talents of the long line of earls, especially the clock-making 13th Earl of Meath.
Further south, the Cistercian Tintern Abbey—founded in 1203 by William Marshall—is home to the walled garden built by later tenants, the Colclough family.
And while the abbey itself is impressive, the garden is a must-see for plant lovers. In addition to cabbages, lettuce, beans, potatoes and a variety of fruit trees, the roses and flowering borders are spectacular. Open daily throughout the year, visitors can actually pick ripe produce and fruit and take it home with them in exchange for a small donation.
Colclough is one of the stops on the Boyne Valley Garden Trail that covers 11 historic gardens in the counties of Meath and Louth.
Addicted to Craic in Kilkenny
I fell in love with the quirky medieval town of Kilkenny in minutes. In Ireland, having fun is good “craic” (pronounced crack) and the medieval town of Kilkenny on the River Nore is full of opportunities for that.
Bisected by the River Nore, Kilkenny is a microcosm of the best of Ireland with its imposing castle and Medieval Mile of historic sites, fiercely competitive sports teams, lively pubs, creative arts and crafts scene, and recreational activities from canoeing on the river to taking a lesson in the town’s famous sport of hurling.
Kilkenny Castle, sitting on a high ridge by the River Nore, dominates the town’s skyline. Located on the original site of Richard Strongbow’s 12th-century wooden fort, the castle was constructed in stone in 1213 with the advent of Norman building techniques.
The most powerful Anglo-Irish family in the country, the Butler family, owned the castle from 1391 until 1967, when Arthur Butler donated it to the city. Ann Boleyn’s grandmother, Margaret Butler, was raised here and today, all of the Butlers still gather at the castle for family reunions.
Across the street from the castle, in what used to be the castle stables, is the Kilkenny Design Centre and National Craft Gallery.
The craft gallery features the best of Irish products from jewelry and textiles to ceramics, crystal and foodstuffs. The Design Centre highlights innovative artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs who are creating amazing products with a contemporary aesthetic.
My favorite was the MooCall—a small apparatus that hooks to a pregnant cow’s tail and sends a text to the farmer when she’s ready to deliver. Modern technology meets dairy farming!
Ireland’s national amateur sport is hurling—a cross between hockey, soccer and baseball with a dose of American football thrown in—and the Kilkenny team has been the national champion for 17 years.
Lanigan’s Bar is not only a repository of the county’s hurling history and THE place in town to watch a game, but is also home to the Kilkenny Way Experience, where visitors can get a lesson in hurling on the local pitch.
After a traditional lunch of Irish stew and Shepherd’s Pie, we headed out to the pitch. I mastered the hooking fairly quickly (picking up the ball with your paddle…no hands allowed) and learned to hit the ball after a few tries. We then had a competition to see who could get the ball down the field to the goal in the fewest hits and I was victorious for Team USA!
Later in the afternoon, we joined Charlie, owner of GoWithTheFlow for a short canoe trip down the river. We paddled past the castle and under the bridge to view the town from the water. Charlie’s company also offers half-day and multi-day canoeing and kayaking river trips.
And what would a visit to an Irish town be without a little pub-hopping? We started at the historic Kyteler’s Inn on St. Kieran’s Street, a pub that dates back to 1263 and has an intriguing story.
Born to wealthy Norman parents, Dame Alice Kyteler, the original owner of the inn, amassed a fortune while gaining notoriety for going through four husbands. Her enemies accused her of witchcraft and planned to have her burned at the stake, but she escaped to England and left her maid, Penelope, to pay the price.
We ended the evening at Matt The Millers across from our digs at the River Court Hotel. The place was packed listening to a rockin’ band called Ruaile Buaile (rula-bula) who combined Celtic traditional music with classic rock tunes…one of my favorites of the night was a medley of “Shout” and “Whiskey in the Jar” that would have made both the The Isley Brothers and the Dubliners proud.
And when they played “Carry Me Back to Virginia” (my home state), it sealed the deal. I’ve long thought my home state and Ireland are cousins of the heart, especially in music where the bluegrass traditions of Southwest Virginia echo those of Ireland in both thought and sound.
So my visit to Ireland’s Ancient East was bookended by two quintessential pub nights of great music. I learned about the scholars and warriors, the invaders and inventors and the farmers and gardeners that have made Ireland’s east an integral part of world history. Good craic, indeed!
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Ginger Warder is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.