Secret Ireland: The Suir Valley
Pól Ó Conghaile discovers a secret garden, a castle fit for a queen and a gourmet getaway.
The secret garden
Dutch artists Clary Mastenbroek and Wout Muller came to Ireland in the early 1990s in search of their next great adventure. They found it in Fairbrook House, a derelict pile flanked by the ruins of an old woollen mill near Kilmeaden.
During the Celtic Tiger, Fairbrook would have been a prime candidate for the property meat grinder, minced up and spat out as a soulless housing estate. In this couple's hands, its old stones, machine parts and outbuildings were given new life in the form of a magical walled garden.
"When I came over first, I only saw crows and rocks," Clary says (her husband Wout passed away in 2000). "But with everything we planted, different birds and butterflies came in."
There is a 'fire garden', in which everything, from crab-apple trees to the rhododendron, is red. A pool is set into the footprint of an old dye-house, and the couple's art is on show.
Just off the N25, Fairbrook is a lesson in reclaiming our industrial heritage. "Nobody here in Ireland cares about it," Clary sighs. She does, and it shows.
Details: 051 384657; fairbrook-house.com; by appointment
The railway children
Just beyond the village of Kilmeaden lies a tiny little railway station, the kind of place that makes you feel you're about to step into a postcard rather than on to a platform.
The station is the departure point for the Waterford & Suir Valley Heritage Railway, a 50-minute spin along the abandoned Waterford to Dungarvan line. It's a community heritage project, and the carriages are pulled along by a dinky, green-and-red Simplex locomotive, which helped to excavate the Channel Tunnel before settling into retirement in the sunny south east.
It's a merry little jaunt, especially in the summer, when the warm air breezes through the partially open carriages, and a landscape of river, farmland and mountains floats by.
The most recently opened section of the route, which skims the N25 dual carriageway, I find a bit dull. But visitors can also take picnics to the station, and cartoon characters will be along for the ride on select dates throughout the summer.
Details: 051 384058; wsv railway.ie; €8.50/€4
A castle fit for a queen
'Black' Tom Butler must have been some operator. The 10th Earl of Ormond was one of Queen Elizabeth's pet courtesans, served as lord treasurer of Ireland and fought a pitched battle against the Earl of Desmond, turning heads with his unnaturally dark hair and complexion.
"Some people even say he had black eyes," says our guide.
Ormond Castle was built by Black Tom in the 1560s, and it's the finest example of an Elizabethan manor house in the country. Perched by the river in Carrick-on-Suir, it is a broodingly elegant build, with gabled attic and mullioned windows giving way to the star space -- a long galley studded with decorative plasterwork devoted to The Virgin Queen.
I'd heard that Elizabeth promised Black Tom a visit, and that Ormond Castle was built with this in mind. The guide assures me this is untrue. At any rate, she never showed up.
Details: 051 640787; www. heritageireland.ie; free
A hot-cross bun in a heritage town
"You're wondering what it is?" asks the lady at the desk. Strolling through Clonmel, I've ended up under a series of sandstone arches which feel like an antique gazebo.
Stepping inside the building, which the lady tells me is the Main Guard, I find a courthouse built in 1675 by the Duke of Ormond for Co Tipperary. It's quite a restoration -- walking through the building and its displays, you'd never think it served until recently as a pub and grocer.
Carrying on, the scent of Hewitt's Home Bakery is the next thing to coax me off the street. I buy a hot-cross bun (€1), a rusty-coloured, cinnamon and currant-infused lump with a hard, sugary cross etched on top.
Popping it into a paper bag, I chomp on it all the way down Mitchell Street.
Details: 052 612-2375 (Hewitt's); 052 612-7484 (the Main Guard)
The scenic drive
The River Suir snakes along the southern edge of Tipperary, slicing through a gorgeous green valley lorded over by the Comeragh and Knockmeal- down Mountains.
Setting out from Waterford, I take the N24 to Clonmel, before dipping off through Clogheen to finish at the Vee, resplendent in purple rhodies.
There are several highlights. Outside Kilsheelan, the Victorian mansion of controversial Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein is visible across the water.
Gurteen de La Poer Castle is where Marilyn Manson married burlesque artist Dita Von Teese in 2005.
Nearby Poulakerry tower house, a 16th-century fortified home, would have been a similar status symbol for a gentleman of its day.
After the farmland and river scenery, I take the R665 to Clogheen, carrying on up the Knockmealdown Mountains to the Vee, a harpin bend offering awesome views over the Golden Vale. From this vantage point, Baylough -- the Knockmealdown Mountains' corrie lake -- looks black as night.
That seems appropriate, given that the lake is not only said to be bottomless but home to the witch Petticoat Loose, whom legend says was condemned to empty it with a thimble.
Details: discoverireland.ie/ tipperary
The cannonball run
Cahir Castle is surely a contender for the best-kept castle in Ireland. A muscular grey pile sitting by a frothy weir in the River Suir, its manicured lawns, white-washed interiors, sparse furniture and impressive views keep the old Butler lodgings just as you'd imagine a castle to be.
It wasn't always this serene, however. After passing through the ticket office, look closely at the keep's outer wall. A cannonball is stuck like a bug in it. Another is lodged in the tower by the main gates, just beside the lower window.
The cannonballs were supposedly fired during a siege by the Earl of Essex in 1599, a model of which is exhibited in one of the rooms inside.
From the castle, take the leafy river walk up to the Swiss Cottage, another deceptively peaceful-looking Butler bolthole.
A rustic folly built in 1810, the cottage was designed for the aristocrats to play at being peasants. Some two dozen tenants' homes were razed in the process, the story goes, just so the inhabitants could have an 'authentic' view back to their castle in Cahir.
Details: 052 744-1011; visitcahir.ie
The riverside packet of crisps
Driving through Kilsheelan, I stop into a little lay-by on the west end of the village. Stone steps lead down to a couple of picnic tables dappled by ash trees beside the River Suir, and a babble of water and birdsong take the edge off the passing traffic.
Following a grassy path along the riverbank, I pass under a lovely arched stone bridge and arrive at a 12th century motte covered in dandelions. You can link in with the East Munster Way to Carrick-on-Suir or Clogheen from here, but the picnic tables have me feeling peckish, so I skip into the village and pick up a packet of O'Donnell's crisps (95c) from the shop.
It's a serendipitous choice. The hand-cooked crisps originate just up the road on Seskin Farm, it turns out. A thick, powdery crunch gives way to the mature tang of Mount Callan cheese, but the secret is in the spuds. The air around me is thick with summery insects and floating seeds.
Details: kilsheel an.com; seskin farm.com
Gourmet getaways don't come much tastier than the Old Convent in Clogheen.
Squirreled away beneath the Knockmealdown Mountains, guests stay in plush bedrooms and eat eight-course tasting menus served in an old chapel with light streaming through stained-glass windows.
Run by Christine and Dermot Gannon, from Colorado and Connemara respectively, the Old Convent knows its market too. There are no TVs, no children and three floors full of thoughtful touches, like a downstairs powder room for the ladies, and a 'tuck shop' guests can raid for cookies, herbal teas, board games and blankets for the garden hammocks.
Dermot, the chef, is the quiet man of the Irish foodie scene. You won't find him giving demos on Four Live or on the back of a truck at your local food festival. He lets his tasting menus (€65pp), graced with the likes of wild nettle veloute and locally farmed beef fillet slow-roasted in the nuns' 1920s Aga with polenta, caramelised garlic and semi-dried girolles, do the talking.
Originally built in 1886 and home until 1991 to the Sisters of Mercy, the Old Convent screams romantic getaway. Or whispers it, rather ... but it won't stay secret for long.
Details: 052 746-5565; theoldconvent.ie; doubles from €85pps