Ireland's Ancient East: Top 10 heritage gems for your travels
Hidden heritage gems
Nicola Brady and Pól Ó Conghaile pick 10 top attractions in one of the world's great heritage hotspots.
1. Brú na Bóinne, Co Meath
Think of ancient Ireland and it isn't long before Brú na Bóinne springs to mind. The Neolithic site of Newgrange (above) in particular exemplifies the captivating attractions that can be found in Ireland's Ancient East - all at once mythical, enchanting and powerful. Though the site includes Knowth and Dowth, Newgrange is the only tomb with a chamber the public can physically enter. The experience is as haunting as it is spine-tingling, particularly during the simulation of its winter solstice illumination. Tickets during the actual solstice are hard to come by, but to witness the re-enactment, when a shard of light fills the passage tomb with a magical glow, is a brilliant second-best. Both Knowth and Newgrange are accessible only through the visitor's centre, via a short bus ride.
If you like that, try this: Hill of Tara.
A bite nearby: After the Ancient East, head for Eastern Seaboard (glasgow-diaz.com), Jeni Glasgow and Reuven Diaz's sizzling bar and grill in Drogheda's Bryanstown Centre. The garlicky crab claws and butchers' board are just the ticket, and they do a mean kids' menu too.
Glitches: Access to Newgrange is via the visitor centre only, so don't bother pitching up at the monument itself. Set your GPS for N53.694567 W6.4463 instead.
Did you know? Newgrange is older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids.
Details: €6 for adults/€3 for children/€15 for families. See worldheritageireland.ie and heritageireland.ie for more.
2. Dunbrody Famine Ship, Co Wexford
Ireland's Ancient East isn't all about tales thousands of years old.
At Dunbrody, you need only look back to 1845 to find stories that are both fascinating and heart-breaking. During the famine, the only escape for some was a harrowing trip across the Atlantic on boats that would come to be known as Coffin Ships. The journey was beyond brutal - passengers would rarely see sunlight, and a quarter of them died. Tour the Dunbrody Famine Ship - moored like a ghost ship from another age on New Ross's quays - and you'll hear the stories of passengers like Mrs Anne White, who travelled to New York in steerage with her husband, five children and only 20 shillings. When you finish, be sure to seek out the Irish Emigrant Wall of Honour, where the names of some of those who emigrated are immortalised. Though a sobering experience, the ship can also be fun for kids.
If you like that, try this: Hook Lighthouse.
A bite nearby: The Local at Dunbrody House (facebook.com/DunbrodyLocal) is Kevin and Catherine Dundon's take on a local pub. The food is as scrumptious as you'd expect - grab the fish 'n' chips, or a pizza from the wood-fired oven... Nom! It's about 25 minutes by car.
Glitches: New Ross's quays have gotten a great revamp in recent years, but streams of traffic continue to thwart what could be a wonderful waterfront destination.
Did you know? John F Kennedy's great-grandfather sailed from New Ross in 1848.
Details: €10/€6/€25. See dunbrody.com.
3. Kilkenny Castle
There's nothing like walking through the old halls of a castle to make you feel like you're stepping back in time. Walls made of thick, grey stone, illuminated by thin slivers of light from deep-set windows, remain pretty much as they were hundreds of years ago. Kilkenny Castle fulfils all your medieval fantasies, with a handsome rose garden, huge marble fireplaces, moody vaulted ceilings and elaborate tapestries. The kitchens are a dose of Downton Abbey, and also home to a gallery for contemporary art, which is free to enter. The castle marks the start of Kilkenny's Medieval Mile, an ambling route that leads through the heart of the city to St Canice's Cathedral, while the hoppy scent of the Smithwick's Brewery fills the air. Small, but perfectly formed.
If you like that, try this: Cahir Castle.
A bite nearby: For a taste of Killkenny's Michelin star magic, book Campagne (campagne.ie) for lunch or an early bird (€33 for three courses). The restaurant has just undergone a revamp, making it much brighter and less formal than before... the perfect excuse for a treat.
Glitches: As one of Ireland's most popular tourist destinations, the Castle can get painfully busy on weekends and in the summer. Plan your visit accordingly.
Did you know? The only witch trials held in Ireland took place in Kilkenny in 1324. Dame Alice Kyteler was believed to have used sorcery (and poison!) against her four husbands, but she fled before her trial. Unfortunately, her maid was burned at the stake in her place.
Details: €7/€3/€17. See kilkennycastle.ie.
4. Castletown House, Co Kildare
If you're a lover of stories and scandal, you'll be right at home in one of Ireland's grandest country houses. Over the centuries, Castletown House has seen owners ranging from William Conolly to Lady Louisa Lennox and Desmond Guinness... and the devil himself is said to have cracked its fireplace. Walk between the boudoirs and the drawing rooms and oh, how you'll wish those silk-lined walls could talk! Built between 1722 and 1729, Castletown is Ireland's largest Palladian-style house, and one of its most intricately beautiful homes. Most remarkable, however, is the fact that it still stands at all - in 1922, Republicans were about to torch Castletown, but it was saved by its history. A local Republican leader, Art O'Connor, forbade the burning, reminding them that the house was built by an Irishman, Speaker Conolly.
If you like that, try this: Russborough House, another Palladian masterpiece, in Co. Wicklow.
A bite nearby: Kildare squirrels away a surprisingly good stash of gastro pubs. Fallons of Kilcullen (fallonb.ie), Harte's in Kildare town (harteskildare.ie) and the Ballymore Inn (ballymoreinn.com) are all worthy of a trip in themselves. Bring an appetite.
Glitches: There are no guided tours from December 11 to March.
Did you know? Free summer music recitals are held in either the Grand Entrance Hall or the courtyard every Sunday afternoon until August 28.
Details: €7/€3/€17. See castletown.ie.
5. The Rock of Cashel, Co Tipperary
Have you ever wanted to rule your own fortress? To stand at the peak of your domain and roar out at the peasants who dare to approach your tower? Well, you can let your imagination run wild at The Rock of Cashel (though maybe restrain yourself from any actual roaring). Over the years, the Rock has fallen under many different regimes, though nowadays the only invasions come from tourists. The majority of buildings you see now date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, but the stories go back even further. According to legend, this is where Saint Patrick converted Aenghus the King of Munster in the 5th century.
If you like that, try this: Trim Castle.
A bite nearby: Café Hans (chezhans.ie) on Moor Lane is worth a detour, but make sure to book ahead. It's a casual café with the panache (and prices) of a proper restaurant.
Glitches: On-going conservation works mean that some areas are periodically out of bounds. Check in advance to avoid disappointment. Expect to contend with crowds, too.
Did you know? If you spend €15 in Cashel town, entrance to the Rock is free - this applies to participating restaurants, cafés and accommodation too.
Details: €7/€3/€17. See cashel.ie
6. Waterford's Viking Triangle
At the moment, it seems like every time you switch on the TV there's a gaggle of medieval characters bludgeoning and tearing chunks out of each other. If you're into that kind of thing, then you'll be enthralled by the Waterford Viking Triangle. It might not be on the Wild Atlantic Way, but this small city quarter benefited hugely from a recent €10.8million Fáilte Ireland investment, and the result is a spectacular showpiece for numerous sights based around a Viking settlement dating back to 914. In Reginald's Tower, you'll find the only full set of Viking weapons to have survived in Ireland, which were salvaged from a grave. But it's not all gore - at the Medieval Museum, look out for the stunningly-preserved Chorister's Hall alongside treasures and vestments (though you might see a few severed heads, too).
If you like that, try this: The Irish National Heritage Park, Co Wexford.
A bite nearby: Pop into the Granary Café (granarycafe.ie) for a blaa - the traditional, soft floury bap made in Waterford.
Glitches: Traffic on the quays creates a disconnect between the Viking Quarter and the river. If joined-up, the city could jump another level.
Did you know? Waterford is the only city in Ireland that Cromwell failed to capture (though it was taken the following year by his son-in-law, General Henry Ireton).
Details: Prices vary, but a €10 combined ticket is best value. See waterfordvikingtriangle.com and waterfordtreasures.com.
7. Cavan Burren Park
Burrens aren't confined to Co Clare, you know. You'll need a sturdy pair of hiking boots to hand, but a stomp around the megalithic tombs, rock art, glacial boulders and ancient fields of Cavan Burren Park is well worth the trek. The area remains something of a hidden gem, tucked away off the tourist trail, meaning you'll generally avoid crowds... though word is spreading. All the focus here is on the landscape, which is scattered with incredible sights like the Giant's Grave, a wedge tomb made from slabs of stone some 4,000 years ago. The Cavan Burren also forms part of the Marble Arch Caves Geopark, where you can dip into the underworld of spooky, ancient caves in neighbouring Fermanagh.
If you like that, try this: For a traipse through a different era, walk through the replica WWI trench in Ballyjamesduff (cavanmuseum.ie; €5/€3). It's the only WWI trench experience in Ireland or the UK.
A bite nearby: Book far in advance (or get lucky with a cancellation) at Neven Maguire's MacNean House (nevenmaguire.com). Taste of Cavan runs August 12-13, too (tasteofcavan.ie).
Glitches: Parts of the Marble Arch caves can be inaccessible in bad weather, and the rest of the park is very exposed to the elements. Raincoats at the ready!
Did you know? There's a free Cavan Burren app you can download, so you can get all the info you need on the hop. It's available both for Android and iPhone.
Details: The Cavan Burren is free; the caves cost £9.50/£6.50/£23 (€11.30/€7.70/€27 approx). See marblearchcavesgeopark.com and cavanburren.ie.
8. Hill of Uisneach, Co. Westmeath
Want to get to the real, spiritual heart of Ireland? Then head to the Hill of Uisneach. This is not only the place where the provinces are said to come together, but also the spot where Ériu, the goddess Ireland, is named after, is said to rest - under the Aill na Míreann boulder. The site is sprinkled with monuments, from cairns to magical ring forts, barrows to ancient roads (one of which leads to the Hill of Tara). Stand on top of the hill on a clear day and you'll be blessed with a view that takes in 20 counties. It's held that Uisneach was the setting for the first big fire lit in Ireland, a tradition that has now been invoked with an annual Bealtine celebration, previously known as the Festival of Fires.
If you like that, try this: The Seven Wonders of Fore include a monastery in a bog, water that flows uphill, a tree that won't burn and water that won't boil. Intrigued?
A bite nearby: Roughly 30 minutes away (on winding country roads), Weirs of Multyfarnham (weirsmultyfarnham.ie) does a gastro pub menu fit for a king.
Glitches: Facilities are limited, and tours are guided only. However, a new Visitor Centre is on course to open this summer. The green build involves the sustainable restoration of a 19th-century cottage.
Did you know? St Patrick, Brian Boru and James Joyce all visited Uisneach (it's mentioned in Finnegans Wake).
Details: Suggested tour donation: €5. See uisneach.ie.
9. Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
There's plenty to capture your imagination at Clonmacnoise. Wander between the ruins - the tall Celtic crosses, the round tower, the graves and the churches - you can even plonk yourself in the same chair as Pope John II, who visited in 1979. Intricate carvings tell countless stories on the crosses and, in the Nun's Church, you'll find what's believed to be Ireland's earliest sheela-na-gig. Capping it all is the stunning setting. With the River Shannon meandering by, St Ciarán couldn't have picked a better spot to make history.
If you like that, try this: Lough Boora Discovery Park.
A bite nearby: Clonmacnnoise is roughly a half-hour drive from Athlone, where you'll find the Fatted Calf (it moved from Glasson to Church Street last year). The buttermilk spiced chicken is delish. See thefattedcalf.ie.
Glitches: It's a popular stop for coach tours - if your visit coincides with one, sharpen your elbows.
Did you know? The last High King of Ireland, Rory O'Connor, was buried at Clonmacnoise in 1198.
Details: €7/€3/€17. See heritageireland.ie.
10. Wicklow Gaol
There's something unique about the spirit of an old prison. The ghosts seem to cling to the walls like nowhere else, with a palpable sense of despair and anguish. Between 1702 and 1924, Wicklow Gaol was home to inmates who were subject to brutal conditions. Some of the prisoners had simply stolen food to feed themselves during the famine - and children were held just as culpable as adults. Expect to hear heart-rending tales as you tour the gaol, like the story of Thomas Pitt, an eight-year-old who was sentenced to a week in prison and a flogging for stealing two shillings. The gaol itself is small, but petrifyingly formed.
If you like that, try this: Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum, Co Laois.
A bite nearby: After Wicklow, drive over to Ashford for a stroll around Mount Usher Gardens (mountushergardens.ie; €7.50) and a bite at the new Romany Stone café, bar and restaurant (romanystone.com). The lemon drizzle cake is yum, and the early-bird has two courses at €20.
Glitches: Parking can be difficult in Wicklow town, and the gaol can be scary for small kids. A little research ahead of your visit is worthwhile.
Did you know?: You can tour the gaol by night (if you have nerves of steel, that is). Check online to find the next available date.
Details: €7.90/€5/€20; wicklowshistoricgaol.com.
Things can get a little pricey with heritage attractions, particularly if you have the family in tow. Luckily, half of the sights featured on these pages are managed by the OPW, which means admission is free on the first Wednesday of every month (see a list of sites here for full details). You can also save money with a Heritage Card - €25 buys access to all OPW sites for one year (it's €10 for children, or €60 for families with up to five kids).
NB: All prices subject to availability/change. For more information see irelandsancienteast.com.