Sunday 17 December 2017

Rocking the love in top-class Tipp


The iconic Rock of Cashel, the history of which dates back to 460AD, overlooks Tipperary's Golden Vale. Photo: Sinead Cahalan/One Little Studio
The iconic Rock of Cashel, the history of which dates back to 460AD, overlooks Tipperary's Golden Vale. Photo: Sinead Cahalan/One Little Studio
Gemma Fullam in Thurles's fab Inch House

Gemma Fullam

We were a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, who'd met as teens almost 30 years ago, but fate had conspired to keep us apart. Happily, albeit delayed by decades, this Juliet got her Romeo, and a divine diamond had latterly sealed the deal. Basking in our newly engaged bubble of love, we struck out for the Premier County and a bucolic break at Thurles's utterly romantic 18th-Century Inch House.

We arrived to the warmest of welcomes from the fabulous Teresa, who showed us to our gorgeous room. Our hosts, the Egan family, had thoughtfully laid on celebratory snipes of Prosecco and other delights. We toasted our happiness, then descended to the atmospheric dining room for a delectable dinner that had us ooh-ing and aah-ing with delight at every course. Our feast concluded with the finest cheese plate I have ever had; tip(p) top indeed!

Following a mighty Tipperary breakfast (the full Irish, only better, with Inch House's own black pudding) for the carnivore, and poached eggs for me, we struck out for the historic hamlet of Lorrha, where we met our affable guide, James. It's a tiny spot, bursting with lore and legend. St Ruadhan (the name is common in Tipp) known as one of the 12 apostles of Ireland, was the area's main man. He founded a monastery here in 540AD, in front of the remains of which stand two of the oldest high crosses in Ireland. The 9th Century was Lorrha's golden age; the Stowe Missal, the oldest Mass book in Europe, is just one of the region's treasures.

Our morning with James flew by as he brought us around the many magical historical sites; you could easily spend the day discovering our island's saintly, scholarly past.

Gemma Fullam in Thurles's fab Inch House
Gemma Fullam in Thurles's fab Inch House

Our next stop, for a river cruise on the Spirit of Killaloe, was the picturesque twin towns of Ballina and Killaloe, which are connected by the Shannon-spanning Killaloe Bridge (Killaloe, birthplace of Brian Boru, is in Co Clare, and was once Ireland's capital; Ballina is in Tipp).

Sunshine had segued into spitting rain, so, obligatory Titanic moment aside, we spent most of the jaunt on Lough Derg below deck, sipping coffee as the lakeside panorama unfolded, with the on-board commentary highlighting the hinterland's history.

We were by now ravenous, so we took the scenic lakeside drive to gorgeous Garrykennedy and family-run hostelry Larkins.

The Boyles, who've owned the picture-postcard pub since 2006, take pride in the provenance of their produce, not least because they're from a farming background. My famished fiance devoured his seafood pie, while I plumped for (my first ever!) beer-battered fish and chips, realising with each delicious bite what I've been missing all these years.

Renewed and refreshed, we set off through the Silvermines, for Holycross, and its eponymous abbey. We met our erudite guide, John Bourke, at 12th Century Cisterican Holy Cross Abbey. John, a volunteer guide, has an infectious passion for the ancient site's history. Uniquely contained within its walls are two relics of the true cross, which give the abbey its name. There's mystery and intrigue aplenty here, which John brought to life, from the whispering arch, to the famous faces hidden in the priceless Stations of the Cross; to the Eton connection; to the riveting tale of the blind monk's dream of the location of the grave of Eleanor of Aquitaine's murdered son, an event which led the thankful queen to bequeath the precious true cross relic to the abbey. Holy Cross is a working church once more, and a joy to visit.

Dinner was a first-class affair in the charming Parkers, down the road from the abbey. Our eyes proved bigger than our bellies, though we managed mains of melt-in-the-mouth risotto, and a luscious lamb shank. Back in Inch House, tired as we were, we couldn't resist a nightcap in the exquisite drawing room. Evening turned to night as ebullient chatelaine Nora Egan, who has transformed Inch House from an almost-ruin to a beautiful treasure, held us spellbound with tales from the Georgian house's history.

The morning brought the Rock of Cashel; Ireland's first national monument, and the ancient royal seat of the Kings of Munster, which has towered over the Golden Vale for centuries. The iconic spot's history dates back to the 5th Century, when St Patrick converted King Aengus to Christianity. Our guide, David, explained the site's two histories: royal and ecclesiastical. In 1101, the Rock was gifted to the religious, who replaced the wooden structures with stone; the round tower is the earliest ecclesiastical building on site. The Rock has too much history to list here, but the recently restored 12th Century Romanesque Cormac's Chapel, built for King Bishop Cormac McCarthy, merits mention. Considered the most important architectural building in the country, in part because of its intact solid barrel-vaulted sandstone roof, its interior holds many delights: rare frescos; door arches bearing the carved faces of its stonemason creators (the first selfies): a peerless gem.

Just down the road is Cashel Folk Village, run by Bernard Minogue, for whom the museum is a labour of love. It encompasses a 1916 Museum, Easter Rising Garden, Famine Museum, Penal Chapel, Old Forge, and much more. Bernard has amassed a wealth of artefacts, from bog butter; to a rare Blue Shirt uniform; 'man traps' used to catch Irish poachers by English landlords; to an original tinkers' caravan, occupied until 1986 by a family of 16. Unmissable.

Our lunch pitstop was River House Cafe in Cahir, where we wolfed delicious goat's cheese tartlets, and admired the panorama of the Suir from our perch.

Then onwards. My granny visited Mitchelstown Cave as a girl; back then, visitors' way was lit by Tilly lamps and candles. Today, the limestone passageways are illuminated by electricity, but otherwise not much has changed, as the owners, the English family, made a conscious decision not to over-commercialise the cave. The exquisite stalactite and stalagmites, with their magical names - Eagle's Wing; Eternal Cascade - require no embellishment. The cave, which remains at a constant 12 degrees, was discovered in 1833 by a farm labourer, who dropped his crowbar into a crevasse and happened upon the vast prehistoric underworld. Over 50 species of insects, including two rare blind spiders, live in this subterranean wonderland, which has played host to many unusual events, including a pop-up sushi restaurant.

The sun was shining when we emerged, so we set off for home via Cahir and Swiss Cottage, a dreamily romantic structure designed by the famous Regency architect John Nash. The 19th Century cottage orne is based on the forms of nature: the downstairs floor resembles a spiderweb; the rose-entwined latticework porch resembles branched trees. Built as a play retreat for Cahir Castle's owners, where they could pretend to be peasants, the cottage is romance in house form.

Romeo and I sat together under the shade of the adjacent 1,000-year-old yew - the Druids' sacred tree of rebirth - luxuriating in the wise form of madness that is love.

Getting there

Inch House; From €200 for two people for one night B&B and one evening meal,

Rock of Cashel; admission: €8 per adult; €20 per family,

Cashel Folk Village; admission: €6, adults. Input ‘Cashel Folk Village’ into for a virtual tour.

Lorrha Monastic Village; guided walking tours, €8pp, email Colette Bouchier,;

Killaloe River Cruises; daily departures at 1pm, 2.15pm & 3.30pm, depending on demand; €14 per adult, family of four, €40,

Larkins Garrykennedy; Food served daily, mains from €12,

Holy Cross Abbey; guided tours of Holy Cross Abbey take place every Wednesday and Sunday at 2pm, February to October, inclusive. Donation €4 accepted,

Parkers of Holycross; dinner main from €15,

River Run House, Cahir; Lunch from €10,

Mitchelstown Caves; admission : adults, €9; family of four, €20,

For further information about things to see and do in Tipperary,; 

Facebook: TourismTipperary; Twitter @VisitTipp

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