The world is full of myth, magic, and lore. Take it from me, I’ve spent my entire career looking for it. But, of all the places I’ve been to, of all the ruins, caves, woods and castles, there’s no place which quite compares to Ireland. I’ve spent the better part of four years exploring it, and every time it feels like a fairy tale. So, in 2016, when Ireland announced its latest tourism route which focuses on ancient Irish history, it was only natural for me to head to the Emerald Isle. I was delighted to spend a week with my dear friend and colleague Ed Hannon of Visions of the Past Blog where we explored the Land of the 5,000 Dawns, the Celtic Coast and the Historic Heartlands which make up Ireland’s Ancient East. And it was as every bit of magical as it sounds.
If you prefer to trek about with help, check these out.
Exploring Ireland’s Ancient East
Understanding the History Behind the Lore
It’s no secret that Ireland is rich with magic and lore. From fairy sites to enchanted hilltops, its legends are many. Known for its pristine preservation of stories, the footprint of Ireland’s ancient past is captivating —and exploring it, alluring. However, before you dive into the magic, you must understand the history behind the lore. And with a destination like Ireland, which cradles hundreds, even thousands of places teaming with age, we must learn why they are so important to Irish legends. To simplify this, it comes down to converting to Christianity.
The ancient Irish had very strong beliefs all of which were taught through the art of verbal storytelling. When St. Kevin came along and created the Monastic Settlement of Glendalough in County Wicklow, he ordered these pagan beliefs to be transcribed by ancient monks. Converted in translation, the Fae (fairies) who were once a very real belief to the ancient people of Ireland, were forever banished to the underworld. In fact, this is what spawned Halloween as we know it (but that’s another story).
When we look at this transition, we can take away from it three important structures which hold an echo of this past: megaliths, abbeys and castles. Many of them still stand all over Ireland, with a large quantity of them in what is now known as Ireland’s Ancient East.
Understanding the Structures of Ireland’s Ancient East – Megaliths, Abbeys and Castles
Megaliths carry a huge importance as they are the most mysterious of the three. Their construction and perfect alignment with solstices have raised more questions than answers. Irish Mythology and folklore tell us these are sacred places. They were (and by many still are) thought of as portals to the other world where the fae were banished and now dwell. They are sacred sites and continue to serve as ritualistic gathering points for many.
The ancient abbeys of Ireland’s east are spectacular and well preserved. Even in ruins, they attract thousands of people for their beauty and astounding photographic qualities. One visit and you will surely understand why. These abbeys mark the earliest architectural footprint of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity and are where most of the legends we hear today were transcribed.
One of the direct ties to the construction of castles in Ireland are the social and cultural changes from its conversion to Christianity. Some working and some in ruins, the castles of Ireland are all magnificent and easily draw the attention of many. There’s something incredibly magical about passing a castle ruin along a country road and exploring the ones which are maintained. It’s a remarkable way to take a trip back in time and get a first look at the way of life as it was then.
Where is Ireland’s Ancient East Anyway?
Ireland’s Ancient East consists of three regions; The Land of the 5,000 Dawns; The Historic Heartlands and The Celtic Coast. They stretch from the central County Cavin south to County Cork and along the southern coast back up into County Monaghan, making a complete circle of eastern Ireland. There is quite a bit of ground to cover, and www.Ireland.com offers incredible planning tips for each region. Structured and equally as magical as the Wild Atlantic Way, this tourism route offers just as much in the way of hospitality as it does adventure.
Here is a Breakdown of Our Week
While it would take you about two weeks, in my opinion, to explore the whole of Ireland’s Ancient East, we hit some of the places which logistically made sense. We started our trip in Dublin (see travel guide below). And while we weren’t able to explore all the counties, we did cover a lot of ground.
The Land of the 5,000 Dawns – County Meath
Newgrange – Newgrange is a 5,000-year-old passage tomb built in the Neolithic period making it older than the pyramids of Egypt. Every Winter Solstice hundreds gather, with just a select few who are allowed inside, to witness the light of dawn as it pierces the small opening above the tomb’s entrance to illuminate the burial chamber inside.
Loughcrew – Loughcrew is a Megalithic Tomb similar to Newgrange. It requires a short hike up a bald hill leading you at a vista beside the tomb which overlooks the countryside. It is a stunning and peaceful place to visit.
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Trim Castle – Trim Castle is where they filmed parts of Braveheart. It is in ruins however, you can explore inside the ruins and the grounds. It is a lovely place for an afternoon sunset and great for photos. It’s Ireland’s largest Anglo-Norman castle, set in the ancient Boyne Valley in the medieval village of Trim.
Abbey of Kells Monastery – First founded in 554, the Abbey of Kells Monastery is where much of the Book of Kells was created. It’s known for its four high crosses built in the 9th century by the monks of St Colmcille’s of Iona, Scotland in 804.
Bective Abbey – Bective Abbey is a Cistercian abbey on the River Boyne. Founded by Murchad O’Maeil-Sheachlainn in 1147. Due to its castle-like resemblance, it was chosen to be used in Braveheart as well.
Historic Heartlands – Counties Tipperary, Laois and Kilkenny
The Rock of Cashel – The Rock of Cashel, also known as Cashel of the Kings, is a magnificent medieval site erected at the top of a hill overlooking the countryside. This is the site of the conversion of Aenghus the King of Munster and where Saint Patrick baptized him. The Rock of Cashel was once the seat of the Kings of Munster. It’s also undergoing restoration of the oldest wall murals in Ireland which date over 800 years in age.
According to local mythology, the Rock of Cashel originated in the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 20 miles (30 km) north of Cashel when St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave, resulting in the Rock’s landing in Cashel.” Wikipedia
The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most significant historic landmarks. Three of the most famous people of Irish legend and history are associated with it. St. Patrick whom as mentioned before is said to have baptized King Aengus in 432 AD, who became Ireland’s first Christian ruler. And the third was Brian Boru, he was crowned High King here in 990.
The 15th-century castle and the Hall of the Vicars is the entry point to the ecclesiastical enclosure. The Hall houses the museum where the original Cross of St. Patrick can be found.
Cahir Castle – Cahir Castle is one of Ireland’s most well-preserved strongholds which is perched upon rocks and looks as if it erected right from the stones. Its eventful history can be explored via guided tours.
Castletown House – A stunning and pristine Renaissance inspired Palladian manor which sits on an estate meant for exploring. Take walks along the river and open parkland or just tour the house itself. It’s a beautiful location for an afternoon or morning.
Jerpoint Abbey – Jerpoint Abbey is another fine Cistercian abbey built in 1158 AD and boasts tombstones, carvings and statues which give it its ancient presence. It’s a peaceful and quiet place to spend time taking photos.
Photo by Keith Ewing CCL
Photo by David Bergin CCL
Kilkenny Castle – Built in 1195 Kilkenny Castle is a working castle with an exquisitely maintained interior and grounds. Give yourself a couple hours to go through its elaborate halls and rooms.
The Celtic Coast – Counties Carlow and Wicklow
Huntington Castle – There are many interesting sights at Huntington Castle. The 17th-century house is a jackpot of curious treasures and collections. It also boasts a secret cellar ornate with cult-like collectibles. Its grounds and interior make it quite the sight for anyone looking to tell an interesting story.
Duckett’s Grove – A bit of a secret gem if you ask me. It has been taken over by the government but sits in ruins. The only company you’ll have here are the ravens which live inside. This 19th-century estate was formerly owned by the Duckett’s Family. I’m not sure about the story of how it ended up in the hands of the government, but I’ll tell you it’s pretty creepy.
The Monastic Settlement of Glendalough – The Monastic Settlement at Glendalough established in the late 6th century is where the first Irish legends were written by ancient monks. Settled by St. Kevin who lived there alone for years, it is now a compound of majestic ruins and tombstones tucked away in a fairy tale like glen.
Travel Guide – Logistics, Accommodations and Other Cool Things to do
If you’re looking for a convenient trip to explore some of Ireland’s oldest ruins, you can base yourself either from Dublin or Kilkenny. I recommend both. They both offer different experiences. Dublin is clearly a much larger city, bustling with shops, restaurants, pubs and history, while Kilkenny offers a quieter much smaller city but also with a great variety of options for dining, shopping, pubs and history.
Driving from the airport in Dublin is easy and you can pass through the northern counties while making your way into County Kilkenny in the southwest.
I can recommend the Brooks Hotel on Jury Street, it’s one of my favorite Dublin hotels and has a spectacular breakfast. In Kilkenny check out the Butler House for its large rooms and beautiful walled garden. It sits across from the Kilkenny Castle.
For nightcaps in Dublin and other cool things to do read this. For nightcaps in Kilkenny, check out Left Bank, a lovely Victorian pub with a definite mood.
Exploring Ireland’s Ancient East is a remarkable journey which will leave you rich with the magic of Ireland. From hilltop ruins to riverside castles, it’s shrouded in the very mystery, enchantment and lore which makes Ireland such a legendary place.