16 places to visit in Ireland’s Ancient East

Ireland’s Ancient East is an area steeped in history, culture and traditions.

For decades, the region has wowed visitors with cobbled streets, stately homes, rocky windswept headlands and pirate’s caves.

The wild landscapes will thrill you. But it’s the people that will really have you enthralled, with their welcoming smiles, tales of adventure, misadventure and good old Irish craic.

It’s here that you will find people descended from Vikings, the ticket point of the Titanic, the roots of the Kennedy family and perhaps even your own links to Ireland.

Where is the Ancient East?

Ireland’s Ancient East comprises 15 counties on the east coast of Ireland from County Cork in the south to County Monaghan in the north.

Ireland’s Ancient East

Cobh, County Cork

Almost half of the six million emigrants who left Ireland for a new life departed from the busy port town of Cobh. The most famous departure was the ill-fated Titanic.

Visitors to the region can still see the original White Star ticket office and find out the fate of each one of the 123 passengers at the Titanic Experience.

The Titanic Experience. Photo: Brian Morrison

Not everyone arrived in Cobh with such good intentions. Smugglers, traders and pirates haunted this region for hundreds of years. You can hear tales of their wicked exploits at the Blackrock Castle observatory.

Cobh was also the major transportation point for convicts bound for Australia. In April 1791, 133 men, 22 women and four young children – amassed from prisons throughout Ireland left Cobh on The Queen. One in seven were aged under 19. Among them was James Blake, aged 12, who stole a pair of silver buckles, and Patrick Fitzgerald, sentenced to seven years’ exile for stealing clothing.

It took five months for the ship to reach Australia and dozens of prisoners died. To make matters worse, the authorities forgot to send the paperwork with The Queen, which would indicate how long each prisoner still had to serve. The failure would spark Australia’s first uprising, the Castle Hill rebellion of 1804. The Queenstown Story experience in Cobh tells the story of the thousands of emigrants who left from here for Australia and America. It’s well worth a visit, even if you don’t have Irish heritage.

Spike Island. Photo: Courtesy Spike Island Management

Spike Island, just off the shore of Cobh is another must-see. The desolate star-shaped island was once a monastery, a fortress and later a prison. In 1850 it had the largest prison population of any jail in the world. Cromwell used Spike Island as a holding center for those awaiting transportation to Barbado. A visit here will give you a thorough understanding of the conditions convicts experienced.

Kilkenny, County Kilkenny

The Marble city is home to one of the most recognisable landmarks in all of Ireland – Kilkenny Castle. The Butler family gifted the castle to the people of Kilkenny for only £50 – what a steal. In fact the Butler’s called Kilkenny Castle home for 600 years, until the early 1900s when their family fortune ran dry.

Nowadays the Castle is open to the public to visit for less than £50, for free actually. Explore the 800-year-old castle at your own leisure, from the East Wing’s gallery to the medieval basement there’s a lot to see.

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny. Photo: Chris Hill

Step beyond the Castle to discover the town’s maze-like laneways. It’s always an adventure to see what you will stumble across next. Unearth Viking gold at Dunmore Cave, a series of limestone chambers formed over millions of years.

Explore the county’s fairy tale landscape on a cycling or walking trail or take to Kilkenny’s waterways on a paddling trail.

Newgrange, County Meath

A monument older than Stonehenge and the great Egyptian pyramids? Irelands’ Ancient East really does have it all. Newgrange is a prehistoric monument that hasn’t lost any of its wow-factor even after 5,200 years.

The monument itself is an 85-metre long and 13-metre high mound believed to be designed as a tomb or temple – no one will ever really no which. The mystery of it makes Newgrange even more enchanting. It’s surrounded by 97 kerbstones some of which are engraved with megalithic art. Do your best to translate the carvings.

Newgrange in Boyne Valley, County Meath. Photo: Brian Morrison

What’s even more magical about Newgrange is that on mornings on or around the winter solstice (around 21 December) a beam of light penetrates the roof box and travels up the 19-metre passage and into the chamber. The result is a dramatically and beautifully illuminated chamber.

It’s one of those once-in-lifetime pinch-me moments so it’s no surprise everyone wants in on the action. Access to the chamber is decided by a lottery from thousands of applicants each year. Those who don’t win the lottery are still welcome to gather outside the Newgrange entrance.

While your sights are set on Newgrange you will actually want to head to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. Here you can pick up tickets and get on a shuttle bus for a guided tour of Newgrange.

Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark, County Waterford

Named after the 19th-century copper mines that once dominated this spectacular stretch of cliffs, The Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark stretches for 25km along the Waterford County coastline.

The landscape tells the story of the earth’s history: undersea volcanos, arid deserts and dramatic ice-ages.

Bunmahon Beach. Photo: Emma Mc Cardle

The village of Bunmahon was at the heart of the copper-mining industry and you can see some of the haunting remains at Tankardstown.

Be sure to stop by the Cursing Stone while exploring the Geological Gardens, all will be revealed when you go there.

Local tips

The Copper Coast is also is a great place for surfing, cycling, hiking and trying your hand at sand art.

Waterford, County Waterford

Reginald, grandson of the legendary Viking Ivar the Boneless, founded the city now known as Waterford around 917. Reginald would later re-establish Viking power in Dublin and claim himself the King of York.

The city’s name comes from the Norse Vedrarfjordr, thought to mean either Fjord of the Rams, in reference to the export of sheep, or Windy Fjord.

Reginald’s Tower marks the site of the first defensive structure built by the Viking settlers. The oldest civic building in Ireland, it has been used as the mint, a prison and a military store. These days it hosts Waterford Treasures, an incredible exhibition with artifacts that tell the story of Waterford’s Viking heritage.

Reginald’s Tower Waterford. Photo: Courtesy Waterford Museum of Treasures

To really feel this Viking history, you should try the King of Vikings virtual reality tour. Set in a reconstructed Viking House, the 30-minute experience will bring history to life.

New Ross, County Wexford

Between 1845 and about 1851 a great famine swept across Ireland as successive potato crops failed. At the time, the potato was the staple food of the Irish rural poor who lived at subsistence level and could not afford to buy food. Without the potato, millions of people experienced starvation, sickness and death. Then wealthy landlords began to evict tenants who could not afford to pay their rent.

Thousands of desperate and starving emigrants made their way to New Ross in Ireland’s Ancient East seeking a better life abroad. And many found it on the Dunbrody famine ship.

The three-masted barque carried timber and guano to Ireland. But on its way back, it carried the Irish poor to America. Visitors can see a replica of the Dunbrody on the waterfront in New Ross. It’s a shiver-inducing glimpse at the cramped conditions in which the frightened people huddled during their 45-day crossing. But it’s also important to note the Dunbrody had an exceptionally low mortality rate, unlike many other more cramped vessels at the time.

The Dunbrody Famine Ship, New Ross. Photo: Chris Hill

One of those Irish emigrant families would later become the most famous family in the USA – The Kennedys. Take a trip to the Kennedy Homestead and find out more about the astonishing history of this remarkably gifted and driven family that came to dominate both US politics and fashionable society.

The homestead is the birthplace of President John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather Patrick Kennedy. A unique museum, it tells the story of five generations of the Kennedy dynasty, “those who went away and those who stayed”.

Inside the Kennedy Homestead. Photo: Brian Morrison

Hook lighthouse, County Wexford

The expression ‘by hook or by crook’ comes from Ireland’s Ancient East villages of Hook Head, Wexford and nearby Crooke in Waterford.

According to the legend, Oliver Cromwell once said Waterford would fall ‘by Hook or by Crooke’ – by landing his army at one of these two places during the siege of the town in the 17th century.

While here you should visit Hook Lighthouse, one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. More than 800 years ago, Knight William Marshal and an energetic band of monks built the lighthouse on the wind scored peninsula as a way to save the souls from perishing on the region’s towering rocks.

Hook Lighthouse. Photo: Luke Myers

The Saltee Islands, County Wexford

Ireland’s most famous bird sanctuary lies 5km off the coast of Kilmore Quay.

The Islands form part of an important migratory route in spring and autumn. You can often spot Puffins, Gannets, Gulls and Manx Shearwater.s. The larger island, The Great Saltee, also has a breeding population of Grey Seals.

Archeologists have found evidence of primitave stone age man on the islands, including the remains of an ancient grave, an Ogham stone and traces of ring forts. Years later, early Christian hermits settled on this remote spot seeking solitude and contemplation.

The Saltee Islands. Photo: George Munday

Other residents had less noble intentions. Pirates, rebels and smugglers operated with impunity across the Saltees between 1500 and 1800. The sea surrounding the islands sits on the major trading route between Britain and America. The pirates hid their ill-gotten gains in the many sea caves which now bear mysterious and romantic names such as Lady Walker’s Cave, Happy Hole, Otter’s Cave and Hell Hole.

The late Prince Michael the First purchased the islands in December 1943. His five sons and one daughter now co-own the property. But you can take the Saltee Ferry to visit this fascinating slice of Ireland’s Ancient East on a day trip.

The Wexford Slobs, County Wexford

Despite it’s slovenly name, the Wexford Slobs is home to one of the most immaculate environmental heritage areas on the planet – the Wexford Wildfowl Nature Reserve.

Bird watchers have spotted more than 250 species on the reserve. And from October to March, the North Slob holds about 45 per cent of the current world population of Greenland White-fronted Goose.

This region of Ireland’s Ancient East is filled with golden sandy beaches, craggy coves, cracks and crevasses. One of the best ways to explore them is by kayak.

Ireland's Ancient East
Kayaking in Wexford. Photo: Courtesy The Irish Experience

On a day tour you can hear tales of pirate adventures, legends and lovers as you paddle around startling green headlands and sheltered coves.

Make sure you add time to go to the beach. BIallinesker beach has beautiful fine white sand is rich in seashells. Cullacloe is another wide sandy beach the stretches from Raven Point to Ballyconigar near Blackwater.

Wells House and Gardens, County Wexford

John Warren built Wells House in the late 1600s. But it is architect Daniel Robertson that made Wells House famous. He remodelled the property in the 1800s, refurbishing the interior design, the terrace garden, the arboretum and the impressive tree lined avenue. Guests who visit this impressive 450 acre property can wander through enchanting woodlands & gardens, including fairy & Gruffalo walks, an animal farm and a children’s playground.

Wells House. Photo: Brian Morrison 

Robertson also designed nearby Powerscourt which was rated as the third best garden in the world. The property also contains two championship golf courses. Nearby Powerscourt waterfall is the largest waterfall in Ireland.

Brittas Bay, County Wicklow

Brittas Bay’s 5km long stretch of golden sand has attracted Irish surfers and bathers for years. Ask any of the Ancient East locals and they will tell you about long summers sent at this buzzy spot.

If you don’t fancy swimming, you can also ride horses along the beachfront.

Brittas Bay. Photo: Courtesy Celtic Routes

Wicklow Gaol, County Wicklow

Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Wicklow gaol once struck fear into the hearts of the Irish. But now it offers a fascinating interactive insight into Ireland’s history.

Wicklow was a horrendous place to end up – ravaged by death and disease. The overcrowded prison counted famine-era thieves and convicts awaiting transportation to Australia. Even children were among the inmates.

Ellen Doyle, the oldest convict recorded to have served time in Wicklow at 100-years-old was sentenced to hard labour at Wicklow for begging.

Up until 1856, the authorities sent many prisoners from Wicklow to Tasmania as punishment. A person could be sent ‘over the seas’ for being homeless or for petty crimes such as stealing bread.

Wicklow Gaol. Photo: Dylan Vaughen

Prisoners who finished their sentence had to pay the gaoler a gratuity to exit the gaol. Some never left. According to local legend William Peters was hanged six times in Wicklow Gaol. Each time he bribed the hangmen who doctored lined and stuffed the noose. Peters then feigned death by hanging and made a bid for freedom. On the seventh time, he wasn’t so lucky.

Tour guides at Wicklow Gaol dress in character, helping to bring the jail’s grim history to life. You can also try a frightening virtual reality experience.

Birr, County Offaly

The 400 year old Birr Castle on Ireland’s Ancient East celebrates feats of science and engineering. But it also showcases rare trees and flowers, including the largest grove of giant redwoods outside of California.

The Giant Telescope at Birr Castle. Photo: Chris Hill

Inside the castle you can admire astronomical instruments, cameras, photographs and photographic equipment used by the Third and Fourth Earls and Mary, Countess of Rosse, in the middle and late 1800s. Most people come to see “the leviathan”, a telescope that, upon construction in the 1840s, was the largest in the world.

Birr’s beauty doesn’t stop at the castle gates. Strap on your walking boots and head for a hike around the nearby Slieve Bloom Mountains for incredible views of the patchwork fields. Or head to one of the many local pubs to listen to live music.

Athy, County Kildare

This small town of Athy has a very big reason for tourists to visit. It’s home to the The Shackleton Museum.

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born in Athy Ireland in 1874. The famous adventurer went to explore the far reaches of Antarctica four times. He is is best known for his 1914–16 expedition, in which his ship, Endurance was trapped in ice off the Caird coast. It would become one of the greatest feats of human survival.

The Shackleton Museum is the only permanent exhibition devoted to Shackleton in the world. Inside you will find an original sledge and harness from his Antarctic expeditions, a 15-foot model of Shackleton’s ship Endurance, Shackleton family photographs and an audio visual display featuring Frank Hurley’s original film footage of the Endurance expedition.

Shackleton Museum Athy. Photo: Courtesy Shackleton Museum Athy

Trim, County Meath

Trim Castle dominates this picturesque town on the River Boyne in Ireland’s Ancient East midlands. If it looks familiar, that’s because it was the backdrop of Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart. It’s also the largest Norman castle in Ireland.

Admiring Trim Castle, Photo: Supplied.

Trim town is filled with cute cafes and friendly locals and great Irish pubs. The Town Hall, known locally as the Market House, was one of Thin Lizzy’s first concert venues, and a favourite of bands such as U2.

If you visit in June you can join in the Trim Hay Making Festival which celebrates Ireland’s rural traditions.

Carlingford, County Louth

This town is a pint-sized medieval marvel with the bonus that it is home to Ireland’s last official leprechaun whisperer, Kevin Woods. Colourful shops and pubs many with windowboxes overflowing with flowers line the main street.

The region is known as Ireland’s adventure capital. Visitors come to walk, kayak, sail and surf. Carlingford is the trailhead for several loop walks with more starting in the nearby villages of Grange, Omeath, Ravensdale, Rockmarshall and Whitestown.

It’s also famous for fresh delicious oysters and holds an Oyster Festival every August.

Carlingford Oyster festival. Photo: Supplied

Vacations & Travel produced this article on Ireland’s Ancient East in partnership with Tourism Ireland.

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