Discover the Past in Ireland's Ancient East

Drive through 5,000 years of history to discover Ireland’s rich and storied past.

Ireland’s east is a treasure house—sometimes literally so—of ancient sites. It’s a huge area, physically and temporally, taking in 17 counties and more than 5,000 years of history. So, in the words of the traditional Irish blessing, may the road rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back.

Dublin to Glendalough

River Avoca runs through the Wicklow Mountains near Glendalough, Ireland.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATURA LIGHT, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most journeys within Ireland begin in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland's capital, known for its history, literary heritage, and craic—a word with a loose meaning encompassing fun, banter, and the pleasure of company, all of which can be found in Dublin’s many pubs.

Work up a thirst by staring in open-mouthed wonder at the Book of Kells, the richly illustrated manuscript of Gospels which date from around A.D. 800 and are on display in Trinity College’s atmospheric Old Library. Slake that thirst in Davy Byrnes, a pub associated with a much more recent, but no less celebrated book. In James Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses, it’s where Leopold Bloom enjoys a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich.

From Dublin, take the scenic route south along the R115 for 61 kilometres through Wicklow Mountains National Park to Glendalough, a monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century and known as “the valley of two lakes.” The round tower stands 108 feet tall, and it’s easy to imagine the monks who once lived and worshipped in this place hard at work in their scriptorium, illustrating manuscripts as beautiful as the Book of Kells.

The Maritime Gateway

Colourful homes line the harbor in Cobh, County Cork, the final port of call for the R.M.S. Titanic.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN JANNSEN, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Head for the south coast and stories of emigration and invasion. The Dunbrody Famine Ship, moored on the quayside at New Ross, a little more than 87 kilometres from Glendalough, is a replica three-masted "coffin ship" of the sort that took more than a million people from Ireland to North America to escape starvation caused by potato blight. Among them was Patrick Kennedy, the great-grandfather of JFK, who sailed from New Ross in 1848. (His former home, the Kennedy Homestead, can be visited at nearby Dunganstown.) Ships sailing for a new land and new lives would have passed Hook Head, site of the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, built some 800 years ago and open for guided tours.

Nearby Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, was founded by Vikings in 914. Get up close to evidence of their presence at Reginald’s Tower, then visit the Medieval Museum, where 15th-century priestly vestments, woven in silk and embroidered with biblical scenes, are among the great treasures of Europe.

Take the N25 south-east for 120 kilometres or so, and you’ll come to the port of Cobh (pronounced “cove”). Looking out over the harbour, a statue depicts 17-year-old Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island, and her two younger brothers. They made the voyage from here to New York in 1891. A far less fortuitous voyage is commemorated in the Titanic Experience attraction—in 1912, the ill-starred liner made her final port of call here (Cobh was then called Queenstown) on that tragic maiden voyage.

The city of Cork, 24 kilometres inland, is a good place to stop for a bite. Stock up on food at the English Market, trading since 1788, which has been described as the best-covered market in the U.K. and Ireland. This is the place to see the Irish love of meat in all its glory, including such specialities as crúbeens (pig trotters) and drisheen (blood sausage). As one stallholder puts it, "Every part of the pig is sold apart from its squeal."

Fairytale Castles, a Giant’s Grave, and a Pint With a Witch

Tombstones fill the cemetery at St. Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny City.
PHOTOGRAPH BY F1ONLINE DIGITALE BILDAGENTUR GMBH, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Take the M8 motorway north for 97 kilometres to the Rock of Cashel. Sometimes known as St. Patrick’s Rock, this prominent green hill is crowned by a cluster of medieval buildings including a castle, cathedral, and chapel. It is Disney meets Gormenghast and offers spectacular views over the Tipperary countryside.

From the Rock of Cashel, head east for gorgeous Lough Gur, where the remarkable archaeological landscape, including Ireland’s largest stone circle and the tomb known as the Giant’s Grave, is interpreted at the thatch-roofed heritage centre. Enjoy a picnic beside the horseshoe-shape lake.

Alternatively, go west from Cashel to the city of Kilkenny and walk the Medieval Mile from the 13th-century St. Canice’s Cathedral (climb the ninth-century tower, if you are able) to the castle. Kilkenny Castle was founded by a Norman knight called Strongbow and looks it—all glowering turrets and battlements.

Beer in Kilkenny also dates back to the medieval period, when it was made by the monks of St. Francis Abbey. Visit what remains of the abbey as part of the Smithwick’s Experience, a multimedia tour of the former brewery where one of Ireland’s oldest ales was made. If you’d rather just drink it, try Kyteler’s Inn, established in 1324 by Dame Alice Kyteler, who some say poisoned her four wealthy husbands and some say was a witch. Don’t let that put you off your pint, though.

From Christian to Pagan

A morning mist settles around Temple Finghin—a ruin in the Clonamcnoise complex—and the River Shannon in County Offaly, Ireland.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GARETH MCCORMACK, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Head north-west now around 113 kilometres to Clonmacnoise, a complex of early churches and high stone crosses more than a thousand years old. These beautiful and moving ruins were once a great centre of religion and learning. The bronze abbot’s crozier, made in the 11th century and discovered during excavations in the 19th, is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

From Clonmacnoise’s Christian relics, travel northeast to the Hill of Uisneach, a pagan landscape of myth and magic. Uisneach has long been associated with Beltane, the ancient fire ritual to mark the coming of summer. From the top of the hill, one can see 20 counties. A huge boulder on the southwestern slope, known as the Catstone, is said to mark the resting place of Ériu, the Earth goddess, after whom Ireland is named, and to act as a gateway to the otherworld. Legend has it that Lough Lugh, the lake on top of the hill, is where the sun god drowned. Uisneach is private farmland, but guided tours run Wednesday to Sunday, May to September.

Cavan Burren Park

Moss grows along the lush forest floors of Cavan Burren Park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY EUNAN SWEENEY, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Up near the Northern Ireland border, Cavan Burren Park is a 120-kilometre journey north from Uisneach. This is a grand place to stretch your legs after the drive, with over six miles of trails offering the chance to explore the limestone plateau and its many Neolithic and Bronze Age structures. This historically important landscape is wreathed in a mist of folklore; many of the tombs, lakes, and other geological features are associated with giants, fairies, magic horses, and druids, and—according to one guide—"were used for making love by childless couples in the hope of conceiving children." The romantically inclined today might consider making the 148-kilometre drive east to Carlingford to sit on the "proposal stones" where, traditionally, lovers would ask the fairies to bless their union and make it fruitful.

Brú na Bóinne and Hill of Tara

Grassy fields surround burial mounds near Knowth, a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside Dublin, Ireland.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN NORRIS TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Some 89 miles south-east of Cavan Burren, and just 51 kilometres north of Dublin, Brú na Bóinne is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In a bend of the River Boyne sit three huge stone tombs: Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. Only Newgrange and Knowth are accessible via guided tours from the visitor centre, and just Newgrange is open to visitors. Built around 3,200 B.C., long before the pyramids of Egypt and England’s Stonehenge, it is massive and magnificent. It’s thought that as well as being a grave, this was a solar calendar. On the winter solstice, if weather conditions are right, the sun streams down the 18-metre passageway and floods the burial chamber with light.

Some 29 kilometres south of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara looks from the air like a pair of linked rings. It is a sacred and symbolic site constructed from burial mounds, ditches, banks, and ritual stones. This was the crowning and feasting place of Ireland’s ancient kings and where St. Patrick is said to have preached his new religion—Christianity—in defiance of the Druids and their old gods. What better way to end your journey?

Header Image: In County Tipperary, the Rock of Cashel sits above an array of medieval sites. PHOTOGRAPH BY DESIGN PICS INC, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit