☘ Your feet will bring you where your heart is ☘
~ Irish Proverb ~
I’ve always been proud to say I’m Irish. You rarely, if at all, hear a bad word about Ireland or an Irishman. Its heart beats to an optimistic rhythm and one that is distinctively unique; a culture steeped in long tradition mixed with long adversity, where happiness dominates in spite of hardship. A pride in a land so beautiful, you can’t help but instantly love it. And so beautiful it may be, that all are welcome to share in her glory and no one is considered a stranger.
My heart though, had always longed to see more of Ireland outside of the one previous trip to Dublin I had taken in my 20’s. The older I grew, the more I held on to every word my father would mention of having family in the city and around. Of my grandfather’s hometown of Limerick in the southwest and tales of Cork, and my grandmother’s home of Moville in County Donegal, in the far north of the republic close to the borders of Northern Ireland.
Except they died when I was very young, so I never got to sit with them and learn their stories and prise from them every old story or recent memory, or build relations with wider family members so that I could stay close to a heritage I so desperately wanted to connect with.
Being able to spend a few days touring on a road trip around parts of what is dubbed ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ was as much of a homecoming for me as it was a fascinating trip into 5,000 years of history of a small but mightily pretty and culturally rich land. There were times when a simple “welcome home” from a local would render me emotional or fill me with a sense of pride of being brought into the clan. “You are the child of a neighbour”, one even said.
Not far from Dublin, ancient history lives in stone. Ireland’s centuries old stories whisper from the rocks atop of hills, stay nestled into grand castles or remain alive in bustling old city walls. I went on a short journey through the southeast to uncover the Viking, Norman and medieval foundations of today’s Emerald Isle, and a quest to find my own connection.
Day One in Ireland’s Ancient East
Starting in County Offaly, it was only right to taste the most famous export of the town of Tullamore – its fine Irish Whiskey called Tullamore D.E.W, where a tasting to sniff out your favourite age-old blend is a rite of passage. It’s the town’s most famous export from the Tullamore Distillery that rests beside the Grand Canal, and dates back to 1829. I’m not a whiskey fan, but the blend with a hint of apple may have swayed me a little towards this Irish staple.
Yet Tullamore’s foundations go further than distilling, with an ancient ruin concealing stories of invasion and conquest before whiskey made Ireland famous. The Rock of Dunamase is a castle ruin that dates back over 2000 years, perched within the layers of uneven hillsides, surrounding by farmland and encased in crumbling stonewall boundaries. It started life in the 6th Century and after the Normans invaded in the 12th Century, was built over and used as a fort. I climbed its walls and stood within the frameworks of its old windows, looking out onto a new and prosperous Ireland. A small group of us stood on its edges and pondered the Ireland that once was, in a fort we had to ourselves – we, the curious type of invader, there to tell its story.
No trip in Ireland is complete without an Irish pub or two, so it was only fitting on this trip to the southeast that the first pub stop was to Ireland’s oldest pub called Morrissey’s in the heritage town of Abbeyleix. Back in the day, the pub wasn’t just where you downed a pint of your favourite ale or stout, but an all-stop-shop where you could pick up your groceries and hardware goods. The Irish pub was the centre of everyday life. Very much how it remains now.
From rock to pub, the next stage of understanding old Ireland is from its days of barons and viscounts and generations-long lineage of title and splendour. An overnight stay in the 18th Century Castle Durrow country home, was a chance to experience the noble way and dine and sleep within walls of exquisite interior design.
Day Two in Ireland’s Ancient East
Starting out for Tipperary and singing the famous “It’s a long way to Tipperary” song on the way (which we learnt isn’t actually about the County in Ireland), we headed straight for the centerpiece of this area – The Rock of Cashel.
Cashel’s countryside is dominated by this mighty rock set atop a mount of limestone in an area known as the Golden Vale. A collection of early Christian and medieval buildings, including a 12th Century Round Tower, High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, 13th Century Gothic cathedral and a 15th Century Castle, this complex of ruins is one of Ireland’s most well-known relics, also known as St. Patrick’s Rock. It was once a fort of the Kings of Munster for several hundred years, and later given as a gift to the church in 1101.
Intrigued by the structure below, we made a visit to the crumbling Hore Abbey that sits wearily in the grounds below the Rock. History lingers here in isolation and eerie calm, but from the Abbey’s spooky, unkempt windows frames, you’ll find an incredible view up to The Rock of Cashel from a distance.
The second half of the day was spent exploring Ireland’s oldest city of Waterford, where a Viking moored his ship over 1,100 years, giving Waterford the title of ‘where Ireland began’. A city captured by the Normans in 1170, who set in stone the first layers of what we see today, The Old Town has become the site of the ‘Viking Triangle’ – a walkable historical trail that includes the colourful artefact-filled Medieval Museum, the 18th century Bishop’s Palace (recording Waterford’s history from 1700-1970), Christ Church Cathedral and Reginald’s Tower (housing a Viking exhibition) that stands next to a replica 40-foot Viking longboat.
Day Three in Ireland’s Ancient East
The final day of historical digging began in the County of Kilkenny, with the fascinating story of former pig farmer, Joe, who unearthed an ancient kingdom when buying a plot of land in retirement. Instantly, Joe became the appointed caretaker of Jerpoint Park – a 12th Century lost medieval town.
The town was established over 800 years ago before vanishing from all records in the 1600’s, and the raised mounds of earth and curves in the grassland are said to conceal what was once a prosperous town including 27 houses and 14 Taverns. It’s focal point though, is the uncovered Church of Saint Nicholas, which contains the very tomb of the famous saint.
From Ireland’s deserted medieval borough to the country’s first medieval stronghold, Kilkenny was one of my favourite spots on this trip. Once the great medieval capital of Ireland, Kilkenny’s 1,500 years of heritage runs through its laneways, famous old slip lanes, stairwells, walled-city gates, towers and stone-clad landmarks. A colourful and vibrant city to wander, it not only boasts seven gates, a castle, nine churches and two cathedrals, but a hub of up to 70 pubs!
The merriment known of this culture that goes back to the ancient days of brewing and enjoying the ‘liquid sunshine’. But should you find yourself in a situation where it’s difficult to decide where to go, then head to the street where six of them are lined up in a row, or to the famed Kytelers Inn – the oldest of all in Kilkenny and at the centre of Ireland’s (and it is said Europe’s) only witch trials took place here in 1324.
When I returned home, my DNA test results came through, placing a genome linage of around 4,000 years in this very country more so than I thought. It turns out there’s a lot of Irish on my mother’s side also.
I’m a very small part of the 5,000 years of history I retraced in rocks and ruins and old towns filled with the sounds of old stories and song.
But for a short while, I went home.
Things to Know About Travel to Ireland’s Ancient East:
- In European history, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. The Norman invasion of Ireland took place during the latter half of the 12th century.
- Wander through 5,000 years of history in Ireland’s Ancient East. I explored the southeast region in conjunction with Ireland Tourism and iAmbassador as part of a campaign to bring the country’s centuries-old history to life. Further inspiration and planning for your old adventure back in time can be found on the dedicated Ireland’s Ancient East website.
- If Ireland’s Ancient East is just the start of your plans, and you want further inspiration, the Irish insurance company Chill.ie surveyed 1,000 Irish men and women and pulled together a handy e-book on some of Ireland’s best cultural drives. It even includes one of my top hotspots listed, the Rock of Cashel, and other famous attractions like the Blarney Stone, alongside themed art and musical spots.