It’s well known that the Irish have a flair for storytelling, the gift of song, and a love for tradition—perhaps that’s due to Ireland’s 5,000-year history of conquest, majesty, and epic events.
When you explore Ireland’s Ancient East, you’ll wander through 5,000 years of history across 17 counties. Your journey will be filled with 40 shades of fertile landscapes, magnificent castles and manor houses, fascinating myths and legends, colorful storytellers, ancient cities, and spirited festivals. Here we take you on a whistle-stop tour through five ages you’ll discover on your journey through Ireland’s Ancient East.
1.) Ancient Ireland
Begin by going back to the start, to pre-historic times. Get up close to the stones and stories of Ireland’s primeval past—and the perfect starting point to your journey is County Meath. Rich in ancient wonder, the aptly nicknamed “Royal County” is home to one of Ireland’s great treasures, the pre-historic passage tomb of Newgrange, part of the archeological landscape and UNESCO World Heritage site Brú na Bóinne. At 5,000 years old, this ancient tomb is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Considered an engineering masterpiece, the impressive structure perfectly aligns with the first rays of sunlight on the winter solstice making it a place of astrological, spiritual, religious, and ceremonial importance. And five millennia later, it hasn’t lost any of its wonder. Guided tours are available today and you can even enter a lottery for a chance to witness the ancient chamber illuminate on the winter solstice every December.
Other must-see locations from this era include the Loughcrew Cairns, steeped in myth and lore of witches and magical thrones, and the ancient capital of Ireland, the Hill of Tara, from where Ireland’s High Kings once ruled.
2.) Early Christian Ireland
Next, step into Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars and visit the monastic sites where Ireland’s pioneering saints and monks once resided while sculpting high crosses, designing intricate chalices and crafting some of the world’s greatest illustrated manuscripts. Today, explore the remains of these celebrated sites including 5th century Clonmacnoise, once a leading center of religion and learning in Europe, and St. Kevin’s 6th century monastic site at picturesque Glendalough, the crown jewel of the Wicklow Mountains National Park. You’ll discover impressive round tower structures at these locations—additions to these monastic settlements in Ireland from around the 8th century, built during turbulent times of Viking invasions to keep treasures and people hidden out of harm’s way.
3.) Viking Ireland
Far from being just rampaging warriors, some 1,200+ years ago the Vikings also brought civilization to Ireland establishing its first towns and cities.
Dating back to 914 A.D Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city and one of the most important centers of Viking history on the island. Take in Waterford’s Treasures during your visit (a trio of museums that regales Waterford’s fascinating history from Viking origins through to Georgian times) before stopping by the home of world-famous Waterford Crystal to discover unique craftsmanship and beautiful design.
In Wexford, discover how the Vikings may have lived and visit the Irish National Heritage Park, where you can see a replica of a Viking town. Today Wexford is best known for hosting one of the World’s Leading Opera Festivals every October/November.
4.) Castles of Ireland
Travel forward a few hundred years and get acquainted with the castles of Ireland’s Ancient East, with many originating in Medieval (800 to 1166) and Norman times (1176 to 1535). Here you’ll discover an ode to the glory days of epic architecture—a feast of turrets, towers and battlements. As you stride the battlements and tour the towers, absorb the strange stories these stone fortresses contain.
Dominating the Tipperary landscape from its hilltop perch, the Rock of Cashel is a spectacular cluster of medieval chapels, churches and a cathedral, whose history is steeped in tales of St Patrick and Ireland’s high kings. Although in ruins, this 12th century medieval masterpiece still takes pride of place in Cashel heritage town, and provides the perfect backdrop to explore Ireland’s vivid history and heritage.
Kilkenny city wears the influence of many eras including early Christian, Viking, Medieval and Norman, although it’s best known for its rich medieval past. Tour the Medieval Mile and explore the city’s charming narrow streetscapes, historic buildings and landmarks including the must-see Kilkenny Castle. Over the eight centuries of its existence, so many additions and alterations have been made to the fabric of the building that it’s now a complex structure of various architectural styles. Guided tours of the castle, ornamental gardens and tea rooms make for a perfect afternoon of exploring.
Next, head for one of Ireland’s most beloved castles in County Cork. While best known as the home of the Blarney Stone, a visit to Blarney Castle encapsulates so much more. Explore the castle’s secret passageways and hidden corridors before taking in views of the extensive parklands and magical gardens. We promise you’ll leave with more than just the gift of eloquence.
Trim Castle is the stuff movies are made of and so it’s no surprise that the movie makers of epic thriller Braveheart chose Ireland’s largest Norman Castle as a key film location. One look at Trim Castle’s stony outline against a dramatic Irish sky and storybook images of valiant warriors and timid monks spring to life.
5.) Ireland’s Great Houses
Fast forward to Ireland’s great houses, a chapter of history cast in stone, running thick with culture, characters, conflicts and, of course, the odd dark stranger. Today, you can experience the finer lifestyle with a tour, afternoon tea or an overnight stay at one of these magnificent homes. Though only a small number of these houses remain today, their architectural grandeur, antique furnishings and interiors, cultivated gardens and sprawling demesnes play a key part in Ireland’s cultural history.
Powerscourt is one of Ireland’s most famous estates, offering visitors a sublime blend of formal gardens, sweeping terraces, statues and ornamental lakes with secret hollows, rambling walks and beautiful walled gardens. Take time to explore the fabulous Avoca Handweavers for delicious local food and unique Irish souvenirs.
Visit Castletown House to explore the beautiful 18th-century parklands, with river walks, a temple and the remains of a bathing house. Stroll around the gardens of Castletown House and explore the history of the house itself—the perfect way to while away a day out in County Kildare.
Ready to go?
In addition to the ancient sites and impressive monuments, every journey through Ireland’s Ancient East is filled with modern surprises. Quaint villages, charming B&Bs, fantastic restaurants, cozy pubs, spirited music and food festivals, museums, distilleries and wonderful, welcoming people will greet you at every turn.
What would you like to do on a journey through Ireland?