A huge swath of Ireland’s east coast—from Cork in the south all the way up to Monaghan and Louth, near the Northern Ireland border—is bursting with rich landscapes, ancient structures and centuries of history. Aptly named Ireland’s Ancient East, this area offers spectacular itineraries for the history-loving traveller. The options for exploring are endless, but if you venture beyond the curve of the mountains that sweep to the south of Dublin, along the road to Glendalough, Kilkenny and Wexford, you’ll be rewarded with a journey that reveals the very essence of Ireland’s past. Along the way, you’ll discover the cast of characters that helped shape this island nation from learned monks and violent Vikings to power-hungry Normans and humble farmers.

Glendalough

St. Kevin’s church. This spectacular valley’s first recorded inhabitant, a hermit named Kevin, left quite a legacy. Photograph by Jacques Vandinteren.

Pinned between dense forest and a vertigo-inducing drop, walkers carefully pick their way along the Spinc in Glendalough. The undulating cliff path follows the line of the mountain ridge, a narrow wooden boardwalk straddling bog and grass, stream and rock. Here, about 50 kilometres south of Dublin, you’ll find neither car nor building, road nor powerline. Below, a long, deep lake runs the length of the valley, which has another, small rounder lake at the eastern end. Together, these inky blue mirrors appear like one giant liquid exclamation mark, a trick of topographical punctuation that perfectly expresses the wonder of this magical place.

The Round Tower. Photograph courtesy of Mammuth/iStock.

And it’s difficult not to feel wonder. Glendalough—Irish for Valley of the Two Lakes—doesn’t just impress with its pristine panoramas, but also with its illustrious history. The isolated valley, carved by glaciers some 20,000 years ago, is home to one of Ireland’s most remarkable monastic sites. Long before the day-trippers came, long before the British built the Military Road—one of the country’s first purpose-built roads, designed to flush out early 19th-century Irish rebels hiding in the mountains—and long before marauding Vikings came over the hills, Glendalough was a haven for pilgrims.

A stone celtic cross. Photograph courtesy of Nevio3/iStock.

This spectacular valley’s first recorded inhabitant, a hermit named Kevin, left quite a legacy for a man who slept in a cave and wore animal skins. Canonized in 1903, Saint Kevin was a simple man who sought solace here in the sixth century. His nature-loving way of life soon attracted other followers, and he founded a monastic settlement. As the community grew, so too did the site’s importance. A mainstay of Christianity and learning, Glendalough became one of Europe’s most important ecclesiastical centres, thriving for more than 500 years.

Photograph courtesy of Pepmiba/iStock.

At its peak, the beautiful monastic city had seven churches. It’s a thrill to stand in Glendalough now and imagine what this industrious community would have looked like; praying and farming, crafting and carving. The surviving buildings date from the 10th to 12th centuries, with St. Kevin’s Church still impressively intact amongst the amberhued plants and Celtic crosses. It’s the 30-metre-high, freestanding Round Tower that draws the biggest crowd, though. Once a bell tower and beacon for approaching monks, its Rapunzel-esque proportions hint at something far more intriguing: its role as a watchtower and refuge from raiders. And it wasn’t long after it was built that the Vikings made their way through the Wicklow Mountains, in search of treasures to take back to their Dublin stronghold.

It’s unlikely that the Vikings stopped to marvel at the beauty of the valley, nor the Anglo-Normans who came from England three centuries later. Between land grabs and town building, the Normans set about reorganizing the church, which eventually led to Glendalough’s decline in 1214. The monks may have dwindled soon after, but this valley’s enduring beauty now attracts pilgrims of a different kind: tourists, city workers, hikers and families all seeking refuge from modern life.

Kilkenny

Kilkenny Medieval Mile. In Kilkenny, you’ll find the modern world ceases to exist for a tantalizing moment. Photograph courtesy of Alexander Cimbal/Alamy Stock Photo.

Once you’ve been enchanted by Glendalough’s beauty, head southwest to Kilkenny—a quick dash by motorway—to uncover the next chapter in Ireland’s history. The country’s medieval capital seems somewhat diminutive in size, but it is more than a match for any metropolis. Travellers would be remiss not to settle into Kilkenny for an extended stay to fully appreciate its perfect blend of ancient relics and modern amenities.

Kilkenny Design Centre. Photograph courtesy of Lesley Pardoe/Alamy Stock Photo.

Founded by monks, the city’s importance was solidified over the centuries by a succession of Irish and Norman lords who made it their home, and, thanks to its cathedrals and a royal charter from 1609, Kilkenny earned its stripes—the city’s beauty owes much to its medieval architecture.

Compact and walkable, you’ll find the narrow streets crisscrossed by cobbled laneways, granite gables, imposing façades and colourful shop fronts. Wander down The Butter Slip, an atmospheric, arched laneway built beneath houses in the 17th century, and you’ll find the modern world ceases to exist for a tantalizing moment.

Photograph courtesy of Darren McLoughlin/Alamy Stock Photo.

Then there’s the city’s Medieval Mile, which feels as though you’re walking through the pages of a history book. From the 13th-century Black Abbey and the 14th-century Kytelers Inn, one of the country’s oldest, to Rothe House & Garden, a 16th-century Tudor silk merchant’s home, the pages of Kilkenny’s past turn before you. There’s also the impressive Kilkenny Castle, built by the Normans in 1195 and restored in Victorian times, and the glorious 13th-century St. Canice’s Cathedral, further proving this is a modern city with an ancient heart.

Kyteler’s Inn. Photograph courtesy of Littleny/iStock.

After you’ve had your fill of history and heritage, turn your attentions toward Kilkenny’s vibrant culture. From pub life and traditional music sessions (O’Gorman’s and Ryan’s Bar are favourites) to local crafts, it’s a town that proudly wears its Irishness on its sleeve. Kilkenny is Ireland’s craft capital, and you’ll find the National Design & Craft Gallery next door to the Kilkenny Design Centre in the castle’s old coach houses and stables, both offering a fresh take on contemporary Irish jewelry, ceramics and weaving.

St. Canice’s Cathedral. Photograph courtesy of Fáilte Ireland.

Hot coffee and ridiculously good pastries from Cakeface Patisserie are mandatory Kilkenny pleasures. By night, dine casual at Zuni or dress smart and eat at Campagne, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the city centre where you’ll find local fare such as Kilkenny beef and lamb, Wicklow venison and Wexford strawberries on the menu. The best beds in town can be found at the sumptuous Butler House within Dower House on the grounds of Kilkenny Castle, or, 20 minutes outside the city, at the five-star Mount Juliet Estate.

Dunbrody

The Dunbrody famine ship. Photograph courtesy of Chris Dorney/Alamy Stock Photo.

With all its charms, it’s easy to forget that Ireland wasn’t always a hospitable place, with 1.5 million people fleeing its shores during the Great Famine (1845 to 1849), and another 1 million perishing from starvation. This story is far more recent than that of Glendalough or Kilkenny but, none the less, it is a defining period in Ireland’s history. A trip southeast from Kilkenny, toward the town of New Ross in County Wexford, will reveal the Dunbrody famine ship and a glimpse back in time to famine-stricken Ireland. One of eight cargo vessels built in Quebec for a wealthy merchant family from Wexford, it was launched in 1845, the year Ireland’s potato crop failed. Refitted hastily to carry emigrants, the Dunbrody ended up making many passenger trips between Quebec and Ireland. The replica ship, moored on the River Barrow, can be explored at the fascinating Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience, revealing the conditions of these uncomfortable journeys that so many endured on their way to better lives.

The Hook Head Lighthouse. Photograph courtesy of Rick Strange/Alamy Stock Photo.

A short drive further south to Hook Head—where the Dunbrody once entered open waters—will reveal far more than Wexford’s dramatic coastline. On the headland, you’ll see one of the world’s oldest working lighthouses. Built 800 years ago by a Norman lord, it served as a coastal landmark and offered protection to ships bringing supplies. The lighthouse overlooks the estuary where Vikings likely once sailed on their way to establishing Vadra Fiord (Waterford) in the ninth century. As you gaze out to sea from Hook Lighthouse, you may find yourself daydreaming of the monks and marauders, migrants and merchants who all stepped on this island and played a part in shaping Ireland’s Ancient East.

This story appears in the April 2020 edition of WestJet Magazine.

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