Must-See Places in Ireland’s Ancient East

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Ireland’s Ancient East

Within Ireland’s Ancient East lies the Hidden Heartlands. As part of Ireland’s Ancient East tourism campaign, the Hidden Heartlands are the focus of a campaign designed to bring tourists and visitors to the middle of Ireland that have been neglected or passed over by tourism.

If you want to explore the areas you should rent a car. Don’t be afraid of driving the Irish roads there’s no road rage here. These Ancient East sites have some of the most incredible Irish historic locations and ancient history that go back as far as human development, natural beauty and jaw-dropping scenery from mountains to boglands.

Ireland's hidden heartlands in the Ancient East, a view of the Galtee mountains

Ireland’s Ancient East includes these historic heartlands and covers the area outside of Dublin and east of the River Shannon, extending from Carlingford to Cavan and south to Cork City, including East County Cork and East County Limerick.

Ireland’s Ancient East Map

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Most tourists miss the hidden heartlands of Ireland in their rush to see the Giant’s Causeway, explore the Game of Thrones route of check out the Cliffs of Moher and drive the Ring of Kerry. It is such a shame as there is so much to see and explore in Ireland’s hidden heartlands. 

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

To really experience Ireland you need to step out of the usual tourist destinations and explore areas further than usual tourist sites. Take a moment to move beyond the Rock of Cashel and explore the beauty of Tipperary. Move slightly north of Newgrange and wander through the streets of Carlingford or check out Monaghan with its quiet and tranquil villages and views.

A first-time visit to Ireland? Need some Irish Planning Inspiration? Or just advice on how to travel to Ireland? It’s all here for you

The Rock of Cashel, also known as Cashel of the Kings and St. Patrick's Rock, a historic site located at Cashel, County Tipperary. One of the most famous tourist attractions in Ireland.

This is by no means a complete guide to Ireland’s Ancient East but it is some of the major highlights of the area. Many you may well have read of or heard about and some will surprise and delight you when you find them.

How to Travel Ireland’s Ancient East

Bus Éireann has a dedicated map for Ireland’s Ancient East, along with an Open Road Pass (buseireann.ie/openroadticket), allowing three days of unlimited travel for €60.

Rail Tours Ireland does escort tours of Ireland’s Ancient East the Wild Atlantic Way and all points in between. They use a combination of trains and luxury coaches to escort you around your chosen destinations.

If you want to camp in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands check out Ireland’s best camping site here

Top Things to Do in Ireland’s Ancient East

Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands are a part of Ireland’s Ancient East and they lie in the centre of Ireland and are comprised of the counties of Offaly, Laois, Kildare, Tipperary, Limerick, Carlow and Kilkenny.

Want to know what to pack for Ireland’s 4 seasons in one day? Here is a complete guide to what you should bring.

Offaly County

Offaly sits in the heart of Ireland with the majestic Shannon River on its western borders and the soft rolling hills of the Slieve Bloom mountains in the East. Great expanses of boglands, a wild and massive mountain park, and deeply shaded wooded valleys with rushing streams and rivers decorates this beautiful County. Even a President has been to Offaly, President Obama’s late mother Ann Dunham was a descendant of the Kearney family who left Moneygall Offaly after the Famine to build a new life in New York in 1850.

Birr Castle

Birr Castle has stood in Ireland since the Anglo-Normans built a castle on the motte. The castle was held by the O’Carrolls until the 1580’s when it was sold to the Ormond Brothers. By 1620 the castle was a ruin and James the 1st granted it to the Parsons family. In the 17th century, the castle survived two sieges and over the course of time until the 19th century the castle was ‘modernised’ and improved upon.  Birr Castle as you see it today was completed by the 1860s and today is lived in by the Parson’s family. 

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Clonmacnoise

A monastic site on the banks of the River Shannon that dates back to the 6th century. Clonmacnoise is home to a cathedral, seven churches, three high crosses, and two round towers. The monastery was founded in 548- 9 by St. Ciarán Mac a tSaor (“son of the carpenter”), who studied under St. Finian at the famous Clonard Abbey.

Clonmacnoise Ireland's hidden heartlands and Ireland Ancient East

Tullamore Dew Warehouse

Situated on the banks of the Grand Canal, the distillery’s original Bonded Warehouse was the last place its whiskey would rest; the final leg on its journey before being shipped up the canal for distribution around the world.  This history is maintained at the Warehouse where you can journey through almost 2 centuries of Tullamore Dew’s history and get to taste some of the famous tipples.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

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Laois

County Laois (pronounced Leesh) is located in the south of Ireland’s Ancient East in the province of Leinster and was formerly known as Queen’s County, its original name was Loigis, which was a medieval kingdom.

Slieve Bloom Mountains

The Slieve Bloom Mountains Nature Reserve is, Ireland’s largest state-owned nature reserve it sits in both Offaly and County Laois. It is designated a Ramsar Wetland Site and a Council of Europe Biogenetic Reserve. Much of the greater upland area has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) due to its Mountain blanket bog.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

The Mountains are also designated a Special Protection Area (SPA), of special conservation interest for the hen harrier, a rare bird of prey. The Nature Reserve is a great place for hiking, walking, birdwatching or to simply enjoy the stunning scenery. There are three way-marked walks and a viewing platform at the Ridge of Capard.  There are also guided nature walks during the summer.

The Rock of Dunamase

This craggy limestone outcrop rises dramatically out of the plains just east of Portlaoise. For the early settlers in the area if offered a superb natural defence with sweeping views right across the country. It was even a wedding gift from the King of Leinster who granted the castle as part of the dowry for his daughter Aoife when she married the legendary Norman warrior Strongbow in 1170. Dunamase has centuries of history and superb views of the county.

Rock_of_Dunamase_Sunset

It was destroyed by Cromwell’s men in 1650 but the views from the top are a site you shouldn’t miss

Donaghmore Workhouse

In the 1850s during the famine, the raw stone Donaghmore Workhouse was a last resort for the starving. Conditions in the workhouses were brutal, supposedly if conditions were harsh the poor wouldn’t stick around but move on. Unfortunately, thousands died in these horrendous conditions. These days the buildings remain as a reminder of those grim times with simple displays telling the workhouse stories.

Lea Castle

About 4km east of town are the ivy-covered ruins of 13th-century Lea Castle. The castle consists of a fairly intact towered keep with two outer walls and a twin-towered gatehouse. Access is through a farmyard, 500m to the north of the main Monasterevin road (R420).

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Kildare

County Kildare is west of Ireland’s capital, Dublin and it is considered horse breeding central. Famous for the Irish National Stud farm, the Horse Museum and the Curragh Racecourse – if you love horses Kildare is the place to go.

For those who are more into history and nature County, Kildare must visit will include St. Brigid’s Catherdram and the Bog of Allen in the north of the county.

Irish National Stud

The Irish National Stud & Gardens in Co. Kildare is located about an hour’s drive from Dublin. The Stud celebrates Ireland’s love of horses and horse breeding. If you get lucky the stables may be open to seeing the horses up close and in the spring during foaling time you may see a baby future race winner.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

The Japanese Gardens at the Stud offer some beautiful walks and there is a local cafe for some great tea and cake afterwards. Or if you have little ones treat them to the Fairy Walk and Gardens.

Learn more about the fairies in Ireland and where they can be found.

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Kildare Village

Kildare is referred to as Ireland’s most popular day trip in its city guide, yet it is not one of those places you hear about often, or find every travel blogger writing about.  I have to admit, I just love the name Kildare, which translates to the church of the oak, and I was pretty obsessed with visiting the town.   I felt a bit like I was going out on my own, and had to dig to find things to do since no one writes about the town. I am glad I did, because we fell in love with this little village, in fact, the whole of County Kildare.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Kildare town, as it is typically called, is the seat of County Kildare.  This is unusual, since the village is rather small, with larger cities in the area.  It has a charming town square, lined with pubs and shops.  Right in the centre is a heritage centre, where visitors can get all sorts of information about the area. 

Behind that is Silken Thomas, the perfect lodging location, built around the remains of a Norman castle.  Just off the square is St. Brigid’s Cathedral and round tower, around which the village was founded.  The cathedral is a pilgrimage site for many devout followers of Ireland’s second saint.

At the outskirts of town, there is an upscale shopping outlet, Kildare Village, for those who need a bit of retail therapy on their travels.  Not my thing, but I know some people love to shop everywhere!

Just outside of town is National Stud, a championship racehorse training facility, which is an international attraction.  Not only does it have a world-renowned training centre and related museum, but there are also two incredible gardens on the grounds, a Japanese Garden, and a spiritual garden.  Races are periodically held at the nearby Curragh.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

There are plenty of other amazing experiences to be had in the nearby cities and villages in County Kildare, including castles, monasteries, nature centres, a hedge labyrinth, Grand Canal cruises, and the Silver Screen Museum in Naas.  Kildare town makes a perfect base location for all of these awesome things to do.  There is enough to see and experience that it could fill 3 or 4 wonderful days, so be sure to include a stop at Kildare on your itinerary!

by Roxanna of Gypsy with a Day Job

Tipperary 

We’ve all heard that old song It’s a long long way to Tipperary – well it’s not and you absolutely have to visit this gorgeous County in the Historic Heartland of Ireland. Tipperary is a county with some incredible sights from the Rock of Cashel to the Galtee mountains Tipperary will steal your heart.

Rock of Cashel & Hore Abbey

One of Tipperary’s key attractions is the Rock of Cashel, which is a sacred towering rock, known for being both a geological masterpiece, as well as a place of great historical and religious significance, as it boasts a tower, gothic cathedral and castle.  

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Roscrea

The remains of St Cronan’s ancient monastery, Romanesque doorways and 13th-century castles – Roscrea is steeped in history. This handsome market town has a National Heritage status.

The Galty (Galtee) Mountains

The Galtee Mountain range is spread across counties Tipperary and Limerick and is very popular for walkers. With Galtymore as its highest peak, the range also includes Lough Diheen,  which is said to be guarded by an unruly serpent, banished here by St Patrick.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Holy Cross Abbey

This 12th-century abbey once held a particle of the True Cross and was one of the most visited pilgrim sites in Ireland, with the devout travelling from all over Europe to view the cloisters, “whispering arch” and carvings.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

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Glen of Aherlow

Stunningly beautiful, Tipperary’s Glen of Aherlow’s sweeping vistas are as many shades of green as you can count. The Glen is a fantastic destination with activities that range from walking, cycling and horse riding,  4 golf courses and the outstanding Mountain Bike Trail in Ballyhoura. 

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Ahenny High Crosses 

A splendid example of early Christian art and craftsmanship, these 8th century High Crosses are ornately carved with intricate Celtic designs. The base of each cross has carved figures depicting Biblical scenes including Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Adam naming the animals. 

ahenny high crosses

Cahir Castle

Tipperary is home to some of Ireland’s most iconic ruins, castles and historic sites. Cahir Castle is one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Ireland. Visiting Cahir Castle and the Village of Cahir is well worth the effort.   

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Swiss Cottage

Literally, a walk away from the Castle is Swiss Cottage a beautifully romantic little “cottage” near the Cahir River that was so neglected and run down for many years that a horse was found stabled in the dining room. This cottage is believed to have been designed by the great architect John Nash and is beautifully romantic in its riverside location. 

swiss cottage

Limerick

Limerick is the name of the biggest City in County Limerick which was named after the city.  Limerick is bordered by Kerry, Clare, Tipperary and Cork and sits in the Southwest heart of Ireland in the Midlands. The River Shannon flows through the City of Limerick to the Atlantic.

Lough Gur

Lough Gur Heritage Centre in County Limerick has traces of every stage of human existence since Neolithic times.   Lough Gur is one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites and humans have lived here since around 3000 BC.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East
©Rodolph

At Lough Gur, you can see many megalithic sites including Grange Stone Circle which is the largest one in Ireland. There are the remains of at least three crannogs, a dolmen stone-age houses and ring forts. At Lough Gur, you can immerse yourself in Ireland’s prehistoric sites.

One of the legends of Lough Gur is that the 14th-century lord of Munster and poet Gearóid Iarla, who was a devote follower of the Goddess Áine, was said to sleep in a cave and will emerge at the time of Ireland’s need to gallop around the lake on his great silver-shod white horse.

Ballyhoura Mountains

The Ballyhoura Mountains are made up of 52 km of trails for hiking and biking. There are dozens of ancient monuments, castle ruins and religious ruins to be seen. This is an area where dozens of Bronze Age artefacts have been uncovered.

Limerick Milk Market

A bustling foodie mecca the Milk Market Limerick has something for everyone. From special events to foodie tastings and cooking classes the Milk Market covers the gamut of gourmet events in the area.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Ireland is home to some of the most sustainable farming methods in Europe and the food culture here is constantly being updated and refined. Monika has written a great post on Typical Irish food that you should take a moment to read. 

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King John’s Castle

King John’s Castle, is situated on ‘King’s Island’ in the heart of medieval Limerick City. There is a brilliant visitors centre with state of the art activities and exhibitions. A lovely cafe in the courtyard to enjoy a good cup of tea overlooking the Shannon River.

King John's castle as viewed from the Lough in LImerick
William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland [CC BY-SA 2.0)

 Carlow

The Normans invaded Carlow in the twelfth century and the land came into the possession of Strongbow, the Norman leader. The town of Carlow was an important Norman stronghold and was walled in 1361 to protect it from the neighbouring Gaelic chieftains, who eventually captured the town in 1405. The County joined the Catholic Confederacy in 1641, which was defeated by Cromwell’s forces in 1650. Famine wiped out a lot of the population, cutting it in half.

Carlow Castle

Now a ruin standing on the eastern bank of the River Barrow, Carlow Castle is thought to have been built by William de Marshal (Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Leinster between 1207 and 1213). At one time Carlow was an important and strong military fortress, strategically sited at the confluence of the rivers, and the castle withstood repeated attacks in 1494 and 1641.

Today, two battered towers and part of an intervening wall are all that remain after a local physician tried to remodel it as an asylum in 1814. In an effort to demolish the interior he placed explosive charges at its base and demolished all but the west wall and towers. this is also one of Ireland’s many haunted castles.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

St Mullins Monastery

This important monastic site, founded in the 7th century by St Moling, was the legendary burial place of the Kings of Leinster. The remains include four church buildings dating from the 10th to the 15th centuries. The site includes a well preserved Norman Motte and Bailey and in the valley below, St Moling’s Holy Well.

St. Mullens Monastery exploring Ireland's Historic Heartlands
©James Keppel

There is a pathway through the graveyard to the monastic buildings. The first one is a Church of Ireland Church built in 1811 now used as a Heritage Centre. The next building is the oldest church known as Teampall Mor a 15th-century church, parts of which date to the 10th/11th century.

To the front right of the Abbey is the stump of a free-standing 11th century round tower that was later attached to the Abbey. Beyond the Tower are two more buildings- one is signposted as an oratory the other a domestic building. Near the oratory are the remains of a High Cross.

Huntington Castle

What a fascinating history Huntington Castle has it was built in 1625 as a garrison on the strategically important Wexford to Dublin route. After 50 years the soldiers moved out and the family began to convert it into a family home. Many generations of the family subsequently added various extensions and details giving the effect of a truly unique and interesting building. In the 1970s the basement was converted into a temple to the Egyptian Goddess Isis, and the present generation continues to renovate and improve where possible.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East
Caroline Gethings CC BY-SA 4.0

You can stay at the Castle both self-catering and bed and breakfast, get married here,  take a tour, visit the beautiful gardens and have tea in the tearoom. Don’t miss this flamboyant and eccentric castle when visiting the area.

Borris House

The ancestral home of the McMorrough Kavanaghs, High Kings of Leinster, Borris is one of the few Irish estates that can trace its history back to the royal families of ancient Ireland. Set in over six hundred and fifty acres of walled private park and woodlands, you can tour the house, stay in a Victorian Cottage on the ground and even get married here.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Killeshin Church

One of the tallest round towers in Ireland once dominated this former monastery but was destroyed early in the 18th century by a farmer worried that it would collapse and kill his cows.

Browne’s Hill Dolmen

This 5000-year-old granite portal dolmen or tomb is one of Ireland’s most famous prehistoric monuments, sporting the largest capstone in Europe (it weighs more than 100 tonnes). It’s signposted 3km east of Carlow.

Brownes Hill dolmen

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Kilkenny

There’s a buzz about Kilkenny from its Medieval Mile to the great castle, Smithwick’s brewery some of the best dining in the area and a huge amount of history and culture.

Kilkenny sits within the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East and is on most visitors must-see list when visiting Ireland. Kilkenny and its Medieval Mile are one of the most visited places in Ireland and the top of any Visitor guide to Ireland.

Kilkenny Town

When we planned our trip to the Emerald Isle, we knew we wanted to explore Ireland’s Ancient East Route. To do so effectively, we’re glad we chose Kilkenny as a central base, as it happened to be the perfect place from which to take in our surroundings. From here, you can easily explore the counties of Waterford, Wexford, Tipperary and obviously Kilkenny.

Kilkenny

The region is rich with history and boasts endless greenery and fertile lands, which makes for great photo ops at every turn. Day trips from Kilkenny may include a visit to the Rock of Cashel, the place where St-Patrick is said to have baptized King Aengus, who then went on to become the first Christian ruler.

Looking for something a bit more glamorous? Why not include the House of Waterford on your Ancient East itinerary, featuring a sparkling tour of the world-renown iconic crystal emporium.

Want to stay put, leave the car behind and just take in the local sights, Kilkenny is a perfect place in which to indulge, as this medieval town has plenty to offer.

Kilkenny Ireland's Historic Heartlands

Stroll the medieval mile and its many boutiques and shops, enjoy a pint at Smithwick’s Experience Tour or visit Kilkenny Castle, which has been gloriously refurbished and is nestled right on the banks of the River Nore.

walking down the pretty streets of Kilkenny Ireland's Historic Heartlands

Ready for dinner after a day of touring? Walk into any of the numerous venues serving pub fare or indulge in the many top dining venues available in town, some worthy of the finest palates. Our top dinner recommendation takes you to Rive Gauche (Left Bank) a French-style bistro which sets the mood for the most romantic evening you could ever imagine while in Kilkenny… Bon appetit!

by Nathalie of Marquestra

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Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile

Kilkenny was the capital of Ireland for 9 years until Cromwell began his conquest in 1649. It is located in the southeast of Ireland in the province of Leinster. The county of Kilkenny has three major rivers running through it, known as the Three Sisters: the Nore, the Suir and the Barrow.

The City is known for its Medieval Mile and also as the Marble City because of its distinctive black marble. When walking the Mile you will see medieval slipways or alleys, a Tudor Inn, a Dominican Abbey and a fine example of a 17th-century merchant’s house and the only example of its kind in Ireland.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

You can visit a recreated medieval garden, climb St. Canice’s Round Tower (the oldest standing structure on the city), and take a glimpse inside the lives of the Butler family and their servants at Kilkenny Castle. Or feel the hairs rise and your heart beat faster at tales of witchcraft in Kyteler’s Inn here since 1324.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Smithwicks

One of the High Streets main attractions is the Smithwick’s Experience a chance to check out one of Ireland’s premier brewers of ale.  Learn the tale of 300 years of brewing tradition that has led to this rich deep ruby red coloured ale.  If you book your tickets online before you go you will save at least 10% and the cost is around €11.50.

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

Ireland’s Ancient East covers a vast part of this stunning country, but Ireland’s Historic Heartlands holds many Irish secrets and legends and deserves some of your time when you next visit Ireland.

Once you have seen all of Ireland’s Ancient East check out the Wild Atlantic Way

Have you been to Ireland’s Historic Heartland? What was your favourite place?

Must-See Places in Ireland's Ancient East

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7 thoughts on “Must-See Places in Ireland’s Ancient East”

    1. Thanks Anna I love this part of Ireland and practically nobody takes the time to get out there and see it, hope you get a chance to enjoy it soon.

  1. That’s a seriously beautiful set of places to visit. I love Swiss Cottage with its thatched eyebrows, and the Japanese Garden is glorious – so verdant against the red bridge. You remind me how little I’ve seen of Ireland’s gorgeous landscapes.

  2. Gosh, stunning. I haven’t been to the heartlands of Ireland since I was a small kid. I have had it in mind that I need to go back for years and you’ve definitely persuaded me! We took our kids to N Ireland last year before moving to Mexico. Yesterday, at school here, my son had to talk about something special from his home country. He chose ‘the great big wall of sand’, that’s in Northern Ireland. I think it’s clear that next time we’re home we need to take a trip to Ireland. It’ll blow their minds.

  3. Wow – I did not realize there was so much to see there! I’ve never actually heard of Heartlands…..thanks for sharing all the details about this beautiful destination! Definitely on my list to see now when we go to Ireland 🙂

  4. Wow what a great list, so much to see. I pinned for future reference. I love all the history, as an American it really amazes me how old some spots are. That Swiss cottage is just beautiful, would love to see that.

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