Where are Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands?
Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands are located in the centre or middle of Ireland. 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 places across the middle of Ireland that have been neglected or passed over by tourism. These Heartlands have some of the most incredible Irish historic sites, ancient history that goes back as far as human development, natural beauty and jaw-dropping scenery from mountains to boglands.
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.
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.
This is by no means a complete guide to Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands 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 Hidden Heartlands
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 escorted 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.
These tours come highly recommended by individuals who have used them to visit Ireland.
If you want to camp on Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands check out Ireland’s best camping site here
Top Things to Do in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands
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.
What to see in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands
Best Things to do in 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.
1 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. read more here…
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.
3 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.
What to see in County Laois
County Laois (pronounced Leesh) is located in the south of the Hidden Heart of Ireland and is also located in the province of Leinster, and was formerly known as Queen’s County, its original name was Loigis, which was a medieval kingdom.
1 Slieve Bloom Mountains Nature Reserve
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.
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.
2 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.
It was destroyed by Cromwell’s men in 1650 but the views from the top are a site you shouldn’t miss
4 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.
5 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).
Best Things to do in County 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.
1 Irish National Stud
The Irish National Stud & Gardens in Co. Kildare is located about an hours 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Best things to do in County 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.
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.
2 Roscrea, County Tipperary
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.
3 The Galty (Galtee) Mountains
The Galtee Mountains 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.
4 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.
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.
6 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.
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.
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.
Best things to do in Limerick County
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.
1 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.
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.
2 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.
3 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. Read more here
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.
4 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.
Best things to do in Carlow County
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.
1 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.
2 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.
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.
3 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.
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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
Things to do in Kilkenny County
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 at the true heart of Ireland’s Ancient East 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
2 Kilkenny and the 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.
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. Read more here
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.
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.
Have you been to Ireland’s Historic Heartland? What was your favourite place?
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