At just 319 square miles, County Louth, at the northeastern border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, is the smallest of Ireland’s 32 counties. But don’t let it’s size deter you from adding it to your Irish itinerary because within its borders lie beautiful Celtic crosses, ancient portal tombs, stunning medieval architecture, and some of the best views of the Irish sea around.
ST.PETER’S CATHOLIC CHURCH
Built in 1884 in the French Gothic style, St. Peter’s Church is both the first and oldest Catholic church in the city of Drogheda because Ireland’s Penal Laws barred Catholic buildings within the medieval city walls. The original church was constructed in 1793 and parts of that structure are incorporated into the current building, which is a stunning work of architecture. But once you take your eyes from the arches in the nave, head over to the national shrine to Saint Oliver Plunkett, who led Catholic faithful to Drogheda in the 17th century after they were exiled from The Pale to the south. Plunkett was hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason in 1681 in England and in 1921 his mummified head was returned to Ireland and is still on display in a glass case in the church today, terrifying unsuspecting visitors for almost a century.
SAINT LAURENCE GATE
One of the medieval prides of Drogheda, the Saint Laurence Gate was constructed in the 13th century as part of the city’s defensive wall. At the time, the city was among the largest walled cities on the island and was recently declared the oldest town in Ireland. It stands as a reminder of the turbulent past in Louth, having withstood the Cromwellian invasion, several rebellions, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War. Historical tours are available in Drogheda and the gate is one of the most popular stops along the route. If you visit on your own, watch out for passing cars, which still regularly use the gate to access the city center.
MONASTERBOICE & MUIREDACH’S CROSS
If ruined medieval architecture or the monastic history of Ireland interest you, there’s no excuse not to visit Monasterboice, one of Ireland’s most significant religious learning sites. Founded in the 5th century and captured by the Vikings in the 10th century, the monastery served as the principal site of Catholic teaching for centuries. Among the ruins at Monasterboice are a graveyard, two churches, an ancient sundial, and a 115-foot round tower. But most visitors come for the magnificent Celtic high crosses found on the grounds. The tallest cross, Muiredach’s Cross, rises to 18 feet and is widely considered the greatest example of this form of Celtic art anywhere in the country.
Set atop an earthen mound that dates at least as far back as 3,000 years and is said to contain the remains of the ancient Celtic poet Amegin, Millmount Fort originally served as the main defensive fortification for Drogheda and has gone through many changes through the years. The Martello round tower structure there today dates to 1808 to protect against a French invasion that never came. Badly damaged during the Irish Civil War in 1922, the fort underwent a complete renovation in 2000 and now houses a community run historical museum that contains the “finest collection of guild banners in Ireland,” according to the city council.
Located on the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Slieve Foy rises to a modest 1,935 feet, but packs a big punch if you can make it to the top. Summit views include beautiful vistas of the Irish Sea, the Mourne Mountains in County Down, and even the Isle of Man. But tread carefully and don’t let its height fool you, the ascent is steep and littered with loose rocks and damp bog, so plan your footwear accordingly.
Carlingford Lough is among the first documented landing sites of the Vikings in Ireland, who founded the town of Carlingford on the southern shore and raided monasteries upriver as far Armagh. Today, it is a stunning lake bordered by steep hills on either side creating natural protection from Ireland’s harsh weather and magnificent views of the Irish sea. The town of Carlingford itself is one of the country’s best-preserved medieval towns, complete with defensive walls, urban towers, and quaint narrow streets.
One of the most documented megalithic dolmens in Ireland, this portal tomb on the Cooley Peninsula dates to around 3000 B.C. No bodies have been found here, because the ancient Celts cremated their dead and placed the ashes underneath the towering structure, along with gifts for the afterlife, including items like tools, beads, and pottery, which have been found in the area. Legend has it that the tomb’s first posthumous inhabitant was the Scottish giant Para Buidhe Mór Mhac Seoidin, who challenged the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill to battle and lost. Today, access is a bit tricky and involves gaining entrance to the grounds of a nearby hotel and traversing a golf course, but if you’re up for adventure, it’s well-worth a visit.
Did we leave off your favorite place in County Louth? Let us know in the comments below!