Historically, the Irish provinces were a group of kingdoms with squishy shifting borders and rich history and culture. Modern Ireland has four provinces: Leinster in the east, Connacht in the west, Ulster in the north, and Munster in the south. Every Wednesday this June, we’re bringing you our travel guide to a different province, starting with Leinster, home of Ireland’s capital city and some of the oldest and most stunning archeological sites in the country.
Leinster contains the largest number of counties at twelve, and is the most highly populated of the provinces, being home to the capital city of Dublin. Leinster is also rich in historical and cultural icons to keep you busy on your next holiday.
If you’re looking for adventures on your Irish holiday, you can’t go wrong with exploring Leinster. The province itself covers a wide area of the Irish nation, and activities can vary wildly, from outdoor sports to cultural excursions, haute cuisine, rock concerts, and rugby matches. We’ve managed to gather some points of interest from across the province, so you’ve got plenty of fun to choose from on your next trip!
CASTLES, CATHEDRALS, & HISTORICAL MONUMENTS
Cathedral of Saint Mel in Ardagh
Nestled in Ardagh village, St. Mel’s Old Cathedral is one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in County Longford. The foundation of the church is traditionally attributed to the work of St. Patrick himself, and St. Mel, the church’s first bishop (for whom the cathedral is named), is said to have been St. Patrick’s nephew.
The site of the old cathedral is layered, with archaeological excavations discovering the remains of early timber churches beneath the masonry. The church also features various elements from different periods of architecture.
Granard Motte and Bailey
It’s not much to look at now, but the Granard Motte and Bailey in County Longford is an example of the very earliest types of castle—the motte and bailey castle. Build around 1199 by a Norman knight as part of an attempt to extend Norman control in Ireland, the motte offers a breathtaking view from the top. Standing approximately 534 feet above sea level, you can see parts of nine counties, five lakes, and the Sliabh Bloom Mountains from the summit.
In addition to the history and the vistas, the Granard Motte and Bailey is also home to a variety of local myths—from a hidden castle to a vast unclaimed treasure.
Athlone Castle was first built in the 12th Century as a timber fort, and the current stone castle overlooks the banks of the River Shannon in County Westmeath. The castle was extensively renovated in the 2000s and reopened for visitors in 2012, now offering newly-designed exhibition spaces and an updated visitors center.
The renovations provide an immersive experience, with interactive exhibits, historic artefacts, and a 360-degree film that highlights the grit and drama of the Great Siege of Athlone.
Tullynally Castle and Gardens
Set in the middle of an exquisite park, surrounded by the hills and lakes of County Westmeath, Tullynally looks as if it belongs in a fairytale. It has been the home of the Pakenham family (later Earls of Longford) for over 350 years—members of the family still live at Tullynally as their family home. Because the castle still serves as a private home, tours of the main rooms are available to groups, and must be booked in advance. Tullynally also features a tearoom that is open from late March through September, offering afternoon tea and home-made cakes for refreshment.
The crowning jewel of Tullynally, however, would be the gardens. There are over 12 acres of gardens in all, dating from the late 18th century. Terraced lawns, walled flower gardens, woodland walks and two ornamental lakes are just some of the elements you can find at Tullynally, and the current owners have enhanced and added to the gardens of their predecessors. There is also special children’s discovery trail through the gardens. If you are looking for a lovely family day out, the Tullynally gardens may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Birr Castle is a majestic 90 room landmark located on 1200 acres in County Offaly. The house itself has endured through the centuries, from sieges in the 17th Century to a fire in the 1830s. The castle still serves as the family home of Lord & Lady Rosse, so it is only open to the public on a limited basis during the summer. However, the gardens surrounding Birr Castle are lovely, with a great variation in the surrounding park. In the center of a wild flower meadow that has not been ploughed in 400 years stands an oak thought to be more than 500 years old. The grounds also overlook the Camcor River and the oldest suspension bridge in Ireland.
The stable block has been renovated and converted into a science gallery and museum, where children’s educational programs are held to teach the next generation about various scientific subjects, from astronomy to engineering and biodiversity.
Kilkenny Castle has watched the River Nore and Kilkenny City for over 800 years. Various additions and alterations to the original building have created an eclectic mix of architectural styles, and the building itself allows for a visit steeped in history. The castle has opportunities for guided tours or self-guided tours, depending on the time of year you plan your visit. Whether you’re looking for background material for your novel, a lovely walk in the park, or you’re a history buff, you’ll find it here.
Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin served as a jail between 1796 and 1924, housing inmates from a variety of walks of life and for a variety of (alleged) crimes. While the jail held ordinary men, women, and even children for offenses ranging from petty theft to murder and rape, many members of the Irish Republican movement were also detained here by British troops. Convicts from many parts of Ireland were held at Kilmainham while waiting to be transported to the prison colony of Australia.
Today, the Kilmainham Gaol Museum is operated and managed by the Office of Public Works. Entrance is by guided tour only, and tours are managed by timed tickets. It’s open year-round, but it is highly recommended that you book in advance and arrive at least 15 minutes before your tour time.
Hook Head Lighthouse
The southwestern corner of County Wexford is home to the Hook Head Lighthouse—the world’s oldest operational lighthouse. What began as a small warning beacon kept by a monastery to warn sailors of the dangers of shipwreck became a full-fledged tower in the 13th century under the leadership of William Marshall, “the greatest knight who ever lived.” While at first the light was lit by coal, the lighthouse finally switched over to electric light in the1970s, and is still operational today under the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
Tours are available seven days a week, and guide you up the 115 spiral steps of the tower, through the centuries of light keepers and their responsibilities to the sailors at sea. At the top, you’ve got the treat of the amazing view of County Wexford, the sea, and the graveyard of some 1,000 ships. Not only that, but you can also spot new friends at sea—dolphins, seals, and even whales.
And finally, the crown jewel of Irish archeology. Built by Stone Age farmers, Newgrange is a 5,200-year-old tomb and temple located in County Meath. Built in approximately 3200 B.C., it is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, and is part of a complex of neolithic monuments built along a bend in the River Boyne known collectively as Brú na Bóinne. Newgrange itself is perhaps best known for the dramatic light show it puts on during the winter solstice, when the passage and inner chamber in the monument align with the rising sun. A narrow beam of sunlight penetrates the underground chamber and illuminates the whole room.
The winter solstice event is so popular that there is a free annual lottery for people to apply to be one of the lucky few to witness the light within the deepest chamber. However, you are welcome to visit Newgrange year-round. Access to the monument is only by guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, so if you’re using your GPS, make sure you enter the Visitor Centre instead of the monument itself.
The Curragh Racecourse & Irish National Stud
The plains of Kildare are known for horse racing—if this is your thing, then look no further than the Curragh Racecourse in County Kildare. The Curragh is Ireland’s premier horse racing venue, hosting all five Irish classic races, with 19 races scheduled between May and September. If you’re not sure what to wear to the races, the Curragh website offers tips for race day attire.
Not interested in the races themselves? That’s okay—the Irish National Stud and Gardens offers daily guided tours of the farm in-season where you can learn about everything from horses to horticulture. They also offer self-guided tours of their gardens and the Horse Museum.
Leprechaun and Fairy Underground Cavern
In County Louth, you can take your children to visit leprechauns and fairies. The Leprechaun and Fairy Underground Cavern gives an introduction to how the last leprechauns of Ireland became a protected species by the E.U. under a habitats directive, and includes a leprechaun hunt. If you have children, or are a child at heart, this may be the fun way to spend your day. (And since a lot of the events take place indoors, this would be great for a wet and rainy afternoon as well.)
AND FOR THE WHISKEY AND GUINNESS LOVERS
Jameson Distillery Bow Street
Jameson’s is one of the biggest names in Irish whiskey—and if you love whiskey, you’ll love touring the distillery. Started in 1780, the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Dublin now offerst distillery tours. You can learn the history behind Jameson’s, how it’s made, and indulge in a whiskey tasting experience. If you’d like to know more, and get even more involved in your cocktails, Jameson’s also offers classes in blending your own take-home whiskey as well as making delicious whiskey cocktails. (Unlike the leprechaun hunt, the whiskey classes are unsuitable for children.)
If beer is your passion, rather than whiskey, Guinness also offers tours at the Guinness Storehouse, where you can learn about the company’s rich history and what goes into every pint that you sip, from the grain to the pour. End your tour with a perfectly poured pint at the Gravity Bar—the top level of the Guinness Storehouse—which offers breathtaking 360° views of the city of Dublin. It is recommended that tours are booked in advance (since this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Dublin).
This list of amazing places, of course, is not exhaustive. Leinster is jam-packed with natural beauty, amazing architecture, extensive history, and just plain fun. You’re bound to find something for everyone, and come away from your Leinster adventures with treasured memories and even richer experiences than what you expected to find.
Let us know in the comments below if we’ve left one of your favorite Leinster destinations off our list!