Ireland’s Ancient East, sculpted by over 5000 years of human history, has become a mecca of sorts for those wishing to experience the island’s tranquil countryside, idyllic towns, ghostly castles, and monasteries in elegant decay. Stretching from the south of Ireland’s county Cork all the way north to counties Cavan and Monaghan, its history encompasses some of the country’s most tragic and important events, and is home to many of its most iconic landmarks.
BEGIN IN DUBLIN
Dublin, the capital and largest city of the island, attracts the vast majority of visitors to Ireland, and for good reason. Sitting at the mouth of the River Liffey in the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East, Dublin is considered Ireland’s cultural, educational, and industrial center. Although humans have inhabited the area of Dublin Bay since prehistoric times, it is widely recognized that Vikings settled on the site that is now Dublin in the 10th century. For nearly two hundred years the Viking outpost served as a trade hub for slaves and goods trafficked everywhere from Iceland to Constantinople. In 1166 during the Norman invasion of Ireland, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair traveled to Dublin and was crowned King of Ireland.
Since that time, generations of inhabitants who have called Dublin home have left their mark on the city that stand among the Ireland’s most popular and recognizable landmarks. In addition to the mazes of historic pubs and eateries around the city, medieval structures such as the Christ Church Cathedral and Dublin Castle still stand where they did when they were constructed in the 1200s (though both have undergone extensive renovations in the intervening 800 years).
The Library of Trinity College, located at the heart of Trinity College, Dublin, houses the famous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament believed to have been created around 800.
Those interested in exploring a darker side of Irish history can explore Kilmainham Gaol, a prison used from 1796 to 1920. Now a fully functioning museum, Kilmainham Gaol was the site of grisly public executions and housed famous prisoners including future territorial governor of Montana Thomas Frances Meagher and Easter Rising leader James Connolly. Additionally, it was the launch point for nearly 4000 inmates exiled to the prison colony of Australia in the 19th century.
Another interesting historic prison of Ireland’s Ancient East is Spike Island, located at the southern end of the Ireland in County Cork. Often referred to as the “Alcatraz of Ireland,” the 103-acre Spike Island has served a number of purposes over the last 1300 years. According to the Moanasticon Hibernicum, Sain Mochuada founded a monastery there in the 7th century. Its monastic function lasted until the Norman invasion and it was surrendered by Diarmid McCarthy, King of Desmond around 1178. Coveted for its strategic location at the entrance to Cork Harbor, the island began to receive military fortifications around 1600. In 1775 when France and Spain entered the American Revolution on the side of the Americans, the ruling British government installed heavy artillery fortifications.
By the 1850s, Spike Island was the world’s largest prison, holding nearly 2,400 prisoners, many of whom were also ushered onto prison ships for exile to the penal colony of Australia. The brutal environment of the prison and the grisly treatment of the prisoners often drove inmates to the point of insanity, coupled by high rates of suicide and attempted suicide. Today, the island is a historical tourist site and fully-functioning museum. It is one of Ireland’s most popular attractions, seeing thousands of visitors per month.
A NORMAN STRONGHOLD
Located almost halfway between Spike Island and Dublin along Ireland’s east coast sits Kilkenny Castle, in the county town of County Kilkenny. Constructed in 1195 to control the many waterways of the area, the structure was a symbol of the harsh Norman occupation of Ireland and its look represents the iconic medieval castle. Originally square-shaped with a tower in each corner, today three of towers remain standing.
The site was historically valued for its strategic high-ground and proximity to waterways. Prior to the Norman invasion, the Kings of Osraige held residence there in dwellings of their own. Richard de Clare, or Strongbow, and his Norman knights first constructed a wooden fortress on the site of Kilkenny Castle in 1172. Twenty years later, a new stone structure replaced the wooden one, built by Strongbow’s son-in-law, William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, which survives (mostly) to this day.
The Butlers of Ormonde took possession of the castle in 1391. The Butler family, who arrived in Ireland during the Norman invasion, owned the structure for almost 600 years before it was given to the people of Kilkenny by Arthur, 6th Marquess of Ormonde, 1967. Today the castle is open to the public and is used extensively for hosting conferences, weddings, receptions, galas, and a variety of cultural and artistic events.
KILKENNY CATHEDRAL AND ROUND TOWER
The Cathedral Church of St. Canice (or Kilkenny Cathedral) and the adjacent Round Tower are two other important symbols of the deep medieval history of Kilkenny and Ireland’s Ancient East. The current cathedral, visited by tens of thousands of visitors per year, stands on the site of a Celtic monastery dating from around the sixth century by St. Canice. Built in the English Gothic cruciform style, the iconic structure is supported by rows of black marble columns surrounded by massive blocks of limestone topped with medieval battlements. Giant stained-glass windows line the building as well, close replicas of the originals from the 13th century. The cathedral is home to some of Ireland’s most ancient monuments, as well as the tombs of bishops from the ancient kingdom of Ossory.
The Cathedral’s 100 ft. round tower stands as one of the most well-preserved round towers still in existence. Like the Cathedral, it too is dedicated to St. Canice and is only one of three medieval round towers that can be climbed to the top (the other two are the Kildare Round Tower and Devenish Round Tower). Round towers are often thought of as lookout posts watching for Viking raids. During such a raid, the tower could be used to hold religious artifacts and the town’s inhabitants. While this theory carries some credence, it is more likely that the primary purpose of the tower was simply to stand as a stout belfry, calling nearby residents to worship.
Named for one of Ireland’s greatest folk heroes, Cúchulainn’s Stone (or Clochafarmore Standing Stone) stands nearly 10 ft. tall and is believed to have been placed at its current resting place sometime between 1000 BC and 500 AD. An hour’s drive north of Dublin near the village of Knockbridge in County Louth, the stone is a popular destination for those interesting in exploring a bit of Ireland’s folklore. To reach the stone, visitors will be required to cross an electric cattle fence and complete a 200-meter hike across grazing pasture.
It is said the hero Cúchulainn, mortally wounded in his defense of Ulster from the forces of Queen Maeve, tied himself to the stone in order to hold himself upright, so he could face one last assault from the opposing army. After finally falling, Cúchulainn’s enemies refused to approach the stone, believing he could still be alive. Many versions of his hero exist in Irish history. A popular theory claims he was created some time after Christianity came to Ireland, as a parallel legend to the classical Greek hero Achilles.
BETTER THAN STONEHENGE
For those interested in exploring more of Ireland’s ancient sites, prehistoric sites of Ireland’s Ancient East, the Newgrange monument in County Meath is a must-see. This giant passage tomb pre-dates both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids and is located about five miles west of Drogheda, on the north side of the River Boyne. The acre-sized tomb was built during the Neolithic period in about 3200 BC and is constructed of mostly white quartz cobblestones, ringed by engraved kerbstones adorned in ancient megalithic art. Over 200,000 tons of stone were brought to the site for the tomb’s construction, some of which archeologists think was brought from as far as the Mourne and Wicklow Mountains.
In addition to laying special dignitaries and important community figures to rest there, Newgrange was also likely used as a place of worship and to signify the start of the New Year. Stone Age farmers who built likely made up a complex, highly-organized society who paid special attention to the movement of the sun and stars throughout the year. The special roof-box at Newgrange illuminates the inner passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun, approximately from dawn of December 19-23. During that time, a narrow beam of light stabs through the mysterious orifice of the roof-box, eventually reaching the rear of the chamber.
A MAN-MADE NATURAL WONDER
Glendalough, a lush glacial valley located in County Wicklow, is home to other ancient sites that make it one of the Ancient East’s most popular destinations. In fact, if Ireland is known for its verdant valleys and sweeping vistas, then Glendalough should receive much of the credit. Over one million visitors descend into the valley each year to experience its incredible beauty and rich heritage of preservation and natural history. The Wicklow Mountains National Park is largely responsible for the preservation work, and cares for over 20,000 hectares of habitat. Neolithic farmers cleared much of the land of its natural forests, triggering the formation of blanket bogs that cover the hills to this day.
Glendalough’s Monastic City, founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century and flourished for nearly 600 years. Today it is one of Ireland’s most important medieval monastic sites. Despite numerous Viking raids from the 6th century on, the squat stone buildings of Glendalough have remained.
REMNANTS OF THE FAMINE YEARS
To the very north of Ireland’s Ancient East sits, County Monaghan, home to the Carrickmacross Workhouse. It was constructed in 1841 to relieve the poor of Carrickmacross as well as neighboring parishes Donaghmoyne, Inniskeen, Killanny, and Magheracloone. The workhouse was one of 130 such structures used to house some of the 3 million destitute individuals suffering during times of famine. Although workhouses were designed to aid the poor, in actuality moving into one often became a new version of the same nightmare. Families who were admitted (after surrendering any lands they owned) were segregated and strictly forbidden from seeing each other. Diets subsisted of meager daily rations, and every inmate had to work hard in order to keep their place.
Things like comfort and warmth were deliberately limited by administrators, but in spite of these hardships, families begged for admittance into workhouses. The Carrickmacross Workhouse for instance, was designed to house a population of 500, yet by 1851, almost 2000 people were subjected to the harsh realities of workhouse life, which sadly, for many, was still preferable to the terrific effects of the famine of 1845-1848.
There is much more to visit in Ireland’s Ancient East, so let us know if we’ve missed your favorite place in the comments. Hopefully we have helped convey a little of the unparalleled beauty and compelling history that makes it so special.