Ireland's Ancient East: 5-day Historic Heartlands itinerary

Journey through 5,000 years of history, from the distant past through the glories of Celtic scholarship to the classical architecture of great houses.

From one of Kildare’s finest houses, visit the early Christian past in Offaly, the castles and abbeys of Tipperary, the mountains of Limerick, the medieval streets of Kilkenny city and the colourful gardens of Carlow and Laois, before arriving back in Kildare. Five days will give you time to soak up the atmosphere of this mysterious region.

Download our map of the Historic Heartlands as a pdf.

This is a sample itinerary, and should be used as a guide only. If you have any suggestions for future itineraries, we’d love to hear from you.

Day 1

Castletown House, County Kildare to Birr, County Offaly: 170km/105 miles (3 hours 25 minutes at 50km/h)

Castletown House to Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre

We start in Celbridge, County Kildare, with Castletown House, a stunning Palladian mansion (more like a palace) built by the ultimate boy-made-good. An innkeeper’s son born in 1662, William Conolly’s shrewd business sense and even shrewder marriage took him right to the top. He died before he could enjoy the house, but his widow made up for it, throwing lavish parties in his memory.

From Celbridge to Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre, and the tale of another success story. By 1873, David E Williams had risen from trainee to general manager of the distillery and created a world-famous Irish whiskey (named after his initials D.E.W.). The centre’s café is an excellent spot for lunch.

If you enjoy a little spooky detour, Charleville Castle is just a short drive southwest of Tullamore. It’s a Gothic pile, all crenellations and turrets, and there’s a magnificent staircase with a sad story. Ever since an accident in the mid-19th century, visitors have reported seeing a mysterious little girl wandering near the stairs...

Ten minutes’ drive west of Tullamore lies the peaceful village of Rahan, which offers a small taste of the glories to come at Clonmacnoise, 30km further on. Rahan boasts the remains of a 6th century monastery, and in the 12th century parish church, recent restoration uncovered some wonderful medieval carvings.

Castletown House

Poor old William Conolly. The richest commoner in Ireland, from 1722 to 1729 he built a house to match his ambition. Castletown was to be his political power base, but he died the year it was finished. Still, his widow made it the centre for society in his honour.

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Clonmacnoise

Ireland’s early Christian reputation for learning, piety and craftsmanship is written large at Clonmacnoise. A cathedral, churches, round towers and a bustling town are brought to life at the excellent visitor centre.

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Tullamore D.E.W Visitor Centre to Birr Castle

From the dreamy quiet of Rahan we’re heading on to Clonmacnoise, one of the most visited sites in Ireland. Those monks certainly built to last, and it’s dizzying to think that the excellently preserved stone buildings were the centre of a bustling and prosperous community. Unfortunately, it was a bit too prosperous – it made a plump target for Irish, Viking and Norman raiders. Several High Kings of Ireland are buried there, and yes, the atmosphere is magical; leave yourself plenty of time to soak it up.

Digest the vivid imaginings sparked by Clonmacnoise at the Lough Boora Discovery Park about 40 minutes’ drive away. Walking and cycling trails meander past a lake – a haven for birdwatchers – through the eerie sculpture garden and over ancient bogland, preparing you for our next stop, Birr Castle, and another change of pace.

The Giant Telescope at Birr Castle, County Offaly

Based at Birr, the Earls of Rosse had a winning curiosity about life, collecting rare plants to feed their passion for gardening – the grounds are glorious – and science. Stroll through magnificent parkland to the Interactive Science Centre and the jewel in its crown: what was for 70 years until 1914 the world’s biggest telescope. It looks like something from Gulliver’s Travels!

Day 2

Birr, County Offaly to Ballyhoura Mountains, County Limerick: 152km/94 miles (3 hours at 50 km/h)

Birr to Holy Cross Abbey

After the delights of gardening and science, this morning brings gore and ghosts as we leave the town of Birr. Leap Castle in Coolderry, County Offaly, hides a horrible 16th century history of hidden dungeons, murderous brothers and unwanted guests starved or impaled on spikes. Centuries later, so the rumour goes, an inquisitive 19th century owner held a séance and awakened something nasty that still haunts the halls.

Shake off the ghostly shadows as you drive on to Roscrea, one of the oldest towns in Ireland. It lies in a gap in the hills on the Slighe Dala, an ancient highway, and its monastic remains, castle, high cross and round tower bear tangible witness to the town’s importance throughout history.

From Roscrea, head on to Thurles and Holy Cross Abbey, a site of pilgrimage in the 13th century that earned its name because it had a piece of the True Cross (it still has, they say, though it is no longer available to view). Holy Cross occupies a beautiful spot near the River Suir, but its past was not so peaceful – in the 16th century it was a rallying point and symbol for the suppressed Catholic population, resulting in its near-destruction. It has now been beautifully rebuilt and its air of healing restored.

Roscrea

Built around the 6th century monastery of St Crónán, some of which still stands, Roscrea is packed with buildings that date back centuries, many of which are still in use. Stroll around and breathe in the past in this bustling, friendly town.

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Rock of Cashel

The seat of the Kings of Munster for centuries before the Norman invasion, the spectacular Rock of Cashel looks out over the Golden Vale in County Tipperary. With a cathedral, high cross, castle, round tower and chapel, this cluster of Celtic art and medieval architecture is perhaps the finest in Europe.

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Holy Cross Abbey to Ballyhoura

As you drive south from Holy Cross the Rock of Cashel moves into view. Its stunning Romanesque architecture and Celtic artwork reminds you – yet again – that for centuries Ireland was a beacon of learning across the world.

If your interest in history stretches further back, Lough Gur Heritage Centre in County Limerick has traces of every stage of human existence since Neolithic times. The shallow lake has attracted people since prehistory, and not surprisingly is swathed in legend and folktale. The Heritage Centre steers a route through 6,000 years of history and myth.

From Lough Gur, we head south to Limerick's Ballyhoura Mountains. It’s not a vast range, but its 52km of trails make it a walkers’ and cyclists’ paradise. The mountains invite solitude and contemplation – unless you visit during the May bank holiday, when Ballyhoura hosts Ireland’s oldest walking festival. Locals and international visitors return year after year for walking, music and a great party.

Day 3

Ballyhoura Mountains, County Limerick to Kilkenny city: 154km/95 miles (3 hours at 50km/h)

Ballyhoura to Jerpoint Abbey

Today we’re starting off by heading east from Ballyhoura to Cahir Castle in County Tipperary, which featured in the TV series The Tudors. The oldest part of the castle dates back to 1142, and through the centuries it has witnessed murder, sieges, ruin and restoration. After that it’s the town of Carrick-on-Suir, home of the Dukes of Ormond and perhaps the prettiest bridge in Ireland.

From Carrick, it’s a pretty drive to Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny, a sensational ruined Cistercian abbey with Romanesque details and rare carvings. Henry VIII of England dissolved the monastery in the 16th century, but the cloisters are magnificently preserved – it’s almost impossible to stride down them without pretending to be a scheming Tudor.

Kilkenny Castle

It must have been awful for the family having to sell the castle to the state for £50 after owning it for almost 550 years – but lucky us! The castle perches above the River Nore and is open to the public, acting as the city’s heart and protector.  

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Jerpoint Abbey to Kilkenny city

Ten minutes from Jerpoint, on the road to Kilkenny, make a quick stop at Kells Priory. This big medieval ruin looks more like a fortress than a religious house, and you’ll probably have this peaceful spot to yourself, watched over only by sheep and sky.

Kilkenny city is our stop for the night, but there’s a lot to see and do in this busy and compact medieval gem. Call in to late-12th century Kilkenny Castle first before it closes (around 4.30-5pm, depending on the season). The vast walls seem out of place rising up in the town centre, but it is just one of the city’s quirky delights. Stroll around the ancient lanes (locally known as “slips”) until you spot a place for dinner.

Day 4

Kilkenny city to Abbeyleix, County Laois: 132km/82 miles (2 hours 40 minutes at 50km/h)

Kilkenny city to Huntington Castle

After breakfast, stroll to Gothic St Canice’s Cathedral, which is much cosier than the word “cathedral” would suggest. Read about Alice Kyteler, accused of being a witch in 1324 (she certainly got through a lot of rich husbands, and there's an inn in the city named after her) and climb the round tower – one of only two in Ireland where that’s permitted.

It’s not many families who can trace their lineage back to the dawn of time, but that’s the claim of the owners of County Carlow’s Borris House. Current incumbents – the McMurrough Kavanaghs, High Kings of Leinster – are the 16th generation to live in the house. You have to prebook your tour but the architecture, furnishings and atmosphere are simply astonishing.

Huntington Castle to Abbeyleix

Our next stop is another family home, though very different. Huntington Castle in County Carlow was built as a garrison in 1625. It was subsequently turned into a home, with generations adding their own, sometimes peculiar, stamp (there is a temple to the goddess Isis in the basement). The gardens are equally quirky and fun.

Altamont Gardens

A wonderful design incorporating a river and lake, along with assiduous plant collection and curation, have turned this into a paradise where roses, ancient yews and oaks, rhododendrons, bluebells and azaleas populate a series of themed gardens and glens. 

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Brownshill Dolmen

A megalithic portal tomb between 4,900 and 5,500 years old, the Brownshill Dolmen is a puzzle to historians. What is certain is the weight of the granite capstone: 103 awe-inspiring tonnes. 

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Huntington will have tempted garden lovers on to our next stop, Altamont, and its world-famous parklands. Set aside an hour or two if the weather is fine, then head northeast back into prehistory at Brownshill Dolmen. Our stop for the night is at the picturesque 18th century town of Abbeyleix in County Laois.

Day 5

Abbeyleix, County Laois to Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park, County Kildare: 95km/59 miles (1 hour 55 minutes at 50km/h)

Abbeyleix to Emo Court Demesne

Take a stroll around Abbeyleix and marvel at the money and power held by landowners such as the 2nd Viscount de Vesci, who had the whole town moved up the hill in around 1770. The result is delightful but on we must go. The next stop, the village of Timahoe, had its first monastery back in the 7th century, and the last monastic settlement only closed in 1650, a thousand years later.

The Rock of Dunamase is less than 15 minutes’ drive from Timahoe, although you can see it for miles around. The limestone outcrop is strategically perfect for a fortress, although its early Christian occupants still fell victim to the Vikings.

Rock of Dunamase

Rumour has it that English military leader Oliver Cromwell’s men reduced this fortress to ruins to prevent its use by Irish forces. It was a wise move – the rock was the most important Anglo-Norman fortification in Laois, and later, even a dowry.

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Emo Court

Designed in 1790, finished in 1860, abandoned in 1914, Emo Court Demesne was lovingly restored to Georgian splendour during the 1970s and 80s. The gardens are magnificently landscaped, with “natural” areas, woodland and a 20-acre lake. They’re open all year and a treat for walkers.

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Emo Court to Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park

Retreating from windswept Dunamase, we’re off to Emo Court Demesne and a complete contrast. This grand classical mansion took 70 years and three generations to build, for a heyday that only lasted 40 years. The Jesuits moved in in the 1930s until 1969 when it was restored – workmen found lots of statues in the lake, presumably dropped there by Jesuits blushing at pagan nudity.

The Irish National Stud, County Kildare

A little further on, The Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens is a quirky mix of world-class horse breeding and an exotic garden commissioned in 1906. From here, we go to Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park, 60 acres of walking trails, play areas, a Biodiversity Boardwalk and a brilliant exhibition covering 9,000 years of human history – a fitting final stop on our journey into the past. 

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