Moving through swampland-turned-sacred settlement where a saint lived and died. Marvelling at monumental bridal dowries far beyond the realm of modern times. Exploring the extravagance of a rich man and his architectural legacy. All this and more awaits in Ireland’s Ancient East.
You’ve reached the midlands, and counties Offaly, Westmeath, Laois and Kildare. Epic alliances, forged in love and expedience, were born here, carved into the land and created traditions honoured ever since.
Get roaming and uncover supernatural tales about hellhounds and hidden treasure. You’ll hear about the ruined monasteries that claimed miracles and how prehistoric hunters were more advanced than we think.
This is Ireland’s Ancient East…and it’s time to wander through 5000 years of history.
The first and largest Palladian manor in Ireland, Castletown House is quite a sight to behold as you approach from its lime tree avenue. Set in open Kildare parklands and streaked with river walks, the wide Renaissance-inspired abode is flanked by two extravagant wings. But then, it was built by an extravagant man.
William Conolly was his name and dubious deals involving confiscated lands during the Williamite War in Ireland had earned him a colossal fortune. In fact, when he died, Conolly was one of the richest men on the island and owned a staggering 100,000 acres of land. That’s equivalent to 75,625 football fields. At the heart of this acreage? Castletown House.
Built in 1722 as a monument to Conolly and a symbol of his wealth, Castletown gives an immediate glimpse into the opulence of the time. An Italian architect named Alessandro Galilei designed its limestone façade, while Irish architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce added its wings. Guided tours bring guests inside the celebrated house, while its formal gardens and woodland surrounds are perfect for a wander.
It was said that Conolly would require 240 horses to bring his half-year’s rent from Dublin to Castletown.
When St Ciarán and Diarmait Uí Cerbaill met on the eastern bank of a misty River Shannon in the early 6th century, neither could have predicted what that site, Clonmacnoise, would become. Over the next few centuries, the swampy ground on which they built a wooden church grew into one of the leading centres of religion and learning in Europe.
Sadly, Ciarán didn’t live long enough to see the cathedral, seven churches, two round towers and three high crosses the spiritual spot would host. He died of the plague and was buried under the eponymous stone oratory, Temple Ciarán, which his sacred spirit is said to protect. Diarmait, on the other hand, went on to become one of the first crowned High Kings of Ireland.
The impressive monastic settlement, dotted with periodic ruins and lichen-spotted headstones, remains popular with visitors (Pope John Paul II journeyed here in 1979). Despite much changing since its humble inception, it continues to host religious services, as St Ciarán would have wanted.
In the 11th century, King of Munster Turlough O’Brien robbed the skull of a recently slain king from the site. St Ciarán’s punishment from the grave? Strike him ill until he saw the error of his ways.
Cutting into the sky above Laois’s Valley of the O’Moores is an imposing limestone outcrop capped with castle ruins. Known as the Rock of Dunamase, it's evolved from Christian retreat to Viking target and Anglo-Norman stronghold. As well as a wedding present…
While almost every bride expects a rock on her finger before walking up the aisle, not many grooms could hope for a gift as spectacular as the Rock of Dunamase. But that’s exactly what happened when Norman lord Strongbow married Aoife Rua, daughter of the King of Leinster, in 1172. Aoife brought with her the castle, a mop of fiery hair and matching spirit that made her a fierce ally in battle alongside her husband.
Today, the breathtaking ruins loom proudly above the surrounding countryside, a view almost unchanged from when Aoife first gazed over her domain one thousand years ago. Inside the vast complex, it’s easy to get a sense of its former grandiosity and palpable past.
Local legend insists that treasure is hidden here. Regrettably, it’s guarded by the hellhound Bandog, a dog with enormous jaws and flaming mouth and eyes.