9 historic houses of Ireland’s Ancient East

Huntington Castle, County Carlow

Palladian manors, medieval strongholds and lasting legacies: you’ll find that the grand estates of Ireland’s Ancient East are built on centuries of stories and splendour

1. Powerscourt House and Gardens, County Wicklow

An ornate Palladian mansion, 47 acres of sweeping gardens and an illustrious history: Powerscourt House and Gardens is a Daniel Robertson-designed jewel set at the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. It's no wonder this beautiful location was ranked in Lonely Planet’s top 10 houses in the world, while the gardens were rated number 3 in the world in National Geographic’s top 10 gardens list. Whether you explore alone or take a tour with head gardener Alex Slazenger, you're sure to fall in love with its gorgeous grounds. Discover walled gardens, ornamental lakes, a peaceful Japanese Garden and a rather fascinating pet cemetery. Then climb to the top of the Pepperpot Tower for views that stretch to the tip of the Sugar Loaf mountain. Indoors, the house is filled with wonderful artisan goodies from Avoca, as well as delicious treats at its two cafés. And while you relax with a coffee, take another peek outside to remind yourself of just how special this place really is.

2. Birr Castle, County Offaly

Welcome to a world where science and grandeur collide. Birr Castle in County Offaly was once home to Normans and Celtic clans before it became the seat of the Earls of Rosse. This impressive stronghold is almost 850 years old and is still the family home of the Parsons family. They open their doors to visitors in the summer months, offering guided tours of the castle’s opulent interiors, its exquisite tapestries and its treasured collection of beautiful antiques. The gardens are home to what was once the largest telescope in the world, known as the ”Leviathan” – and you can find out more about its scientific significance at the Science Centre. Meanwhile, the gorgeous grounds cover 50 acres of immaculate gardens, forest trails and riverside rambles, with over 100 species of flora to enjoy!

3. Castletown House, County Kildare

Just outside the town of Celbridge in County Kildare, perched at the top of a beautiful tree-lined avenue is Castletown House. A Palladian mansion, fit for a king – or rather, for the richest man in Ireland. Castletown House was built in 1722 for William Conolly, and has seen destruction and rebirth, visits from the rich and famous, the presidential and the political, and even the devil himself! Don’t let ghoulish legends deter you from a fascinating guided tour, though, before rounding off your visit to The Courtyard Café, which has been lovingly restored to its former 18th century glory.

4. Wells House & Gardens, County Wexford

Lush green countryside, terrace gardens and a verdant arboretum are just some of the stunning features of this renowned County Wexford beauty spot. Originally built by John Warren in the 1600s, Wells House & Gardens was then redesigned in the 19th century by renowned architect Daniel Robertson – this red-bricked beauty is one of his biggest triumphs. Tour guides decked out in Victorian costume bring to life the lives of the families who called this magnificent mansion home. Be sure to stop by the falconry to see the majestic birds of prey, test your aim at Wells House Archery and relax at Mrs Stone’s Restaurant, where delicious seafood chowder and homemade cakes are on the menu.

5. Tullynally Castle and Gardens, County Westmeath

You’ll find that the translation of Tullynally is as pretty as its location. In the Irish language, "Tulaigh an Eallaigh" means the "Hill of the Swan". After all, this is the fabled land where the Children of Lir were turned into these graceful birds. The castle itself has been the ancestral home of the Pakenhams for over 350 years – and remains so to this day. Private tours show guests around the main rooms of this huge stronghold in the heart of County Westmeath. But the real draw here are the sprawling gardens, complete with two ornamental lakes, a walled garden, a grotto filled with wooden carvings, the forest walk and a Chinese garden. You’ll even find two llamas dutifully patrolling the bounty of the kitchen garden! Feeling peckish? Stop by the tearooms in the castle’s courtyard.

6. Kilruddery House and Gardens, County Wicklow

Known as the “Garden of Ireland”, County Wicklow is filled with sumptuous estates like Kilruddery House and Gardens. Approaching this Elizabethan-Revival building may give you a case of déjà vu, as it has played a starring role in the The Tudors, My Left Foot and Angela’s Ashes. This beautiful house has been the home of the Brabazon family for 16 generations. Guided tours can be arranged during the summer months, where fascinating tales about its former residents are retold in vivid detail. One of the many treasures found in the grounds is The Orangery – inspired by the grand style of Crystal Palace in London. Legend has it that the family tiara was sold to finance its build.

7. Slane Castle, County Meath

Where else would you find a castle, a whiskey distillery and the chance to rub shoulders with the stars? Slane Castle is the stuff of legend! Sitting on the mystical plains of County Meath, next to the ancient River Boyne, Slane has been the venue for some seriously big-name concerts, including The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and U2. The Conyngham family has resided here for centuries and, in more recent times, a liquid legacy of pure gold has become part of their story. Be sure to take a tour of the Slane Irish Whiskey Distillery, housed in the estate's 250-year-old stables. Explore the barley room, heritage area and pot stills, followed by a tipple of their signature triple-casked blend. Not for the designated driver, of course!

8. Huntington Castle, County Carlow

Nora Parsons was just 16 in 1903 when she shot the Indian crocodile whose head now adorns the castle walls of 17th century Huntington Castle in County Carlow. Not to be outdone, Nora’s daughter Olive began her own religion in the 1970s – the temple of Isis in the castle’s basement celebrates the Divine Feminine to this day. The first lady of Huntington Castle, free-spirited Ailish O’Flaherty, who was the granddaughter of notorious Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, would be proud of her descendants! Guided tours of this charming castle breathe life into the legacy of these inspiring women and the Parsons family. If you fancy a more immersive experience, you can even stay overnight at the castle or indulge in a cosy B&B getaway.

9. Curraghmore House, County Waterford

With its immense size, it’s easy to believe that Curraghmore House is in fact a Norman keep encased in a Victorian mansion. This beautiful house has been home to the Marquises of Waterford for the past 800 years. Among the treasures of this 2,500 acre estate, you’ll find an ancient bridge, formal gardens and a charming Shell House. Built by Countess Catherine of Tyrone (the only woman to inherit Curraghmore), this enchanting folly took 261 days to decorate, and features hundreds of sea shells from across the world, brought to her by captains on great voyages. Many of the Marquises have died in sudden circumstances, from shooting accidents, drowning and even lion attacks. Could this be the curse that’s said to have been cast on the family centuries ago? Who knows? The 9th Marquis now resides here in this County Waterford gem, and welcomes visitors for tours and to absorb the long history of its chequered past.

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