But the truth is that Temple Bar is about as accurate and authentic a reflection of Dublin as Montmartre is to Paris. And yes, the west coast is often stunning and glorious, but it is also utterly choked with green-eyed tourists from June to September.
But have you ever asked yourself, between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – between Dublin and the Atlantic– what lies between?
“Ireland’s Ancient East” is the answer: one that comes with the caveat of not being either exclusively ancient or eastern, but who’s counting? It offers a fresh, scenic, stimulating and often offbeat experience away from the maddening crowds and into the heart of the (as yet) commercially untapped heart of Ireland.
On one level, it needs to be stated that Ireland’s Ancient East (IAE) is Fáilte Ireland’s follow-up, and natural bedfellow, to the phenomenally successful Wild Atlantic Way that was formally fan-fared in 2014, covering over 1,500 miles down the westerly face of nine countries; a wild and ragged coast that needed a unifying coherence, objective and itinerary to pull it all together.
On quite a different level, since its launch in 2016, IAE is lifting the lid on what has long been the country’s best kept tourist secret: the nation’s real gems – those that layer it with so much variety, depth and pleasure – lie deep between the east and west coastline.
Bridesmaid of Irish tourism
With less than 7 million inhabitants all up, the island of Ireland received over 10 million visitors in 2017. Yet, traditionally, few of these spend much time in Leinster (the island’s most eastern of its four provinces) beyond jetting or boating in or out of Dublin, or Rosslare Port in the southeast.
Despite some of the most appealing heritage in Britain or Ireland, the most hospitable climate in the country and proximity to Dublin airport, for aeons Leinster has been the bridesmaid of Irish tourism. In many ways, the Wild Atlantic Way reaffirmed this. It was fashioned for what the marketing hobnobs call the “greater escaper,” whereas Ireland’s Ancient East is pitched towards the “culturally curious.”
These are considered the more independently minded traveller; those who love to get under the skin of a place to see how it works. Research suggests these travellers will often holiday for five to ten days, with their own bespoke itinerary to hand.
Unlike the Wild Atlantic Way, IAE has no defined route, start or end, allowing a form of flexibility that will endear and engage some, and downright frustrate others. And it really isn’t just the east: its projects and heritage sites also stretch from Cork and Tipperary to Offaly to Monaghan and Cavan, embracing parcels of the provinces of Munster and Ulster, and the Midlands in between. And while most of its attractions are, indeed, in the east and are most ancient (with some structures pre-dating the construction of the Pyramids), many are not (e.g. Hook lighthouse, Wicklow Gaol, the “Titanic Connections” in Cork, or the Ros Tapestries in Wexford). But that doesn’t imply they are not worth visiting.
Central to the IAE experience is the planning and mapping by would-be visitors on its indispensable website: www.discoverireland.ie/Irelands-Ancient-East.
On its homepage you are soon presented with four thematic pillars (set out below) upon which to tailor your own IAE experience. While most can be experienced year-round, to a greater or lesser extent, mid-April to mid-October is the best time to nail it.
As it’s not expected that you will ever cover all the suggested routes on the website, there are strong overlaps between them, so choose wisely. As someone very familiar with the sites and attractions on offer, the suggested routes can cater for all hues of the “cultural curious,” from two to seven days’ sojourn.
Within the ‘Ancient Ireland’ banner, a number of multi-day itineraries are on offer, but I’d suggest either ‘Cork to Cavan in seven days’ or else ‘Limerick to Meath in three days’.
For ‘Cork to Cavan in seven days’ you can delight in over 5,000 years of heritage in just one week, trailing through 17 different counties. If time is on your side, then grab this wondrous week with two hands (Note that comparable seven-day stints are also available under the below banners).
Here you will have the pleasure of experiencing such vaunted heritage and cultural treasures as Lough Gur, the Rock of Cashel, Waterford Viking Triangle, Kilkenny Medieval Mile, Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Athlone Castle, Brú na Bóinne and the Cavan Burren UNESCO Global Geopark.
And like so many places on IAE, if you find yourself reading such names and places and wondering “what?” or “where?” then you’re halfway there. Put another way: this is what you’re going for – to discover what you’d previously never even knew existed just across the pond from Britain. So many an overseas tourist who has come and gone across this Green Isle also never heard of them, which is why you will feel like you’ve almost got the place to yourself, while meeting and mixing among the everyday Irish, rather than fellow visitors.
If you haven’t a full-week in the country, then go with ‘Limerick to Meath in three days,’ where you can more than manage to discover the power of ancient Ireland on this wonderous trail of nature parks and prehistoric sites. Over eight counties you will get heaps of variety, from Ireland’s largest sculpture park, 300 million-year old limestone plateaus and haunting passage tombs: UNESCO World Heritage Sites containing the largest collection of megalithic art in Western Europe.
High kings and heroes
“Meath to Wexford in three days” is something out of the ordinary, even for IAE. It takes you through Meath, Westmeath, Laois, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and Wexford, mixing indigenous sports, crumbling castles and even an international political icon of the 20th century.
Take, for example, medieval Kilkenny, where you will walk the splendour of its Norman castle before learning a thing or two about the 3,000 year-old sport of hurling – the world’s fastest field game. As Kilkenny is the most successful hurling county for at least the last century, they ought to know. Presented as the Kilkenny Way Ultimate Hurling Experience, it will bring you to the Legends Hurling Museum at Nowlan Park Stadium, where you can test your skills with a sliotar (admission includes a bowl of fresh Irish lamb stew).
From the street patterns of the Viking ports, to the distinctive 10th-century round towers dotting the landscape (built by the monasteries to hold-out the siege-like invasions), evidence of the Viking age is ripe across Ireland’s east and south coast.
The south-east is where Norse legacy remains strongest to this day, so “Waterford to Kilkenny in two days” is a great bet, concentrating on the splendid counties of Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny, entailing everything from the Hook Lighthouse to the Dunbrody Famine ship.
Arguably the jewel in the crown across the 120 miles is Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, which was founded by Norse invaders in 914AD. Visit the trio of treasures set within the Viking Triangle: the Medieval Museum, Reginald’s Tower and Bishop’s Palace.
Ever wondered why Ireland was known as the “Land of saints and Scholars?” Between the 6th and 10th centuries, Ireland was a bastion of early Christianity through the so-called Dark Ages. Europe’s most scholarly monasteries flourished, unique styles of architecture blossomed, from Irish Round Towers to Celtic High Crosses, while breathtakingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts were crafted, including the world-famous Book of Kells. A much-travelled bunch, Irish monks and friars were sent out across the known world while pilgrims poured in from across the continent.
‘Louth to Longford in three days’ is the one to look out for here. Journeying between
Monaghan, Meath and Offaly, it is a landscape of green fields, tranquil rivers and rolling hills, across which Ireland’s dazzling history will unfold before you.