On the road in Ireland
Ireland’s Ancient East is a region stretching from County Monaghan, down south to the east of the city of County Cork, excluding Dublin. Features editor, John Newton, took to the road to explore part of the region – from the capital to Kilkenny - and discovered a timeless landscape with secrets of a bygone era on one hand and tales of hardship on the other that forced many to flee or die.
An authentic reproduction of an 1840s Irish coffin ship, which provides an insight of the famine emigrant experience, is a major drawcard in Ireland’s Ancient East.
A guided tour of the replica Dunbrody - built in 2001 in the County Wexford town of New Ross, once the third busiest port in the British Isles - tells the story of Irish Famine Emigration, with specific details about the harsh conditions on board ships heading to Canada and the United States.
The original Dunbrody was built to carry cargo – not people.
But with the onset of famine and fever and conditions involving deprivation of all human rights, new opportunities arose for the Graves family of New Ross, who were merchants and were sending their ships – including the original Dunbrody – out to North and South America empty.
They made a loss on the outward voyage, but made money on the return trip, carrying cargoes of timber, cotton and guano (dried bird-droppings used as a fertiliser).
Many people were leaving Ireland, but there were not enough regular scheduled passenger ships to carry them all. So, the switch was made to carry fare paying passengers on what were aptly called ‘Coffin Ships’, because many people died on the long journey.
During the famine, about one million people died of starvation and famine-related diseases – and two million left the country within three or four years.
Today, the floating Dunbrody replica provides a unique insight into the bravery and fortitude shown by the Irish people during a desperate era, when the coffin fleet transported more than 100,000 immigrants across the Atlantic.
On the nearby wharf is the Dunbrody Visitor Centre - where the guided ship tours can be booked - is the Irish American Hall of Fame, which commemorates the critical contribution of Irish men and women to US history.
And a short drive away is the Kennedy Homestead, birthplace of President John F. Kennedy’s great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy. It celebrates the story of five generations of the Kennedy dynasty. The homestead is still farmed by Kennedy descendants.
A unique display of Kennedy memorabilia is on display at the homestead.
It’s been said that when exploring Ireland’s Ancient East, the journey takes you through 5000 years of history in the land of legends, where Stone Age astronomers harnessed the sun, where saints lived and died, where Vikings built cities and Norman knights defended their castles.
From Dublin, an overnight stop at award-winning Powerscourt Gardens and Hotel at Enniskerry is a must. With more than 800 years of history, it’s one of the most breath-taking estates in Ireland.
Its meticulous gardens - voted the world’s third most beautiful by National Geographic magazine - extend over 19 hectares and feature sweeping terraces, ornamental lakes, a golf course and – even a pet’s cemetery believed to be the largest in any private Irish garden.
Magnificent gates to the gardens were purchased in England, Germany and Italy – the 240-year-old Bamberg Gate, located in the Walled Garden - came from the German city’s cathedral.
Five kilometres from the gardens and hotel is the Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland’s highest at 121 metres (398 feet).
From Powerscourt, the drive across the Wicklow and Glendalough National Parks – even on a rain swept day – is a highlight with stunning views of the Wicklow Mountains, known as the ‘Garden of Ireland’. Another not-to-be-missed stopover are the historic remains of the monastic settlement at Glendalough in Laragh. From here, it’s another spectacular drive through the Gap of Wicklow to Ireland’s highest pub – the Roundwood Inn at Roundwood.
After driving to New Ross and hearing of the people who chose to join the famine emigration and escape for an uncertain future abroad, it was time to put the foot down and head for Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and the world’s largest collection of sparkling Waterford crystal.
The House of Waterford produces 60,000-70,000 pieces a year, some of which will leave a massive hole in your wallet, such as Cinderella’s carriage costing 40,000 euros or a lavish chandelier worth 100,000 euros.
During a guided factory tour of the House of Waterford Crystal, you’ll marvel at the skills of master craftsmen learnt over a long eight-year apprenticeship, as they cut patterns onto the crystal using diamond-tipped wheels.
The tour takes in each stage of the production process. And you’ll hear that only pieces that satisfy Waterford’s standards make it to the next stage of production.
Pieces that don’t come up to scratch are crushed and re-melted.
Next to the factory is Waterford Treasures – three museums which tell the story of Ireland’s oldest city from its Viking foundation more than 1000 years ago, through its political and trading role in medieval Europe, to the social history of glass-making told through a 4D experience, at the 18th century Bishop’s Palace, where visitors can view the oldest surviving piece of Waterford glass.
Built in 1743, Bishop’s Palace Museum houses the world’s largest collection of historic Waterford glass. It’s one of three museums in Waterford’s Viking Triangle, which tell the story of the city of Waterford - founded by the Vikings in 914. Among the great treasures at the Medieval Museum is a four-metre long Great Charter Roll (circa 1373) and the 15th century cloth of gold vestments – the only set to survive in Northern Europe.
At Thomastown In County Kilkenny, Jerpoint Abbey - founded in the 12th century - is regarded as one of the most interesting Cistercian ruins in Ireland.
One of the most outstanding features of Jerpoint is the cloister arcade, partially reconstructed in 1953. Carvings on many of the piers are of significant interest, ranging from human figures to grotesques and small unexpected figures in corners or on bases.
Medieval tiles – generally dated to the 14th and 15 centuries – were discovered during conservation work at the abbey. Two types used as church flooring were found in Jerpoint – including a two-coloured inlaid tile showing a lion’s face.
It’s a short drive to Kilkenny – the best-preserved medieval city in Ireland. Monks and ancient kings founded the first town here – and as medieval merchants became wealthy from trade on the rivers, the town grew into a city.
Ireland’s only witch trials took place in Kilkenny in 1324, when a female innkeeper and moneylender was accused of poisoning and sorcery against her husbands, having amassed a fortune from them. However, before she could be tried, she fled to England – but her maid was flogged and burned at the stake.
Today, Kilkenny Castle is the city’s most imposing building and stands dramatically above the River Nore, dominating the High Town of Kilkenny. Over the eight centuries of its existence, many additions and alterations have been made to the fabric of the building, making the castle today a complex structure of various architectural styles.
The castle represents the start of the city’s ‘Medieval Mile’ at one end and St Canice’s Cathedral the other. Sites along the way each tell different stories about daily life in medieval Kilkenny. These include the Medieval Mile Museum, set in the 13th century St Marys Church and graveyard.
Another highlight of the ‘Mile’ is St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower, where you can clamber up the steps to the top of the tower for panoramic views of the surrounds of Kilkenny.
There’s a proliferation of bars and restaurants in Kilkenny specialising in Irish stew washed down, of course, with a pint or two of Guinness.
It’s a busy – and often boisterous – city, which prides itself on its lively culture and entertainment scene. And there’s an array of festivals and theatre events throughout the year, with the Kilkenny Arts Festival topping the bill in August.
Places to stay
* A drive of less than an hour from Dublin, Powerscourt Estate has been selected by the Lonely Planet guide as one of the top 10 houses and mansions to visit worldwide. Set in lush, tranquil grounds with striking views of Great Sugar Loaf Mountain, the 194-room property is an ideal place to relax and enjoy a drop or two of the black stuff. For wellness aficionados, the hotel’s spa - ESPA -features a black marble pool inlaid with Swarovski crystals.
* Set in the Wicklow countryside, BrookLodge Hotel at Macreddin Village in Aughrim is renowned for its Strawberry Tree - Ireland’s first certified organic restaurant. Once the site of an ancient 5th century settlement. At Macreddin Village, the hotel has its own organic bakery, smokehouse, pub, an organic shop - and even its own chapel. There’s also a spa and an 18-hole golf course.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Ireland for the touring itinerary, accommodation and car hire.
Words and images: John Newton
1. Great Sugar Loaf Mountain, Wicklow
2. Powerscourt’s magnificent gates
3. Ireland’s highest waterfall
4. Dunbrody replica
5. No seconds
6. Creating a masterpiece
7. Superb Waterford crystal
8. Jerpoint Abbey ruins
9. Castle dining room
10. Kilkenny Castle (Supplied)
11. Map of Ireland (Supplied)
Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au
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