With 17 counties spanning Ireland’s Ancient East, and over 5,000 years of Irish history to explore, ancient stories and Irish myth and legend await you at almost every turn along the route. While Ireland’s Ancient East isn’t one defined driving route like the Wild Atlantic Way, the historic sites that have shaped this land for thousands of years ensure this is one driving holiday you’ll remember for years to come.
The Ireland’s Ancient East route is split into three sections: the Land of 5,000 Dawns, the Historic Heartlands and Celtic Coast. Taking you from Cavan and Monaghan in Ulster, all the way to Cork and Limerick in Munster, there is so much to explore along Ireland’s Ancient East, it will be hard to fit it all into one trip. To help you plan a trip along the Ancient East, here are 15 places everyone should visit at least once along Ireland’s Ancient East.
15 Places Everyone Must Visit Along Ireland’s Ancient East
1 Newgrange, Co Meath
Top of the list, and with good reason, is Newgrange, one of the oldest attractions along Ireland’s Ancient East. Part of the Brú Na Bóinne World Heritage Site, Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, making it older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids in Egypt. This historic passage tomb is located in Boyne Valley in Co Meath and was built by Stone Age farmers to signal the beginning of the New Year as part of the Winter Solstice, a date that is still celebrated in style at Newgrange some 5,000 years on from its creation. Guided tours of Newgrange and Brú Na Bóinne run across the year and be sure to check out the other iconic mounds in the area, Dowth and Knowth.
2 Hill of Uisneach, Co Westmeath
The Hill of Uisneach in Loughnavalley, Westmeath is the historic centre of Ireland, as it was this spot that the five historic counties of Ireland met for centuries. The hill was a place for both inaugurations and burials of ancient high kings, while at the summit you can see out across some 20 counties, taking in all four modern provinces. Guided tours of Uisneach run every Saturday with one of the highlights being a visit to Aill na Mireann, also known as Catstone. Legend has it that the ancient goddess Ériu (whom Ireland is named after), was laid to rest at this spot.
3 Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly
Clonmacnoise is a famous monastery in Co Offaly, founded by St Ciaran in the 6th Century. The monastery today is mainly in ruins, with several buildings dating back to the 10th Century, while Clonmacnoise is also home to the largest collection of Early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe. The monastery became a major centre of religion, learning and craftsmanship that was visited by scholars from across Europe. Many of the ancient high kings of Connacht are said to be buried at Clonmacnoise. You can enjoy tours of this iconic monastery throughout the year.
4 Rock of Cashel, Co Tipperary
Legend has it that the Rock of Cashel originated after a rock was blasted from the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 30km from Cashel after St Patrick banished Satan from the cave. For this reason, the Rock of Cashel is sometimes referred to as St Patrick’s Rock and was once the seat for the high king of Munster. The Rock of Cashel is home to one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art anywhere in Europe, while the area is also home to an impressive collection of buildings that date back to the 12th Century. A trip to Cashel is one of the undoubted highlights along Ireland’s Ancient East, especially as the sun is setting.
5 Rock of Dunamase, Co Laois
The Rock of Dunamase is a prominent rocky outcrop of land in the town of Dunamaise, a short drive from Portlaoise in Co Laois. The story of the Rock of Dunamase is a famous one as the King of Leinster handed it over to his son-in-law, Strongbow, as a wedding gift. While the Norman Castle isn’t what it once was, it’s still a significant location to visit when visiting Laois and travelling along Ireland’s Ancient East. The view atop Dunamase takes in much of Laois and is well worth trekking when visiting the area.
6 Brownshill Dolmen, Co Carlow
This pre-historic tomb is thought to date back some 5,000 years and is the largest tomb of its kind anywhere in Europe. One of the highlights of any trip to Carlow, Brownshill Dolmen is thought to be one of the earliest areas for settlers in Carlow, and today represents a tangible link between the past and the present. A site of religious rites and possible human sacrifice, this impressive tomb is something that everyone in Ireland should visit at least once. For more suggestions on things to do in Carlow check out our 48-hour guide.
7 Corlea Trackway, Co Longford
Discovered in 1984 in a bogland area, the Corlea Trackway in Longford is thought to date back to the Iron Age and 148 BC. Built from oak beams, the track was exceptionally preserved for over 2,000 years and is one of the biggest pre-historic roads existing in Europe. The Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre takes you back in time and tells the story of Ireland in the Iron Age, and the centre is open from March to October, with daily tours.
8 Carrickmacross Workhouse, Co Monaghan
Carrickmacross is one of the few remaining restored workhouses in Ireland, and a tour of the workhouse will share the story of the struggles of Irish people, and particularly those from South Monaghan during both British Rule and the Great Famine. One of over 100 workhouses in Ireland during the 1800s, a tour of Carrickmacross today will share the emotional story of our ancestors who struggled through hard times in search of a better life. The workhouse has a museum dedicated to the Great Famine, while you can also find out about over 6,000 years of Irish history at Carrickmacross.
9 Hook Lighthouse, Co Wexford
Described by Lonely Planet as “the granddaddy of all lighthouses”, Hook Lighthouse in the Hook Peninsula in Wexford is one of the most iconic lighthouses anywhere in Ireland. Hook Lighthouse has been guiding people at sea for over 1,000 years, with the existing building in place for some 800 years. Enjoy a tour of the lighthouse and climb the 115 steps to the top and enjoy wonderful panoramic views over Wexford.
10 Kilkenny Castle, Co Kilkenny
One of the most impressive castles in Ireland, Kilkenny Castle was built in the 12th Century and restored in the 1800s to become one of the country’s most iconic castles. You can enjoy tours of the castle throughout the year, while the castle grounds are stunning and well worth exploring. Kilkenny Castle is part of the famous Medieval Mile in the city, allowing you to discover the rich history of this wonderful city.
11 Glendalough, Co Wicklow
One of the highlights of the Wicklow Mountains is Glendalough Monastic Site, one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland. Founded by St Kevin in the 6th Century, Glendalough is home to a number of important monastic sites including a round tower, church and large granite cross. With views of the lakes and valleys of Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough Monastic Site is one of the most scenic locations along Ireland’s Ancient East, attracting visitors for thousands of years. Glendalough is accessible all year round and is a must see when exploring Wicklow.
12 Copper Coast Geopark, Co Waterford
A UNESCO Global Geopark, it took over 400 million years to create Copper Coast Geopark, so it’s fair to say this part of Ireland has a story or two to discover. With a 50km coastal drive to explore, Copper Coast is one of the most spectacular coastal stretches in Ireland. Discover the history of Copper Coast at the Geopark’s Visitor Centre, and be sure to stop by some of the key geological sites along the way including Ballydowane Bay, Stradbally Cove, Fenor Bog and Knockmahon Cove. Copper Coast was listed as one of our top 10 Irish road trips to enjoy this summer.
13 Hill of Tara, Co Meath
One of the most historically significant locations in Ireland, the Hill of Tara in Co Meath was once the seat of the Ancient High King of Ireland, and the coronation site for many High Kings. The site is a sacred site dating back some 6,000 years to the Stone Age era. The Stone of Destiny is one of the highlights of a trip to the Hill of Tara, as it is this point that over 140 ancient kings are thought to have been crowned.
14 Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum, Co Kildare
Another workhouse to visit along Ireland’s Ancient East is Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum in Co Kildare. The museum offers guided and self-guided tours of the workhouse, taking visitors on an emotional journey back to 1845 and the Great Famine. Although the workhouse didn’t open until after the famine, it shares the story of the struggles of Irish men, women and children before, during and after the Great Famine, and the impact it had on the country for years to come.
15 Lough Oughter, Co Cavan
Part of the Marble Arch Global Geopark, Lough Oughter is one of Cavan’s most famous attractions, and home to the Clough Oughter Castle, a 13th-Century castle, which is located on a small island on the lake, and today is mainly in ruins. A popular spot today for canoeing and kayaking, Lough Oughter, and Clough Oughter Castle has been at the centre of much of Cavan’s chequered history and is thought to have been built to protect the O’Reilly clan.
What are Your Ancient East Highlights?
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Images via Fáilte Ireland