Tapping into the history of Ireland’s Ancient East

Having toured the length and breadth of Ireland, Barry Coughlan finds much more to discover in Ireland’s Ancient East.

TIME was when travellers had to call in person to offices of tourism or rely on brochures to find out where and when to go to the various landmarks in any particular area. 

Things have changed, of course, and the explosion of online information and heightened interest in areas of Ireland not regarded as high profile has opened up new markets for the tourist and for those involved in the tourism industry.

Outside of the Dublin metropolitan area and the well documented delights of counties such as Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo, Clare, and a few other less explored counties, there wasn’t much business generated in many parts of the country. 

But over the years I was fortunate enough to see more of what is on offer than most. Earlier in my career when I covered the sport of cycling, events such as the Tour of Ireland and the Rás Tailteann, I experienced some of what was on offer in each and every one of the 26 counties and a couple more up north as well.

I passed through, and in some cases, stayed in less fashionable counties like Longford, Leitrim, Westmeath and Roscommon, getting a first hand feel for the tourism potential, much of it untapped. 

The launch by Fáilte Ireland of a hugely inclusive product, Ireland’s Ancient East, is much more than just paying lip service to those providing facilities that offer a far wider range of attractions to incoming tourists and, let it be said, for those who want to or have to stay at home but would still like to experience something new.

On this particular trail, there’s a lot new but a lot of what it says on the tin, a big tie to antiquity. And the Ancient East trail is a very inclusive promotion of Ireland for the “marginal” counties; in all, 16 of the 26 counties are included in this trail that is bound to attract many hundreds of thousands of extra tourists in the years ahead. The counties profiled are Carlow, Cavan, Cork, Laois, Louth, Longford, Kildare, Kilkenny, Offaly, Meath, Monaghan, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath, Wicklow and Wexford.

I recently joined with a small group of Irish journalists along with representatives of Fáilte Ireland to take in some of the delights on a route from Dublin through Kilkenny to Waterford county and city and on to the border of Cork.

With a bolt hole in County Waterford for many years, I would have a degree of knowledge of what’s on offer, particularly in the Dungarvan/Ring/Helvick and Ardmore areas, but that hadn’t prepared me for the immense sense of history one gets closer to Ireland’s oldest city.

While the group had thoroughly enjoyed a visit en-route at the Dunmore Caves in County Kilkenny, I linked with them at Curraghmore House and Gardens in sleepy Portlaw and that proved to be an enriching experience.

Curraghmore is hidden away amongst more than 2,500 acres of farmland and woods and is the home of the 9th Marquis of Waterford. The latest Lord Waterford, Henry Nicholas de la Poer Beresford, lives there with his wifeAmanda and they have opened up the estate to visitors who will find a product well worth experiencing.

The estate has only recently become a tourism venture; it’s home to the oldest bridge in Ireland, for instance, built for a planned visit from King John who actually never did make the journey, magnificent gardens and a unique shell house. That was built by Catherine, Countess of Tyrone who was the only female to inherit the estate. The Shell House has been described as her folly, something to do, but the internal decoration with shells sourced from some exotic worldwide locations was all of her own work and it provides a wonderful experience on a guided tour by a very knowledgeable local woman Evelyn Dooley. The story of Curraghmore House, as articulated by Ms Dooley with some helpful additional information from Alan Walsh, events coordinator, is truly fascinating and for those with an eye on history this is a must see in Waterford.

Delving back to earlier times but just launched on the market is a magnificent attraction right in the heart of Waterford city.

In 917, exactly 1,100 years ago this year, Reginald, ‘King of all the Foreigners of England and Ireland’, led a huge fleet of Viking longships into Waterford Harbour and built a fort on the banks of the majestic River Suir and laid the foundations of Ireland’s oldest city.

Fáilte Ireland through Ireland’s Ancient East programme, Waterford City and County Council have come together to provide funding for this attraction.

Through the imaginative use of the latest virtual reality technology the momentous epic story of Reginald, King of the Vikings, is spectacularly brought to life. This Viking Virtual Reality Adventure is a world first and is located in a reproduction Waterford Viking house in Bailey’s New Street, just three minutes’ walk from Reginald’s Tower, at the very apex of the City’s Viking Triangle, where Reginald built his fort in 917. Well worth a visit.

From there we moved west to the seaside resort of Ardmore and to an overnight stay in the award winning Cliff House Hotel where all 39 sumptuous rooms face out to sea, many with balconies overlooking the ocean.

With a Michelin-starred restaurant and spa facilities, it’s no surprise that this hotel has a very high occupancy rate.

Having done the cliff walk year on year, it made a change to take the pleasant 5km hike in the company of a local guide, who provided the group with a huge amount of information — and some entertainment as well — that the plaques along the route could not possibly detail.

This walk through St Declan’s monastic site dating back to the fifth century is really one for the history buffs. Ardmore translates from Árd Mór (‘great height’ in Irish), and St Declan’s monastic site is reckoned to be one of the oldest in Ireland. As well as the old ruins, visitors can see a beautifully-preserved round tower and cathedral added in the 12th century. Unsurprisingly, the round tower and cathedral are the focal points.

Dunmore Caves, dunmorecaves@opw.ie.

Curraghmore House and Gardens; tour guide, 051-387134: office, 051-387101; bookings, 086-8211917; email: info@curraghmorehouse.ie or visit: www.irelandsancienteast.com/see-do/gardens/gardens/curraghmore-house--gardens

King of the Vikings; email: info@kingofthevikings.com; tel: 0761-102501; www.kingofthevikings.com. located at 10 Bailey’s New Street, Waterford.

Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore, www.cliffhousehotel.ie; tel: 024-87800

Ardmore Cliff Walk Tour; guide, Liam O’Suipéil, 086-347004; email: liam@anrinn.com.

www.irelandsancienteast.com/see-do/walking/historic-town-walks/ardmore-historic-town-walk

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