You’d never think it, but it used to be very time-consuming getting from anywhere to Carlingford. Before the new roads were built you’d be looking towards the two-hour mark (travelling from Dublin, that is), and, frankly, that’s too long for most people.
These days, though, it takes no time at all to travel from urban to rural. Carlingford, however, is more than just rural — it’s positively mythological.
The small town has been something of a tourist secret for decades, and in truth it has perhaps been overshadowed too much by the likes of Newry and Dundalk, each of which are urban centres that act as a magnet for the kind of tourist that prefers easy access to even a modicum of research. Interestingly, it was this commercial decline that not only prevented development from taking place but also served to protect Carlingford’s idiosyncratic character. The town has also come out from under the shadow of the North and its previous travails. The result is akin to a flower in bloom.
And when we say bloom, we mean bloom — this place, this region, is breathtakingly beautiful. Never mind the present — what about its history as an area steeped in mystery and mythology? Not only does mythology speak of it as a resting place of Finn McCool and the spiritual home of Cúchulainn, but it is also the inspiration behind the Narnia series of books by writer CS Lewis. There are some fanciful notions of the region being the final home of leprechauns (visit thelastleprechaunsofireland.com for some further bemusing information), but the more pragmatic among us might find better things to do by searching out prehistoric sites, Norman castles, and dolmens.
Certainly, the landscape is spectacular. But before we mention that, we first have to focus on the town itself. It was founded at the start of the 13th century, and parts of if retain a singular medieval sensibility. The name has numerous possible origins, but the one that most historians veer towards is the juxtaposition of the Gaelic word Cairlainn (which translates as ‘bay of the hag’) and the Norse Viking ‘fjord’. The town gained a stronghold in commercial terms during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, and some of the buildings, so full of character, from that period can still be seen.
The town is small enough to get what you need to get done within an hour, but zipping through it would be a mistake. You can stroll past atmospheric pubs, top-notch restaurants, and the kind of shops you wouldn’t find anywhere else (one ‘vintage’ shop in particular, just off the market square, is a treasure trove of jumble sale bits and pieces that you could spend hours thumbing through).
Let’s not forget (as if we could) the scenery that envelops the town and imbues it with a sense of calm and wonder. It is no surprise at all that the area has been awarded European Destination of Excellence, for there is genuine natural splendor here. From the mountain ranges of Mourne, Gullion, and Cooley to activities you can get up to in Lough (canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing), from eating and drinking to visiting historic sites, this town has it all. Carlingford a secret? Not any more.
For further information see visitcarlingford.com
Not many people know that Carlingford’s Four Seasons Hotel (4seasonshotelcarlingford.ie) was in existence long before the fancy international brand came along — that’s why the Carlingford hotel is still called what it is. It’s a good base if you’re looking for a place to rest the head. For accommodation bang in the centre of the town, try McKevitts Village Hotel (042 9373116), a family-run establishment that has been looking after the requirements of visitors for many years. Quite the different option is the beautiful Ghan House (ghanhouse.com), a restored Georgian property that has featured in John and Sally McKenna’s Best 100 Places to Stay In Ireland guidebook for an impressive 17 years running.
Food is really good in this town, with many options for such a small place. The best bets include Oystercatcher Bistro (oystercatcherlodge.com), overseen by a one-time Michelin-starred chef. It delivers attentive service, a casually efficient personal touch, and food that reflects the essence of the region. Excellent for a sleepover it may be (see ‘Sleep’ panel), but Ghan House is also highly regarded and commended for its food. Indeed, it has been awarded Best Hotel & Country House Restaurant in County Louth in 2010, 2011, and 2012 by the Restaurant Association of Ireland. A more recent addition to the culinary scene is the Bay Tree Restaurant, Newry St (belvederehouse.ie), which has won the Best Restaurant in Louth section in the Irish Restaurant Awards in 2012 and 2013. (The Bay Tree also has very smart B&B accommodation.)
We know we’re being sneaky here, and that we really should have listed this in the ‘Eat’ panel, but Ruby Ellens Tea Rooms, Newry St (rubyellenstearooms.com) deserves a section all to itself. This is quite likely the most charming evocation of a 1950s/’60s Irish small town tearooms you’ll see outside of a John Hinde postcard. The bonus is that the food here is superb — afternoon tea is a cracker (well, there’s more than that, but you know what I mean) and we’d recommend you book a table.
The Carlingford Oyster Festival runs from August 8-11, and is held in association with Omeath-based Morgans Fine Fish. Over next weekend you can expect to join in family-oriented activities (magic shows, funfair) as well as guided historical tours, fishing competitions, kayaking, and other water activities, and slurping down as many oysters as you can manage.