Staycations 2020: Explore the marvellous magical kingdom of Munster

If you are going to holiday in Ireland, you could hardly do better than Munster.
Staycations 2020: Explore the marvellous magical kingdom of Munster
The Beacon at Baltimore, Co. Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

If you are going to holiday in Ireland, you could hardly do better than Munster.

Comprising the counties of Cork, Clare, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford, it has always been a royal kingdom, ruled by powerful clans like the Eoganacht dynasty.

It incorporates great trading cities established by the Vikings in later times on famous rivers.

And from one end of it to the other, whether you are looking for family holidays or individual exploration, history or beaches, rural peace or lively centres, walking or cycling, swimming or searching for ancient stones, you have all of it here.

Where to start?

Waterford claims to be the country’s oldest city, founded by the Norsemen around 914 A.D.

Of course Dublin, Cork, and Limerick also have some right to that title, but certainly Waterford has been on a well-known and well-sailed trading route since ancient times, and through the millennia, ships from the icy north and the sunny south have tied up at its quays.

11th century Reginald’s Tower still stands arrogantly on the waterfront (its name commemorates Ragnall, the last Viking ruler here).

A splendid reproduction of a Viking longship, with the city’s original name, Vadrafjordr, on its prow, is permanently moored beside the tower.

Long stretches of the original city walls and its towers still survive and can be explored in the streets behind the quayside.

Before the Vikings, the original occupiers, the Deise, traded across to south-west Wales, both goods and slaves.

It is entirely possible that St Patrick was first brought to Ireland through this port.

Strongbow and Aoife bronze statues located in Waterford's Viking Triangle. Scupltures by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery.
Strongbow and Aoife bronze statues located in Waterford's Viking Triangle. Scupltures by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery.

Because of its location and spacious harbour, Waterford has been a major gateway since ancient times, not just for people and goods but also for new ideas and information.

Strongbow landed nearby, and married his Irish bride Aoife here, introducing a Norman element that never left.

When England’s medieval kings came across to subdue this rich neighbouring source of food and products, they landed here, bringing with them all the panoply of courtiers and troops, and expecting the same sort of lifestyle to which they had been accustomed.

That made for a cosmopolitan and sophisticated town with an extremely prosperous import and export industry.

Wool, hides, cattle, grain went out, iron, salt, luxury goods like fruits from the Mediterranean, spices and silk came in.

Above all, wine was imported, huge butts of it on every tide, destined for the dining halls of lords and abbots in their castles and priories upriver.

Wine was also essential for the celebration of the Christian church services, of course, but even monks were expected to offer a good table to visiting dignitaries, and did.

While much of the imported goods came via England, wine was usually shipped directly from Bordeaux or Spain, while salt, essential not just for flavouring but for preserving purposes, came in large loads from the Guerande in western France.

Waterford would have been a busy, noisy place throughout the centuries, with a constant stream of goods coming downriver from inland producers, and valuable cargoes being unloaded at the quaysides.

In the 18th century, the county contributed enormously to the Newfoundland fishing industry, sending hundreds of young men northwards every year as crew on English ships.

Many came back each winter, bringing their hard-earned wages to assist their families who had waited patiently, but over time others settled in that new land, married with local girls, or brought their own families over.

That is why Newfoundland today has such a strong Irish culture (and, indeed, why St John’s in the far north is twinned with Waterford here in the milder south).

A great proportion of those courageous young men who sailed with the fishing fleets came from farming communities up along the rivers which flow into Waterford.

They might not have even seen the sea before the opportunity to travel and discover new lands was offered.

It must have been a culture shock, but clearly many benefited from the experience.

Much of Waterford's growth and prosperity was due to its being favoured with not just one river, but three.

Known since ancient times as The Three Sisters, they start quite close to each other in the mountains to the north, thence making their separate ways south, finally to take hands once more and flow out into the sea by Hook Head where the oldest operating lighthouse in the world has flashed its beacon of welcome and warning since the 5th century.

It’s quite something to stand on the rocky shoreline below and think of how many years that lighthouse has guided and warned.

Follow up the Barrow, the Nore, or the Suir, as generations of traders have done, and discover the small towns and villages which populate their banks. Look at the glow on the Comeragh mountains at sunset, take time to sit and think of all who have travelled these river roads before you.

Portlaw, on the Suir, once held a huge cotton spinning mill which employed thousands. The raw product came in through Waterford and upriver to the mill, while the finished goods went out the same way.

Lismore Castle, home of the Dukes of Devonshire, is in Waterford, and a splendid sight to behold, towering over the mighty river Blackwater which enters the sea at Youghal, forming the boundary between this county and Cork.

If you’re coming in from the Waterford side, look out for the projecting pier just before that bridge, and see a causeway running out at the other side as if to meet it, although the estuary now flows between.

Lismore Castle is a splendid sight to behold
Lismore Castle is a splendid sight to behold

That is the site of the famous Old Youghal Bridge which was always rickety, but, as road traffic increased, became increasingly dangerous until by the 1950s it could only be traversed by cars at walking speed, negotiating striped barrels in a giant slalom across the Blackwater.

Before ever that bridge was built, the river was crossed by ferry, and the rusted mooring rings still can be seen on that little pier.

More fascinating local history.

Youghal itself is steeped in history, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s one-time home at Myrtle Grove to the quays which saw the making of the classic film Moby Dick.

Every laneway leading to the harbour has its own tales to tell, and it’s an ideal place to wander round and soak up the atmosphere of yesteryear. But Cork city beckons.

If you’re from Cork, you know your good luck.

If you aren’t, then it will enchant you, with its many steep hills (Rome is only trotting after us, as they say proudly), its branching river which confuses the first-time visitor as he encounters yet another bridge and another quay, and its definitely Mediterranean atmosphere.

St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, lovely Trinity Church reflecting its spires in the Lee, the historic Coal Quay, serenely elegant UCC – it’s a city which has managed to retain the feel of the past while moving energetically into the future.

Where Dublin is packed and crowded, Cork strolls relaxedly and stops in the middle of the street for a chat.

West Cork is legendary for its beauty, and it’s hard to choose where to head for first.

Wonderful beaches at Garrettstown, Inchydoney, Castlefreke, where the kids can play all day while you relax.

Take in the wonderful landscape of Roaring Water Bay
Take in the wonderful landscape of Roaring Water Bay

Kinsale with its boating fraternity and distinctly international flavour, Charles Fort recalling colonial days. Crosshaven which proudly boasts the oldest yacht club in the world.

Baltimore, ancient home of the O’Driscoll clan, and the jumping-off point for Sherkin and Cape Clear.

Catch a glimpse of actor Jeremy Irons’ perfectly-restored medieval castle near Skibbereen, and take in the wonderful landscape of Roaring Water Bay and Carbery’s Hundred Isles (actually there aren’t a hundred of them, but it sounded good in the poem, The Sack of Baltimore).

Rosscarbery in ancient times housed a learned school for pupils from all over the known world.

Skibbereen’s Famine Museum is a stark reminder of harsher days.

Mizen Head juts out aggressively into the Atlantic as Ireland’s most south-westerly point, and out to sea the Fastnet lighthouse warns that this is a dangerous stretch of coast, evidenced by the many wrecks recorded.

Crookhaven village, with its own little sheltered inlet, was often the last port of call for transatlantic shipping, while coming in the opposite direction, barrels of mail were dropped off below Brow Head, and collected by boatmen for onward transmission to Cork – thus often giving The Cork Examiner a lead over the grander London newspapers.

And then there is Dunmanus Bay, Sheep’s Head, and the wonderful Beara Peninsula, leading to Dursey Island, connected to the mainland by cable car.

Don’t forget to pay your respects to the Cailleach Beara, an ancient rock which gazes out over the ocean, pondering age-old secrets.

Find time to visit Bantry, home to literary, chamber music and folk festivals, and Glengarriff which is tucked into a microclimate of its own, giving exceptionally mild growing conditions for plants and trees which flourish there as nowhere else.

Garnish Island has splendid Italian gardens, lovingly maintained.

If you’re lucky you might see a white-tailed sea eagle perched on the rocks as you pass.

Dursey Island is connected to the mainland by cable car
Dursey Island is connected to the mainland by cable car

You could spend a wonderful couple of weeks down in this corner of West Cork and discover a relaxation you had forgotten you ever had. Time really does seem to stand still here.

Kerry, also known as the Kingdom, is splendidly wild and rugged, with mountains and cliffs lifting the heart with their grandeur.

Killarney has some of the most beautiful scenery, especially from a high point on the road to Moll’s Gap, where the lakes are revealed in all their beauty.

Tralee, with its beautifully restored canal which enabled ships to unload nearer the town, and the old windmill at Blennerville, is a reminder of both trading days and emigration.

Beyond this, the drive out past Dingle to Slea Head and Dunquin, with heartstopping views of the Blaskets (but be prepared for a bit of reversing on the very narrow roadway), is unforgettable.

Ryan’s Daughter was filmed out here, and you will probably recognise some of the scenery.

The sheer length of Inch Strand is where The Playboy of The Western World was filmed back in the Fifties.

Where will you catch your first view of the legendary Skelligs out at sea?

Now known to millions as a (very brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it) Star Wars location, it was once home to a courageous fraternity of monks, but with a history stretching far back into the mists of time when its jagged black spikes were the final point on a mythical line of power known as the Apollo-Michael axis, stretching from ancient Greece to here on the edge of Europe.

Or do you want to explore the history of Valentia Island, from where the first transatlantic cable was laid?

Can’t miss the Ring of Kerry, taking in beautiful villages and coastline, especially Caherdaniel, former home of Daniel O’Connell.

Orlaith O'Sullivan, Niamh Doyle and Milly Foley, all Killorglin pictured at Puck Fair 2016, Ireland's oldest festival, in Killorglin, Co Kerry.
Orlaith O'Sullivan, Niamh Doyle and Milly Foley, all Killorglin pictured at Puck Fair 2016, Ireland's oldest festival, in Killorglin, Co Kerry.

You’re on the Wild Atlantic Way now (you have been since Kinsale, in fact) and wherever you see that jagged-edged signpost, you know you’re somewhere to be savoured and enjoyed.

Past Killorglin with its ancient Puck Fair held every August, and Listowel, home to the great playwright John B. Keane, you cross into Co. Limerick and reach the Shannon, our first and greatest natural gateway to the world, and since ancient times an inviting entrance to the heart of the country for both raiders and traders.

At Foynes, the first flying boats landed in 1937 from Newfoundland, and established a transatlantic service.

The Vikings always preferred establishing trading posts on islands in a river estuary, and that was the case with Limerick.

The original heart of the town is actually on an island still, although it’s not very obvious unless you are on foot and note the bridge which takes you across the little Abbey river which flows into the Shannon.

On that island stand both St Mary’s Cathedral, heart of the community since the 12th C, and 13th C King John’s Castle, redolent with the clash and colour of medieval troops and courtiers.

Lough Gur in the Ballyhoura mountains gives a glimpse of what life was like in far earlier times, with excavated homesteads and fields reconstructed as living history.

Nearby, on the road to Kilmallock (a lovely little walled town) stands Ireland’s largest stone circle, with its largest monolith, known as Crom Dubh, after an ancient and threatening god, weighing over 40 tonnes.

Following up the Shannon takes you to Killaloe in Co. Clare, where Brian Boru’s fort can still be seen in woodlands by the river.

Further on, a sequence of little seaside towns – Kilkee, Miltown Malbay, Lahinch - each with its own fine beaches, recall a once-famous and much-loved little railway line which connected Limerick and Ennis with the coast.

Percy French wrote a song about the West Clare Railway which has gone down in history, with its refrain:

Are ye right there Michael, are ye right?

D’you think that we’ll get home before the night?

Sure it’s all dependin’ whether

The ould engine holds together.

And it might now, Michael, so it might!

The Shannon takes you to Killaloe in Co. Clare, where Brian Boru’s fort can still be seen in woodlands by the river
The Shannon takes you to Killaloe in Co. Clare, where Brian Boru’s fort can still be seen in woodlands by the river

Some of that line’s delightful history can be discovered at an old marshalling yard in Kilrush where mementoes of its life are preserved.

Nobody should miss the Burren, that unique moonscape of limestone paving with scarcely a tree or bush to be seen.

But walk around, peer between the cracks in the paving, and you will find flowers and plants tucked deep down in shelter, that really belong far further south in Europe.

The Burren is renowned for its unusual flora.

It is hard to imagine generations of people living here, trying to scratch an existence from an unforgiving environment, but once visited, this haunting region exercises a powerful pull that draws you back again and again.

Turn inland, and you are in Tipperary, a peaceful landlocked county of lush fields and grazing cattle, ancient castles and idyllic fishing lakes, perfect for family holidays.

Holycross Abbey on the Suir, visited by thousands of pilgrims over the centuries.

Nearby, Farney Castle, home of knitwear designer Cyril Cullen, with the only round tower in Ireland currently occupied as a family home.

The splendid sweeping landscape of the Glen of Aherlow. The bustling market town of Cahir with its Norman castle, later a Butler stronghold, guarding the river crossing.

Get the kids to spot the two cannon balls lodged in the walls, relics of old battles.

Fethard is a medieval town too, with much of its original walls still intact.

Don’t forget to point out the Devil’s Bit, a jagged gap on the skyline, to the children, and tell them the story of how the Evil One angrily tore it from the Silvermines range, throwing it down into the plain, where it became perhaps the most iconic of Irish sites, the Rock of Cashel, Cashel of the Kings.

Holycross Abbey has been visited by thousands of pilgrims over the centuries.
Holycross Abbey has been visited by thousands of pilgrims over the centuries.

It was from here that the kings of ancient Munster ruled, sending out their warriors and peacekeepers far and wide.

A later king gave the site to the Church, and much of what you can see there today dates from the Christian era.

From a distance, though, as you see it rising from the flat surrounding plain, you can understand the wisdom of the Eoghanacht ruling clan in choosing such a spot for their central fort.

And there is so much more. Every winding lane, every tiny bridge, brings another delight to be discovered.

Stories are to be found at every turn. A holiday in Munster will be unforgettable.

If you don’t get round it all this year – all too likely, given the distractions you will encounter – then there is always next year.

And next…

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up