Ireland’s Ancient East offers myths, great food, and adventure. Carlingford is the perfect base, writes Eoin English.
I remember from my childhood readings of the ancient Irish myths and sagas, once upon a time, how the theft of a brown bull sparked a bit of bother on the Cooley peninsula.
I remember, too, how a row between two giants just up the road, one of them a handy hurler, apparently, led to the construction of a causeway, apparently.
I knew that Carlingford Lough, at its heart, got its fair share of mentions during the shipping or sea area weather forecasts on the radio, and that the mountains of Mourne swept down to the sea on its northern shores.
But apart from that, I knew little else about the rugged Cooley peninsula in Louth.
So it was with this limited knowledge and an open mind that we visited the area to explore the start of Ireland’s Ancient East and its associated myths and legends, staying a 15-minute drive south in the four-star Crowne Plaza in Dundalk.
We began on foot, taking a walking tour of Carlingford — one of the best preserved medieval villages in Ireland.
Nestled at the foot of Sliabh Foy, which at 588m is the highest peak in the Cooley mountains, Carlingford, or fjord of Carlinn, was raided by the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries, who probably used its lough for shelter.
The first known historical reference to the town dates from 1184 when Norman knight John de Courcy granted ferry rights to the Abbot of Downpatrick.
But the town itself began to develop following the construction around the same time of the imposing St John’s Castle, named after King John who visited the area in 1210.
The town’s rich history is still very evident today along its winding streets, with our tour taking in the Holy Trinity Church, which is now a heritage centre, the magnificently preserved ruins of the 13th century Dominican Friary, and bringing us right to the foot of the castle ramparts.
The OPW, which took control of the castle in the 1950s, hopes to undertake restoration works to open parts of the Norman structure to visitors soon.
We traipsed along Tholsel St, weaving between tables heaving with people taking coffee in the sunshine, to see the last remainders of the town’s four gates, and one of the few remaining such gates in Ireland, where tolls were imposed.
The town had its own mint, and although the right to mint coinage was granted to Carlingford in 1467, it’s unlikely that minting ever actually occurred.
With hanging baskets bursting with gorgeous floral displays, and the intoxicating aromas of cooking food scenting the air of the pretty cobbled lanes, this is a part of the town that needs to be savoured.
I have learned from experience, though, that there is a limit to the amount of history and culture that three young children will accept on a holiday.
So the focus shifted to fun later. Carlingford Adventures offers thrillseekers high-speed rides in a powerful rib around the sheltered waters of Carlingford Lough, providing wonderful views from the water of the castle.
And if you’re up for it, Shane might just let you take the wheel of his boat as it crashes through the waves.
There is nothing quite like a white-knuckle boat ride and sea air to work up an appetite. Given that our visit coincided with Carlingford’s famous oyster festival, it was only fitting that seafood would feature prominently for dinner.
The Bay Tree restaurant, tucked away on Newry St, is owned and run by chef Conor Woods, who sources his beef, fish, lamb, chicken, and duck from local producers, and who grows his own salad and vegetables in a polytunnel to the rear of the restaurant.
Once Vivian McCardle talked us through chef Woods’s evening menu, I opted for the Asian-style oysters, served with spring onion and pickled ginger, and the surf and turf dinner.
The oysters are outstanding — but the succulent six-ounce dry-aged fillet steak from William Baird butchers, served with a half lobster, is one of my highlights of the weekend.
With its stunning food, unique cosy decor, and excellent service, it’s easy to see why The Bay Tree has won the coveted best restaurant in Louth and Leinster at the Irish Restaurant Awards in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
The adventure theme continued the next morning at Sky-Park at the Carlingford Adventure Centre. We donned climbing harnesses, scaled 50ft poles, and navigated through a challenging aerial obstacle course before zip-lining at high-speed some 200m to another climbing pole.
You could easily spend three hours swinging, screaming, jumping, climbing, and zip-lining your way around the park.
But then it was back to culture and history, and I insisted on visiting Newgrange, at the heart of the Brú na Bóinne.
But a word of warning. Tours of the tomb are sold on a first come, first served basis. Get to the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre by lunchtime, or even earlier, to be in with a fighting chance.
Don’t do what we did and just arrive on a Sunday afternoon expecting to get in. You will be disappointed. And your children will never let you forget it.
You can choose your own Ireland’s Ancient East theme or itinerary on irelandsancienteast.com.
Where to stay, what to do
The 14-storey, four-star Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk is an ideal base for exploring the Cooley Peninsula on the start of Ireland’s Ancient East.
Don’t be put off by its location in a business park on the town’s outskirts.
With spacious, clean, and comfortable rooms, interconnecting family rooms, and friendly staff, it’s perfect for families.
The one drawback? It doesn’t have a pool. But its Fahrenheit rooftop restaurant provides wonderful food and offers panoramic views over the Cooley Mountains.
Take a walk, on the medieval side
A great way to appreciate the narrow medieval streets, the ancient ruins, and scenery of Carlingford, in the company of one of the town’s expert guides. Meet outside the tourist office car park. Booking is advisable.
Take a high-speed boat ride around Carlingford Lough with Lough Adventures. If you’re up for it, Shane might let you take the wheel of his Adventure One rib.
For those who prefer a more relaxing trip, he has a larger cruiser — with a roof. Trips depart from the town’s North Pier under King John’s Castle.
Release your inner Tarzan
Carlingford is home to the Sky-park and Sky trekking adventure park. A must for adrenalin junkies with a head for heights.
Allow two to three hours to explore the scenic route around the Cooley peninsula, taking in the village of Greenore, the Proleek Portal Tomb, one of the finest examples of its kind in Ireland, and the wonderful views of the lough from The Flagstaff, north of the village of Omeath. Newry is a 20-minute drive north, and you can be in Warrenpoint in another half an hour.
Newgrange, one of the world’s best-known prehistoric tombs, is less than 40 minutes from Carlingford and 30 minutes from Dundalk. Get there early.
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