My mum denies it, but surely I was born Irish. Or maybe just a whiff of the air freshening the green countryside is all it takes.
Yet, after many a ramble, this trip was the first I’ve seen of the mostly unvisited niche of the island called the Ancient East. It’s the stretch of countryside where grand old castles and just-as-grand formal gardens invite visitors to have a look.
Though the tourism district encompasses much of the eastern half of the country, we primarily toured the areas stretching south of Dublin.
And, indeed, this isn’t the usual story of the famines, the Troubles, the civil war: This is Upstairs to those dramatic Downstairs turns of Irish history. It’s a peek at how the gentry lived, and live on today, opening their centuries-old grounds and mansions to the public as a means of hanging on to their ancestral properties in the days of sky-high taxes. Best of all, it’s a story of the individuals who treasure this legacy.
We set off for County Wicklow, “the garden of Ireland,” for our first stop.
At Powerscourt Gardens, a twinkle-eyed, red-bearded Alex Slazinger led us through the property owned by the Wingfield family before him from 1691–1961.
A graceful, Palladian-style manor overlooks an Italian garden framing iconic Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance. Its terraces were dug during the potato famine, giving employment to 100 men. Its kitchen gardens, rhododendron walk, pond and 47 cultivated acres featuring plants from all over the world were collectively voted “third best garden in the world” by National Geographic magazine.
Our next stop was the Norman-built Kilkea Castle of 1180 — the oldest castle in continuous use — where we spent the night. Recently purchased by an American couple dedicated to sustaining it, its muscular stone exterior, slit with narrow Gothic windows and topped by crenellated turrets, enclosed a dining room where we feasted on crispy oysters, local crab and beef and Baileys caramel ice cream.
Our adventures continued at Huntington Castle in Clonegal, erected in 1165 as a soldiers’ garrison to control trade where two rivers met “back in the day before much law and order,” said present-day owner Alexander Durdin Robertson. Today sheep graze peacefully aside the squat gray structure where, indoors, hunting trophies and clunky suits of armor greet you as you proceed to the dining room, fashioned like a Bedouin tent, rich with family portraits, including the granddaughter of legendary pirate Grace O’Malley.
Peaceful since 1675, the castle was the first to employ electricity in the 1880s; peasants traveled from near and far to watch the lights go on at dusk. The drawing room hosts a trapdoor to a secret, hide-from-marauders chamber.
The castle, complete with original furnishings, is still occupied by the heirs of the original family. Just to keep things interesting, a couple hippie members of the clan fashioned an Egyptian-style temple in the basement in the 1970s to honor female divinities. Meanwhile, the estate’s surrounding gardens, planted in 1680, boast a majestic, 500-year-old yew walk.
Where to next? Lismore Castle and Gardens for the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival’s performance of Donizetti’s hilarious Don Pasquale, punctuated at intermission by a dinner of asparagus salad and guinea fowl amid the festive locals.
Lismore, which lies in the south about three hours by car from Dublin, features a formal upper garden established in 1620, making it the longest-cultivated plot in Ireland. By contrast, its lower gardens, founded in the 1850s, have a “modern,” free-flowing, natural style of design.
After breakfast, we head even farther south to Castlemartyr Resort, which resides on a site occupied Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1500s and even earlier by the Norman earl Strongbow and his Knights Templar, who built the castle in 1210.
Here you can see an exhibition by its trained owls and falcons, who soar and hunt on its grounds and even stand on a tourists’ gloved arms to stare them in the eye.
Circling back up the island, we stopped at Dromana House for lunch and a tour of the 13th-century medieval manor and gardens, perched high above the Blackwater River.
Nicholas Grubb, whose family harks back to 1680 here, and his wife, Barbara, whose roots run even deeper — back to 1215 — welcomed us, one and all.
Twenty years ago, the gardens had deteriorated into jungles. Today they’ve been meticulously restored. Indoors, Barbara Grubb pointed out two highlights — a portrait of her great-grandfather, who fought for emancipation; and a telephone room, designated to house this revolutionary new form of communication.
“And here,” Barbara Grubb said, “is where Lord X” — a relative, of course — “killed himself.” (Yes, there’s a ghost.) And that’s just one of the spicy stories from her family’s annals.
Next up: Dunbrody Country House, set on 300 acres of parkland and home to the Dunbrody Cookery School, offering classes for one, two and five days by owner/TV celebrity chef Kevin Dundon. Dundon treated us to exquisite canapés and cocktails of local gin in the mansion’s sunken garden before we left for Loftus Hall, of the 1700s, on the isolated Hook Peninsula — considered one of Ireland’s most haunted mansions.
It’s was there that Lorainne O’Dwyer, who introduced herself as a witch, guided us through the ill-fated mansion, where more than a few necks were broken by slipping down the staircase.
Fascinating stories continued at Woodstock Garden, in County Kilkenny farther inland, where we stopped for yet another garden tour. Head gardener John Delaney met us for tea and scones before guiding us through the gardens he’s diligently restoring to the standards of their Victorian heyday.
The mansion was burned in the 1922 struggle against British landowners. Today the grounds still boast one of the premier collections of conifers in Ireland amid 10 miles of footpaths — with the wider ones made to accommodate ladies’ giant hoop skirts. Why were the gardens walled?
“To keep the pheasants in and peasants out,” Delaney said.
All of this called for a wee dram. So we headed to nearby Ballykeefe Distillery, launched in 2017 by Morgan Ging on his family’s farm and now producing gin, vodka and that once-illicit liquor, potcheen/poitin, plus tours.
After an afternoon’s stroll through the medieval streets of Kilkenny, we reached our final stop at Burtown House & Garden, complete with a gift shop and destination restaurant, just 50 miles from Dublin.
Here James Fennel, a noted photographer and designer, is carrying on the legacy of his grandmother, herself a foremost botanical painter, whose passion was returning the overgrown wilds to cozy, informal gardens. Fennel’s since added a sculpture walk to the landscape here in the Ancient East. It’s calling your name.
To plan your visit, go to ireland.com.
Two days in Dublin
It’s Sunday morning as I lace up my running shoes in preparation for a whirlwind tour of charming Dublin, founded by Gaelic peoples around the 7th century on the banks of the River Liffey.
Here in the oldest part of town, sits the town’s first church in 1030; today Christ Church remains the city’s oldest building in continuous use.
Treading its elaborately tiled floor, you’ll spy the grave of Anglo-Norman conqueror Strongbow and the heart of St. Laurence, patron of the city. Descend to its crypt to discover artifacts of its past, including stocks used as punishment in 1179, and the remains of a rat and cat found mummified in the organ’s pipes.
Nearby St. Patrick Cathedral, on the site where the Irish saint is said to have baptized converts, is where its former dean, Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels in his off-duty moments) lies buried. Here two churches combined choirs to host the first performance of Handel’s Messiah on a long-ago Easter Sunday.
Wander to the nearby Temple Bar neighborhood, with more than its share of bars, indeed. Then tread the lacy Ha’penny Bridge across the Liffey to the Writers Museum (Can the Irish write? Nobel winners aplenty!) and nearby Hugh Lane Gallery of modern Irish art. Its high point, the studio of eccentric artist Francis Bacon, resembles the aftermath of a tornado.
Head riverward again along legendary O’Connell Street (above), pausing at the General Post Office for its exhibit detailing the bloody Easter Rising of 1916.
Head back to the river for lunch and a browse at Winding Stair, bookstore of Irish lit and storehouse of splendid food (think creamy seafood stew).
Farther along the river rises the new Epic Museum, a repository of Irish history — politics, religion, art and music — along with the epic emigration of huge (and deadly) masses on “famine ships” during the potato famine.
The museum also celebrates those of Irish heritage who fared well in the U.S. (many presidents and showbiz stars among them). Tramp across the Sean O’Casey Bridge to the Archaeological Museum that recounts Irish history. Here Viking jewels and swords are showcased, alongside the remains of earlier men, mummified by eons in the peat bogs. Around the corner, the National Gallery celebrates art — international and Irish alike.
If you’re still standing, work in other must-see stops: the tiny, eccentric Little Museum aside St. Stephen’s Green — the city’s outdoor living room — where equally offbeat guides explain the city’s history via quirky collections (including U2 memorabilia). Stop in at Trinity College (tours by students available) and its library, featuring the precious medieval Book of Kells manuscript.
Then dine at nearby Davy Byrnes, home of superior fish and chips. Finish the night at O’Donoghue’s, where lively players of trad music (think fiddle, guitar, squeeze box, mandolin, kazoo and pipe) fill the night with ballads and gusto.
A pint of Guinness is all it takes to linger. Then tomorrow, perhaps, head to Bang, almost next door, for modern Irish fare, such as a lovely spring pea and garlic soup; a warm salad of baby Irish carrots; then cod, lamb or chicken: all Irish staples given a new twist.
Off you go, and good on ye!
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives