Ireland’s Ancient East

April 5, 2017

Ireland’s east is a treasure house—sometimes literally so—of ancient sites. It’s a huge area, physically and temporally, taking in 17 counties and more than 5,000 years of history. So, in the words of the traditional Irish blessing, may the road rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back.

Dublin to Glendalough

Most journeys within Ireland begin in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital, known for its history, literary heritage, and craic—a word with a loose meaning encompassing fun, banter, and the pleasure of company, all of which can be found in Dublin’s many pubs.

Work up a thirst by staring in open-mouthed wonder at the Book of Kells, the richly illustrated manuscript of Gospels which date from around A.D. 800 and are on display in Trinity College’s atmospheric Old Library. Slake that thirst in Davy Byrnes, a pub associated with a much more recent, but no less celebrated book. In James Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses, it’s where Leopold Bloom enjoys a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich.

From Dublin, take the scenic route south along the R115 for 38 miles through Wicklow Mountains National Park to Glendalough, a monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century and known as “the valley of two lakes.” The round tower stands 108 feet tall, and it’s easy to imagine the monks who once lived and worshipped in this place hard at work in their scriptorium, illustrating manuscripts as beautiful as the Book of Kells.

The Maritime Gateway

Head for the south coast and stories of emigration and invasion. The Dunbrody Famine Ship, moored on the quayside at New Ross, a little more than 60 miles from Glendalough, is a replica three-masted “coffin ship” of the sort that took more than a million people from Ireland to North America to escape starvation caused by potato blight. Among them was Patrick Kennedy, the great-grandfather of JFK, who sailed from New Ross in 1848. (His former home, the Kennedy Homestead, can be visited at nearby Dunganstown.) Ships sailing for a new land and new lives would have passed Hook Head, site of the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, built some 800 years ago and open for guided tours.

Nearby Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, was founded by Vikings in 914. Get up close to evidence of their presence at Reginald’s Tower, then visit the Medieval Museum, where 15th-century priestly vestments, woven in silk and embroidered with biblical scenes, are among the great treasures of Europe.

Take the N25 southeast for 75 miles or so, and you’ll come to the port of Cobh (pronounced “cove”). Looking out over the harbor, a statue depicts 17-year-old Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island, and her two younger brothers. They made the voyage from here to New York in 1891. A far less fortuitous voyage is commemorated in the Titanic Experience attraction—in 1912, the ill-starred liner made her final port of call here (Cobh was then called Queenstown) on that tragic maiden voyage.

The city of Cork, 15 miles inland, is a good place to stop for a bite. Stock up on food at the English Market, trading since 1788, which has been described as the best covered market in the U.K. and Ireland. This is the place to see the Irish love of meat in all its glory, including such specialties as crúbeens (pig trotters) and drisheen (blood sausage). As one stallholder puts it, “Every part of the pig is sold apart from its squeal.”

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