Glendalough Visitor Centre
In a stunning glaciated valley in County Wicklow, in the sixth century, one of Ireland’s most revered saints founded a monastery. The foundation of St Kevin at Glendalough became one of the most famous religious centres in Europe.
The remains of this ‘Monastic City’, which are dotted across the glen, include a superb round tower, numerous medieval stone churches and some decorated crosses. Of particular note is St Kevin’s Bed, a small man-made cave in the cliff face above the Upper Lake. It is said that St Kevin lived and prayed there, but it may actually be a prehistoric burial place that far predates him.
Learn all about this hallowed place in the fine interpretive centre before exploring the site for yourself. If you do, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the two lakes and a uniquely spiritual atmosphere.
In the very heart of the county town, towering over the River Eske, stands Donegal Castle. Red Hugh O’Donnell himself built it as his personal fortress in the fifteenth century. It is said that, leaving to seek succour in Spain in the wake of the Battle of Kinsale, Hugh determined to make sure his castle would never ever fall into English hands – by setting it on fire.
But he was to be disappointed. English captain Sir Basil Brooke became the castle’s new lord in 1616. As part of a massive programme of improvements, Brooke built a handsome manor house beside the tower. He also commissioned the magnificent chimney-piece, finely decorated with carved fruit and his own imperious coat of arms.
The building complex fell into ruin in the twentieth century, but was brought back to its former glory in the 1990s. Currently, a suite of information panels illuminates the chequered history of the castle and its disparate owners.
Desmond Castle Kinsale
Desmond Castle in Kinsale dates from around 1500. It is a classic urban tower house, consisting of a three-storey keep with storehouses to the rear.
Maurice Bacach Fitzgerald, the earl of Desmond, originally built the castle as the customs house for the town. It served as a prison in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because it usually held French inmates, as well as Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch and Americans, it became known locally as the French Prison and carries that name to this day. The building was co-opted as an ordnance store during the momentous Battle of Kinsale (1601) and served as a workhouse during the Great Famine.
Desmond Castle certainly had a colourful history and this continued into the twentieth century. In the early 1900s it was used as a venue to host local Gaelic League meetings. Finally, in the 1930s, a thriving undertaking business operated from within the National Monument.
As one of the country’s largest military installations, Charles Fort has been part of some of the most momentous events of Irish history. During the Williamite Wars, for example, it withstood a 13-day siege before it fell. Later, in the Civil War of the early 1920s, anti-Treaty forces on the retreat burned it out.
Charles Fort is a massive star-shaped structure of the late seventeenth century, well preserved despite its history. William Robinson, architect of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, is credited with designing it. Its dimensions are awe-inspiring – some of the outer defences are 16 metres high.
The view from the ramparts looking out over Kinsale Harbour is spectacular.
Barryscourt Castle was the seat of the great Anglo-Norman Barry family and is one of the finest examples of a restored Irish Tower House. Dating from between 1392 and 1420, the Castle has an outer bawn wall and largely intact corner towers. The ground floor of the Tower House contains a dungeon into which prisoners were dropped via the 'drop-hole' located on the second floor.
The Barrys supported the Fitzgeralds of Desmond during the Irish rebellions of the late sixteenth century. To prevent it being captured by Sir Walter Raleigh and his army, the Barrys partially destroyed the Castle.
During the Irish Confederate War of the seventeenth century Barryscourt Castle was once again successfully attacked. Cannon balls lodged in the wall above the Castle entrance bear witness to this conflict. The last head of the Barry family was Lord David Barry.
Barryscourt Castle has been extensively restored. The Main Hall and Great Hall have been completed and fittings and furnishings reinstated. Within the Castle grounds, the herb and knot garden and the charming orchard have been restored to their original sixteenth century design.
The O’Briens of Thomond, who once ruled much of north Munster, founded this medieval Franciscan friary. It grew quickly into a huge foundation, with 350 friars and a famed school of 600 pupils by 1375. It was the very last school of Catholic theology to survive the Reformation.
The building contains an exceptional wealth of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sculptures carved in the local hard limestone, including one of St Francis himself displaying the stigmata. An arch between the nave and transept bears a remarkable image of Christ with his hands bound.
Don’t forget to visit the sacristy, an impressive structure with a ribbed, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Take especial note of the beautiful east window, with its five lancets, as it lights up the chancel.
A large and beautiful estate covering 16 hectares in total, Altamont Gardens is laid out in the style of William Robinson, which strives for ‘honest simplicity’. The design situates an excellent plant collection perfectly within the natural landscape.
For example, there are lawns and sculpted yews that slope down to a lake ringed by rare trees and rhododendrons. A fascinating walk through the Arboretum, Bog Garden and Ice Age Glen, sheltered by ancient oaks and flanked by huge stone outcrops, leads to the banks of the River Slaney. Visit in summer to experience the glorious perfume of roses and herbaceous plants in the air.
With their sensitive balance of formal and informal, nature and artistry, Altamont Gardens have a unique – and wholly enchanting – character.
Phoenix Park Visitor Centre – Ashtown Castle
Ashtown Castle is a tower house that probably dates from the seventeenth century, but may be as early as the fifteenth.
For years it was completely hidden within the walls of a Georgian mansion once occupied by the under-secretary for Ireland. When that house was demolished in the late 1980s, the castle was rediscovered. It has since been fully restored and now welcomes visitors.
Surrounding the castle is Ashtown Demesne, which boasts a plethora of attractions. Chief among them is the walled kitchen garden, which has being beautifully restored to its original Victorian layout. There are also woodland walks, picnic areas and a universal-access playground.
The Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, adjoining the castle, contains an entertaining exhibition on the park’s history from 3500 BC right through to the present day. There is a charming restaurant in the visitor-centre grounds.
The Phoenix Park is the largest enclosed public park in any capital city in Europe, at more than 700 hectares in area. It was created as a royal deer-hunting park in the 1660s and only opened to the public in 1747. The park is now home to Dublin Zoo and Áras an Uachtaráin – home to the President of Ireland.
The Phoenix Park has been the location for a number of major events – from an international motor-racing event in 1929 to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979, when more than a million people attended the celebrations.
The park itself is exceptionally scenic. A large herd of fallow deer still calls it home. Enjoy the landscape from one of the many walks and cycle routes available to the public.
Pearse Museum – St. Enda’s Park
The Pearse Museum in St Enda’s Park is where the leader of the 1916 Rising, Patrick Pearse, lived and operated his pioneering Irish-speaking school from 1910 to 1916.
Set in nearly 20 hectares of attractive parkland in Rathfarnham, Dublin, the museum tells the story of Patrick Pearse and his brother Willie, both of whom were executed for their part in the 1916 Rising. Here you can peruse a fascinating exhibition on Pearse’s life and wander through the historic rooms where he, his family and his students once lived and worked.
The romantic landscape surrounding the museum contains a wild river valley, forested areas and some enchanting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century follies.
If you are interested in the park’s varied wildlife, you will find information about it in a dedicated room in the courtyard – where you’ll also find the Schoolroom Café.