Ilnacullin – Garinish Island
Ilnacullin is an island garden of diminutive size and rare beauty. Nestled in the sheltered coastal harbour at Glengarriff in Bantry Bay, the gardens display a wealth of unique horticultural and architectural gems. Bryce House is a fitting memorial to the visionary creators of this unique place.
The gardens of Ilnacullin owe their existence to the early twentieth-century creative partnership of Annan and Violet Bryce, the island’s owners, and Harold Peto, an architect and garden designer. The area enjoys a mild and humid micro-climate that makes for spectacular and flourishing plant life all year round.
Small ferry boats and 60-seater waterbuses take visitors to Ilnacullin regularly. The short crossing usually includes an extra treat – a visit to the nearby seal colony and an opportunity to glimpse majestic sea eagles.
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.
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.
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.
The imposing complex of Government Buildings on Upper Merrion Street, next door to Leinster House, was the last major public building the British constructed in Ireland. It was intended as accommodation for the Royal College of Science and various departments of the administration.
Fortuitously, it was complete by 1922. When independence dawned, the new Free State government moved in.
In more recent times, Taoiseach Charles Haughey converted and entirely refurbished the building to form state-of-the-art accommodation for a number of departments, including the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Finance and the Office of the Attorney General. Despite criticism of the expenditure involved, the renovated building won awards for its architectural design when it opened in the 1990s.
There are free guided tours every Saturday, although they are subject to occasional cancellation for urgent government business.
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.
Ross Castle perches in an inlet of Lough Leane. It is likely that the Irish chieftain O’Donoghue Mór built it in the fifteenth century.
Legend has it that O’Donoghue still slumbers under the waters of the lake. Every seven years, on the first morning of May, he rises on his magnificent white horse. If you manage to catch a glimpse of him you will enjoy good fortune for the rest of your life.
Ross Castle was the last place in Munster to hold out against Cromwell. Its defenders, then led by Lord Muskerry, took confidence from a prophecy holding that the castle could only be taken by a ship. Knowing of the prophecy, the Cromwellian commander, General Ludlow, launched a large boat on the lake. When the defenders saw it, this hastened the surrender – and the prophecy was fulfilled.
The Blasket Centre – Ionad an Bhlascaoid
In Dún Chaoin, at the very tip of the Dingle Peninsula, is an utterly unique heritage centre and museum. A stunning piece of architecture in itself, the Blasket Centre tells the story of the Blasket Islands and the tiny but tenacious Irish speaking community who lived there until the mid-20th century.
Life on the Blaskets was tough. People survived by fishing and farming and every day involved a struggle against the elements. Emigration and decline led to the final evacuation of this extraordinary island in 1953.
The island population has left a massive cultural footprint. They documented the life of their community in a series of books which are invaluable social records and classics of Irish literature. They are both a window into the past and a fascinating resource for today.
Visit Ionad an Bhlascaoid - the Blasket Centre - to experience the extraordinary legacy of the Blasket Islanders and delve into the heart of Irish culture, language and history.
At the southern tip of the Iveragh Peninsula is Derrynane House, the ancestral home of one of the greatest figures of Irish history. Daniel O’Connell, known as ‘The Liberator’, was a lawyer, politician and statesman. The demesne landscape is now included in Derrynane National Historic Park – over 120 hectares of lands rich in natural and cultural heritage with a plethora of archaeological, horticultural, botanical and ecological treasures.
Derrynane was the home of the O’Connell family for generations. The young Daniel was raised there and returned almost every summer for the rest of his life.
The house now displays many unique relics of O’Connell’s life, including a triumphal chariot presented to him by the citizens of Dublin in 1844 and the very bed in which he passed away three years later.
It is a must-visit for anyone in search of insight into the life of an Irish historical giant.