The countryside of Ireland’s southeastern corner is largely flat and insipid, but, thanks to its position, gets some of the best of the country’s weather. The geography helps to explain why this area is a hotbed of hurling, the more expansive of Ireland’s traditional field sports: Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh), in particular, is mad about the game and currently seems to win the All-Ireland County Championship at will. For the visitor, the county’s attractions are focused on its namesake city, a splendid place to pass a couple of days, thanks to its magnificent castle and other historical sites, a flourishing arts, crafts and festivals scene and a plethora of fine pubs and restaurants. The northern reaches of the county offer little interest bar the magnificent Dunmore Cave, but to the south lie the verdant river valleys of the Nore and Barrow, with their trim waterside villages, evocative monastic remains and extensive waymarked trails. County Carlow (Ceatharlach) has almost negligible appeal, but, if you’re passing through, it does have one notable sight in the form of the gorgeous valley-set village of St Mullins. Conversely, County Wexford (Loch Garman) has much allure, especially in and around the genial county town of Wexford itself, with its thriving music and arts scene, and in Enniscorthy, a place redolent of the 1798 Rebellion. The county’s eastern coastline offers plenty of sandy beaches, while its southwestern corner along the Barrow estuary features some fine country-house hotels and a string of varied attractions, from ruined abbeys to a sweeping arboretum, running between the bleak wonders of the Hook Peninsula and the historic river port of New Ross.
Thanks to its strategic position just across St George’s Channel from south Wales, Ireland’s southeast has borne the brunt of the country’s colonization. The Vikings founded an early settlement here, which grew into Wexford town, while the Anglo-Normans quickly exploited the area’s economic potential and greatly altered its physiognomy. They developed Kilkenny and Wexford towns and built castles across the two counties, while also transforming uncultivated areas into productive farmland. However, control was not always easily maintained. The MacMurrough-Kavanagh Irish dynasty, based in the north of County Wexford, continually frustrated English attempts to control the region and full conquest only occurred when Cromwell arrived in the mid-1600s. Even after this, County Wexford witnessed some of the bitterest fighting during the 1798 Rebellion, before the insurgents were decisively defeated at Enniscorthy.