The modern counties of Wicklow, Kildare and Meath equate roughly – Wicklow’s wild mountains were always something of a no-man’s-land – with the Pale, the fortified area around Dublin to which the English colonists retreated after 1300. The colonists coined the expression “beyond the pale” and implanted the language, customs and government of lowland England in these “obedient shires”, leaving today’s visitors a rich architectural legacy of castles, abbeys and, from a later period, stately homes. Wicklow, Kildare and Meath are much sought after by modern-day settlers, too: unable to afford Dublin’s property prices, thousands of the capital’s workers have set up home in the hinterland in the last fifteen years, though the outward sprawl has been checked by the recent economic crisis.
County Wicklow is sometimes nicknamed the “Garden of Ireland”, but apart from the narrow, fertile coastal strip, this is no gentle hinterland to the capital. It was the extreme desolation of the mountains that drew the hermit St Kevin to his cave at Glendalough, around which one of Ireland’s most prominent and charismatic monastic sites grew up. The Rebellion of 1798 was sustained longest by its Wicklow insurgents, some of whom made the best of their upland fastness to evade capture until 1803. To flush them out, the authorities in Dublin were obliged to build a military road, fortified by barracks, into the mountains, which remains the principal route along the backbone of the range to this day. Not surprisingly, wealthy English and Irish landowners built their great country houses around the edges of the mountains, of which fine examples at Powerscourt, Russborough and Avondale are now open to visitors.
In contrast to the harsh landscape of the Wicklow Mountains to the east, County Kildare is prosperous farming country, which was gladly seized and fortified by the English as part of the medieval Pale. Rich pasture for cattle and horses in the north of the county gives way to fertile ploughland in the south, the Bog of Allen in the northwest providing the only unproductive blot on the landscape. The county’s main attractions for visitors are neatly concentrated in two areas. Servicing the bloodstock farms on the Curragh’s lush heathland, Kildare town is generally a low-key affair, where you can explore the monastery and church founded by St Brigid in the fifth century, and see what all the equine fuss is about at the fascinating National Stud. To the north of town, you can trace the development of the Bog of Allen at the nature centre in Lullymore. Meanwhile up on the county’s northern edge lie the motley attractions of Larchill Arcadian Gardens, as well as one of Ireland’s finest stately homes, Castletown.
The rich limestone lowlands of County Meath, bisected by the River Boyne and supporting ample cattle pasturage, have always attracted settlers and invaders. The valley’s Neolithic people somehow found the resources and manpower to construct the huge, ornately decorated passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, part of the extraordinary landscape of ritual sites known as Brú na Bóinne, which is today one of the country’s most famous and best organized visitor attractions. In contrast, the Loughcrew Cairns, a similarly extensive grouping of burial mounds in the far northwest corner of the county beyond the small market town of Kells, have failed to garner present-day resources for excavation and tourist development, leaving you to explore this mysterious, hilltop landscape unaided and usually in solitude. The Hill of Tara started out as a Stone Age cemetery, too, but evolved into one of Ireland’s most important symbolic sites, the seat of the High Kings of the early Christian period. Meath also caught the eye of the Anglo-Norman invaders, who heavily fortified and held several parliaments at Trim, where you can visit the mighty castle and several other well-preserved medieval remnants. Meath’s other noteworthy sights are on either side of Brú na Bóinne in the northeast of the county: to the west Slane’s historic castle and monastery, which enjoy a picturesque setting on a steep, wooded hillside above the River Boyne; and to the east, the site of one of the most significant battles in Ireland’s history, the Battle of the Boyne, now commemorated by a high-tech visitor centre.