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.
The sightseeing highlight of Wexford’s southwestern corner is the atmospheric ruin of Tintern Abbey, at the neck of the blustery Hook Peninsula, which is punctuated with sandy beaches and a fascinating medieval lighthouse. Circumnavigating Hook Head brings you to the pleasant little resort of Duncannon and nearby Ballyhack, whence car ferries cross the Barrow estuary to Passage East in County Waterford. This ferry service is 20km south of the first road crossing of the Barrow, at the busy town of New Ross, and is certainly worth taking if you’re short of time, but that way you’d miss out on a tight cluster of attractions on the east bank of the river, notably the glorious remains of Dunbrody Abbey, the John F. Kennedy Arboretum, and the charming Ros Tapestry and vivid Dunbrody Emigrant Ship at New Ross.
On the broad neck of the Hook Head peninsula, 30km southwest of Wexford town off the R374, lies the dramatic ruin of Tintern Abbey, now surrounded by 3km of woodland trails and endowed with a café. This thirteenth-century Cistercian foundation was constructed by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, to give thanks for being saved from drowning at sea, and was populated by monks from its better-known namesake in Monmouthshire, Wales. After dissolution in 1536, the abbey was granted to one of Henry VIII’s officers, Anthony Colclough, who much modified the buildings, while subsequent additions, including the battlemented walls, were made by his descendants, who lived here until the 1960s. Only part of the original cruciform church is still standing but its tower is extant and includes a small exhibition on the abbey’s history.
Hook Head is entirely exposed to the elements, serene in good weather – though very dangerous for swimming – and excitingly wild in a storm. The rocky shoreline has a wealth of fossils and it’s a popular location for birdwatchers, who visit to spot migrations, as well as whale- and dolphin-watchers. The Hook Lighthouse was built by William Marshall in the early thirteenth century to guide ships safely into the Barrow estuary on their way to his thriving port of New Ross, replacing an earlier beacon. Apart from a short period during the 1600s, it has functioned ever since and became fully automated in 1996. Guided tours lead to the lighthouse’s top, some 36 metres high, and recount its history, paying note to the monks who were the first light-keepers here.
DUNCANNON is a small, friendly village with a lovely Blue Flag beach protected from the elements by a rocky coastline at its southern extremity. Looming above from its lofty promontory is Duncannon Fort, constructed in 1586, on the site of a Celtic fort and a Norman castle, as a bulwark against Spanish invasion. Much remodelled since then, the fort was burnt down by the IRA in 1922. Though Ireland was officially neutral during World War II, the fort was rebuilt on its outbreak, becoming a base for the Irish Army until 1986. As well as art and crafts galleries and studios, a café and an internet café, the complex includes a small maritime museum, a dry moat with ten-metre-high walls, ramparts with great views of the Barrow estuary and down to Hook Head and, in a surviving older building, a fetid dungeon where the Croppy Boy, the subject of a well-known song of the 1798 Rebellion, was allegedly incarcerated.
NEW ROSS squats besides the River Barrow, 12km north of the arboretum, its quayside marred by poor redevelopment and heavy traffic, but there’s still life in the old place, especially in the lanes behind the frontage. The river provided access to the upstream countryside of Wexford and Kilkenny, and the town’s importance beyond being a local embarkation point is emphasized by the quayside presence of the Dunbrody Emigrant Ship. Though this is a reconstruction of one of the nineteenth-century vessels that conveyed Irish emigrants to North America, particularly during the height of the Famine, it is actually a fully operable craft and occasionally takes part in tall ship races. Following a brief scene-setting video, the half-hour guided tour of the ship, complete with costumed actors role-playing passengers and crew, shows the conditions on board, stressing the variance between those who travelled steerage and first class. In the visitor centre, which houses a café, you can access a database of virtually everyone who emigrated to North America between 1846 and 1886.
The town’s tourist office is housed in the ship’s visitor centre. Ask here about the Ros Tapestry (www.rostapestry.com), an ambitious, ten-year project to embroider the history of New Ross in fifteen colourful panels – it’s nearing completion and will probably be hung in St Mary’s Church on Mary Street.
Eight kilometres down the Nore from Thomastown is the quaint village of INISTIOGE (pronounced “Inisteeg”), set around a tree-lined green, an old church and a narrow-arched stone bridge over the river. Unsurprisingly, the attractive location, with its verdant hills rising above the village, has drawn film-makers and both Circle of Friends and Widows’ Peak were shot here in the 1990s. The steep lane rising from the village green leads after a couple of kilometres to the Woodstock Demesne. When its owners left Ireland during the War of Independence, the estate’s Georgian mansion was taken over by the Black and Tans and, like many similarly tarnished dwellings, was burnt down after independence in 1922. However, since 1999 the county council have been restoring the Victorian gardens and you can enjoy walks lined by firs and monkey puzzles, an arboretum, rose gardens, rockeries and breathtaking views of the Nore valley, as well as a summertime tea room in a cast-iron conservatory.
Unquestionably Ireland’s most atmospheric medieval city, KILKENNY straddles the broad River Nore, doglegging past its imposing castle. Kilkenny’s medieval layout is centred on its hill and extravagant castle. Downhill from here the wide Parade leads down to the High Street, the main shopping district. This wends its way to the city’s other main landmark, the well-preserved, medieval St Canice’s Cathedral with its climbable round tower, en route passing Rothe House, architecturally impressive evidence of the city’s Tudor wealth. North of the city the major attraction is the strange calcite formations of Dunmore Cave.
The first known settlement at Kilkenny is believed to have been a sixth-century monastic community founded by St Canice (Cill Chainnigh means “the church of Canice”). After the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, Strongbow erected a motte and bailey fort, overlooking the Nore, in 1172, which was later replaced with a stone structure by his son-in-law, William, the Earl Marshal. The latter also built a city wall and towers and forced the local population to live outside its boundaries in an area still known as “Irishtown” today. Subsequently, the city’s ownership passed through various hands, before James Butler, the third Earl of Ormonde, purchased the demesne in 1391.
Following the 1641 Rebellion, Kilkenny became the focus for the Catholic Confederation, an unlikely alliance of royalists loyal to Charles I and Irish landowners dispossessed by the Plantation. This established a parliament in Kilkenny, aimed at attaining Irish self-government and, in the process, restoring the rights of Catholics. However, its powers were short-lived, and, after Cromwell’s arrival in 1650, the city’s prosperity began to wane.
Nonetheless, nowadays Kilkenny still possesses an undoubted grandeur, largely untarnished by inappropriate modern building developments and, thanks to its castle and numerous other sights, as well as a lively nightlife and cultural scene, has become an integral part of the Irish tourist trail.
Northern County Kilkenny lacks instant appeal, the main focus of interest being Dunmore Cave, 10km north of the city off the N78. Formed in a limestone outcrop of the Castlecomer plateau, Dunmore’s series of chambers feature numerous beautiful calcite creations – curtains and crystals, stalactites and stalagmites; the most remarkable of the last stands some four and a half metres high. The cave is referenced in the Annals of the Four Masters, which recounts that the Vikings massacred a thousand people here in 928, a tale partially substantiated in 1967 when excavations uncovered the skeletons of more than forty women and children, and a Viking coin.
Some of the county’s finest spots lie towards its southern extremity, countryside defined by the lush valleys of the rivers Barrow and Nore. Near the Nore are major ecclesiastical remains at Kells and Jerpoint Abbey while, by the Barrow, both Graiguenamanagh and St Mullins are attractive places to stay. Near the beguiling village of Inistioge, you can explore the extensive gardens and arboretum of the Woodstock Demesne.
The major tourist sight in the south of the county of Kilkenny is Jerpoint Abbey, which lies on the N9, 20km south of Kilkenny city. Originally founded as a Benedictine house in 1158, the abbey was colonized by Cistercians some twenty years later. The oldest remain is the twelfth-century Romanesque church, but the rest, set around a beautifully colonnaded fifteenth-century cloister, follows the characteristic Cistercian design. The abbey features a number of thirteenth- to sixteenth-century tomb sculptures in the transept chapels and some intriguing carvings on the cloister arcade, including the “little man of Jerpoint” whose stomach-crossed hands and open-mouthed expression suggest either mirth or dyspepsia.
The jumping-off point for the abbey, THOMASTOWN, 2km to the northeast, is a pleasant riverside crossroads town on the Dublin–Waterford train line, which has a decent choice of places to eat and drink, and hosts a traditional music festival over the bank holiday weekend in early August. A walled town of some note in medieval times, Thomastown now maintains scant sense of its own antiquity, other than its old bridge across the Nore and the ruined thirteenth-century church of St Mary’s at the top of the main street, Market Street.
Several worthwhile waymarked trails cross southern Kilkenny. The South Leinster Way runs for 100km from Kildavin in County Carlow, via 800-metre Mount Leinster in the Blackstairs Mountains, to Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary. The most attractive part is in southern Kilkenny, between Borris – where the path intersects the Barrow Way – and Mullinavat, especially the 16km from Graiguenamanagh to Inistioge. The southernmost section of the Barrow Way, a pretty, 8km riverside path, is the pleasantest way to get from Graiguenamanagh to St Mullins, and there’s a new trail from Thomastown to Inistioge along the Nore – for information on the latter and on the forthcoming Kilkenny–Inistioge path, as well as on other walking and cycling routes in the county, go to wwww.trailkilkenny.ie.
On the east bank of the Barrow in County Carlow, 8km downstream from Graiguenamanagh, lies the gorgeous village of ST MULLINS, its dwellings appealingly arranged at the bottom of a valley around the village green. Opposite the green is a perfectly dome-shaped castle earthwork and just behind are the remains of a monastery founded by St Moling in 696, consisting of the remnants of a medieval church and a round tower’s stump.
WEXFORD is a happy-go-lucky kind of town with plenty of scope for enjoying music in its pubs, but it has its serious side too, not least in the shape of its internationally renowned opera festival. There are few sights to see in the town itself – more is on offer in the surrounding area – but the appeal of the place lies in its atmosphere and setting: its long, narrow medieval lanes huddle for shelter inland of the exposed quays, which line the southern shore of the wide Slaney estuary, with the railway line to Rosslare dividing the main road from the promenade and a busy little marina.
The town began life as a Viking base for incursions and trading, before becoming an early Anglo-Norman conquest in 1169. Wexford later housed an English garrison whose loyalty to the Crown resulted in vicious fighting against Cromwell’s army in 1649. The town also played a significant role in the 1798 Rebellion, which was finally quelled at Enniscorthy. Wexford’s lengthy quays pay testimony to its re-emergence as a prosperous trading centre in the nineteenth century, though gradual silting of the harbour’s entrance and the development of Rosslare Harbour led to its demise as a competitive port.
To Wexford’s north lies Ireland’s premier wildfowl sanctuary, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, beyond which the coastline is punctuated by some lovely sandy beaches: 10km from town, past Curracloe, lies the sprawling, dune-backed Ballinesker Beach, which deputized for Omaha Beach as the site of the D-Day landings in Stephen Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan; and further up the coast near Kilmuckridge is another broad beach popular with families, Blue-Flag Morriscastle, known as “the golden mile”.
To the west of Wexford is the impressive Irish National Heritage Park, while to the south runs rather bland countryside, though the ornate gardens of Johnstown Castle and the Irish Agricultural Museum are well worth visiting. The small seaside resort of Rosslare has a splendid beach, much enjoyed by families in summer, while Rosslare Europort is a major point of entry into Ireland. A little further out of the county town’s orbit, energetic Enniscorthy is best known for its associations with the 1798 Rebellion, which is commemorated in an excellent museum.
Around 24km north of Wexford, the attractive old town of ENNISCORTHY straddles the River Slaney, its main streets rising steeply from the west bank towards the Market Square. From the square, Rafter Street leads south after a ten-minute walk to the National 1798 Centre, a high-tech sound-and-vision fest, capturing the excitement of events prior to the Rebellion, the rising itself and its aftermath, all cogently set within broader intellectual and political contexts that brought about American independence and the French Revolution. There’s a marvellous display on the conflict between revolution and counter-revolution set out on a giant chessboard. Another highlight is an audiovisual featuring an enthralling debate between actors playing the roles of the Dublin-born Whig politician and philosopher Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, the English radical and American revolutionary whose Rights of Man (1792) was a direct riposte to Burke’s more conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). It was on the gorse-covered Vinegar Hill, opposite on the Slaney’s eastern bank, that the rebels of 1798 met their demise at the hands of British forces.
Just west of Market Square along Main Street, St Aidan’s Cathedral is an imposing Gothic Revival edifice, designed in the mid-nineteenth century by Augustus Pugin, whose other works include Killarney’s cathedral and the interior of the Palace of Westminster. As well as impressively high pointed arches, the cathedral features an oak carved pulpit, beautiful stained-glass windows depicting saints and bishops, and a small exhibition on Pugin’s career.