The attractions of County Waterford (Port Láirge, or the Déise) are integrally linked to the first part of its name, whether in its alluring river valleys, lengthy southern shoreline, or in Waterford city itself, which derived much of its prosperity from its strategic riverside setting. Home to almost half the county’s population, including a sizeable mob of students, the city supports a lively nightlife and arts scene, and one of Ireland’s finest museums, Waterford Treasures. Waterford’s coastline takes in numerous sandy beaches, not least at Dunmore East, and great vantage points for panoramic views, as well as the blossoming harbour town of Dungarvan and the “holy city” of Ardmore, containing enthralling relics associated with St Declan. The county’s northern fringe is dominated by the lonesome and boggy Comeragh and Knockmealdown mountains, the latter running down to the ancient ecclesiastical centre of Lismore, in the heart of the gorgeous Blackwater valley. If you’re driving or cycling between Waterford and Wexford, note that the most southerly road crossing of the River Barrow is up at New Ross, so it’s worth considering the ferry between Passage East, 12km east of Waterford city, and Ballyhack.
In contrast to squat, coastal Waterford, Tipperary (Tiobraid Árann) is the wealthiest of Ireland’s inland counties, deriving its prosperity from the flat and fertile plain known as the Golden Vale, which provides rich pickings for dairy farmers and horse-breeders. It’s also one of the largest counties, stretching over 100km from top to toe, and, uniquely, is divided into two administrative regions, North Tipperary (formerly North Riding) and South Tipperary (formerly South Riding), each with its own county town. Most of Tipp’s attractions lie in its southern reaches, including the historic towns of Carrick-on-Suir, home to one of Ireland’s most graceful mansions, and Cahir, with its imposing thirteenth-century castle and ornamental nineteenth-century baronial villa. But by far the county’s most breathtaking lure is the Rock of Cashel, a magnificent isolated outcrop rising from the Golden Vale and crowned by impressive Christian buildings spanning various periods. This southern part of the county is traversed by the Tipperary Heritage Way (www.tipperaryway.com), an easy 56-kilometre waymarked trail that runs down the Suir valley from Cashel to Cahir and Ardfinnan, finishing at The Vee, in the Knockmealdown Mountains near the Waterford border.
The northern stretch of the county, along the border with Tipperary, is studded with two modest but pretty mountain ranges, the Comeraghs and the Knockmealdowns, neither of which rises higher than 800 metres. Ballymacarbry, 25km north of Dungarvan on the R672 towards Clonmel, is the best jumping-off point for the Comeraghs, while historic Lismore, 25km west of Dungarvan in the beautiful Blackwater valley, provides easy access to the Knockmealdowns.
The best approach to the bleak moorland of the Comeragh Mountains, with its smattering of bogs and heather, is along the Nire valley, which descends westwards from beneath Knockaunapeebra (789m), the range’s highest point, to waterside BALLYMACARBRY.
Set amidst verdant countryside on the south side of the River Blackwater is the sleepy town of LISMORE, once a major religious centre. St Carthagh founded a thriving monastery here in 636 that became a great centre of learning and retained both religious and political importance for several centuries, despite periodic raids by the Vikings and later the Anglo-Normans. On the site of its medieval cathedral, wrecked by Edmund Fitzgibbon around 1600, stands the Church of Ireland St Carthagh’s Cathedral, constructed some thirty years later. Much of its appearance derives from remodelling in the early 1800s, including the addition of its tower and spire, and it remains a charming building, set in a tree-lined cobblestone courtyard. Just inside the front door is a lovely stained-glass window by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, depicting two virtues: Justice and Humility. A Romanesque arch in the nave might possibly date from the original cathedral and leads to the imposing McGrath tomb which features carvings of the twelve Apostles, the Crucifixion and the martyr St Catherine. Stones set into the back wall, including a particularly stalwart bishop, date from the ninth to eleventh centuries.
Despite the cathedral’s attractions, it is the extravagant and graceful Lismore Castle, its fairytale turrets magnificently set above the River Blackwater, that overshadows the town. The Irish home of the Dukes of Devonshire was designed by Joseph Paxton (also responsible for the Crystal Palace for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851) in the mid-nineteenth century, taking as his starting point the remains of a castle built by Prince John in 1185. Though the bulk of the castle cannot be visited, its extensive gardens present numerous exterior views from different aspects. The gardens consist of woodlands and a host of magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons in season, as well as a yew-tree walk where Edmund Spenser is believed to have written The Faerie Queen. Modern sculptures dot the gardens, and the formerly derelict west wing of the castle has recently been transformed into a gallery that hosts some interesting exhibitions of contemporary art.
North from Lismore the R668 to Cahir undulates upwards through a lovely river valley, garnished with a mass of woody greenery, before heading into the mountains. To the east, after 10km, rises Knockmealdown itself (793m), whose name translates aptly as “bare brown mountain”, while a little further up the road lies the spectacular viewpoint known as The Vee. At this popular beauty spot, famous for its magnificent display of rhododendrons in late May and early June, the valley sides offer a perfectly chevron-shaped scene of the fields of Tipperary laid out far below, a panoply of greens, browns and yellows. The Tipperary Heritage Way north to Cashel begins here at The Vee, while the seventy-kilometre East Munster Way starts down at Clogheen and heads east from The Vee to Carrick-on-Suir, via the northern foothills of the Knockmealdowns and the Comeraghs.
Rising in the Devilsbit Mountains in the north of Tipperary, the River Suir runs down the length of the county before abruptly turning east in the face of the Knockmealdown Mountains. Along the way it nourishes countless dairy cattle and three significant towns along the southern border with Waterford. While Clonmel, the capital of South Tipp, holds little of interest for visitors, nearby Cahir is a compelling destination, with its mighty castle and the whimsical Swiss Cottage, and Carrick-on-Suir is the site of a rare and well-preserved Elizabethan manor house. Feeding into the Suir to the northwest of Cahir, the luscious Glen of Aherlow is one of the county’s prettiest spots and a fine base for exploring the scenic Galty Mountains. Tucked away on the south side of the range are the fantastic stalactites and stalagmites of Mitchelstown Cave, while the attractive villages of Clogheen and Ardfinnan lie to the east of here in the lee of the Knockmealdowns.
In the far southeastern corner of County Tipperary lies the busy market town of CARRICK-ON-SUIR. Its main point of interest is multi-gabled Ormond Castle, Ireland’s only surviving Elizabethan manor house, which is situated at the far eastern end of Castle Street, a continuation of Main Street. Erected in the 1560s by Thomas (“Black Tom”) Butler, tenth Earl of Ormonde, for an (unrealized) visit by his cousin, Elizabeth I, the house contains numerous tributes to her, most notably in the elaborate series of panels in the long gallery. Also displayed is a fine collection of royal charters, including one of 1661 granting the title Duke of Ormonde to Tom’s descendant James.
The dominant feature of CAHIR is its castle, one of Ireland’s largest and best preserved, surrounded by the waters of the River Suir at the western entrance to the town. Cahir itself means “fort” in Irish and the town grew up around its thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman stronghold, though much, including the restored outer walls, dates from more recent times. The castle was a power base of the influential Butlers, the Earls of Ormonde, and managed to survive a siege and bombardment by the Earl of Essex in 1599, as well as the invasions of Cromwell and William of Orange. However, after Cromwell’s victory in 1650, the Butlers moved out and the castle fell slowly into disrepair, until it was given new life in the mid-nineteenth century by Richard Butler, the second Earl of Glengall, who impoverished himself in the process. The castle’s entrance leads to the cramped middle ward, overshadowed by the thirteenth-century keep whose chambers feature various displays, including a model of the 1599 siege. To the left of here a gateway, surmounted by defensive viewpoints on each side, leads to the more expansive outer ward. In the inner ward, parts of the larger of the two towers derive from the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, though the banqueting hall was redesigned by William Tinsley in 1840 for use as the Butlers’ private chapel.
Cahir’s other major attraction is the Swiss Cottage, a twenty-minute riverside stroll south from the town or, if you’re driving, off the Ardfinnan road. Designed by John Nash, architect of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, this lavish, thatched cottage orné on the castle demesne was constructed in the early 1800s for Richard Butler, the first Earl of Glengall, though his precise reason remains unclear. A contemporary scurrilous theory held that it was to enjoy clandestine liaisons with his mistress, but there is evidence that it was used occasionally as a residence and for entertaining guests thoroughly restored using appropriate timbers and period decor. Entertaining guided tours (with a maximum of twelve people, so you may have a wait during the busy summer months) start from the bovement kitchen and visit the elegant salon, whose interior is decorated with one of the first commercially manufactured Parisian wallpapers, and music room, and ascend via a spiral staircase to the grand master bedroom with its commanding views of the countryside.
To Cahir’s northwest lies the lush and resplendent Glen of Aherlow, spreading some 18km from Bansha in the east to Galbally in the west, just across the border in County Limerick. Lying beneath the northern facade of the Galty Mountains, the glen is a marvellous place to drive or cycle around and the scenic circular route is well worth taking. The best vantage point for spectacular views is by the entrance to the Glen of Aherlow Nature Park, 1.5km north of the junction of the R663 and R664. From here on the wooded ridge of Slievenamuck, the glen lies spread out below, light reflecting from the river, and the mountains looming beyond. A one-hour, circular walking trail is laid out through the nature park’s woodlands, while the signposted Ballyhoura Way runs through the Glen to Galbally, on its eighty-kilometre journey from the train station at Limerick Junction via the Ballyhoura Mountains to St John’s Bridge in north Cork.
The seaside village of ARDMORE, 20km southwest of Dungarvan, is an enchanting place, rich in religious history and relics, mainly associated with St Declan who established a monastery here some thirty years before St Patrick came to Ireland. There’s a kilometre-long sandy beach at the foot of the village, hemmed in by long, grassy headlands and flanked on its southern side by St Declan’s Stone. According to legend, the saint’s luggage was miraculously transported by this boulder when he travelled from Wales (and thus presumably avoided excess-baggage charges). Heading up the hill towards the southern headland leads past St Declan’s Well, where the saint apparently conducted baptisms in the early fifth century, and where he later retired to a small cell for greater seclusion; on the site of the latter, a now-ruined church was built, probably in the twelfth century. From here there’s a breezy four-kilometre cliff walk, with stunning views, around the headland, which will bring you back to the top of Main Street.
Above the town (and near the end of the cliff walk), on the site of Declan’s original monastery, stands a solid-looking twelfth-century Romanesque cathedral and a willowy, conically capped round tower. The cathedral has lost its roof but its walls are impressively buttressed. Its west wall features an arcade from a previous building, embellished by remarkable carvings of Biblical scenes such as the Judgement of Solomon, while two carved ogham stones – one is the longest in Ireland – can be seen inside. In a corner of the graveyard is St Declan’s Oratory, which possibly dates from the eighth century; the pit in the floor, once covered with a flagstone, is where he was supposedly buried.
Though it has some other noteworthy sights, the town of CASHEL – the name derives from the Irish caiseal, meaning “stone fort” – is utterly overshadowed by the stunning Rock of Cashel, an outcrop that rears out of the surrounding fertile plain, the Golden Vale. Surmounted by important ecclesiastical remains, the Rock is a hotspot on the tourist trail, so is best visited in the early morning before the hordes arrive or in the late afternoon when the coaches have departed.
Viewed from afar, the Rock of Cashel is a captivating sight, a freak and solitary lump of limestone, reflecting the light in diverse ways throughout the day and topped by a collection of walls, towers, turrets and crenellations of Gormenghast proportions. It might seem heretical to suggest so, but this vista is actually the best thing about the Rock, since, despite its staggering location and much-trumpeted billing, when you get there the site is actually far less atmospheric than other notable ecclesiastical complexes, not least Kells Priory and Quin Abbey. Nonetheless, despite the swarms of coach-tour-borne tourists, there’s plenty to see and much to marvel at.
Once inside, the Rock’s first sight is the fifteenth-century Hall of the Vicars Choral, which used to house the choir charged with singing at the cathedral’s services. Its upper floor features a minstrels’ gallery as well as a fine, eighteenth-century Flemish tapestry showing Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba, while the lower houses the original, twelfth-century St Patrick’s Cross (the one outside – on the cross’s original spot – is a replica). Badly worn, it bears a carving of Christ on one side and the saint on the other, and is unusual in not having a ring around the cross head. Next door is the Dormitory of the Vicars Choral where a twenty-minute video, Strongholds of the Faith, is shown throughout the day.
Directly opposite is Cormac’s Chapel, perhaps the most atmospheric of Ireland’s Romanesque churches (though its external appearance will be marred by scaffolding until at least 2013). Its appealing south facade of brown sandstone, decorated with the typical blind arcades of the period, stands in warm contrast to the grey limestone used elsewhere on the Rock and in most Irish churches. In the chancel you’ll find some very rare surviving examples of medieval Irish paintwork. The most complete fragment, on the south wall, shows part of the baptism of Christ, while the ceiling features scenes relating to the Magi – though you wouldn’t know it unless you were told. The elaborate chancel arch beyond, which is strangely off-centre to the nave, features vivid sculpted heads of people and animals. Although the adjacent cathedral obstructs the chapel’s north door, formerly its main entrance, it’s still possible to go out and have a look at a lively carving of a robust lion being hunted by a centaur, equipped with a bow and arrow and a Norman-type helmet.
Constructed on the site of the earlier establishment between 1230 and 1270, the huge Gothic cathedral is typically Anglo-Norman in form, with pointed arches and loftily set lancet windows. It also features some smaller quatrefoil casements, as well as a nave unusually shorter than the choir, caused by the construction of a tower on the west side, built for the archbishops’ accommodation and refuge during the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Abutting the cathedral’s north transept, the Round Tower is the Rock’s earliest building, dating from the beginning of the twelfth century. It’s nearly 30 metres high but cannot be climbed, so you’ll have to make do with the fine views of the lush countryside around the Rock from ground level.
In many ways WATERFORD is Ireland’s least discovered city, often bypassed by tourists heading from Rosslare for the more hyped destinations of Cork and Kerry further west. Even the hardiest defender of this dockland city’s reputation would be hard-pressed to mount a campaign centred upon Waterford’s immediate allures. Though neat wooded hillsides figure north of Rice Bridge, the vista mainly encompasses ugly industrial development, with cranes and a refinery dominating the skyline and the unappealing quays of the River Suir offering barely a hint of the vibrant city lying behind.
But Waterford is one of those places where scraping the surface reveals numerous delights. Behind those ugly quays lies a complex of narrow lanes, first formed in medieval times, and many grand examples of Georgian town planning in the shape of sturdy townhouses and elegant municipal and ecclesiastical buildings. There’s a lively nightlife here too, with plenty of enjoyable bars, as well as decent cafés and restaurants.
Waterford’s origins are integrally linked to the River Suir. The Vikings built a settlement here in the early tenth century to provide shelter for their longboats and to exploit the trading opportunities offered by the river, which along with the Barrow and the Nore provided easy access to the southeast’s fertile farmland. The Viking settlement prospered and controlled much of this part of Ireland, exacting a tribute from the Celts called Airgead Sróine (Nose Money) since the punishment for welshers was to have their noses cut off.
Later, the course of both local and national history was much impacted by Strongbow’s assault on the city in 1170, caused by Dermot MacMurrough’s attempts to gain sway over Ireland. The success of the Anglo-Norman earl’s bloody offensive not only led to his marriage to MacMurrough’s daughter but brought his liege lord, Henry II, scurrying to Ireland the following year to assume control of the country’s conquest. Henry granted a charter providing royal protection to the city and his descendant, King John, increased its size by adding new walls and towers.
Though much affected by the Black Death and frequent incursions by both Irish and Anglo-Norman neighbours, Waterford continued to flourish as a port, reliant on trade in wool, hides and wine. Though Cromwell was repelled in 1649, a year later Ireton’s troops took control and expelled many of the Catholic merchants. Protestant domination of the city’s trade was reinforced by William of Orange’s accession. The eighteenth century witnessed major architectural developments, mostly designed by locally born John Roberts. Shipbuilding prospered during the nineteenth century, the city becoming second only to Belfast in terms of tonnage constructed, and many Waterford-built vessels transported the city’s famous crystal, first manufactured here in 1783. However, Waterford suffered economically during the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of this century, witnessing factory closures, a major downsizing of the iconic Waterford Crystal and the virtual end of shipbuilding here.
In a stylishly renovated granary behind the tourist office on Merchants Quay lies one of Ireland’s most entrancing museums, Waterford Treasures. Impressively designed and employing a diverse range of display techniques, the museum brings the city’s history into focus, often with a telling sense of humour. The collection is organized chronologically and begins with the third-floor Viking galleries. These exhibit an extraordinary array of artefacts from the tenth to twelfth centuries, including a meticulously carved bird-bone flute, a gaming board and pieces, intricate jewellery and a perfectly rounded alder hanap, or drinking goblet. The Anglo-Norman era is also well represented, with a finely worked gold stirrup-ring set with a sapphire, illuminated charters, an entire medieval bow – the only surviving example in Ireland or Britain – and the Edward IV sword, a mighty piece of silver weaponry presented to the Mayor of Waterford in 1462.
The second-floor galleries include a superb collection of royal charters from Tudor and Stuart times before moving on to Georgian Waterford; here the Monstrance Throne made for a local dignitary in 1729 features dazzling silverwork, resembling a small fireplace topped by a huge crown. Displays also trace the career of the architect John Roberts, designer of many of the city’s finest Georgian buildings, who is now honoured with an architecture festival in Waterford in April (http://www.wfa.ie/). The last section on this floor vividly focuses on Waterford’s strong links through emigration with Newfoundland in Canada, while the first floor hosts interesting history and art exhibitions.
Waterford’s coastline lacks the wildness of the shoreline further east, but there are still glorious, enticing beaches – especially at Dunmore East, Stradbally and Ardmore – and plenty of balmy cliff-top walks, not least at Ardmore, which is also a major ecclesiastical site. Among the larger towns here, it’s best to give the kiss-me-quick resort of Tramore a wide berth, but Dungarvan enjoys a picturesque bayside setting and offers some fine places to stay, eat and listen to traditional music.
DUNMORE EAST, 16km southeast of Waterford, is a picturesque getaway for the city’s wealthier denizens. The village is actually split in two, with the eastern part set neatly around a small, sandy, Blue Flag beach backed by sandstone cliffs, while the much busier western half is built above and around a lively fishing harbour and marina. In late August, the village comes to life for the three-day Bluegrass Festival.
Attractive, bustling DUNGARVAN is splendidly situated on a large bay where the waters of the River Colligan broaden as they reach the sea. Unlike many of its fellow resorts, it remains largely unscathed by the blight of chain-store similitude. It plays host to the weekend-long Waterford Festival of Food in April (wwww.waterfordfestivaloffood.com) and a major traditional-music festival, Féile na nDeise (wwww.feilenandeise.com), over five days around the bank-holiday weekend in early May.