Dublin Environs

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  • 1. Castletown House

    In 1722, William Conolly (1662–1729) decided to build himself a house befitting his new status as the speaker of the Irish House of Commons and Ireland's wealthiest man. On an estate 20 km (12 miles) southwest of Dublin, he began work on Castletown, designed in the latest Neoclassical fashion by the Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei. As it turns out, a young Irish designer and Palladian-style aficionado by the name of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1699–1733) was traveling in Italy, met Galilei, and soon signed on to oversee the completion of the house. Inspired by the use of outlying wings to frame a main building—the "winged device" used in Palladio's Venetian villas—Lovett Pearce added Castletown's striking colonnades and side pavilions in 1724. It is said that between them a staggering total of 365 windows were built into the overall design of the house. Conolly died before the interior of the house was completed, and work resumed in 1758 when his great-nephew Thomas and his 15-year-old wife, Lady Louisa Lennox, took up residence there. Little of the original furnishings remain today, but there is plenty of evidence of the ingenuity of Louisa and her artisans, chief among whom were the Lafranchini brothers, master craftsmen who created the famous wall plasterwork, considered masterpieces of their kind. Rescued in 1967 by Desmond Guinness of the brewing family, Castletown was deeded to the Irish state and remains the headquarters for the Irish Georgian Society. Studded with 17th-century hunting scenes painted by Paul de Vos, the soaring Entrance Hall showcases one of Ireland's greatest staircases. Also extraordinary are the walls festooned with plasterwork sculpted by the Brothers Lafranchini, famous for their stuccoed swags, flora, and portraits. Upstairs at the rear of the house, the Long Gallery—almost 80 feet by 23 feet—is the most notable of the public rooms. Hued in a vibrant cobalt blue and topped by a coved ceiling covered with Italianate stuccowork and graced by three Venetian Murano glass chandeliers, it is a striking exercise in the antique Pompeian style. Recently restored eighteenth-century-designed parklands and river walks are open year-round.

    Celbridge, Co. Kildare, Ireland
    01-628–8252

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €10, Closed mid-Dec.--Feb.; Nov.--mid-Dec. closed Mon. and Tues.
  • 2. Drogheda Museum Millmount

    Millmount

    It was in Millmount that the townsfolk made their last stand against the bloodthirsty Roundheads of Cromwell. Perhaps in defiance of Cromwell's attempt to obliterate the town from the map, the museum contains relics of eight centuries of Drogheda's commercial and industrial past, including painted banners of the old trade guilds and a circular willow-and-leather coracle (the traditional fishing boat on the River Boyne). Most moving are the mementos of the infamous 1649 massacre of 3,000 people by Cromwell. The exhibit inside the Martello Tower, adjacent to the museum on the site of the old fort, focuses on the town's military history. The museum shares space in a renovated British Army barracks with several crafts workshops.

    Off Mount Saint Oliver, Drogheda, Co. Louth, Ireland
    041-983–3097

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €6
  • 3. Glendalough

    Nestled in a lush, quiet valley deep in the rugged Wicklow Mountains, among two lakes and acres of windswept heather, Gleann dá Loch ("glen of two lakes") is one of Ireland's premier monastic sites. The hermit monks of early Christian Ireland were drawn to the Edenic quality of some of the valleys in this area, and this evocative settlement remains to this day a sight to calm a troubled soul. Stand here in the early morning (before the crowds and the hordes of students arrive), and you can appreciate what drew the solitude-seeking St. Kevin to this spot. Glendalough's visitor center is a good place to orient yourself and pick up a useful pamphlet. Many of the ruins are clumped together beyond the visitor center, but some of the oldest surround the Upper Lake, where signed paths direct you through spectacular scenery devoid of crowds. Most ruins are open all day and are freely accessible. Probably the oldest building on the site, presumed to date from St. Kevin's time, is the Teampaill na Skellig (Church of the Oratory), on the south shore of the Upper Lake. A little to the east is St. Kevin's Bed, a tiny cave in the rock face, about 30 feet above the level of the lake, where St. Kevin lived his hermit's existence. It's not easily accessible; you approach the cave by boat, but climbing the cliff to the cave can be dangerous. At the southeast corner of the Upper Lake is the 11th-century Reefert Church, with the ruins of a nave and a chancel. The saint also lived in the adjoining, ruined beehive hut with five crosses, which marked the original boundary of the monastery. You get a superb view of the valley from here. The ruins by the edge of the Lower Lake are the most important of those at Glendalough. The gateway, beside the Glendalough Hotel, is the only surviving entrance to an ancient monastic site anywhere in Ireland. An extensive graveyard lies within, with hundreds of elaborately decorated crosses, as well as a perfectly preserved six-story Round Tower. Built in the 11th or 12th century, it stands 100 feet high, with an entrance 25 feet above ground level.

    Glendalough, Co. Waterford, Ireland
    040-445--325

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Ruins free, visitor center €5
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  • 4. Hill of Tara

    One of the most sacred places in pre-Christian Ireland, and the seat of power for ancient High Kings, the Hill of Tara is at the nexus of Celtic myth and history. You are free to roam across the site, but it might require a little research and imagination to bring it all to life. From the top of the Hill—it rises more than 300 feet above sea level—you can see across the flat central plain of Ireland, with the mountains of East Galway visible from a distance of nearly 160 km (100 miles). At the summit you will also find an oval Iron Age hilltop enclosure, a massive "hill fort," which became known as the Fort of the Kings (Ráith na Ríogh). Within the fort are further earthworks, a ring fort and a ring barrow---Cormac's House (Teach Chormaic) and the Royal Seat (Forradh). In the middle of the Forradh you'll notice a solitary standing stone. This is believed to be the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil), the ancient crowning place of the High Kings. Wander farther to find other earthworks, a massive ring fort known as Rath Maeve, and a Holy Well. The legend of St. Patrick claims he came to the Hill of Tara to confront the ancient pagan religion at its most important site. In the mid-19th century, the nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell staged a mass rally here that supposedly drew more than a million people. Before you wander, stop at the Interpretative Center, housed in an old church on the hillside, where you can learn the story of Tara and its legends and watch a short movie showing stunning aerial views. Without this background it will be difficult to get your bearings or to identify many of the earthworks outside. After systematic excavations in the 20th century, archaeologists have concluded that the Iron Age fort was ruined in the 19th century by religious zealots searching for the Ark of the Covenant. The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage grave, most likely gave the place its sacred air.

    Navan, Co. Meath, Ireland
    046-902–5903

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €5, Visitor center closes early Sept.--late May
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  • 5. Killruddery House

    The 17th-century formal gardens at Killruddery House are precisely arranged, with fine beech hedges, Victorian statuary, and a parterre of lavender and roses. The Brabazon family, the earls of Meath, have lived here since 1618. In 1820 they hired William Morris to remodel the house as a revival Elizabethan mansion. The estate also has a Crystal Palace conservatory modeled on those at the botanic gardens in Dublin. Killruddery Arts organizes year-round events including an old-fashioned Easter egg hunt. You have to take one of the twice-daily tours to see the house itself, but the real draw are the gardens, which you are free to roam at your leisure. The teahouse in the old dairy is a perfect spot for a light snack and kids will love watching the sheep shearing and the chickens being fed on the adjoining farm. There's a wonderful farmers' market every Saturday.

    Bray–Greystones Rd., Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
    01-286–3405

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Gardens €8.50, house and gardens €15.50, Closed Nov.--Mar., and weekdays in Apr. and Oct.
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  • 6. Knowth

    Under excavation since 1962, the prehistoric site of Knowth is comparable in size and shape to Newgrange, standing at 40 feet and having a diameter of approximately 214 feet. Some 150 giant stones, many of them beautifully decorated, surrounded the mound. More than 1,600 boulders, each weighing from one to several tons, were used in the construction. The earliest tombs and carved stones date from the Stone Age (3000 BC); and in the early Christian era (4th–8th centuries AD), it was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Much of the site is still under excavation, and you can often watch archaeologists at work. Tours of the site depart from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.

    Off N2, Slane, Co. Meath, Ireland
    041-988–0300-for Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €8
  • 7. Mellifont Abbey

    Founded in 1142 by St. Malachy, Mellifont Abbey was inspired by the formal structure surrounding a courtyard of St. Bernard of Clairvaux's monastery, which St. Malachy had visited. Among the substantial ruins are the two-story chapter house, built in 12th-century English--Norman style and once a daily meeting place for the monks; it now houses a collection of medieval glazed tiles. Four walls of the 13th-century octagonal lavabo, or washing room, still stand, as do some arches from the Romanesque cloister. At its peak, Mellifont presided over almost 40 other Cistercian monasteries throughout Ireland, but all were suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539 after his break with the Catholic Church. Adjacent to the parking lot is a visitor center with a museum depicting the history of the abbey and the craftsmanship that went into its construction.

    Off Old Mellifont Rd., off N2, Collon, Co. Louth, Ireland

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €5, Visitor center closed late Aug.–late June
  • 8. Newgrange

    One of the most spectacular prehistoric sites in the world, Newgrange's Neolithic tomb inexplicably remains something of a hidden gem when compared with less-ancient Stonehenge. The wondrous site is shrouded in myth and mystery, including how the people who built Newgrange transported the huge stones to the spot. The mound above the tomb measures more than 330 feet across and reaches a height of 36 feet. White quartz was used for the retaining wall, and egg-shape gray stones were studded at intervals. The passage grave may have been the world's earliest solar observatory. It was so carefully constructed that, for five days on and around the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun still hit a roof box above the lintel at the entrance to the grave. The rays then shine for about 20 minutes down the main interior passageway to illuminate the burial chamber. The geometric designs on some stones at the center of the burial chamber continue to baffle experts. Tours of the site depart from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. Reserving tickets in advance is a must. Walk-in tickets are rarely available.

    Off N2, Slane, Co. Meath, Ireland
    041-988--0300-for Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €8
  • 9. Powerscourt House & Gardens

    At more than 14,000 acres, including stunning formal gardens and a 400-foot waterfall, Powerscourt was truly one of the great houses of Ireland and Britain in its day. The grounds were originally granted to Sir Richard Wingfield, the first viscount of Powerscourt, by King James I of England in 1609. Richard Castle (1690–1751), the architect of Russborough House, was hired to design the great house. His was an age not known for modesty, and he chose the grand Palladian style. The house took nine years to complete and was ready to move into in 1740. Unfortunately, you won't be able to see much of it. A terrible fire almost completely destroyed the house in 1974, cruelly on the eve of a huge party to celebrate the completion of a lengthy restoration. The original ballroom on the first floor—once "the grandest room in any Irish house," according to historian Desmond Guinness—is the only room that still gives a sense of the place's former glory. It was based on Palladio's version of the "Egyptian Hall" designed by Vitruvius, architect to Augustus, emperor of Rome. The real draw here is not the house but Powerscourt Gardens, considered among the finest in Europe. They were laid out from 1745 to 1767, following the completion of the house, and radically redesigned in the Victorian style from 1843 to 1875 by Daniel Robertson. The Villa Butera in Sicily inspired him to set these gardens with sweeping terraces, antique sculptures, and a circular pond and fountain flanked by winged horses. The grounds include many specimen trees (plants grown for exhibition), an avenue of monkey puzzle trees, a parterre of brightly colored summer flowers, and a Japanese garden. The kitchen gardens, with their modest rows of flowers, are a striking antidote to the classical formality of the main sections. A cute café, crafts and interior design shops, a garden center, and a children's play area are also in the house and on the grounds. Kids love Tara's Palace, a 22-room Georgian-style dollhouse. The "Cool Planet Experience" is a high-tech, interactive exhibition focused on climate action in Ireland.

    Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
    01-204–6000

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Gardens €8.50, waterfall €6.50, cool planet €10.50
  • 10. Russborough House

    A conspicuously grand house rising seemingly in the middle of nowhere—actually the western part of County Wicklow—Russborough was an extravagance paid for by the profits from beer. In 1741, a year after inheriting a vast fortune from his brewer father, Joseph Leeson commissioned architect Richard Castle to build him a home of palatial stature, and was rewarded with this slightly over-the-top house, whose monumental 700-foot-long facade one-upped every other great house in Ireland. Today, the house serves as a showcase for the celebrated collection of Old Master paintings of Sir Alfred Beit, a descendant of the De Beers diamond family, who had bought and majestically restored the property in 1952. A 3D exhibition of his amazing photos from the 1920s and 1930s is a highlight. The first sight of Russborough draws gasps from visitors: a mile-long, beech-lined avenue leads to a distant embankment. Constructed of silver-gray Wicklow granite, the facade encompasses a seven-bay central block, from either end of which radiate semicircular loggias connecting the flanking wings—the finest example in Ireland of Palladio's "winged device." The interior is full of grand period rooms that were elegantly refurbished in the 1950s under the eye of the legendary 20th-century decorator, Lady Colefax. The Hall is centered on a massive black Kilkenny marble chimneypiece and has a ceiling modeled after one in the Irish Parliament. Four 18th-century Joseph Vernet marine landscapes grace the glorious stucco moldings created to frame them in the Drawing Room. The grandest room, the Saloon, is famed for its 18th-century stucco ceiling by the Lafranchini brothers; fine Old Masters hang on walls covered in 19th-century Genoese velvet. The views out the windows take in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains and the famous Poulaphouca Reservoir in front of the house. Kids will love getting lost in the huge hedge maze on the grounds. Additional attractions include a 200-acre park, tearoom, gift shop, sheepdog demonstrations, and a National Bird of Prey center. You can only see the house on a guided tour, but the guides are good storytellers and bring the old place to life.

    N81, Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
    045-865–239

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €12
  • 11. Slane Castle

    The stately 18th-century Slane Castle overlooks a natural amphitheater, a bowl-shape hollow formed by surrounding hills. In 1981 the castle's owner, Anglo-Irish Lord Henry Mount Charles, staged the first of what have been some of Ireland's largest outdoor rock concerts; up to 100,000 fans have gathered to watch stars including U2, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. A tour of the Gothic-style castle includes the main hall, with its delicate plasterwork and beautiful stained glass, and the dazzling neo-Gothic ballroom completed in 1821 for the visit of King George IV. The stunning parklands were laid out by Capability Brown, a famous 18th-century landscape gardener. Slane Castle produces its own whiskey and has fun tasting tours, including a how-to-make-an-Irish-coffee tour.

    Off N51, Slane, Co. Meath, Ireland
    041-988–4477

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Castle €14, Distillery Tour from €12, Castle: closed Sept. 2--Apr., and Fri. and Sat. May--Aug.
  • 12. Bell Tower

    This bell tower of a Franciscan monastery dates back to the 13th century. Keep an eye out for the lovely Gothic windows.

    Mill St., Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland
  • 13. Black Castle

    Immediately south of the harbor, perched on a promontory that has good views of the coastline, are the ruins of the Black Castle. This structure was built in 1169 by Maurice Fitzgerald, an Anglo-Norman lord who arrived with the English invasion of Ireland. The freely accessible ruins extend over a large area; with some difficulty, you can climb down to the water's edge.

    Off South Quay, Wicklow Head, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
  • 14. Butler's Gate

    Millmount

    One of the city's original 11 entrances, Butler's Gate predates St. Laurence's Gate by 50 years or more, making it one of the country's oldest surviving Norman urban structures. It's near the Drogheda Museum Millmount.

    Off Mount Saint Oliver, Drogheda, Co. Louth, Ireland
  • 15. Cnoc an Linsigh

    An attractive area south of Summerhill, Cnoc an Linsigh's forest walks and picnic sites are ideal for a half day of meandering. Many of the lanes that crisscross this part of County Meath provide delightful driving between high hedgerows, and afford occasional views of the lush, pastoral countryside.

    Intersection of R156 and R158, Trim, Co. Meath, Ireland
  • 16. County Museum Dundalk

    Set in a beautifully restored 18th-century warehouse, this museum is dedicated to preserving the history of the dying local industries, such as beer brewing, cigarette manufacturing, shoe and boot making, and railway engineering. Other exhibits deal with the Irish in World War I, and the history of Louth from 7500 BC to the present, including Oliver Cromwell's shaving mirror.

    Joycelyn St., Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland
    042-932–7056

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €2, Closed Sun. and Mon.
  • 17. Friary

    Closed down during the 16th-century dissolution of the monasteries, the Friary is a reminder of Wicklow's stormy past, which began with the unwelcome reception given to St. Patrick on his arrival in AD 432. Inquire at the nearby priest's house to see the ruins.

    Abbey St., Wicklow, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
    040-467--196-for priest's house
  • 18. Hermitage

    The 16th-century Hermitage was constructed on the site where St. Erc, a local man converted to Christianity by St. Patrick himself, led a hermit's existence. All that remains of his original monastery is the faint trace of the circular ditch, but the ruins of the later church include a nave and a chancel with a tower in between, and a stroll through them can evoke a little of the atmosphere of medieval Ireland.

    Slane Castle Demesne, Slane, Co. Meath, Ireland
  • 19. Irish National Stud

    If you're a horse aficionado, or even just curious, check out this stud farm, a main center of Ireland's racing industry. The Stud was founded in 1900 by brewing heir Colonel William Hall-Walker. It's here that breeding stallions are groomed, exercised, tested, and bred. Spring and early summer, when mares have foals, are the best times to visit. The National Stud Horse Museum, also on the grounds, recounts the history of horses in Ireland. Its most outstanding exhibit is the skeleton of Arkle, the mighty Irish racehorse that won major victories in Ireland and England during the late 1960s. The museum also contains medieval evidence of horses, such as bones from 13th-century Dublin, some early examples of equestrian equipment, and "Living Legends" or recently retired equine stars of the racing game.

    Tulley Rd., Kildare, Co. Kildare, Ireland
    045-521–617

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €14, includes Japanese Gardens, Closed Jan.–mid-Feb.
  • 20. Japanese Gardens

    Adjacent to the Irish National Stud, the Japanese Gardens were created between 1906 and 1910 by the horse breeder's founder, Colonel Hall-Walker, and laid out by a Japanese gardener, Tassa Eida, and his son Minoru. Although quite small and cramped, the gardens are recognized as among the finest Asian gardens in the world, although they're more of an East–West hybrid than authentically Japanese. The Scots pines, for instance, are an appropriate stand-in for traditional Japanese pines, which signify long life and happiness. The gardens symbolically chart the human progression from birth to death, although the focus is on the male journey. A series of landmarks runs along a meandering path: the Tunnel of Ignorance (No. 3) represents a child's lack of understanding; the Engagement and Marriage bridges (Nos. 8 and 9) span a small stream; and from the Hill of Ambition (No. 13), you can look back over your joys and sorrows. It ends with the Gateway to Eternity (No. 20), beyond which lies a Zen Buddhist meditation sand garden. Spring and fall are when the gardens are at their best.

    Tully Rd., Kildare, Co. Kildare, Co. Kildare, Ireland
    045-521–617

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €14, includes Irish National Stud, Closed Jan.–mid-Feb.

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