AS I SEE IT
IF you are worried at the prospect of chaos at airports and fearful of scorching European temperatures maybe holidaying in Ireland seems a safer bet. If so which way do you head – East or West? You must admit that the marketing brand Wild Atlantic Way has a certain adventurous ring to it or alternatively there is the more subtle appeal of the Ancient East.
The Wild West has a full-frontal appeal, you could hardly find anything more dramatic than theC of Moher or the Burren’s lunar landscape. I must admit, though, that I am drawn by the seductive charm of the East, where the secrets of the landscape remain concealed by a bend in a languorous river or the folds of rounded hills.
The Ancient East is a handy marketing moniker but where actually is it? It takes in more than half the island – 17 counties, stretching the definition of East a bit but the area comprises a three-in-one concept with the Celtic Coast, the Historic Heartland, stretching from Carlow to Tipperary with Kilkenny at its centre and the Land of 5000 Dawns (Cavan, Longford, Louth, Meath and Monaghan.)
The eastern counties have a particularly rich legacy from the past where the bones of history show through in ring forts, castles, abbeys, cottages and towers waiting to be discovered. Visit these dwellings from the past and you open the door to social history, stretching back 5,000 years. There are traces of Celts in the Bronze and Iron ages, the monastic settlements that make Ireland the island of saints and scholars. You can still see the walled towns built by the Normans after they arrived 1169 in places like Fethard and Kilmallock or the legacy of plantation which began when the Tudors feared that the French might use Ireland as a backdoor for invasion.
Researching books on houses around Ireland brought me on the roads less travelled and gave me a treasure trove of varied memories especially in the East. At the Dwyer McAllister Cottage in the Glen of Imaal, I was steeped in the blood and betrayal of Dwyer, one of the leaders of 1798 Rebellion and his men. (Dwyer’s escape would make an amazing film.) At Ormond Castle, Carrick on Suir, I tried to picture its owner Thomas, Butler Earl of Ormond, who Elizabeth I called ‘my Black husband’ in all his Tudor finery and to imagine his role as a mediator between English and Irish Interests.
There could hardly be a more dramatic outlook than the one at Dromana, Cappoquin – a 15th century Fitzgerald stronghold – than the view from its sheer clifftop setting over one of the most beguiling stretches of the Blackwater River with beautiful riverside forest walks.
The joy of the East is that places are within easy distance for day trips or short breaks. A birthday treat to visit a bluebell wood recently ended up as a memorable trip taking in Altamont near Tullow with it’s magical old-world gardens, a walk through the bluebell wood in the ice age glen beside the river Slaney. We stayed nearby in Huntingdon Castle, Clonegal, dating back to 1625, with a legacy of several ghosts. None of them materialised and after a fabulous dinner in the Sha-Roe restaurant in the village, we strolled up the Castle drive back to sleep in our four-poster bed unhaunted.
The East offers endless variety, like the legend of Lough Derravaragh where the children of Lir swam as swans for 300 years or scandalous tales like the one surrounding Belvedere near Mullingar, built for Robert Rochfort in 1740. The estate features the Jealous Wall, a sham ruin designed to conceal views of his brother Arthur’s home, who had an affair with Robert’s young wife Mary who he locked up in nearby Gaulstown for most of her life. You can find history dramatically combined with new technology in the hauntological sound trail “The Ancestors” at Kilruddery, County Wicklow in which images appear using 3D technology. With sonic spectres from the estate’s 400-year history creating a sound trail around the grounds.
When it comes to who goes where, there’s a lemming-like rush for the Atlantic coast. In 2019, the Wild Atlantic Way drew 3.4m overseas tourists and 5m domestic tourists. While the East had 2.4m overseas visitors and 4m local tourists. So in the East you get more of the place to yourself.