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(COURIER: There are long stretches of countryside between cities. Use these stretches to give portions of your "Introduction to Ireland.")
Our route takes us southwest, through 3 or 4 counties, all with their own stories and local traditions. It gives us a view of the Irish Countryside and farms, with village life strikingly different from Dublin.
Naas Population 4,000. Naas is the main town of County Kildare. It was build on a very ancient site, the seat of the old (Celtic) Kings of Leinster. All that's left of their palace is the original moat. Naas is the center of much cross-country racing: 3 miles north is the Punchestown Racecourse, running through spectacular scenery. (COURIER: There are 3 routes to Kilkenny from here. (a) You can keep on the big road, T-5, continuing through Port Laoise. (b) Turn south at Naas, then fork off on T-6, going through Athy. Or (c) Turn south at Naas, but fork east on T-51, going through Carlow.)
(a) Via Port Laoise We continue to Newbridge (population 2,500), a small town on the River Liffey, which grew up in the 19th century around the British barracks for cavalry. The Curragh (2 miles after Newbridge) is a great plain (5,000 acres), was used for centuries for the breeding of horses. Ireland is famous for producing the finest horses in Europe: the best British and American bloodlines are derived from Irish steeds and replenished from them to this day. The Curragh was the favorite breeding ground: limestone soil, supporting grassy pastureland. The soil has bone-building properties. The Irish have perfected breeding techniques here under the English. (An old Irish legend claims that the ancient Romans bought their horses in Ireland, and took them back to Rome for chariot racing!) Actually, breeding skills probably were brought over by the Normans (12th century), who produced better stock than anyone else on the Continent. In the great racecourse of Curragh is held the Irish "Derby" every year (late June). Beginning in the 17th century, the British used Curragh as a military training center, especially for cavalry units. It is now the main training center for the Irish army.
Leaving the "Pale" The "Pale" was the area of Ireland which the English colonized and "civilized." It basically was a well-defined area around Dublin, extending about 30 miles west. As we leave the Curragh Plain, and just before entering the town of Kildare, we cross the "Pale." In Henry II's day (12th century), the Pale was demarcated by a string of forts. Inside the Pale, under English law, farms were worked, fields neatly divided up, land landscaped into uniform patches. The peasants' standard of living rose. Outside the Pale, the "wild" Irish tribes hunted and roamed, with less industrious cultivation of the soil. The result: the invisible line of the Pale still exists if you look carefully. Suddenly the land becomes wilder, and closer to its original state.
Kildare Town An old market town, it goes back to St. Brigid (5th century), who founded a convent here. As Kildare is still fairly close to the coast, it has been destroyed repeatedly by every invader of Ireland. First, the Vikings (10th century), and then the English Protestants (1641) destroyed the cathedral. One of the tall, round towers built by Irish monks during Viking invasions is preserved in the town; however, battlements date from 19th century. Kildare is the center of the horse-breeding industry, Ireland's "Kentucky."
Monasterevin A market village on the river Barrow. Nearby is the Moore Abbey, once the seat of Earls of Drogheda (pronounced "Drawda"), now a convent.
We start passing through counties and towns having two names: English and Irish (Gaelic). The county we're in was called Queen's County by the English, now called Port Laoise by the nationalistic Irish. Port Laoise was called "Maryborough" because it was a fortress built under the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-58), mainly to hold back the fierce Irish clan of O'More.
Abbeyleix (pronounced "Abbey-Leece") We meet the O'More clan again in this town. Long before Mary Tudor's time, an O'More chieftain built a Cistercian monastery (12th century), hence the name "Abbeyleix." ("Leix" is an alternate Gaelic name for "Laoise.") The abbey has disappeared, but used to stand where the De Vesci House is now (a fine Georgian mansion, surrounded by woods). In these woods is the tomb of old Malachi O'More, founder of the original abbey.
(COURIER: You continue over hill and dale, eventually coming to Kilkenny.)
(b) Via Athy Leaving Naas, we remain with the "Pale." At Kilcullen (7 miles later), we cross the Pale. Kilcullen is situated on the River Liffey, and has always been popular for fishing. Nearby, the Hill of Knockaulin (600 feet) has the remains of the old castle of the (Celtic) Kings of Leinster. (This whole region of Ireland is the Province of Leinster.)
After Kilcullen, the road climbs hills, called the Seven Sisters; the highest point the road reaches is 281 feet high. The town of Athy (population: 4,000), is a market town on the River Barrow. The old 18th-century market house is still used. Commanding the river is White's Castle, built by the Earl of Kildare (1506), who ruled the area. The same family built Woodstock Castle (1190) on the outskirts of town. Only ruins remain. The town of Castlecomer (17 miles after Athy) is located in the hilly country of North Kilkenny; the center of the mining district producing anthracite (a type of coal that gives much heat, but little flame or smoke).
(COURIER: The road continues on to Kilkenny.)
(c) Via Carlow This road takes us through County Wicklow to the town of Castledermot (population: 600!): remains of a Franciscan abbey with round tower and crosses. North of the town is Kilkea Castle, a 12th-Century stronghold of the Earls of Kildare (hence "castle" in the name of the town). We enter County Carlow, having the reputation of being the "tidiest" county in Ireland. The county seat is the town of Carlow (population: 7,600), on the River Barrow (the river was popular for trout and salmon fishing). Local industries: sugar-beet processing (remember, cane sugar, produced in the tropics, is expensive to import; Ireland, like many European countries, has used sugar beets for centuries instead), flour mills, and boot making. Near the fine bridge over the river are massive ruins of Carlow Castle (1180), built by the notorious King John, who wanted to dominate Ireland as firmly as he did the English barons. In the park on the River Barrow is St. Patrick's College, a Roman Catholic Seminary. Leighlinbridge (6 miles after Carlow): ruins of Black Castle, a stronghold of Peter Carew, English Lord Deputy during the reign of Elizabeth.
(COURIER: We then enter County Kilkenny.)
Introduction to Kilkenny One of Ireland's oldest towns (population: 10,000), the seat of County Kilkenny. Both history and scenery are at their finest. Surrounding scenery includes the Sleverdaghs and Blackstairs hills, and the Suir, Nore, and Barrow valleys. In the town are abbeys, old inns, and one of the famous round towers built by the Irish monks to store church treasures against the invading Vikings.
Ormonde Butlers: The town was long ruled by the Butler family, Marquesses of Ormonde. Butler is one of Ireland's oldest families. The family goes back to a literal butler who was a servant of a Norman knight, probably Norman himself. Intermarried with native Irish and founded the family of Butler. In Kilkenny, the Butlers built Kilkenny Castle (overlooking River Nore), also Kilkenny College, a famous grammar school that educated Swift, Congreve, George Berkeley, and Farquhar. In the 17th century, the town hosted a real Irish parliament (shortlived), located on Parliament Street. Cathedral of St. Candice: one of the loveliest old buildings in Ireland (13th century), and next to it is the famous round tower (100 feet high) going back to Viking days.
Statues of Kilkenny: An English policy of "apartheid" was proclaimed here during the Middle Ages: no Irishman could marry an Englishman; English living in Ireland were forbidden to adopt Irish dress, manners, or speech.
Kilkenny today: Large brewery (St. Francis Abbey Brewery, so-called because it's located next to a Franciscan abbey), boot and shoe factories. Kilkenny is sometimes called the "Marble City" for the quarries nearby.
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