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Irish Bucket List: 18 Amazing things to do in Ireland’s Ancient East

From castles to kingdoms, battles to betrayal, discover 5,000 years of history in Ireland’s Ancient East, lush green landscapes and beautiful idyllic towns are framed by the River Shannon and the Irish Sea. There’re so many amazing attractions to see along the route of Ireland's Ancient East.

1. ROCK OF CASHEL…. Also known as Cashel of the Kings. Long before the Norman invasion the Rock was the seat of the kings of Munster and it’s here in the 5th century, so the story goes, that St. Patrick converted King Aenghus to Christianity. The Rock was later gifted to the Church and most of the buildings date from the 12th and 13th centuries. They even inspired designs for a Waterford Crystal collection! The House of Waterford Crystal is approx. one hour’s drive from the Rock of Cashel and ideally located for those travelling onto Wexford or Dublin.

2. KILKENNY CASTLE….. Step into the epic age of Castles & Conquests, when Strongbow invaded with his Anglo-Norman barons and his son-in-law William Marshall built the mighty stone edifice of Kilkenny Castle to command the crossing on the River Nore. Kilkenny City became a major Norman power base and to this day the castle dominates the 'High Town'. As you tour the great castle, a complex structure of various architectural styles, you can piece together its story through eight centuries as well as that of the powerful Butler family who held sway here for nearly 600 years. Outside in the Castle Yard you can share in the creative side of the city in Kilkenny Design Centre and the National Design & Craft Gallery.

3. HOUSE OF WATERFORD CRYSTAL… Located in the heart of Waterford City, the House of Waterford Crystal allows visitors to witness the creation of crystal stemware, giftware and masterpieces right before their very eyes. The factory tour is a unique and captivating experience that is sure to enthral visitors of all ages, both national and international. Go behind the scenes for over an hour and see exactly how Waterford Crystal pieces are made - witness every stage of production, from the initial design stage right up to the final engraving of the piece. Each year, the House of Waterford Crystal melts down over 750 tonnes of crystal!

4. THE LAFCADIO HEARN JAPANESE GARDENS… Come on a journey, through these unique gardens and the life of Victorian writer, translator and journalist Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. In their style and planting, the gardens, in Tramore in County Waterford, pay homage to Lafcadio Hearn with elements of the gardening traditions of the countries and cultures he visited during his varied travels. Begin in the Victorian Garden dedicated to the memory of Hearn’s happy childhood summers in Tramore, explore the American Garden, the Greek Garden and the traditional Japanese Tea Garden – Lafcadio Hearn was famed in Japan for his literary descriptions of the country’s people and culture, and children in particular will be entranced by his fairy tales and folklore. East meets West and they grow together on your unforgettable garden journey.

5. DUNBRODY FAMINE SHIP…. Stepping aboard the Dunbrody Famine Ship and hearing about passenger hardships from costumed actors, you suddenly realise why such vessels were nicknamed Coffin Ships. The ship, an authentic reproduction of an 1840’s emigrant vessel, provides a world-class interpretation of the famine emigrant experience, while the Irish Emigrant Wall of Honour and Emigrant Flame pay tribute to the courage of so many ordinary men and women.

6. MASTERPIECES IN GLASS… The new guided tour of the Bishop’s Palace will build on the success of recent imaginative attractions in Waterford, the Bishop’s Palace has become home to an original and innovative visitor experience on early glassmaking in Waterford. The new re-enactor tour is led by Susannah Penrose, granddaughter of one of the original founders of the Penrose Glass Factory. Her mother, Elizabeth Penrose’s beautiful shell cabinet, featuring a menagerie of delicate glass animals, was returned to Waterford City in 2014 and now forms the centrepiece of the exhibition as a direct link to the family. The museum itself has been revamped, with new installations of delicate glassware, fine silver and exotic porcelain to give visitors a real taste of the wealth and finery of upper-class eighteenth-century living.

7. TINTERN ABBEY…. On a voyage to Ireland in 1200, William Marshall’s ship was struck by a tremendous storm. Fearing all would drown, the famous knight prayed for help and vowed to found an abbey where he found a safe landing – and that is how he came to build the Cistercian abbey of Tintern. Discover more of its subsequent history as you wander the impressive remains, the nave, chancel, tower, chapel and cloister. The Abbey was occupied by the Colclough family from the 16th century until the 1960s.

8. LISMORE HERITAGE CENTRE…. Opened in 1992 to share insights into Lismore’s formidable history and heritage. Boasting a picturesque location at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, Lismore is famous for the magnificent Lismore Castle (dating back to 1185) that was once the home of, the famous Broadway performer, Adele Astaire and Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy. Inside this private residence can only be viewed using through the Lismore Castle Experience.

9. HOOK LIGHTHOUSE…. Who were the 5th century monks who tended a beacon on the cliffs and why did “the greatest knight that ever lived” build this lighthouse tower? Climb the well-worn steps of the tower to explore its thick-walled chambers and you will meet life-size hologram figures who will tell you their tales. Hook Lighthouse, the world’s oldest working lighthouse, has shone across 800 years to help seafarers navigate the rocky coastline – a thrilling thought as you enjoy lunch in the former keepers’ houses, the waves crashing outside.

10. KING OF THE VIKINGS….. This life was epic and brief. But now Reginald, King of the Vikings, beckons you into his domain. And so you step into this innovative Viking Virtual Reality Adventure – a world first – in a recreated Waterford Viking house in the City’s Viking Triangle: on the very spot where Reginald built his fort in 917. On and on you are drawn by animated information panels, far away from the modern City, and you don a “magical helmet” to journey back through 1,100 years: even meeting the ghost of King Reginald as he spars with the ghost of an Irish Christian monk. Close, personal, you really feel what it was like to be a Viking. Epic and brief his life may have been, but the legacy of Reginald and his fellow Vikings lives on around you in Vadrefjord – Waterford.

11. MEDIEVAL MUSEUM…. What does the 13th century ring brooch tell us about courtly love? Why was The Great Charter Roll of Waterford created? What is the link between the dazzling Cloth of Gold Vestments and the Renaissance? Why did King Henry VIII give his red velvet cap – the only surviving piece of his wardrobe – to the Mayor of Waterford in 1536? The stories behind these treasures and many more are revealed in the Medieval Museum, the only building in Ireland to incorporate two medieval chambers, the atmospheric 13th century Choristers’ Hall and the 15th century Mayor’s Wine Vault.

12. JOHN F KENNEDY ARBORETUM…… In 1848 famine emigrant Patrick Kennedy sailed from New Ross. In 1960, his great-grandson John Fitzgerald Kennedy became President of the United States, an amazing poverty-to-power story. This Arboretum at New Ross, dedicated to the memory of JFK, has grown into a plant collection of international standing. Covering 252 hectares (623 acres) on the southern slopes and summit of Slievecoiltia, it contains 4,500 types of trees and shrubs from all temperate regions of the world, planted in botanical sequence.

13. LISMORE CASTLE GARDENS…. The historic gardens of Lismore Castle are essentially two distinct gardens. Both are set within the castle walls and comprise of 7 acres with spectacular views of the Castle and surrounding countryside. The lower garden was mostly created in the 19th century for the 6th Duke of Devonshire, Sir Joseph Paxton’s patron. Entry to the upper garden is through the Riding House. This walled garden was first constructed by Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Cork in about 1605, where most of the walls and terraces remain the same although the plantings have changed to suit the tastes of those living within the Castle.

14. JERPOINT ABBEY…… Wandering around this outstanding Cistercian abbey, founded in the second half of the 12th century, you feel a wonderful peace across the ages: inthe church with its Romanesque details; inthe transept chapels with their13th to 16th century tomb sculpture; admiring the tower and cloister dating from the 15th century. Then you spy the curious medieval human and animal carvings around the cloister arcade and you feel so very in touch with the individuals who made them. Guided tours and a Visitor Centre housing an interesting exhibition will tell you more.

15. REGINALD’S TOWER… Raiders, settlers, traders, the Vikings left many legacies in Ireland – if you know where to look. Reginald’s Tower, Ireland’s oldest civic building, has been in continuous use for over 800 years and was built on the site of the original Viking fort named after Ragnall who founded the City in 914. Inside you will find a Viking warrior’s weapons, the exquisite 12th-century Waterford Kite Brooch, even pieces from ‘hnefatafl’, a Viking board game similar to chess. Get to know the real Vikings through the prized possessions they left behind.

16. HUNTINGTON CASTLE & GARDENS…… Peel back the layers of history at the Big Houses of Ireland’s Ancient East and there are always surprises. Huntington Castle, built in 1625 as a garrison on the strategically important Wexford to Dublin route, has long since been a family home – with a quite remarkable family at that, not least the women, who have included the free-spirited granddaughter of a Pirate Queen and the founder of a religion whose Temple in the castle dungeons celebrates the “Divine Feminine”. Share these and other colourful tales, brought to life on tours here.

17. THE CHOCOLATE GARDEN OF IRELAND….. Come on a journey from cocoa bean to chocolate at this artisan maker. You can indulge in a workshop experience (must be pre-booked) or a walk-in chocolate making session (available without booking), and of course there is scrumptious chocolate to taste and buy. A tempting interlude in the “Garden of Ireland” on the Wicklow-Carlow border.

18. MOUNT CONGREVE NURSERY AND GARDENS…..While the great houses and gardens of Ireland’s Ancient East invariably boast a rich history, sometimes it’s the heart-stopping views, walks and surprises that most captivate you. That’s certainly true of the gardens at Mount Congreve, Waterford, which flourish over some seventy acres of richly planted woodland and a four acre walled garden. The passion and creation in modern times of the late Mr Ambrose Congreve, who was inspired by Mr Lionel de Rothschild’s exceptional garden at Exbury in Hampshire, England, the collection ranges from more than three thousand different trees and shrubs, to fifteen hundred herbaceous plants. Wandering paths and ponds, surrendering to breathtaking sweeps of Azaleas, Camellias, Magnolias and Rhododendrons, being surprised by a Chinese Pagoda or revelling in vistas over the River Suir: such are the magical moments that enthral.