Whether you’re tracing family roots or exploring the tales of yore, Ireland’s Ancient East offers a captivating journey through over 5,000 years of history. This enchanting region is steeped in myths, legends, and ancient ruins, with each site sharing stories of saints, kings, druids, warriors and everyday folk. From regal castles to Neolithic tombs and Viking towns, here are 12 remarkable historical sites you have to visit in Ireland’s Ancient East.
Travel inspiration: Ireland Destination Guide
1. Newgrange, County Meath
Dating back to 3200 BC, Newgrange is a 5,200-year-old Neolithic passage tomb that’s older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. Set in the Boyne Valley, the UNESCO-listed Newgrange is a testament to ancient ingenuity. Every winter solstice, you can witness a magical display as sunlight illuminates the internal chamber at dawn, a spectacle that has remained unchanged for millennia. Beyond its astronomical wonders, Newgrange is also home to intricate megalithic art, telling tales of an ancient era.
Newgrange is part of the broader UNESCO World Heritage Site, Brú na Bóinne. Encompassing the prehistoric landscapes of the Boyne Valley, you can also visit the Great Mound of Knowth, a Neolithic burial site, the “Fairy Mound of Darkness” at Dowth and other remarkable Neolithic historical sites.
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2. Blarney Castle, County Cork
Between secret passages, poison gardens and stunning views, you’ll be lost for words around here – well, until you kiss the Blarney Stone! Dating from 1446, Blarney Castle is one of Ireland’s most iconic historical sites, famous for the magic that happens when you pucker up to kiss the Stone. According to tradition, once you’ve planted your kiss, you will be bestowed with the ‘Gift of the Gab’, meaning you will never again be lost for words.
Once you’ve smooched the stone, there are plenty of other things to explore here, including mysterious underground passages, beautiful gardens, and the enchanting Rock Close and its druid relics. You can also climb the narrow spiral staircases for stunning views of the lush green countryside.
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3. Glendalough, County Wicklow
Set in a glacial valley ringed by the scenic Wicklow Mountains, Glendalough offers a serene blend of natural beauty and ancient ruins. The name Glendalough translates to the “Valley of the Two Lakes” in Gaelic, suitably named for the nearby twin lakes. Founded by Saint Kevin in the 6th century, the ruins of the original monastic city still stand. There’s a well-preserved round tower standing around 98 feet (30 meters) high, which served as both a bell tower and a refuge. You’ll also see the ruins of the Cathedral, St. Kevin’s Church, and several early Christian crosses. With plenty of walking trails offering breathtaking views of the twin lakes, countryside, and ancient ruins, you’ll love this quiet retreat into Ireland’s early history.
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4. Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Perched high on a limestone hill in County Tipperary, the Rock of Cashel is an iconic medieval silhouette against the Irish skyline. Legend has it that this is where Saint Patrick converted King Aengus to Christianity by using a shamrock leaf to explain the Holy Trinity. The Rock of Cashel is not only historically significant, but it’s a haven for architecture enthusiasts, from the round tower and cathedral to the intricate Celtic art and one of Ireland’s best-preserved frescoes in Cormac’s Chapel. The panoramic views across the Golden Vale are equally breathtaking as this sacred site.
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5. Hill of Tara, County Meath
Once the home of ancient Ireland’s druids, then the ancient seat of the High Kings, the Hill of Tara is one of the most important archaeological and historical sites in Europe. You’ll walk through millennia of Irish history here, with a Stone Age passage tomb dating back 5,000 years and a collection of monuments and earthworks spanning from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. There’s also prehistoric burial mounds and the central mound, known as the Lia Fáil or “Stone of Destiny”, said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Ireland. With panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, a visit to the Hill of Tara immerses you in Ireland’s regal past of rulers, kings and druids.
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6. Kilkenny Castle, County Kilkenny
Set in the heart of the medieval city of Kilkenny, this majestic Norman castle stands as a symbol of east Ireland’s rich history and architectural prowess. Built in the 12th century, the grand castle was once the stronghold of the influential Butler family and has evolved through the centuries from a defensive fortress to a regal residence. Wander through ornate staterooms, art-filled galleries and lavish interiors, and take in the panoramic views of the city from its battlements. Outside, explore the beautifully manicured gardens and roam along the tranquil River Nore.
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7. Cobh, County Cork
This gorgeous seaside town is filled with fascinating maritime history, having welcomed many ships throughout history including the fated RMS Titanic. On April 11, 1912, the Titanic set sail from Cobh for New York, never to return. Today, you can visit The Titanic Experience at the original White Star Line ticket office in Cork Harbor, which tells the poignant story of the doomed ship and commemorates the lost passengers. For more maritime history, visit the Cobh Heritage Center to learn about everything from the convict ships that departed for Australia in 1801 to the 2.5 million Irish emigrants who set sail from Cobh during the 19th and 20th centuries. You can even learn the story of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island in New York.
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8. Huntington Castle, County Carlow
Located in the pretty village of Clonegal, Huntington Castle may be one of the most spectacular historical sites, but its origins are more gruesome. Built in 1625, the castle was originally a garrison, but from 1680 on, it transformed into a lavish family home. Today you can explore the grand interiors and learn about the castle’s famous residents, stopping by the formal rooms and dungeon, home to a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. You can also explore the manicured gardens, with a rose walk in the Italian parterre, water gardens, and a magical yew tree walk believed to date back over 500 years.
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9. Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny
Founded in the 12th century, this Cistercian monastery is renowned for its well-preserved cloister, chapel and central tower. It’s also home to beautiful stone carvings depicting biblical scenes, daily medieval life, and knights and bishops. The sculptures and carvings, particularly on the cloister pillars and tombs, are remarkably detailed. A stroll through the ruins offers a glimpse into medieval craftsmanship and the artistry of Ireland’s ancient masons. You can also learn more about the abbey’s monastic history at the informative visitor center.
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10. Waterford Viking Triangle, County Waterford
As Ireland’s oldest city, established as a Viking port in 914, Waterford is packed with ancient treasures, including the remarkable Viking Triangle. Bordered by original 10th-century Viking walls, a walk through this historical quarter will take you on a journey through the millennia. As you navigate the narrow cobbled streets, you’ll see how the Vikings, Normans and Victorians shaped the city. Marvel at the 13th-century Reginald’s Tower, Ireland’s oldest complete building. See the Bishop’s Palace, a Georgian mansion housing a museum on Waterford’s history. Take a ferry to the 19th-century Waterford Castle, set on its own private island. Explore the Medieval Museum, and stop by the Waterford Crystal Visitor Center to see the world-famous craftsmanship of Waterford glass.
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11. Trim Castle, County Meath
The largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, Trim Castle has over 800 years of history. Built over a 30-year span starting in the late 12th century, its imposing stone keep is the centerpiece, surrounded by a vast curtain wall and moat. The castle’s formidable stone walls, keep, and turrets have been the backdrop for historical treaties, battles, and even Hollywood movies such as 1995’s Braveheart. In 1753, Richard Pococke, the Archdeacon of Dublin and explorer of Ancient Egypt, described the castle as “the greatest piece of antiquity” he had seen. Today, you can explore the well-preserved ruins and climb the battlements for stunning views over the River Boyne. If you’re visiting in June, you can even take part in the Irish rural traditions of the Trim Hay Making Festival.
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12. Wexford, County Wexford
This vibrant town hosts a wealth of fascinating historical sites, from Viking sites to floating museums. The town was originally named Waesfjord (harbor of mudflats) by the Vikings who landed here around 850. The Normans later conquered it in 1169 and you can still see their fort ruins in the Irish National Heritage Park open-air museum. Learn about the 1798 Rebellion at the National 1798 Rebellion Center and see the medieval Westgate Tower and Selskar Abbey. You also can’t miss a visit to the Dunbrody Famine Ship, a floating museum replicating the 19th-century vessels that carried Irish emigrants to North America. The museum offers a unique insight into the stories of those escaping the Irish famine, with exhibitions and costumed performers.
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