By Eamon Mullen
One of the most interesting things about having guests stay at Smarmore Castle is listening to what they have to say about their time in Ireland. While most seem to genuinely enjoy themselves their most common regret is that they try to pack all of Ireland into a one or two week holiday and end up frustrated because they only get a limited flavour of what the country has to offer.
One way to overcome this problem is to stay longer. Not a realistic option though for most people. Another is to concentrate on a few parts of the country and explore what they have to offer in detail. The area around Smarmore Castle in county Louth is one that would certainly satisfy the expectations of most visitors. Our unique corner of Ireland is only one hours drive from Dublin airport but is not a regular stop on the tourist map yet.
Here are my top 10 things to visit during a three-day stay at Smarmore Castle.
Leave Smarmore Castle after breakfast and drive 20 minutes to the Brú na
Bóinne Visitor Centre outside Slane. This is the starting point for visits to the ancient monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. These monuments were built over 5000 years ago and pre-date the pyramids. From the outside they look a little like the Hobbits’ houses in Lord of the Rings because of their dome shape, grass top and stone fronts. If you are not claustrophobic you should try and take the tour into Newgrange’s inner chamber. It is a feat of engineering and ancient art. You will find yourself asking, “Why was this built?” Most theories suggest an association with ancient religious and funeral ceremonies because the sun illuminates the chamber briefly at sunrise on the Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). This site is very popular so get there as early as possible and try to avoid weekends.
Slane Castle is well worth a visit. It is located outside the village of Slane on the banks of the Boyne. It dates from the late 18th century and has undergone major renovation recently after a very serious fire in 1991. Few buildings can match the castle’s list of illustrious visitors ranging from King George IV of England to U2, the Rolling Stones and Madonna. It’s now famous as the venue for an annual rock concert that attracts upwards of 80,000 people. Guided tours of the castle are available from mid May to early August and include great stories of Kings’ mistresses and rock star excess.
The Site of the Battle of the Boyne is also in this area. The battle that took place in July 1690 left a lasting imprint on Irish history. The visitor centre at Oldbridge House provides a fascinating insight into the battle and the complex mix of political intrigue, religious rivalry, and European politics that led to it. You can take tours of the house and part of the battlefield, watch an audiovisual display and view replica weaponry and artefacts associated with the battle. Don’t worry if you are not a history buff. There are gardens, lovely walks and a tearoom to explore and ample places to have a relaxing picnic if you come prepared.
If you are still in the mood for more history then you could visit old Mellifont Abbey. The abbey dates from 1142 and was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland. The outline of the monastery complex is still visible and most parts are still recognisable. There is a visitor centre on the site and guided tours are available from May to October.
To finish the day you should visit the striking round tower and high crosses at Monasterboice, which is on your way back to Smarmore. The crosses date from the 10th century and depict incidents from the Bible. The largest cross known as Muiredach’s Cross stands over 5 metres high and is regarded as one of the finest examples of religious art surviving in Ireland today. The tower dates from the 5th century when the monks used it as a refuge from rampaging Vikings. This site is open all year round but does not have guided tours.
A more easy-going day. Start by travelling about 10 minutes to the intriguing jumping church at Kildemock graveyard. Popular folklore has it that in 1715 the gable wall of the church jumped two or three feet within its own foundations in order to leave the grave of an excommunicated man outside. Another explanation suggests that it was lifted and moved intact by a great storm at the time. No one can say for sure which story is correct but you can make your own minds up as part of the wall remains there today.
From Kildemock travel north into Ardee. Ardee is one of the best examples of a medieval town in Ireland having being created by the Anglo-Normans. It was the site of the legendary duel between Cúchulainn and Ferdia described in the Táin Bó Cúailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The town’s strategic location has made it the site of many significant battles throughout the ages and in medieval times its position marked an outpost on the border between the Anglo Norman South and the Gaelic North.
The town has been fortunate in retaining much of its medieval structure and buildings with Ardee Castle, which overlooks the main street, the best example. This castle has the distinction of being the largest fortified medieval tower house in Ireland or Britain. In 1689 during the period leading up to the Battle of the Boyne, King James II and William of Orange stayed there on separate occasions. Ardee is an excellent place to eat out or go for a quiet drink.
From Ardee take the N52 road into Dundalk and spend an hour or so in the Louth County Museum. If you imagine museums to be places filled with old relics and stuffy people then you should pay a visit here as it will change this perception forever. Children are definitely welcome but there is plenty to interest adults as well. The museum boasts a team of friendly experienced guides and the exhibits and permanent displays have been designed to use the latest multimedia technology to tell the story of the towns and region in a way that interests young and old alike.
Your next destination after the museum is Carlingford, Omeath and the Cooley Peninsula. This area is well known for its stunning landscape, mountain views and legends. Make sure you get some advice on the best route to take from Dundalk so that you don’t miss any of the views. Stories in the area range from legendry (the exploits of Cúchulainn guarding the brown bull of Cooley), tragic love (the Long Woman’s Grave) to the downright bizarre (the leprechaun’s clothes that were found on the mountain). The village of Carlingford is located on the shores of Carlingford Lough and is overlooked by the Cooley Mountains. It has retained its medieval character and is a bustling centre for sightseers, walkers and adventure activity enthusiasts. You should put aside a few hours to end your day here as it has a large number of restaurants and pubs that are well worth exploring.
Back to the Boyne Valley again. The Hill of Tara is located less than an hour from here. In pre-Christian times it was the seat of Ireland’s high kings. While none of the wooden palaces from that era remain today, the site still has a mystic feel and bears the marks of those ancient times with its network of mounds, magical stones and late Stone Age burial chamber. The Hill of Tara is open all year round but only has guided tours and an audiovisual display available from mid May to September. There is a coffee shop close to the site.
After Tara go the short distance to Trim. The town is dominated by the castle located on the banks of the Boyne. It is an excellent place to visit for anyone who wants to experience what a fortified medieval castle was like. It was built in the late twelfth century and is the largest Anglo Norman castle in Ireland. The highlight of any visit is the tour, which winds its way up through the three-storey tower keep and finishes with striking views from the roof. Most of the walls enclosing the keep are intact and the remnants of the ditch and moat that protected the fortress are still visible today. Film fans may be interested in a visit to Trim Castle because it was used extensively as a prime location in Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning film Braveheart.
Writing this guide has proved harder than I thought because of all the places that were left out – Drogheda, St Brigid’s shrine at Faughart, Knockabbey Castle and Gardens, Dun a Rí Forest Park – the list goes on and on.)
So if you are planning a trip to Ireland then why not choose to base yourself in our area. You will only face two problems when you get here. What do you go and see, and – much harder this – what do you leave out?
© 2010 Eamon Mullen
Smarmore Castle, Ardee, Co. Louth