The National Heritage Week (of Ireland) 2018 is upon us! There are over 2,000 events happening across the country from the 18th - 26th of August. Coordinated by The Heritage Council, the aim of this week is to build awareness and education of our heritage, and thereby encouraging conservation and preservation (here is the National Heritage Week website). If you are in the country, you should definitely check it out and see what events are happening in your area!
It was around this time last year we started a side project - The Heritage Card Series, so I thought what a better time to write about a few of the places we've been to and share some of the magic we've seen.
While walking around the country, we couldn't help but notice the large number of castles, manors, ancient burial sites - basically places that are dripping with amazing history and heritage that we'd some how never really paid attention to before. They all became places we really wanted to visit. Once we started going to them, it didn't take us long to notice that they are (nearly) all run by the OPW - aka the Office of Public Works. These are the guys who restore and maintain Ireland's built heritage (castles, monasteries, estates), and then reopen the ones they can for the public to visit. To be able to continue and maintain these restorations, many of these places charge a small entry fee (€5-10), or you can buy a Heritage Card and have unlimited access to all their open sites! We bought a card each, and set about exploring some of the incredible heritage here. Since then we've visited around 25 sites (most OPW run, but not all), and have made videos of a couple of those visits.
Below are 10 of our favourites...
National Botanic Gardens
1. National Botanic Gardens, Dublin
Long before either of us knew who the OPW was, the Botanic Gardens were one of my favourite places in Dublin. With free entry, it is one of the most peaceful places you can wander in Dublin.
Looking at the gardens history, the poet Thomas Tickell was the last private owner of this plot of land out in Glasnevin, selling his small estate to the Irish government in 1795. It was then given to the Royal Dublin Society so they could establish Ireland's first botanic garden. Established with the aim of studying agriculture, medicine and dyeing, the gardens were apparently the first place where the potato blight that caused Ireland's major famine in the mid 1800s was identified and researched. These days, the gardens hold 20,000 living plants, with many millions of dried specimens stored and archived.
As you pas the amazing glass houses and walk deeper into the park, there is an unassuming double line of yew trees along a small bumpy path. This stretch is know as Addison's Walk, and survives from the days of Thomas Tickell, before everything that is there began.
Even not knowing the long history of the gardens, the magic of the place is palpable and I always notice myself talking in hushed tones, as if I might wake mother nature.
It's also home to a large number of squirrels, which I noticed last autumn to my extreme delight. Here's our video of the glasshouses and gardens.
2. Donegal Castle, Co. Donegal
Donegal Castle sits in the centre of Donegal Town on a bend in the River Eske. It's semi-hidden by the winding streets of the town, so as you come through its small gate house the amount of space around the grounds is surprising. The castle itself consists of a 15th-century tower house/keep, with a later addition of a Jacobean style wing. Most of the stonework was constructed from locally sourced lime and sand stone, giving the buildings and walls warm tones. The castle was the stronghold of the O'Donnell clan, one of the most powerful Irish families in Ulster Ireland from the 5th to the 16th centuries.
In 1607, after the Nine Years war the leaders of the O'Donnell clan left Ireland in the Flight of the Earls. Later, during the Plantation of Ulster, the castle and its lands were granted to an English Captain, Basil Brooke. It was he who added windows, the gable and the large manor-house wing to the keep. When standing at the base of the tall keep section it's still clear that the large windows were cut in long after it was originally built.
For most of the last two centuries, the majority of the buildings lay in ruins but the keep section of the castle was restored in the early 1990s. On the tour of the building you learn about the long history of the Irish clans that lived there, as well as the Annals of the Four Masters, an incredible set of chronicles of medieval Irish history - which is one of our major sources of information for the Nine Years War and the Flight of the Earls.
3. Dublin Castle, Dublin
From 1204 until 1922 Dublin Castle was the seat of English rule in Ireland. During that time, it served as a residence for the British monarch’s Irish representative: the Viceroy of Ireland. The Castle was originally developed as a medieval fortress under the orders of King John of England, and so it looked more like the traditional imaginings of a castle - four corner towers linked by high curtain walls. This version of the castle remained largely intact until April 1684, when a major fire caused severe damage to most of the building.
Following the fire, the rebuilding saw the Castle transform from a medieval fortress into a Georgian palace. The new building included a suite of grand reception rooms, known as the State Apartments, which accommodated the Viceroy and were the focus of great state occasions. In the early nineteenth century the Castle was again added to with the addition of the Chapel Royal in the Lower Castle Yard. While gazing up at the extremely detailed work throughout the chapel, I had to do a double take when the tour guide told us that the whole structure was made of wood and plaster styled to look like heavy stone - the ground on which the chapel is built on was too marshy to withstand heavy stone walls, columns and buttresses, so inventive measures were taken.
Much of the castle is open to self-guided wandering, however while on the tour you get the chance to visit the ancient ruins underneath the current-day castle, the chapel, and learn the history and functions of the rooms throughout the building - did you know there was an order of the garter? (also slightly less excitingly known as The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick)
For me, Dublin castle was one of those places that need multiple visits. I remember after a few hours sitting on a bench with my mind reeling from all the history it was trying to hold. Some day soon I hope to get to go back and appreciate it all again. Heres' our video of Dublin Castle.
Cashel, Co. Tipperary
4. Athassel Priory, Co. Tipperary
I still remember the amazement I felt the first time I saw Athassel Priory.
We were on our second day of walking the Tipperary Heritage Way, slowly making our way from Cahir up to Cashel. The route had crossed the foothills of the Galtees, twisted through some rolling farm land, and then left us panting after a very long, straight road section that felt like it would never end. We were definitely starting to fade a little, but I was enjoying the quite fields we were currently working our way through. And then, a glimpse through a hedge made me pay attention to what was up ahead. Was that maybe the side of an old tower house? I didn't have time to start imagining just how impressive a place we were walking into before we were right there, standing outside this incredible labyrinth of ruins. I know I am using a lot of positive adjectives, but I promise you, they're no where near enough to describe how wonderful an experience it was to just happen upon such a huge, empty monastery.
After some hasty googling we learnt that we had happened upon Athassel Priory. It is the largest medieval priory in Ireland, stretching over a 4-acre site, and dating back to the late 12th century, when it was founded by the Augustinians under the patronage of William de Burgh. After, fires, raids, and general waring, the Priory was finally dissolved in 1537 and the lands given to Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond who neglected the abbey and it subsequently fell into ruin.
If you do visit this site, please treat it kindly. I don't know the farmer that owns the surrounding farmland, but he is kind enough to let visitors traipse across to see this beautiful building, which feels untouched and unspoilt.
Video of the Rock of Cashel, Athassel Abbey, and Hore Abbey - aka the Three Abbeys of Cashel.
5. Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
The power of the place only sinks in when we go outside, and stand in the prison yards, where the prisoners would walk single file, silent, around it's perimeter. And then there are the executions that happened there. Standing in the cold, shivering as I look up at the high walls, a feeling of undeniable doom settles over my shoulders, offering no extra warmth.
Above is an extract from the post I wrote earlier this year about our visit to the historic jail.
Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary
6. Ormond Castle, Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary
Our most recent OPW site visit, Ormond castle was a hidden gem found off of the main streets of Carrick-on-Suir.
Last year when we finished the East Munster Way we semi-noticed Ormond Castle as the final info board for the trail was in the small park surrounding the castle. At the time Carl had just hurt his knee, so we picked up our bags and went home for a few days rest. I think we can be forgiven for not paying attention to it at the time, as from the outside it looks more like a lovely old manor house than a castle. What you find when we go inside however is a different story all together.
Containing 3 distinct sections, this castle has had a varied history. Walking in the front doors and through a short hall, you enter a court yard and get a real impression of why this is a castle and not just the Elizabethan manor house it looks like from the outside. From that doorway you can see two tower houses (tall, square castles with thick bases and small slitted windows) connected by strong stone walls, which was once the main body of the castle. The back of these buildings once backed straight onto the river Suir, and there is a small arch that is assumed to be a dock into the kitchens.
The extension to the front of the house was built on by Thomas Butler, the 10th Earl of Ormond in the 1560s. Having spent most of his life as a ward of the English king (to ensure the loyalty of his family back in Ireland), Thomas grew up and was educated with Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth 1st. When he eventually returned to Ireland, it is said that Elizabeth promised to visit him one day. In order to impress her (and to replicate what he probably considered home) he built on the manor front to the castle. When looking at the rooms, it is clear that the front section of the house was only for entertaining, and contain some of the finest decorative plasterwork in the country, including plasterwork portraits of Queen Elizabeth and her brother. For this reason, many places state that Ormond Castle is the country's only major unfortified dwelling from that time period. And while the front of the house was certainly not built with any military consideration, the castle it now fronted was definitely still a very defensible and fortified structure, which shouldn't be dismissed so quickly.
The Butlers abandoned the home 1688, moving to Kilkenny Castle. The home remained a possession of the family until the middle of the 20th century, until finally in 1947 the house was given over to the OPW who restored the manor house, and are still working on the castle section and grounds.
We went on a wonderful tour of the castle (most of the rooms are only accessibly by tour), with two specific parts still standing out to me: the gallery room, and the attic.
The Gallery room is the length of the front of the building, and contains that amazing plaster work I mentioned earlier. It is such a long room, and would once have been filled to the brim with portraits of the butlers and others of importance. An unexpected treat was to also get to see the attic, a space that we'd never visited before in an OPW building. What really struck us (both in the attic and the gallery room) were the size of the windows. Even hidden away up there, where the servants quarters would have been, light was pouring in through the cross beams, allowing us to really appreciate the craftsmanship that had gone into the restoration. So few Irish castles have large windows the likes that we saw here (apart from Donegal castle actually!). At the time I'm sure it was a signal of wealth to be able to have so much glass, and to not be worried about an attack.
The Main Guard
Clonmel, Co. Tipperary
7. Main Guard, Clonmel
The above photo is the only one in this post that is not ours! It is by Digital Eye [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.
The main guard in Clonmel was built in 1674 and was a courthouse for the Palatinate of Co. Tipperary. It has gone through many conversions and roles through out the years, but the most famous story associated with it was the trail and execution of Father Sheehy. There are many telling and legends around his trials and death, and when we visited, there was an exhibition analysing the details of what actually happened. Here is one of the more fabled stories of his end ...
Near Baylough there lived a girl named Moll Dunlea. She and all her sisters except one were "black" protestants. The good girl, Cáit, was a Catholic. Near the place there lived a priest named Fr. Sheehy.
Moll, the oldest and "blackest" of the family, hated the priests. She betrayed Fr. Sheehy to the British soldiers and she accused him of doing things a priest wouldn't dare do. The soldiers arrested the priest, and after tortuting him, cut off his head. The head was sent to Clonmel, where it was placed on a spike of the gate at the town's entrance.
The priest's mother cursed Moll and her sisters, and all of them died except one, the good girl, Cáit. Cáit bribed the sentry at the Clonmel gates, to leave her take the priest's head, which she brought back to the people. The priest's body was taken from the grave and prepared with the head for re-burial.
After the funeral Cáit was killed by a bull in her own yard.
The above story comes from Duchas.ie, which contains This is a collection of folklore compiled by schoolchildren in Ireland in the 1930s.
Cahir, Co. Tipperary
8. Cahir Castle, Tipperary
Cahir Castle is one of the largest fortified castles in Ireland, and sits on a small island in the river Suir. It was built from 1142 by the O'Briens, and later granted to the Butler family (already mentioned in relation to Ormond and Kilkenny Castle) in late 14th century. The castle was extended and remodelled between the 15th and 17th centuries, but then fell into ruin in the late 18th century.
Situated in the great hall is the skull and antlers of an Irish elk (also called the Irish giant deer). Now an extinct species, it was one of the largest deer that ever lived, which is unsurprising as the antlers we saw spanned well over 6 feet.
As well as being one of the largest casted in the county, it is extremely well preserved and restored. We walked around through the small rooms and up helix-twisting stairs, peered into old dungeons and looked out over the high walls. It's a place you can explore all day, and still be unsure you saw the whole thing.
Boyle, Co. Roscommon
9. Boyle Abbey, Co. Roscommon
As this was our first heritage site after starting the Heritage Card Series, I was blown away as I learnt of the different preservation techniques used in the restoration of places like this: A long row of arches had been filled in while the Abbey was being used as a Military Barracks, and when the OPW went to return the arches to their original state they realised that that side of the building no longer had proper foundations. Each brick of the arches was then given a unique letter/number combination, mapped out, and then taken down. New foundations were laid, and each block was put back exactly where it was taken from. The arches are now clear and line the side of what I can only assume was an amazing church.
To read the full post on the Abbey and see the video, click here!
Farmleigh Estate is possibly Carl's favourite OPW site that we've visited so far.
Originally a small Georgian house built in the late eighteenth century, Farmleigh was purchased by Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927), a great-grandson of Arthur Guinness (founder of the very famous brewery). The first major building was undertaken in 1880's to extend the house to the west, refurbished the existing house, and added a third storey. After that the Ballroom wing was added, followed by a conservatory and extensive additions to the gardens surrounding the house.
Farmleigh was eventually sold from the Guinness family to the Irish Government in 1999 for €29.2m. The house is constantly refurbished and maintained by the OPW, and is now the main accommodation for visiting dignitaries and guests of the nation.
It was a blustery, overcast day when we walked the lengthy way across Phoenix Park and into the grounds of Farmleigh. With no big fanfare at the gates, we didn't realise what a beautiful and rich building we were about to enter. With just ourselves and the guide on the tour of the building, we had all the time we needed to marvel at the huge marble pillars and one of a kind tapestries that we casually dotted throughout the house. With a library that clearly inspired Beauty and the Beast, and chandeliers containing more diamonds than I thought were in the whole country, the house some how didn't feel like just a pile of money left in the middle of a field. The Guinness family were more than just wealthy brewers in Dublin, they funded the repairs on St. Patricks Cathedral; Lord (Edward) Iveagh constructed buildings in the centre of Dublin to house poorer residents of the city in more modern accommodation (the Iveagh Trust still operates today, along with the Iveagh Hostel for homeless men). More famously, they bought St Stephen's Green in 1876, had it landscaped and made into a public park (we mention their work on Dublin's parks in this video). So instead of counting the millions that could be stolen from that estate, we spent our time there reflecting on all the work that family did over the years for the city.
Well, I hope you enjoyed our wrap-up of some of our favourite heritage sites. Make sure you look up Heritage Week and see what talks, events or places are on and open near you! Happy History-ing!