Historically, the ancient port towns of Wexford and Waterford served as entry points for countless invasions. The most deadly of these took place in 1170 under the command of Lord Strongbow. The following year, King Henry of England also landed in Waterford, setting in motion what would become 800 years of British rule in Ireland. Like the ancient settlements that predate them, many of the region's castles and fortifications count among its most popular tourist attractions today.
Here we take a look at the most popular castles, ruins and ancient sites in Ireland's south-eastern counties.
Ireland has more than its fair share of outstanding archaeological sites, but the Rock of Cashel is arguably the most impressive. The 'rock' from which it takes its name is in fact a limestone hill, covered in luscious green, rising from the plain which characterises the surrounding area. The word 'cashel', by contrast, is derived from the Irish Gaelic word caiseal, meaning stone fortress.
In both respects, the Rock of Cashel lives up to its title. The rock itself is vast and imposing, and one can only imagine the difficulties it would have posed for attackers throughout the ages who had designs on the stone fortress above. The masonry of the fort itself is no less spectacular and is remarkably well preserved almost a full millennium after its original construction.
The history of the site itself is long and varied. First used as a base for Welsh invaders, the Eóghanachta clan, who would become kings of this region of Ireland. The clan, and hence the rock, have been closely associated with St. Patrick (considered by many historians to be a Welshman), earning Cashel's pseudonym, St. Patrick's Rock.
Although, under Eóghanachta rule, Cashel would rival Tara as Ireland's centre of power, it was wrested from their control in the Tenth Century before being presented to the Church in 1101. The site would change hands many times again in the centuries to follow, giving rise to the various buildings whose remains now occupy it.
The Rock of Cashel is just a five-minute walk from Cashel town.
Standing proud on the banks of the River Nore since 1195, Kilkenny Castle is a dominant feature on the landscape of this popular tourist town less than two hours from Dublin. The original fortifications were a wooden structure in the prevailing Normal style of that period. What visitors see today was built throughout the Nineteenth Century and has hosted royalty and nobility since that time.
There are extensive grounds which are a must on a warm summer's day. Also, there are several other points of historical interest within easy walking distance, including Talbot's Tower, Madlin Castle and Corner Tower.
Be sure to stop at the formal Rose Garden with fountains for a group photo before taking the family to the outdoor play area. Afterwards, the grown-ups can refuel with coffee and cakes in the Castle Kitchen.
Like the Rock of Cashel, Tintern Abbey owes its heritage to Wales, founded as it was by the Earl of Pembroke in the Thirteenth Century for the benefit of its Welsh monk inhabitants. Today, there remains a Welsh counterpart with the same name.
Much of the original building still stands, including the cloister walls and crossing tower, as well as the chancel and transept chapels. But visitors will enjoy the surroundings at least as much as the abbey itself, with lakes, streams, woods and ruins providing distractions for all age groups. Perhaps most alluring of all is the Colclough Walled Garden, built over 200 years ago and restored since 2010.
Break up the beautiful walks around the walled gardens with a visit to the tea rooms for coffee and waffles.
With its monumental round tower, St Canice's Cathedral rises majestically above the north of Kilkenny's city centre. Perhaps understandably so: ranking just behind St Patrick's in Dublin, it is Ireland's second-largest medieval cathedral. Gothic in style, it is characterized by its iconic round tower which affords commanding views of the surrounding area. The history of the building itself, long and varied, began - at least according to legend - in the Sixth Century with the establishment of a monastery there by St Canice, Kilkenny's patron saint.
The top of the tower is reachable only by a series of steep staircases. But the view that awaits is worth the effort and the price of admission combined.
Founded in the second half of the Twelfth Century and recently partially restored, Jerpoint Abbey is one of Ireland's finest Cistercian ruins. The main church, with its Romanesque flourishes, dates from these earliest days in the abbey's long history, but visitors will also find additions from the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Look out for figures carved into the cloister pillars, some of them quite entertaining.
Drivers should note that the free-to-use car park entrance/exit is on a blind bend. Take care when leaving!
If you were looking for a single example of what people might expect a picture-postcard Irish castle to look like, Lismore Castle might be the one. Although the original castle dated back to 1185, what visitors see today was in fact built in the early 1800s, so its turrets and towers are in immaculate condition.
What might impress visitors rather less is the lack of access, so take note before you make a special trip: you won't be able to go inside the castle itself, the interior spaces of which are closed to the public. You will, however, be able to explore the extensive and ornate gardens which, considered the oldest in Ireland, are arguably worth the trip in themselves, especially for the more green-fingered visitor.
Photograhy enthusiasts should sure to make their way to the old watch tower at the far corner where great photo opps await.
The first stone castle in this location was built in the 1190s by Anglo-Normans whose descendents continued to reside here for 200 years. The structure which tourists and historians visit today was built in the Fifteenth Century and the history of the setting since that time is the story of Ireland itself. The castle was occupied by Cromwellian forces in 1649 and was used as a prison during the 1798 rebellion.
Against this striking historical backdrop, the castle commonly plays host to various exhibitions whose connection to the castle isn't always obvious. Some visitors love this, though some have found it confusing.
Be sure to ascend to the roof: for many visitors, the views across Enniscorthy are the highlight of their visit.
First established in 1225AD, Black Abbey was one of the first houses of the Dominican Order in Ireland and is architecturally Normal in style. Historically, "Black Friars" was the term used to describe members of the Dominican Order, and it is from this that the Abbey takes its name. Perhaps the biggest draw for tourist visitors the Abbey is the spectacular Rosary Window in the south transcept. The thirteenth-century alabaster statur of the trinity is no less impressive.
There is car parking outside and admission is free. St Mary's and St Canice's Cathedrals are both within 300 yards. Kilkenny Tourist Office is less than half a mile away.