Ireland’s Ancient East is bringing travellers closer to the soul of Ireland than ever before by using storytellers and tale spinners to interweave Ireland’s ancient myths and legends with a modern tourism boom.
Tourism in Ireland is booming thanks to a surge of interest from Star Wars and Game of Thrones fans, not to mention the success of the Wild Atlantic Way campaign showcasing some of Ireland’s most dramatic coastline and significant tourist draws. But this is just the beginning of Ireland’s tourism resurgence.
Now that she has your attention with craggy islands, lightsabers and more than a few distillery tours, Ireland wants to draw you in even further by using her storytellers to mesmerise you with grand folktales of fairies and leprechauns, tales of ancient kings, grand castles and mysterious medieval monuments and with legends as old as time itself.
Come to Ireland for the great scenery, the tourist spots and the craic, but with Ireland’s Ancient East, enter a whole new world of myth and legend.
What is Ireland’s Ancient East?
Ireland’s Ancient East encompasses 17 counties, stretching from Newgrange to Cork, and covers a lot of counties and attractions that many visitors dismiss or have never even heard of before as they rush to the more traditional Irish tourist spots.
And it is these attractions that form the very heart of Ireland’s mythical past. Given the sheer wealth of myth and legend in Ireland it is hardly surprising that so much of the country is encompassed by the tourism campaign. It isn’t so much a route, or a specific destination, but a meandering trip into Ireland’s very soul. To take a tour around Ireland’s Ancient East is to step back in time itself, to explore the medieval past of this ancient land and converse with the Pagan Gods and Goddesses themselves.
And for me, this was the Ireland that I had always wanted to see.
A hidden heritage hotspot.
Ireland’s culture is old, as old as written history itself. From the first post Ice Age settlers and the emergence of the protohistoric Gaelic culture, Ireland’s heritage is on par with anything you can find in Rome or Egypt, and it is one of the world’s great heritage hotspots. A fact that has been lost on many tourists and travellers.
The Rock of Cashel exemplifies this interwoven myth and history. More than simply a collection of medieval ruins towers and a Gothic cathedral on the Tipperary Plain, the rock is said to have been discarded by the Devil himself, and imbued with power that warriors, chieftains, princes, kings and even saints have fought over to claim power for themselves.
The feeling of centuries gone by is imbued in every step, in every touch in Ireland, and that is evident most of all when visiting Brú na Bóinne in County Meath.
Brú na Bóinne is a Neolithic site of worship at Newgrange, a UNESCO heritage site and one of the worlds most significant prehistoric landscapes, it is so old and layered with so many myths that not even the historians and the archaeologists can tell fact from legend.
The powerful experience of entering the passage tomb at Newgrange (the tombs at Knowth and Dowth are not accessible), is one that will fill any traveller with the sense of mystery and wonder as the guides reveal the stories of why and how the site was used, attempting to recreate the winter solstice where a shard of light from the sun fills the passage with a magical glow, giving anyone in the chamber a glimpse into the spirituality of the ancient people who built the site and the bond they had with the natural world.
The nearby Hill of Tara, an ancient ritual site and later the seat of Irish Kings, and the ancient city of Waterford, Ireland’s oldest medieval city, are symbolic of how Ireland’s ancient past is so intertwined with its modern culture.
Castles aren’t just ruined old buildings – although Ireland surely has more than it’s fair share of those – or things to be admired from afar, they are living, breathing monuments to history, and places like Slane Castle are still very much in use and invite travellers in to sit in the rooms once used by royalty themselves.
In towns like Kilkenny and Waterford you can walk down a street filled with modern international shops and turn a corner to find yourself walking down a narrow medieval lane lined with a wall built by Vikings, or at a church or fortification built by the Normans.
Every stone tells a story of the monastic or farming settlements these cities used to be, of ancient battles won and lost, of the Viking raiders that moored there and became Kings and rulers, of Norman and Roman invaders and of course, of Fairies, Leprechauns and Banshees!
But Ireland is so much more than it’s ancient past, it isn’t just tales of demi gods and legendary creatures, mythical monuments, Gaelic Warrior poets and viking kings that make up the tapestry that fills Ireland’s Ancients East. The Storytellers of Ireland also celebrate the lives of ordinary Irish men and women.
Ordinary people whose lives shaped extraordinary events and tales open up a window to an amazing history, making the destination more relatable to travellers.
Stories like those of Sergeant Michael O’Leary of Abbeyleix, who defeated 10 Germans in World War II and became a propaganda hero for the war effort, or Jeremiah Burke, who threw a message in a bottle to his homeland Ireland from the ill fated Titanic, or even Kevin ‘McCoillte’ Woods of Carlingford, Ireland’s last Leprechaun Whisperer.
Travellers can head to bars like the Kytellers Inn to hear storytellers tell tales of the Witch of Kilkenny, who fled to England to leave her maid to burn at the stake in her stead as an accomplice. Or stories of Irish nobility with the Conynghams of Slane Castle, an old family with links to the Royal Family who brought everyone from U2 and Queen to Bowie and Guns & Roses to create the biggest concerts Ireland had ever seen.
Bringing the travel experience to life.
Without these stories, without these links to Irelands myth, legends and tales of the past, travellers can only ever get a snapshot of the places they are visiting, a view of each destination that is stereotypical and amorphous, nothing more than the picture postcard Instagram shot of the main tourist site.
Stories are essential to bring the past to life, to give the experience of visiting a place meaning.
This is exactly why I love really delving into the history, the myth and the legend of the places I visit and I hope reading this inspires other travellers to do the same.
So come to Ireland’s Ancient East for a short break or an extended trip and discover a land full of legends and stories, find a deeper understanding of the amazing experiences that Ireland has to offer and really delve into the cultural myths of this ancient Celtic country.
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This article was written in partnership with Ireland’s Ancient East and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.