Often people would look at County Carlow as just the smallest (inland) county in Northern Ireland. Little do they acknowledge that it is one of the most surrealistic places to visit in the British Kingdom.
Carlow is a place of rich pastures and rural landscapes, situated in the south-east of the country beside counties Wicklow, Wexford, Kilkenny, Laois and Kildare.
Part of the designated journey through Ireland’s Ancient East, this county is included in the landlocked Historic Heartlands region, where castles, battles, legends, traditions and ancient races are ever present in the landscape.
The Heart of Carlow
Carlow is largely a county of rolling farmland, with the scenic Blackstairs Mountains bordering the county to the south and the historic Barrow River Valley running through the centre of the county. The county town is Carlow Town, an up and coming market town. Located centrally, on the banks of the River Barrow, and still, has a vibrant farmer’s market taking place every week.
The most prominent building in the town is The Courthouse, modelled on the Parthenon in Athens. This grandiose building was originally meant for County Cork until the plans got mixed up. Additionally, County Carlow was once known as the King’s County, neighbouring Laois which was known as the Queen’s County.
Settlement in Carlow pre-dates written Irish history. The area of County Carlow has been inhabited for thousands of years. Carlow town on the River Barrow was historically a major stronghold. The ancient inhabitants of the Carlow area left behind numerous monuments including the Brownshill Dolmen with a capstone said to be the heaviest of its type in Europe.
Beginning in 1169, the Normans invaded and conquered much of Ireland firstly taking the province of Leinster. The strategic position of Carlow on the River Barrow was evident and Carlow town became a major fortress created by William Marshall, 1st Earl Of Pembroke and existed until 1814 when its walls were finally demolished. All that remains of the original structure are two circular towers bookending a portion of a stone wall.
Other significant medieval castles in the Carlow area included fortresses at Ballymoon and Leighlinbridge. There were seven baronies in County Carlow which included Carlow, Forth, Idrone East, Idrone West, Rathvilly, St Mullin’s Lower and St Mullin’s Upper.
The history of County Carlow reflected the turbulent history of the rest of Ireland which saw centuries of conflict between the native Gaelic population and the Anglo-Norman and later Anglo-Irish Protestant population. During the 19th century, Ireland’s Great Hunger wiped out half of the population of the city. A centre of agriculture, the first outbreak of the dreaded potato blight was reported in September 1845.
The largest of all the towns in County Carlow, Carlow has the name of being the Celtic Centre of Ireland. Near to the town is the tiny Sleaty Church, reputed to be where the oldest Christian manuscript ‘The Life of Saint Patrick’ was said to originate.
Despite the size of the town, it plays host to an impressive array of festivals throughout the year. These culminate in the Feile an Fhomhair Carlow which is a five day bilingual festival in October with an environmental theme. The town is also home to the popular Carlow Golf Club.
The focus of Ireland’s second-smallest county is the River Barrow. Ireland’s second-longest river. Which flows south from Carlow town through several picturesque villages to the monastic hamlet of St Mullins. It’s towpath followed by the lovely Barrow Way walking trail.
The Barrow is one of the three sister rivers, together with the Nore and the Suir. It has the most developed navigation of the three, and the long stretches of pleasure waterways through Co. Carlow attract many people seeking to relax in its peaceful surroundings.
The beauty of the valley that the River Barrow has carved through the countryside, and the rich variety of wildlife that surrounds it, attracts environmental specialists, botanists, ecologists and ornithologists to the area.
Ireland may have 40 shades of green, but Carlow can cater for 40 shades of green fingers.
The Carlow Garden Trail
Open to visitors and tourists all year round, The Carlow Garden Trail currently features 16 different gardening attractions. With an additional two gardens in the surrounding counties of Kildare and Wexford.
Moreover, The Carlow Garden Trail includes great old gardens that have been lovingly restored and maintained throughout the years and smaller gardens which are maturing beautifully with time. Award-winning garden centres and forest parks complement the joy of a visit there.
Altamont House and Gardens
The establishment of Altamont, which extends over some 40 acres. Has been in the care of a long line of gardeners. Astonishingly, there are trees in the garden dating back to 1750 and even older ones in the glen by the river, including 500-year-old oaks.
Altamont House was so named circa 1760. It had been previously known as “Rose Hill” and later “Soho”. The central portion of the house dates from the Seventeenth Century. Interestingly, the house was extensively altered in the Eighteenth Century. A porch with an alluring fanlight and a low dining room were built.
In the garden, the many varieties of mature trees give it its character, but there are also wonderful perennial borders bursting with rare azaleas, rhododendrons, magnolias and much more. The lake is the most peaceful and serene part of the garden, its perimeter lined with trees and its surface covered in waterlilies.
Of course, you don’t have to be a gardener to get the most out of Carlow’s gardens, as it’s replete with other seductive landscapes. In the dips and meanders of the River Barrow and, rising above it, the rugged peaks of the Blackstairs Mountains.
But Carlow has its wild side, too. Think of Mount Leinster, the highest peak in the Blackstairs Mountains, where you’ll see adrenaline junkies paragliding on the thermals, their colourful chutes bursting like bubblegum as they hit the valley floor.
Food production in Carlow has moved forward rapidly in the last number of years. A diversity of products is now made or grown here. The most tempting is the production of craft beers and whiskey, farmhouse cheeses, artisan chocolate, superb meats from livestock reared on rich grass pasture, free range eggs, preserves from the city grown fruit and much more.
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Most Popular Places in Carlow
One very unmistakable monument dating back to pre-historical times is the great Brownshill Dolmen the east of Carlow town. Weighing about 103 tonnes, it has excited the interest of historians and antiquarians for centuries. An enormous slab sits on two portal stones which flank a door stone and slopes downwards to the west, where it rests on a low boulder.
Built between 4000 and 3000 B.C., the entrance is flanked by two large upright stones (orthostats) supporting the granite capstone of the chamber. The capstone is thought to have been covered by an earthen mound and a gate stone blocked the entrance.
Both portal stones and the gate-stone are still in situ; the capstone lies on top of the portals and gate-stone and slopes to the ground away from the entrance. It has never been excavated.
VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre
VISUAL Carlow is an iconic cultural space is in the heart of Carlow Town. Presenting contemporary art, theatre, music, dance, cinema, talks, workshops and hosting private conference events and much more.
The 3,000 square meter building comprises a 353-seat theatre and stage area, four principal gallery spaces. As well as stores and workshop areas, a restaurant and theatre-bar facilities. The theatre is equipped with the latest audio-visual equipment, a superb lighting system and a flexible stage that can be configured to accommodate an orchestra pit.
Plans to build an arts centre in Carlow have been promoted for more than 30 years, since at least the founding of the annual Éigse Arts Festival in 1979. VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art and The George Bernard Shaw Theatre is definitely a good example of the high level of initiative locally in Carlow.
Delta Sensory Gardens
Eloquently described as an oasis of peace and tranquillity. Delta Sensory Gardens consist of a series of interconnecting gardens of a multi-sensory nature. Covering one hectare on the outskirts of Carlow Town. They are now well renowned and mature, having been open to the public for the past eight years. Their visitor numbers are growing steadily with many repeat visitors and word of mouth advertising.
There is always something different to see from season to season in the 16 interconnecting gardens offering visitors of all ages a unique opportunity to rest and indulge their senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and visual delight.
Carlow County Museum
Located in the heart of Carlow Town, Carlow County Museum offers an enriching experience of Carlow’s heritage and culture. It is a fantastic representation of Carlow‘s history.
Furthermore, the exhibits are so varied that there is most definitely something for everyone. The museum’s four galleries display a wide range of exhibits from Carlow Castle and the Gaol Gallows on the ground floor. To the military and ecclesiastical exhibits on the first floor, there’s enough to pique anyone interest in town.
Duckett’s Grove is a castellated 19th Century Great House. Whose towers and turrets, formerly centred on a 12,000-acre estate, have dominated the vast flat landscape for over 200 years and for miles around.
Moreso, The mansion was transformed into a spectacular castellated Gothic fantasy by Thomas A. Cobden for J. D. Duckett in 1830. It incorporates numerous round, square and octagonal towers and turrets. One very tall octagonal turret rises from the structure. Duckett’s Grove is elaborately ornamented with oriels and niches containing statues. Several statues on pedestals surrounded the building and lined the approaches.
Furthermore, Duckett’s Grove is open to the public, with visitors touring the extensive gardens and woodlands. For those who look at the Gothic skeleton that remains, it is a statuesque reminder of the opulent and lavish lifestyle that used to be lived within. And for those who are braver, the ruins provide a hive of paranormal occurrences to be witnessed from the brightest and busiest of tourist days to the dead of night.
County Carlow has retained plenty of “old world” charm along the years. So making time for a stopover there should be gratifying. There are many things to see and explore. All in all quite a pleasant Irish county town for a walk and some snapshots. And there are some decent (ancient and modern) entertainment venues there, too.
Worthy reads about places in Ireland:
Kilkenny: The Splendid Reflection of the History of Ireland| Dublin: The World’s Natural Wonders in One City| An Insight into the Fascinating Nature of County Derry| The Beauty of County Kildare| Famous Landmarks in Ireland| County Leitrim: The Most Brimming Gem of Ireland| Your Guide Around the Lake-Land, County Cavan|