South of Dublin Highlights: Gardens, Monastic Ruins, and Studs

The Gardens of Powerscourt, a short drive south of Dublin, span 47 acres. (photo: Terry Dunlap)
By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor

The Wicklow Mountains, while only 15 miles south of Dublin, feel remote — enough so to have provided a handy refuge for opponents to English rule. Rebels who took part in the 1798 Irish uprising hid out here for years. The area only became more accessible in 1800, when the frustrated British built a military road to help flush out the rebels. Today, this same road — now R-115 — takes you through the Wicklow area to Glendalough, at its south end. While the valley is the darling of the Dublin day-trip tour organizers, for the most part it doesn't live up to the hype. But two blockbuster sights — Glendalough and the Gardens of Powerscourt — make a visit worth considering. And not far to the west is the Irish National Stud, a fun stop for equestrian fans.

Gardens of Powerscourt

A mile above the village of Enniskerry, the Gardens of Powerscourt cover 47 acres within the 700-acre estate. The dreamy driveway alone is a mile long. While the mansion's interior, only partially restored after a 1974 fire, isn't much, its meticulously kept aristocratic gardens are Ireland's best. The house was commissioned in the 1730s by Richard Wingfield, first viscount of Powerscourt. The gardens, created during the Victorian era (1858–1875), have been called "the grand finale of Europe's formal gardening tradition…probably the last garden of its size and quality ever to be created." I'll buy that.

Upon entry, you'll get a flier laying out 40-minute and one-hour walks. The "one-hour" walk takes 30 minutes at a relaxed amble. With the impressive summit of the Great Sugar Loaf Mountain as a backdrop, and a fine Japanese garden, Italian garden, and goofy pet cemetery along the way, this attraction provides the scenic greenery I hoped to find in the rest of the Wicklow area. Parts of the lush movies Barry Lyndon and The Count of Monte Cristo were filmed in this well-watered aristocratic fantasy.

Glendalough

The steep wooded slopes of Glendalough (GLEN-da-lock, "Valley of the Two Lakes"), at the south end of Wicklow's military road, hide Ireland's most impressive monastic settlement. Founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century, the monastery flourished (despite repeated Viking raids) throughout the Age of Saints and Scholars until the English destroyed it in 1398. A few hardy holy men continued to live here until it was finally abandoned during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. But pilgrims kept coming, especially on St. Kevin's Day, June 3. (This might have something to do with the fact that a pope said seven visits to Glendalough had the same indulgence — or forgiveness from sins — value as one visit to Rome.) While much restoration was done in the 1870s, most of the buildings date from the 10th–12th centuries.

In an Ireland without cities, these monastic communities were mainstays of civilization. They were remote outposts where ascetics (with a taste for scenic settings, but abstaining from worldly pleasures) gathered to commune with God. In the 12th century, with the arrival of grander monastic orders such as the Cistercians, Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, and with the growth of cities, these monastic communities were eclipsed. Today, Ireland is dotted with the reminders of this age: illuminated manuscripts, simple churches, carved crosses, and about 100 round towers.

The valley sights are split between the two lakes. The smaller, lower lake is nearer the best remaining ruins and a visitors center that helps illuminate the monastery's history. The upper lake has scant ruins and feels like a state park, with a grassy lakeside picnic area and school groups. Walkers and hikers will enjoy a choice of nine different trails of varying lengths through the lush Wicklow countryside (longest loop takes four hours, hiking-trail maps available at visitors center).

The cathedral is the largest and most central of all the Glendalough ruins. It evolved over time with various expansions and through the reuse of stones from previous structures. Nearby is St. Kevin's Cross. At 10 feet tall and carved from a single block of granite, this cross was a statement of utter devotion. (Most other famous Irish high crosses were carved of sandstone — which is softer than granite — allowing their carvers to create more ornate depictions of biblical stories than you'll see here). According to legend, if you hug this cross and can reach your hands around to touch your fingers on the other side, you'll have your wish granted (and your jealous friends labeling you a knuckle dragger). St. Kevin: the patron saint of dislocated shoulders.

Perhaps the prettiest structure surviving on the site is St. Kevin's "kitchen" (actually a church). Its short round tower appeared to earlier visitors to be a chimney, but its function was always as a belfry. The steeply stacked stone roof conceals a croft (upper story) perhaps used as a scriptorium for copying holy manuscripts.

Irish National Stud

Ireland's famed County Kildare — just west of Dublin — has long been known to offer the perfect conditions for breeding horses. Its reputation dates all the way back to the 1300s, when Norman war horses were bred here. Kildare's grasslands lie on a bedrock table of limestone, infusing the soil with just the right mix of nutrients for grazing horses. And the nearby River Tully sparkles with high levels of calcium carbonate, essential for building strong bones in the expensive thoroughbreds (some owned by Arab sheikhs) raised and raced here.

In 1900, Colonel William Hall-Walker (Scottish heir to the Johnny Walker distilling fortune) bought a farm on the River Tully and began breeding a line of champion thoroughbreds. His amazing successes and bizarre methods were the talk of the sport. In 1916, the colonel donated his land and horse farm to the British government, which continued breeding horses here. The farm was eventually handed over to the Irish government, which in 1945 created the Irish National Stud Company to promote the thoroughbred industry.

Today, a tour of the grounds at the Irish National Stud gives you a fuller appreciation for the amazing horses that call this place home. Animal lovers and horse-racing fans driving between Dublin and Galway can enjoy a couple of hours here, combining the tour with lunch and a stroll through the gardens.


Pat O'Connor is the co-author of the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook.