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

Powerscourt Estate Gardens, County Wicklow, Ireland
The Powerscourt Estate Gardens, a short drive south of Dublin, span 47 acres.
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 Powerscourt Estate Gardens — make a visit worth considering. And not far to the west is the Irish National Stud, a fun stop for equestrian fans.

Powerscourt Estate Gardens

A mile above the village of Enniskerry, the Powerscourt Estate Gardens cover 47 acres within a 700-acre estate. The dreamy driveway alone is a mile long. The mansion's interior is still only partially restored after a 1974 fire (and available only for special events). But 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 you can see today were created during the Victorian era (1858–1875).

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, fine Japanese and Italian gardens, and sweet 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.


The steep wooded slopes of Glendalough (GLEN-da-lock, "Valley of the Two Lakes") 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 value as one visit to Rome.) While much restoration was done in the 1870s, most of the buildings date from the 10th to 12th century.

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.

This is a fine opportunity to wander through an evocative landscape of long-abandoned monastic buildings — scattered with crooked, moss-covered Celtic cross tombstones — and to learn about this dramatic chapter of Ireland's history. A visit here can be as simple as a 30-minute wander through the ruins, or a half-day (or longer) experience: learning about the history in the visitors center, then hiking in the lush forests around the upper and lower lakes.

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 bought a farm on the River Tully and began breeding a line of champion thoroughbreds, mixing the local "hunter" horse with Arabian bloodlines — all guided by his astrological beliefs. His bizarre methods — and remarkable success — 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, while nationalized, it generates a profit for taxpayers rather than costing them a dime.

A guided tour of the grounds at the Irish National Stud and a visit to the high-tech Irish Racehorse Experience offer a deeper appreciation for the amazing horses that call this place home. Animal lovers and horse-racing enthusiasts driving between Dublin and points west can enjoy a couple of hours here, combining the tour with a stroll through the gardens. While enjoyable any time of year, it's best in the spring and early summer, when everything's in bloom and you'll see lots of mares and foals.

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