Encompassing 17 counties and 5,000 years of history, Ireland’s Ancient East stretches from Louth to Cork. There are dozens of great family-friendly places to visit and things to see – here’s our pick of fun things to do with kids on Ireland’s Ancient East that definitely make the grade!
What is Ireland’s Ancient East?
Ireland’s Ancient East stretches from Louth to Cork, and features three unique areas: the Land of 5,000 Dawns (from Louth to Meath), the Historic Heartlands (from Laois to Kilkenny), and the Celtic Coast (from Wicklow to Cork).
In the Land of 5,000 Dawns, which includes counties Cavan, Longford, Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Westmeath, you will find marvels of megalithic tombs, monastic sites and the last remaining leprechauns in Ireland.
The Historic Heartlands, comprised of counties Offaly, Laois, Kildare, Tipperary, Limerick, Carlow and Kilkenny, is where you can visit Palladian manors, see ancient dolmens, and wander through medieval castles.
The Celtic Coast includes counties Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford and Cork. Visit the ancient monastic city of Glendalough, take a trip to Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford, founded by the Vikings in the 9th century, and tour Europe’s oldest lighthouse on Hook head. Few coasts have seen such activity in their history.
Family-Friendly Things to Do on Ireland’s Ancient East
#1. Carlingford, Louth
Carlingford has so much to offer and is a wonderful village to wander about. Kids will enjoy the long pier and exploring the ruined castle on the hill overlooking the lough, while the village also has a good playground.
#2. Slieve Foye, Louth
According to legend, Fionn Mac Cumhaill hurled the Cloghmore (a forty ton glacial boulder perched on a projecting spur on Slievemartin) from the slopes of Slieve Foye, in a running battle with a neighbouring giant in the Mourne mountains. Slieve Foye has plenty of marked trails, suitable for older kids and adults, with stunning views of the lough.
Or visit Slieve Foye Woods at the base of the mountain, located 3.5km from Carlingford on the road to Omeath/Newry. There are two car parks, lots of picnic areas and beautiful panoramic views of Slieve Foye mountain and the Lough.
#3. Carlingford Adventure Centre, Louth
Take a trip to the Adventure Centre for a day of fun for all the family. Try your hand at the high-up obstacle zip line adventure course, SKYPARK, or the Kids Zone for younger kids. There’s plenty more too, including water activities, zorbing and Challenge Island, a type of crystal maze of challenges that requires teamwork. A fun day out guaranteed.
#4. Leprechauns & Fairies, Louth
Head to Carlingford’s Leprechaun & Fairy Cavern and meet the Leprechaun Whisperer who has built the underground cavern to connect with two old tunnels. One links with the fairy glen in Rostrevor, County Down, and the other with Foy mountain and the home of Ireland’s last remaining 236 leprechauns. It is only belief that keeps them alive now!
#5. Cavan Burren Park, Cavan
Take a walk though time and explore the dramatic and ancient ice-age valley of Cavan Burren Park, a unique and prehistoric landscape of monuments, megalithic tombs and spectacular glacial geology.
The Park has amazing examples of megalithic tombs, stone walls, ancient rock art, glacial erratics and breathtaking views of Cuilcagh Mountain and the surrounding landscapes. There are four walking trails (inc. multi-access trail) and a visitor centre.
#6. Cavan County Museum, Cavan
The Cavan County Museum is located at Ballyjamesduff, and houses a medieval dug out boat and sheela-na-gigs, galleries on folk life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the great famine, Percy French & the GAA. Coffee shop and playground also on-site.
#7. Corlea Bog, Longford
Take a trip to Corlea Bog Visitor Centre, and see the 2,000 year old trackway and enjoy the unique plant life in the bog habitat.The oak road is the largest of its kind to have been uncovered in Europe and was excavated by Professor Barry Raftery of University College Dublin.
Inside the interpretive centre, an eighteen-metre stretch of the preserved trackway is on permanent display, in a hall specially designed to preserve the ancient wooden structure.
#8. Belvedere House, Westmeath
Belvedere House, Gardens & Parks is set on an elevated site overlooking Lough Ennell, complete with Victorian walled Garden, exotic trees and numerous follies including the infamous Jealous Wall.
The House is fully restored and offers an interpretative ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ experience and an Owner’s Gallery. Café, gift shop, interpretative centre and exhibition galleries. During school holidays they run family events.
#9. Hop on Board a Viking Ship, Westmeath
The popular Viking Ship Cruises run from Athlone , upstream to Lough Ree, or downstream to the historic monastic settlement at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, which the vikings invaded many times, and first in 835.
If you’d like to explore Clonmacnoise, disembark and catch a bus back 90 minutes later (also included in price of cruise). Clonmacnoise, is one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland, with an interpretive centre, but beware, it can get very busy in summer months. Probably best for older kids.
#10. Newgrange, Meath
The ancient Stone Age passage tomb, Newgrange, built in 3200BC, is one of the great treasures of the ancient world. The annual highlight is the Winter Solstice, when the rising sunlight shines along the passageway into the burial chamber – you can enter a free lottery to be in attendance for this amazing event.
Newgrange can only be accessed with tours from the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre, which has an extensive exhibition including a full scale replica of the chamber at Newgrange, as well as a full model of one of the smaller tombs at Knowth.
#11. Spire of Lloyd, Meath
The Spire of Lloyd in Kells is an inland lighthouse designed by Henry Aaron Baker (designer of the King’s Inn, Dublin) for the First Earl of Bective, in memory of his father Sir Thomas Taylor in 1791.
At 30m high, one can see magnificent views of the surrounding countryside as far as the Mourne Mountains in County Down, Northern Ireland on a clear day. The Spire was used to view horse racing and the hunt in the 19th century. It is open on selected dates during the summer.
Stop by the “Paupers Graveyard” in the community park (The People’s Park), in which many victims of the mid-19th century famine lie buried.
#12. Newgrange Open Farm, Meath
Feed the animals, explore the straw maze and take a tractor and trailer ride on the 333 acre Newgrange Open Farm near Slane. The farm is open from March to September, with plenty of family events be sure to check out the Sunday Sheep Races, or Scarecrow Festival in August! Play areas, coffee shops and picnic facilities are also available.
#13. Irish National Stud & Gardens, Kildare
Enjoy a great day out for all the family at the Irish National Stud & Gardens in Kildare Town. Just off the M7 motorway, the Irish National Stud is home to both wonderful horses and great gardens.
The Irish National Stud offers an unforgettable experience in 800 acres of beautiful Kildare countryside that can be enjoyed by all the family. Enjoy the beautiful Japanese Gardens, St Fiachras Garden, see the magnificent houses, and tour the Horse Museum. After let the kids run off some steam at the playground. There are free pony rides for kids during school holidays on selected days.
#14. Castletown House, Kildare
The first, and largest Palladian manor in Ireland, Castletown House, built for William Conolly, is an awesome sight. Open from March to October, there are tours of the house daily.
You and the kids will enjoy the Self-Guided Nature Trail, where you can explore the wildflower meadow, cross a ha-ha or sunken fence on their way to the garden temple or make your way to the river Liffey at the bottom of the meadow.
Plan your visit for a Sunday, where free afternoon music recitals take place throughout the summer from 2pm. No booking required.
#15. Lullymore Heritage & Discovery Park, Kildare
Head to Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park in Rathangan, for a unique and fascinating insight into the development of the Irish people over our 9,500 year history. Take a walk on the Peatland Biodiversity Boardwalk, visit the Famine Cottage and Mud Huts, learn about Stone Age Settlements, and see some magic on the Fairy Trail.
Kids will love the pet farm, indoor and outdoor play areas and the train ride to the bog. There’s a cafe on site also.
#16. Birr Castle Demesne & Science Centre, Offaly
Birr Castle Demesne and Science Centre is an experience of discovery for the whole family – home to extensive gardens and parkland, as well as the Historic Science Centre and the great telescope of the 1840s.
Kids will adore the play area, complete with picnic areas, sandpits, and the most spectacular tree house – in fact you may find it hard to pry them away! There is also a lovely cafe on site.
#17. Lough Boora, Offaly
For something unique, visit Lough Boora Discovery Park, one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Ireland – go to the site of the ancient settlement by following the Mesolithic Route. There are walkways and walking trails, a fairy trail, sculptures, picnic benches, cycle tracks, angling, bird watching and a bike hire facility. Guided tours also available.
#18. Climb the Rock of Dunamase, Laois
Visit the castle ruins on the Rock of Dunamase, part of a magnificent dowry that the Norman lord Strongbow was gifted when he married Aoife Rua, daughter of the King of Leinster, in 1172. Today, the breathtaking views remain almost unchanged from when Aoife first gazed over her domain one thousand years ago. While it is not suitable for buggies, children love checking out the views through the various parts of the ruin.
#19. Rock of Cashel, Tipperary
The Rock of Cashel is huge, it’s complex, it’s iconic, there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world and you can find it at the heart of Tipperary.
Sitting on a towering limestone rock, said to have been discarded by the Devil, is a spectacular group of Medieval buildings, including the 12th century round tower, High Cross and Romanesque Chapel, 13th century Gothic cathedral, 15th century Castle and the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral. Here saints converted kings and brutal massacres took place.
#20. Lough Gur, Limerick
Lough Gur is a magical and mysterious place that is rich in folklore along with a wealth of archaeology and history dating back to Stone Age times. The Heritage Centre provides a fascinating interpretation of the sites associated with Lough Gur.
At the Heritage Centre you will find interactive exhibitions with touch screens. There’s a fully guided tour and also audio guides and outdoor acoustic guides to help you enjoy your visit. For children there’s an activity sheet, dressing up, and a neolithic pot building section. Check out the Archaeology Dig where kids can try out some digging!
#21. Kilkenny Castle
Spend a few hours in the lovely grounds of Kilkenny Castle. Families with older children can take a tour of the castle (while it is a great tour, it might not appeal so much to the younger ones).
Outside, there is plenty of space for picnics, playing ball and walking (bicycles are not allowed, and dogs must be kept on a leash). Feed the ducks in the wildlife sanctuary, and play in the superb children’s playground, open late during the summer.
#22. Castlecomer Discovery Park, Kilkenny
Located 18 km North of Kilkenny City, Castlecomer Discovery Park has a range of exciting recreational, cultural and educational activities for visitors of all ages. Attractions include pedal boats and Canadian canoes on one of the picturesque lakes, a Tree Top Adventure Walk course nestled 10m high in the great Sycamore and Lime trees, a ‘Leap of Faith’ and Climbing Wall.
The park has 80 acres of natural woodland with 6km of trails throughout, a fishing lake, an interactive coal mining museum, design craft workshops and award winning Jarrow café.
#23. Altamont Gardens, Carlow
Known as the most romantic garden in Ireland, Altamont, near Tullow, is an enchanting blend of formal and informal gardens located on a 100 acre estate. Whilst still little known, it ranks in the top ten of Irish gardens and is often referred to as ‘the jewel in Ireland’s gardening crown’.
The formal lawns slope down to a romantic lake, and there’s a fascinating walk, which kids love, through the Arboretum, Bog Garden and Ice Age Glen with its canopy of ancient oaks leading to the River Slaney. There are picnic areas, and a garden centre with tea-rooms, which host free music sessions on Sunday afternoons in summer.
#24. Powerscourt Estate, Wicklow
Powerscourt Estate, just 20km south of Dublin, offers a fantastic day out for families with a choice of attractions to visit – Powerscourt Gardens and Waterfall, and the children’s museum, Tara’s Palace, in Powerscourt House. There are some great value options for family dining also. Enjoy the year-round events programme of treasure hunts, enchanted walks and lots more.
#25. Glendalough, Wicklow
Glendalough has long been an area renowned for its natural beauty and history and it is one of the most visited places in Ireland.
The Glendalough Valley is located in the Wicklow Mountains National Park and has many attractions to entice, entertain and delight visitors from its world famous Monastic Site with Round Tower (Can you stretch your arms around St. Kevin’s cross and have your wishes granted?) to its scenic lakes and valleys, as well as a selection of walks and trails in the area including The Wicklow Way. Glendalough has everything to offer the whole family.
#26. Beyond The Trees Avondale, Wicklow
The Treetop and Viewing Tower located at Beyond the Trees Avondale is the first of its kind in Ireland and the UK. It is a unique visitor attraction that is fully accessible to all generations.
Your journey through the forest on the Treetop Walk begins as the boardwalk makes its way out over the Avonmore River valley. Play areas and interactive games along the route encourage you to take a different view of the forest and explore the bird and animal life of the surrounding area.
Reaching 38 metres into the sky, the Viewing Tower can be seen peeping above the eucalyptus trees for miles around. It is accessed via a short underground tunnel, where you will learn about the abundant life below the forest floor before emerging for the next part of your adventure!
The spiral ramped boardwalk rises slowly through the forest and has a gentle gradient. It is fully wheelchair and pram accessible with resting points on each level. After 10 gentle circuits you will reach the circular viewing platform at the top, with 360° panoramic views over Avondale Forest Park, the Vale of Avoca, the Wicklow Mountains and beyond.
To continue the adventure, take the option to whizz back down to earth on the giant spiral slide inside the Viewing Tower. Alternatively continue back down the ramped boardwalk to the forest floor once more.
#27. Wicklow Gaol
On entering the building of one of Ireland’s best and most interactive experiences, Wicklow’s Historic Gaol, you will be transported back in time and meet face to face with some of the most notorious characters to have walked the floors of this dramatic and history filled building. Are you brave enough for a night tour?!
The Gaol tells the story of its prisoners through an interactive tour led by experienced and passionate actor guides. The Jailers Cafe & Restaurant is open daily and Friday and Saturday night.
#28. Hook Head, Wexford
Standing on the tip of the peninsula is the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world. Monks were the first keepers of the lighthouse, built 800 years ago. Take the guided tour, and climb the 115 winding steps where the monks heaved sacks of coal upwards for panoramic sea views. Explore the surrounding rock pools outside, relax in the cafe, or have a picnic outside and enjoy the outdoor games.
The most haunted house in Ireland Loftus Hall, also on the peninsula, is worth a visit with older kids up for a fright! Originally built in 1350, the house remains in its abandoned state since the departure of the last owner. There is also a pleasant cafe on-site, a private beach you can walk down to, and their recently opened walled gardens are host to a fairy trail.
#29. John F. Kennedy Arboretum, Wexford
The John F. Kennedy Arboretum near New Ross, has lovely walks and great trees. Feed ducks by the pond and watch the fish dart about. This is a good place to bring the bikes small legs will get around more easily!
There’s also a miniature railway, and the playground has plenty of picnic tables, a cafe, a small maze, a great slide and a house grown out of hedging! Drop into the centre and take a look at the exhibitions.
#30. Tintern Abbey, Wexford
During a storm at sea, the Earl of Pembroke vowed to build a church if he survived, which of course he did and built the impressive Cistercian Tintern Abbey at Saltmills circa 1200. It has a good museum, guided tours, cafe and tranquil looping forest walks.
#31. Dunbrody Famine Ship, Wexford
Enjoy the famine emigrant experience at the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross, an authentic reproduction of an 1840s emigrant vessel.
Incorporating guided tour, costumed performers and themed exhibitions of the highest quality, their tours are family and pet friendly. Stop into the visitor centre cafe for a bite to eat after the tour.
#32. Head to a Wexford Beach
The coast in Wexford has plenty of fantastic beaches – from long sandy beaches, which are great for walks and play at any time of the year, or stony beaches that are perfect for rock pooling and crabbing.
One of our favourites is Curracloe, which is a wide open beach, great for surfing, and with dunes for play. Surf school and cafe there also.
#33. Waterford Treasures Medieval Museum, Waterford
Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, founded by the Vikings in the last 9th century, is home to the Viking Triangle, a collection of museums dedicated to the history of this ancient city.
The Waterford Treasures Medieval Museum is a tribute to Medieval Waterford and life in the city during that period. Carefully preserving several medieval structures within its walls, the Museum was opened to the public in August 2012. Guided Tours available from historic characters in period costumes.
Afterwards, stop for a bite at the magnificent Bishop’s Palace, and relax in the stunning gardens surrounding the Bishop’s Palace, which are based on a design by celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin.
#34. Copper Coast Geopark, Waterford
A designated European Geopark, Copper Coast has several beautiful coastal landmarks, dunes, cliffs and clean beaches. It offers small, sheltered beaches surrounded by rugged cliffs – ideal for quiet getaways. Annestown Heritage Trail will guide you around a section of the Copper Coast Global Geopark introducing you to it’s rich heritage and geology.
#35. Waterford & Suir Valley Railway
The magic of rails golden age has been brought to life in Kilmeadan on the Waterford & Suir Valley Railway. Experience the beauty of the Suir Valley from a partially opened carriage as you take in the panoramic views of the river and rolling farmland of Waterford and across the river to County Kilkenny on a 40 minute return trip and 1 hour return trips on Saturdays.
The track runs mostly along the picturesque banks of the River Suir offering a glimpse into the world famous Mount Congreve Gardens (which you can also visit), and across the river to County Kilkenny. You will also see The Magic Wood, a magical Fairy glade, where the fairies come out to play and enjoy the sunshine during the day and at night they curl up to sleep in their little houses. Sometimes they can be seen among the trees but you have to look carefully!
#35. Fota House and Gardens
Fota House and Gardens in Cork offers visitors a look at how life was lived in the past, whether as a servant or as a member of the gentry. When you tour the house you get to see behind the scenes to the bedrooms and a Victorian nursery. Then visit the service wing, where you can see the working conditions of all the servants.
“Where is Mrs Kevin’s Cat?!” is a families tour through the House with a dedicated guide, solving the mystery of where the house keeper’s cat has got to. It’s a great way for children to enjoy learning about the House and the people who lived here.
Or you can go Digging for History in their award winning Victorian Working Garden, with a tour through the Victorian glasshouses with fun facts for kids, finishing off with a chance to pot up their own plant to take home and cherish. Both the Mrs Kevin’s Cat tour and Digging for History are suitable from 4 to about 11.
They also have fantastic trails for kids to follow in the gardens they have some really fun ones e.g. Junior Plant Hunters Activity Trail, Little Explorers Trail, and a Tree Trail.
And after all that fun you can refresh yourselves in the Bakestone Café!
#36. Titanic Experience Cobh, Cork
The Titanic Experience, Cobh tells the story of a legend and her connection to Cobh. Situated in the original offices of The White Star Line, retrace the footsteps of the 123 Queenstown Passengers who boarded Titanic from Cobh.
Upon check-in at the White Star Line Ticket Office you will receive your boarding card. Your boarding card will have the details of one of the 123 passengers who came to the White Star Line Ticket Office on Thursday April 11th 1912.
After check-in, experience life on board through the innovative audio visual technology, and replica set designs and discover the facts surrounding the tragic sinking of Titanic. If you’re planning a visit, read a family review of the Titanic Experience, Cobh.
Lead Image © Karen Dempsey Photography