Road trip through Ireland's Ancient East: Wexford to Waterford
Road trips in Ireland
Ireland is blessed with some of the most scenic drives in Europe and our quiet country roads offer a chance to slow down, soak in the beauty of the landscape and discover your own hidden gems, off the beaten track. Being such a small country, Ireland is perfect for road trips and you can actually squeeze in a lot in just one day. We love taking random road trips whenever we have time off and we usually pack the tent in the car just in case we decide to stay a night or two on some isolated beach or lakeside meadow we’ve fallen in love with (which happens a lot!). From Dublin, you can jump in the car and be anywhere on the island of Ireland in around 5 hours so your choice of beautiful vistas and quaint old villages is unlimited and plentiful.
*We were partially compensated for this post. These opinions are completely our own, based on our own experience.
Road Trip from Wexford to Waterford
Our little car, packed with our tent and gear, has taken us all over Ireland but we’re still finding new places that take our breath away. When we’re heading off we usually do a bit of research online and always end up reading other travel blogs and tips from local photographers which are great resources for discovering those sought after hidden gems. Recently, our car insurance company, Chill Insurance, published a series of e-books on Ireland’s drives which we promptly downloaded. They contain an abundance of fantastic ideas and information on where to go for culture, music, and historical landmarks, whether you’re looking for a couple’s romantic day out or you’re on a family holiday. One particular guide, “Hidden Drives in Ireland”, piqued our interest and became our source of inspiration for our next road trip: Wexford to Waterford via Hook Head. Before our road trip would begin in earnest, however, the summer solstice needed to be celebrated properly on a beach somewhere so we prayed to the weather Gods that the sun would stay out for us. Ireland’s weather is predictably unpredictable but, as luck would have it, we found ourselves reaching Wexford’s winding coast road in glorious sunshine.
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Wexford’s beautiful beaches
Our search for the perfect beach side location to enjoy the sunset and wait for the stars to come out took us from Cahore Point all the way down to Raven Wood Nature Reserve, just outside Wexford Town. It’s a pristine, soft-sand beach that stretches for over 20 km passing lovely little villages to get a bite or a drink so we were spoiled for choice. Right at the end of one of Ireland’s longest stretches of coastline lies Raven Wood Nature Reserve, just after Curracloe Beach which was the setting for Omaha Beach in the film, Saving Private Ryan. Over hundreds of years, a huge sand spit has formed at the estuary of the River Slaney, creating a tidal marsh and windswept sand banks that are now the winter home of migrating geese and other birds. In the 1930’s efforts were made to try and stem erosion with large plantations of Corsican pines and these have now been turned into a beautiful woodland loop walk about 9 km long. It shouldn’t take more than 2 hours but our usual walking habits involve stopping to take loads of pictures or find other meandering trails through the trees. As a result, our estimated walking times are always at least double!
Raven Wood Nature Reserve
The loop walk took us out onto the sand bank and thankfully our timing was perfect with low tide allowing us to walk right below the bank of trees. Keep an eye on the tides because you may have to scramble back into the forest if access to the sandbank is cut off. It is remarkably other-worldly with the tide out. White sand surrounded us and strips of blue in the distance served as a reminder that we weren’t in fact in a strange desert. Right on the edge of the wood where the sand and sea have encroached on it over time, the beach has taken possession of some of the trees where they stand like lonely sun-bleached sentries trying to guard the rest of the forest.
Summer Solstice Night
Plonking ourselves in the dunes at Culletons Gap Beach after such a long walk, the decision was made that, right here, would be perfect to while away the remaining hours of the longest day of the year. Thankfully we had stocked up on supplies and cooked ourselves a feast of fajitas on a little portable BBQ, complete with freshly made guacamole and marinated beef Neil had prepared the day before. Our camp dinners are never simple, we can’t help it! The weather was beautiful, balmy and only a gentle breeze off the sea. The sun didn’t set until 11 pm and the sky stayed perfectly clear well into the night. The milky way was just visible above the distant lights of Wexford town while shooting stars and satellites flew over our heads. Watching the fishing boats signal each other out on the horizon we saw what we thought was a fire getting bigger and bigger, thinking it was one of the boats. It took us a moment to realise it was a red moon rising. Never in our lives before had we seen such a sight. A perfect end to our summer solstice night.
After a refreshing dip in the sea the next morning we packed up and headed into Wexford Town. Crossing the bridge that connects the two headlands sheltering Wexford harbour, it’s easy to see why the Vikings settled here. It’s an easy town to walk around with some of its Viking and medieval features still intact after hundreds of years and there’s plenty of options for dining out or seeking out a cozy pub or two. Our first port of call had to be coffee and freshly made scones with butter, jam and cream at Nosh + Coffee on Selskar Street. The staff are lovely and there’s a decent selection of options for breakfast and lunch, all at very reasonable prices. The scones, though, are reason enough to come here! It’s also very handy for visiting Selskar Abbey which is right around the corner. This is where the first of many history lessons started for us on our mini-break in Ireland’s Ancient East.
Turning point in Ireland’s history
We had no idea how significant a role this part of Ireland played in changing the fate of Ireland and its people. After years of raiding monasteries around Ireland, the Vikings finally decided to settle in Ireland, founding a number of settlements which became important towns for trading with the rest of Europe. Finding a perfectly sheltered harbour in the mouth of the River Slaney, the Vikings settled Ueigsfjord, now Wexford, in 800 AD and it remained under Viking control for 300 years. The Vikings intermarried and exchanged cultural traditions and craftsmanship, creating the age of the Norse–Gaels or Hiberno-Norse. However, in 1169, Ireland’s fate was sealed and the start of ‘800 years of oppression’ began. An angry High King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough who had been ousted by the other Kings in Ireland for eloping with another King’s wife, laid siege to Wexford with an invading force of Norman knights, to reclaim his confiscated lands and successfully recaptured the town. In exchange for these mercenary knights, he promised King Henry II of England to hand over titles of land to each of them (including his daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage and sole inheritance to the Norman knight, Richard de Clare, known as ‘Strongbow’) and, in 1169, in Selskar Abbey, County Wexford, Dermot MacMurrough signed the first Anglo-Irish treaty. This directly lead, two years later, to the first English monarch arriving on Irish shores with an invading army, claiming Ireland for English Lords and eventually the English Crown. The repercussions of this pivotal moment in Ireland’s history are still felt today. Selskar Abbey is closed to the public except for daily tours at 3pm (Monday to Saturday) and it's a perfect place to start to understand the significance of the area in shaping Ireland’s destiny.
Irish National Heritage Park
Set in a beautiful natural woodland and wetland environment of over 35 acres on the River Slaney estuary, just outside Wexford town, the Irish National Heritage Park is a fascinating insight into how our ancestors lived on the island of Ireland for the past 9000 years. We were surprised by the scale and detail of the park and ended up spending 2 hours exploring the Time Trail. It’s dotted with replica settlements from across the ages including a Viking settlement, an early Christian monastery, a medieval ringfort, and crannóg (thatched mud and stone fortifications built on man made islands with secret pathways just under the lake’s surface) and a Norman Castle. For €3 you can try your hand at archery and the lovely Ann Marie will help you aim like a true medieval bowman!
There are free guided tours for each period of history, Prehistoric Ireland, early Christian and the Age of Invasion. They are at various times of the day so it’s possible to complete them all if you spend half a day there. We took the Age of Invasions Tour which detailed the arrival of the Vikings, the Norman invasion and the ongoing excavations of the site of the first Anglo-Norman castle built in Ireland, on the Hill of Carrig. Derek, our tour guide, holds an incredible wealth of knowledge and took us on a fascinating journey through time. It was a perfectly matched tour to the history lesson that began at Selskar Abbey and, especially palpable, standing on the ground of the first Anglo-Norman Castle in Ireland. Inside the replica castle is the park’s falconry where we got the chance to get up close to birds of prey.
Learn ancient traditions and crafts
Not only can you enjoy historical tours but there are also re-enactments and courses running throughout the year, keeping the skills of the past alive in traditional arts, crafts and weaponry. You can learn a huge variety of trades like stained-glass making, Viking knife and jewellery making or even cobble laying and stone wall construction. Try your hand at the type of calligraphy the monks used to create the famous Book of Kells or the ancient Gaelic writing called Ogham. Become a warrior and learn axe-throwing, the art of the sword or even medieval mounted combat! The park operates on a non-profit basis, run by extremely knowledgeable and friendly staff and the tour guides are passionate, bringing history alive for each and every visitor. We received a very warm welcome and we’d like to thank Maura Bell, who arranged complimentary passes for us to explore the park.
Hook Head Peninsula - “The Hook”
Driving down to Hook Head Peninsula is one of our favourite road trips. In all kinds of weather, any time of the year, any time of the day, making our way down to the oldest intact operational lighthouse in the world gives us a thrill every time. It’s a beautiful drive with stunning beaches on both sides of the headland like Carnivan Beach and Dollar Bay, perfect for swimming or stopping for a picnic. We’ve enjoyed many a sunset down at the headland and have watched a million stars come out above the lighthouse.
This time, we were so intrigued by the history of the area, we would finally be taking a tour of the lighthouse itself, not just enjoying the incredible natural beauty around it. The weather had taken a turn for the worse but with the wind lashing the rain against the massive black and white structure, the wild waves and misty air only added to the atmosphere and imagery of what it must have been like to experience life in the lighthouse. Noel, our tour guide, entertained and educated us with the history and stories from the people that built, maintained and lived in it over its 800-year existence.
Climbing to the very top (115 steps), with a fascinating insight into life in the lighthouse on each level, yet again we were joining the trail of crumbs from the first Norman invasion to the arrival of the man who built it in the early 13th century, William Marshall, a knight of the crusades. Marshall had married Isabel de Clare, daughter of Aoife and ‘Strongbow’ who at the time of her marriage was the sole heir to the Kingdom of Leinster. He went on to found the towns of New Ross and Kilkenny, building Kilkenny Castle as his seat of power.
We want to give a special thanks to Noel and the rest of the friendly, helpful staff at Hook Lighthouse for their expert knowledge, their warm welcome and our complimentary passes for the tour. We loved it so much we came back again the next day for the mouth-watering scones (still warm from the oven) that are served in the café. The café’s conservatory makes it Ireland’s best place for breakfast with a view!
There is no better place in Wexford, we reckon, for a delicious dinner of freshly caught fish and a cold drink than the Templar’s Inn, in particular, because of the view from the decking overlooking the bay towards Waterford. In fact, for seafood a-fish-onados (honk!) the options are endless for sampling the local catches of lobster, prawns, crab, you name it! We opted for craft beer-battered white fish and tender monkfish goujons. Our bellies are rumbling right now just thinking about it. Their selection of local beers are excellent too and we highly recommend Clever Man’s Atractor Beer (there’s a picture of a tractor on the bottle), perfect with fish and chips! Across the road stands a Templar Tower that connects the area’s history again back to the Norman invasion of the 12th century. The Knights Templar had originally built a wooden tower here, having been granted lands in Templetown by King Henry II as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (Dermot MacMurrough’s fateful agreement). After their dissolution in 1307, their lands were given to their rivals, the Knights Hospitallers (Order of Malta) who built the stone towers of Templetown and Ballyhack (more on that below).
By now, our minds were busy weaving together the intricate tapestry of tales from all over Wexford, from Vikings to medieval knights and the invasions by the English. Before leaving the Hook Peninsula for Waterford, we were so fortunate the good weather held out for us on our visit to Duncannon Fort, particularly because of the stunning views from its walls overlooking the deep water channel of the Waterford estuary.
The channel, created by the confluence of the ‘Three Sisters’, the River Nore, Barrow and Suir, gave easy access for the Vikings to sail their ships up river and settle Ireland’s first city, Waterford and by the time the English invaded, it was evident how important this vantage point was for landing their armies and protecting the gateway to Ireland. Learning that the original fortress was likely built in 3 AD by Conán, a hero of the Fianna, Ireland’s ancient warriors, blew us away! By the 14th Century a medieval castle was in place, then a bastion fortress was built by the English in the 16th Century and was in continuous use as a defensive fortification right up until WWII.
The layers of history and events that connect it to the most pivotal moments in Ireland, England and the rest of Europe make it one of the most fascinating and intriguing historical sights in the country. Our tour guide Susan, shared her extensive, in depth knowledge with passion and enthusiasm and made it the most interesting tour we have ever taken in Ireland.
The local non-profit organisation, Hook Rural Tourism, have worked hard to rescue Duncannon Fort from ruin (it lay derelict for 10 years) and to ensure its story and its secrets are enjoyed by young and old alike. We honestly can’t thank Susan enough for taking us to the Fort for a free tour so that we can share how absolutely fantastic it is. The significance of this hidden gem cannot be overstated and it should not be missed.
Ferry to Passage East from Ballyhack Castle
One of our favourite parts of our road trip from Wexford to Waterford is taking the car ferry across the estuary from Ballyhack to Passage East. On a fine day, the sun sparkling on the water and the views out to Hook Head Lighthouse make this short journey worth repeating and the villages on both sides of the river hold their own hidden gems. Ballyhack Castle is tucked away behind the pier and you don’t realise it’s there until you look back from the ferry crossing.
On first glance, it looks like a ruin and you think “perhaps there’s not much to it” but we were amazed at the condition of it on closer inspection. Frank, the castle tour guide, will guide you through the castle, imparting his wealth of knowledge on its history and the Knights Hospitallers that built it. They also built the first ferry crossing, to maintain their vital position in controlling traffic and trade coming from Waterford and New Ross. The free tour here is a fantastic way to round up the history and stories that you’ve gathered on your way around the peninsula and discover the grisly secrets of the ‘Murder Hole’ and ‘Oubliette’, which were features of these Norman fortresses.
Waterford City Accommodation
On the final leg of our road trip, driving from Passage East to Waterford, the change in weather forced us to abandon our camping so we decided to spend the night in the city. Portree Guesthouse is only a twenty minute walk to the historic centre of Waterford and at €53 for a double ensuite room, our road trip was saved from disaster!
We tried to walk around the city that afternoon but the rain was relentless. We managed to venture into Tully’s Bar for a pint in a cozy snug, listening to the rain beat the roof thinking it might ease off but it was down for the day. Instead of wandering any further, we were more than happy to go back to the hostel to cook our dinner and chill out in our room to catch up on some work and watch TV. After a few nights’ camping, it was pure luxury!
Thankfully, the next day the sun came out as we took in Waterford’s proud tradition of vibrant and colourful street art, dotted around the city. Be sure to check out Waterford Walls for details of their street art festival and interviews with the artists.
Best coffee south of Dublin
It’s quite possible there will be disagreements about this claim but we think Blackfriars Coffee is hard to beat and rivals some of our favourite specialty coffee shops in Dublin. Usually, we find ourselves walking the longest distances in a city searching for the perfect cup of coffee. We’re a bit obsessed and we were delighted to find a kindred spirit in Donal, who owns and runs Blackfriars. He saved our day with two deliciously strong and creamy flat whites of 3FE beans. We didn’t have time to stop for food but it’s on our list for our return visit to Waterford because it looks gorgeous.
Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city
Waterford is a small city but it packs a punch when it comes to historical sights. It all starts in the Viking Triangle which was the original Viking settlement 1100 years ago.
Regnar, King of the Vikings, sailed into the Waterford Estuary and up the River Suir to establish a new home for the Norse Vikings after years of raiding Ireland’s monasteries. He quickly built a fortification and a Longphoirt (permanent dock for Viking longships). By the twelfth century, with the invasion of the Normans, Ragnar’s fortification was replaced with a stone tower, now known as Reginald’s Tower and the last King of the Vikings, Ragnar’s descendant was thrown into the Tower’s dungeon, a prisoner of the new Lords of Ireland.
Bringing all the history lessons together from our road trip that started back in Wexford, Reginald’s Tower, it turns out, is where Strongbow was introduced to Aoife, daughter of that treacherous King of Leinster and they were subsequently married in Waterford’s Christchurch Cathedral. The Tower is Ireland’s oldest civic building that continued to be used over 100’s of years right up until the first half of the twentieth century. It now hosts an excellent exhibition on the history of the city with displays of archaeological artefacts from its Viking roots through to medieval times.
King of the Vikings
Just a 2-minute walk from Reginald’s Tower, beside a tree-sized, intricately-carved wooden Viking sword, called Dragon Slayer, is a unique tour of Viking Waterford that is the highlight from our visit to the city.
At King of the Vikings, our Viking guide brought us into a replica Viking house, built inside the ruins of a 13th century Franciscan Friary, where we donned virtual reality helmets for an incredibly immersive and powerful 3D experience. For 30 minutes, we were taken on a journey back through time to the Viking Age settlement of Veðrafjǫrðr, walking among Ragnar’s people and sailing beside his Viking longships. It’s an unmissable attraction in Waterford but be sure to book in advance as it’s limited to 10 people at a time.
On our return journey back to our home in Dublin, our final site to tie all the threads of history together was Ferns Castle. Again, on first impressions, its ruined remains indicate there’s not much to visit but it’s a different story when you get into the grounds. Just like Duncannon Fort and Ballyhack Castle, we were given a very warm welcome and a fascinating insight by Sandra, our brilliant tour guide who really brought the stories together for us in tremendous detail. The tours are free and take you right through the one remaining, preserved tower in the castle which, for 800 years, has stood the test of time, even after years of dereliction. The Office of Public Works (OPW) undertook considerable efforts to repair the tower while maintaining it as close to the original construction as possible, so it could be opened to the public. The sacred chapel with its stunningly preserved vaulted ceiling and the magnificent views from the top of the tower are absolutely worth the 3-storey climb.
End of the road trip
Ferns marked the end of our historic road trip of Ireland’s Ancient East. This was the site of Dermot MacMurrough’s original castle and seat of power in the Ancient Capital of Leinster. We had come back to where it all started. That fateful day when Dermot was ousted, left Ferns for England to gather an invading force of Norman knights so he could reclaim his lands, forever changed the landscape and the people of Ireland. He didn’t live long to relish his return to power. His grave is unremarkable, barely remembered by a broken cross in the graveyard of Ferns Cathedral and it’s no wonder. The ancient Gaelic annals perhaps give us the most succinct record of his legacy:
“Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, King of Leinster, after having brought over the Saxons, after having done extensive injuries to the Irish, after plundering and burning many churches, died before the end of a year of an insufferable and unknown disease. He died at Fearnamor [Ferns], without making a will, without penance, without the body of Christ, without unction, as his evil deeds deserved”.
In this unassuming corner of Ireland, taking up a tiny part of the world, the counties of Wexford and Waterford are gifted with natural, unspoilt beauty and are steeped in history. At each attraction we visited, we were astounded by the friendliness and generosity of everyone we met and their knowledge and passion for their shared history is inspiring. A simple ‘Thank You’ doesn’t go far enough to these unsung heroes of Ireland’s tourist trail. We want to encourage every single one of you who reads this to go there and experience it for yourself and support the hard work and dedication of the people who will keep Ireland’s story alive for generations to come.