It’s not just about invasions and battles. It’s a bit more complicated than that. This is a tale of powerful alliances and bloody betrayals. Of great heroes and fiery leading ladies too. (And then there’s the beer…)

Discover the story of Castles & Conquests in Ireland's Ancient East

Discover the story of Castles & Conquests in Ireland's Ancient East
The King of Leinster married off his red-headed daughter Aoife to the Norman knight Strongbow.
She came with a dowry of a most spectacular castle – built on the site of an Iron Age fort in Laois. These days the castle atop the Rock of Dunamase is a ruin. The road to it – through wheat fields and woodland – is narrow. But no worries – chances are you’ll have the place to yourself. Through the windows of the roofless Great Hall, you’ll see the quiet countryside stretching out before you. On a fine day you can see for miles across six counties. It’s a magical place when the sun is shining ... in the mist it’s otherworldly.
All the best swashbuckling stories need these sorts of dramatic locations. They need their brave heroes and ardent heroines too.
And there’s been no shortage of them – or of misfits, villains and anti-heroes – in Ireland’s Ancient East across the centuries.

Among the green rolling hills, winding medieval lanes, broad plains and boglands, you’ll find more plot twists and cliff hangers than in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Illustration of Norman warriors
Illustration of Norman warriors
These were the battlegrounds where absolute power was won and lost. Where short-lived alliances were formed and betrayals unearthed.
Places like the massive Trim Castle, with its storybook setting – chosen as the backdrop for the film Braveheart. Or the Rock of Cashel – set high on a hill, this looming castle and fortified abbey is worthy of any movie set designer. The Kings of Munster ruled from here for generations, before Brian Boru, a rival regional king who would ultimately become High King of Ireland, captured it in the 10th century.

Later, one of his descendants granted it to the Church, but – in the Game of Thrones ways of the medieval world – the Abbots of Cashel frequently became power players themselves.
Left: Cahir Castle. Middle: Ballyhack Castle. Right: Visitors enjoying a picnic at Kilkenny Castle
And then there’s Kilkenny, not just a castle but an entire medieval city. 

This was one of the centres of Norman power in Ireland after Diarmait Mac Murchada, the ousted King of Leinster, sought Strongbow’s help to regain his kingdom – ushering in an era when Normans and Celts conquered and reconquered each other’s territories … and frequently intermarried.
Left: Rock of Cashel circa 1895. Middle: A painting of the marriage of Aoife and Strongbow. c.1854 (Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) Image via National Gallery. Right: Rock of Cashel.
Today in the city where their mutual descendants live, we’re still enjoying their combined heritage. Beer, which the Normans brought over, is still brewed in Kilkenny: the smell of hops hangs over the city. And the music and dance the Celts were so good at is present everywhere.

Put them together in this dramatic setting … ancient and modern become seamless, and more stories are made.
Left: Brewery Corner is Kilkenny's Craft Beer pub (Image via Kilkenny City Online). Middle: Trad music session in a local Kilkenny pub. Right: The streets of Kilkenny Town