The twists and turns of Ireland’s tumultuous history have been played out in these invariably lovely settings. You can feel the layers of history here – in castles and manor houses, along famine roads and on quaysides... 
Take a house like Curraghmore. The walls of this imposing Victorian mansion hold a massive secret.
Step inside the courtyard and you’ll find it’s wrapped around a 12th century keep whose walls are 12 feet thick. This was the fourth and final castle of the Norman de la Poers. The family have lived here for more than 800 years. In the lovely grounds is Ireland’s oldest bridge, built in 1205 for a much-anticipated visit from England’s King John. He never came.  
And what about palatial Castletown – Ireland’s largest and earliest Palladian-style house. It was built for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and the wealthiest commoner in Ireland. The son of a Donegal innkeeper, he became prosperous dealing in forfeited estates following the Williamite war in the late 17th century.   

More than two centuries later, during the War of Independence, Republicans were about to set Castletown alight with 50 gallons of petrol when a local leader remembered Conolly’s Irish and relatively humble origins. The house was saved.
The Big Houses of Ireland’s Ancient East have rich and usually complex pasts: the ups and downs of history have been frequent visitors.
For a 21st-century visitor, it’s about the history, sure. But it’s also about heart-stopping views, parkland walks, candlelit dinners. Some are now grand tourist attractions. Others are smart hotels or family-run retreats. There’s warm Irish hospitality: here you’ll have tea and scones by the fire with the owners; there you’ll be lent a pair of wellies to take a walk through the woods after the rain.
Actor plays the infamous Billy Byrne, awaiting his sentencing at Wicklow Gaol
Actor plays a steerage passenger on the Dunbrody Famine Ship
Left: Actor plays the infamous Billy Byrne, awaiting his sentencing at Wicklow Gaol. Right: Actor plays a steerage passenger on the Dunbrody Famine Ship
Yet this is also a story of power and land struggles.
A world that was once divided between great landowners mostly loyal to the British Crown and a dispossessed majority who were anything but. At grand houses such as Russborough or Powerscourt you can imagine yourself in the world of the 18th century super-rich. But what if you’d been a poverty-stricken local sitting in nearby Wicklow Gaol or on Spike Island in Cork Harbour, awaiting transportation to Australia? Or a farm labourer racked with hunger in the 1847 famine, making your way towards an emigrant ship to New York?
You can try to put yourself in their shoes at historic sites now set up to allow just that. And you can feel the history when you walk on famine roads, witness the Emigrants’ Flame at the Dunbrody Famine Ship, and stand next to the statue of young Annie Moore and her brothers on the quayside at Cobh.