First up is Powerscourt House and Gardens. Situated dramatically at the foot of Great Sugar Loaf Mountain in County Wicklow is one of the world’s great gardens and probably the finest in Ireland. It is without a doubt a place not to be rushed. It offers a sublime blend of formal gardens, sweeping Italian garden terraces, statues, fountains and ornamental lakes and a magnificent collection of over 200 varieties of shrubs and trees. Originally commissioned in the 1730s by the first Viscount Powerscourt, the gardens were finally completed in the 1870s by the 7th Viscount, who added the accessories of statues, urns and ornamental gates.
Sadly, the Palladian mansion, extensively altered between 1731 and 1741 by Georgian architect Richard Cassels, was reduced to a burnt-out shell after a fire in 1974. The Slazenger family, the present owners of Powerscourt, have restored the ground floor and upstairs ballroom. An exhibit at the entrance relates this and gives an excellent introduction to the history of the estate.
A suggestion: take a slow walk down the Italianate stairway to the Triton Lake and stand between the two statues of Pegasus to view the central fountain which is modeled on a 17th century work of Bernini. Energetic visitors might like to take in Powerscourt’s Waterfall-Ireland’s highest at 398 feet. Finally, do visit the cafe splendidly run by the Avoca Company and take tea or lunch on the outside terrace.
Next stop is Glendalough and the Military Road, without which, no stay in County Wicklow would be complete. Glendalough, “The Valley of Two Lakes,” is one of Ireland’s greatest wonders, sheltered by wooded slopes and containing the ruins of a monastic city and the spirits of generations of Celtic saints.
Founded in the sixth century by St. Kevin, this monastery was to become one of the most preeminent religious centers in Europe. For centuries it has attracted holy men and pilgrims to pray, and delight in the natural beauty of the place. St. Kevin, born in 498, was educated by monks and then ordained. Noted for his piety and disdainful of material wealth, he determined to live life as a hermit and sought out a secluded place in the Glendalough Valley.
Starting your visit at the excellent Glendalough Visitor Center is advised, as is taking a guided tour of the main monastic site to learn more of the signature landmark of the Round Tower, St. Kevin’s Cathedral, Celtic crosses and other monuments. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and helpful. If time permits you may enjoy a walk to both the Lower and Upper Lake. There is a cluster of more monuments, including St. Kevin’s Cell near the Upper Lake. It’s best to get to the site early so as to avoid large groups of students and allow you to wander freely among the ruins absorbing the powerful aura of timelessness and sanctity that pervades this fascinating place.
If you’re traveling by car it’s worth driving back from Glendalough to Powerscourt along the Military Road which is also known as the Wilderness Highway of Ireland or, more correctly, the R115. This road takes you through not only the very heart of the Wicklow Mountains, but across the most scenic, high heather desert and barren bog land of the county. You’ll pass through the remote and narrow Sally Gap which is the highest crossroads in all of Ireland and, as it happens, where St. Patrick is thought to have died. Built by the British to flush out Irish rebels after the 1798 uprising, the Military Road is said to be haunted by ghosts of the soldiers.
But enough of ghosts, the question is, do you believe in fairies? According to the guides at Bru na Boinne, Newgrange and Knowth, it is possibly the fact that people believed fairies could get “very upset” that has allowed these important archaeological sites to remain largely intact despite frequent invasions or more recent demand, or rural development.
Before the spread of the Celts, there was evidence that in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, small, structured races populated parts of Europe and the British Isles. A Celtic foundation myth tells that in Ireland, the Thuathe de Danaan or the People of the Goddess Danu, built and resided in the great barrows and tumuli that dot the landscape to this day. Displaced by the stronger, fearsome Celts, they eventually evolved into being “the little people,” the fairies and other enchanted beings who are rumored to continually resurface to haunt and protect the tombs and fairy mounds they once built. According to myths that have survived through the ages, to do damage to these Neolithic mounds will unleash the anger of the fairies.
Nine hundred years older than Stonehenge, and five hundred older than the Pyramids, Newgrange, the centerpiece of the Briu na Boinne (dwelling place of the River Boyne) complex of prehistoric passage tombs, dates back over 5,000 years.
The visitor center tells vou more of what is known about tbe building and significance of these passage tombs and, while undoubtedly functioned as burial tombs, archaeologists think they were much more. They’re just not sure what exactly.
What is certain is that both Newgrange and Knowth were designed with the sun in mind. At Newgrange, on the winter solstice the sun sweeps down the 62-foot passageway to strike the back chamber wall. If you can’t make the trip on that day your guide switches off all the lights and then simulates the effect as if by magic. It’s very impressive.
At Knowth, which has both an east and a west facing chamber, the sun shines on the central chamber during both winter and spring equinoxes. Both sites are reached from the visitor center via a time-ticketed shuttle minibus service. Bru na Boinne is very popular. It’s best to get there early or travel with a tour operator.