The cities of Cork and Dublin are two fantastic stops on the Irish landscape. But sometimes the journey is as exciting as the destination, and the M8 Road doesn’t disappoint. This is a journey to take in the slow lane.
I’m going to hold my hands up. The M8 is not Route 66, it’s not the Amalfi Coastal drive and its not the Wild Atlantic Way. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t backdrops of mountains and forests and there aren’t some excellent stops en route. For the traveller with time on their hands, this otherwise straightforward drive can be turned into a cultural treasure chest. I have driven this road on several occasions over the past few years and I always endeavour to make a stop along the way. I guess this is my love letter to the best motorway in Ireland.
Dublin to Cork should take you around two hours and thirty minutes to drive the length of its 250km. Here’s my suggestion how to make a day or more of it.
On Dublin’s outskirts if you haven’t already dined in preparation of the trip, stop into the very traditional An Poitin Stil in Rathcoole for a bite of traditional food. This pub is owned by one of Dublin’s best gastro publicans and is housed in a thatched building dating from 1700. If you fancy something a little more modern try the nearby Avoca with excellent Dublin Mountain views and the added benefit of Irish goods shopping.
Ready for the road it’s a 70km drive past Kildare’s county towns of Naas, Newbridge, and Kildare before my first suggested stop of the Rock of Dunamase.
Rock of Dunamase
The Rock of Dunamase is a castle built on a 45 metre high rocky outcrop just outside the town of Portlaoise. It’s not so high but it does give it a wonderful vantage point over the area.The castle has existed on the rock since the 12th century and once was the home of the great Norman, Strongbow. His tomb can be found in the crypt of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. The castle was expanded over the years but then suffered destruction at the hands of Cromwell in the 17th century. Damn you Cromwell, you uncultured usurper.
What awaits now is a ruin, with a few buildings identifiable. The Barbican gate welcomes you as you walk up from the roadside. The ruins lie unmanned and entry is free. Paths lead around the site and through the middle and you can explore to your heart’s content. The site is laid out with two sets of walls around the interior castle.
If the castle looks a little familiar maybe it’s owing to its use in the romantic comedy Leap Year starring Amy Adams. Here it was called the fictional Ballycarbery Castle, and CGI somewhat changed the appearance of it. The views from the top were also fabricated.
But that takes me to Dunamases’ greatest attribute. It’s views stretch across the Laois countryside as far as the Slieve Bloom Mountains. When I visited first it was during the late summer and farmers were harvesting the fields. The fields below were a beautiful patchwork of green and recently cut yellow. Round hay bales lay scattered on the gentle slopes below. It is the Irish countryside at its best.
Rock of Cashel
The Irish tradition of building on top of rocks is no better seen that at the Rock of Cashel. This huge site is one of Ireland’s finest historical locations and has the polish of a World Heritage Site. It is one of the most visited in Ireland also.
As soon as you take the turn off from the motorway and approach the town of Cashel the massive site looms over the town. It draws the eye in and the builds the excitement (certainly for me). Follow the signs as it’s not immediately obvious how to get there. The town has the feel of one that attracts tourists with plenty of cafes and souvenir shops to entice. Skip all that and find the parking area.
The site is open practically all year round from 9am to 430pm during the winter extending as late as 730pm during the summer. Entry costs of €8 are charged with an additional fee to visit the Cormac Chapel. Every hour on the half hour there are tours available in English with information sheets in several languages.
The site itself has had a long and significant history. The high kings of Munster (an Irish province) once sat here, and reputedly there is where St Patrick converted them to Christianity. In the 12th century the rock was given to the church and many of the buildings date from this time. These include the round tower, high cross and chapel. A 13th Century Cathedral increased the significance of the site, before its defensive repurposing in the 15th century with the introduction of a castle to house the bishop.
During my visit the structures were undergoing some restorative work but they are now back to their full glory. We opted not to take a guided tour as self guided tours are allowed. Entry to the site is through a path alongside, that then takes you through the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral. When you emerge it really occurs what a magnificent place it must have been in its heyday. The cruciform Cathedral lies in front, and surrounding it are luscious green lawns with the remnants of an old cemetery. There are a number of Celtic High Crosses and it’s informative to stroll around the interior grounds. As you round the Cathedral the looming Round Tower appears. Though it’s in good condition it’s inaccessible, with its door located a few metres above ground level. Only 2 Irish round towers are accessible, at St Canices in Kilkenny and the Kildare Round Tower.
To embrace the essence of the Rock of Cashel step inside the Cathedral. The buildings are a fine example of medieval architecture, but located within are some of the best examples of Celtic Art in Europe. The roof was sadly removed in the 17th century. Seek out the late medieval tombs and slabs which are stunningly decorated.
It’s worth to pay the extra three euros to enter St Cormac’s Chapel. As earlier mentioned restorative works were ongoing at the time and we didn’t see it in its entirety. The chapel is the most important medieval church in the country owing to the frescoes that decorate its walls. The frescoes were hidden for hundreds of years behind whitewash and only discovered in the 1980s. They suffered badly at the hands of damp and the restorative efforts at the time I was there were to dry them out to safeguard them. The only one we could see was the one above the door, featuring a centaur attacking a lion. The chapel is now fully restored. The photo below shows a row of carved heads above the chancel arch.
Your tour should finish in the Hall of the Vicars Choral. The centerpiece of this restored building is the 2 meter plus Cross of St Patrick. This cross contains the image of Christ on one side, with St Patrick on the other standing on a carcass. It is one of the most valued celtic crosses in Ireland. The Hall also includes an exhibition on the living conditions during medieval times in Ireland.
With the Rock of Cashel being situated on a rock you can be certain of views of the town below and across the Irish countryside. To the west and in the fields below, lies another ruin, called Hore Abbey. This Cistercian abbey dates from the thirteenth century, and if you haven’t had your fill of ruins (I know I didn’t) its worth the one kilometer walk down the hill to explore it. It’s another sizeable ruin, and somewhat interesting. Perhaps the greatest benefit of visiting is the opportunity to walk back towards the Rock and experience the best aspect of the monument. This is where you want to take your photos of the Rock. Or simply lie in the grass and appreciate it. From the viewpoint it resembles an Irish Mont Saint Michel. Without the water. On the way back the sheep covered hill can be entered and you can clamber back up its rough rocky land.
A further mere 20km and we arrive in the town of Cahir. The town of Cahir first appeared in the 12th century with the building of Cahir Abbey. The towns main feature is the huge Norman castle that dominates the centre. It comes as no surprise that Cahir comes from the Irish word for warrior. This was a stop on our recent trip to Cork and I was impressed by the town. History is a current throughout from the hillside Carrigeen Castle on the outskirts (now a b&b and run by a descendant of the Butlers who resided in Cahir Castle), the Cahir Lodge gatehouse, to the John Nash constructed church. But its centreiece is surely….
Cahir Castle was built on a rocky island on the River Suir giving it a natural moat. It’s surrounded by huge curtain walls and defensive towers and is a formidable buildings. It ranks as one of Ireland’s largest Norman Castles and its origins were also in the 12th Century. It has long been associated with the Butler family, occupiers of Kilkenny Castle another of Ireland’s great castles. You can read all about that one over at my Kilkenny City Break blog.
Like all good Irish castles Cahir Castle featured in movies; for a battle in the 1981 King Arthur fable Excalibur, and also in the TV series The Tudors. There is parking in the car park located across the river and it’s an ideal location for exploring the town. Take the short stroll back over the bridge and up to the entrance. A very reasonable fee of €5 gives you admission.
As you move inside the castle, you will realise that the structures are fully intact. A portcullis gate to your right leads into a yard surrounded by two tower houses on your right and a large keep to your left. All rooms within can be explored and there are plenty to be found up and down stairs. The interiors are a bit bland with little furniture, but efforts are made to fill them with exhibitions on Irish castles and castle life. There is also an audio-visual presentation on its history.
For me the real attraction lies in the overall structure, and it’s living and defensive elements. The north tower has a stairs that leads from a basement on the battlements and a perfect vantage over the town and the weir in the river below. I always enjoy seeking out the murder holes and garderobes which thankfully no longer provide a hazard, and here they are fully intact.
If you enjoy castles as I do, where the interior is not a priority, then this will fully satiate you. It’s a monstrous structure and still such a dominant building in the town. When you leave the castle behind move down along the bridge to be sure to catch the best view back on it.
Cahir has one further attraction, that is so unique in the Irish landscape. It can be reached by walking from the riverside car park up into the forests beyond the town. Alternatively you can drive (we did) but don’t pay heed to Google Maps as it will take you to the wrong places. Instead follow the signs from the town. When you reach your location which is the Swiss Cottage, be sure to park in the car park as there is nowhere to park after and you will be just sent back (yes we had an adventure just getting there).
The Swiss Cottage was built in the early 1800’s for the Butler Family, by the famed architect John Nash, he who was responsible for the Brighton Pavillion and Buckingham Palace, and much of Regent era London. The name may be a Swiss Cottage, but the architectural style is actually that of a cottage orne. I had no idea what that was, but its a very interesting style where the cottage is built to blend with its surroundings. It was part of a movement to find a more natural way of living, that began in France.
The cottage costs €5 to enter and this includes a guided tour of the interior. You enter first through what looks like a cave before making your way up an elegant spiral stairs. Despite its size there are only four rooms in the house. They are truly beautiful, with murals and wallpaper straight from Dufour in Paris, the most expensive at the time. It is as it was two centuries ago after an extensive renovation. No photos are allowed of the interior, but you can take some through the windows (as I may have).
The cottages exterior design is what we come for though. In one word its cute. From the thatched roof, to the wall designs that were made to resemble trees, it embodies the principles of the cottage orne, looking so natural in its wooded setting. Shrubs climb the walls to provide a natural camouflage. Every angle is a photogenic one and its an instagrammers dream. History isn’t often this beautiful.
Where to stay on the route
Portlaoise represents the halfway point on the route and the nearby area of Killenard is the location of the five-star Heritage Hotel. The hotel is set in beautiful gardens, provides a good selection of treatments and the grand staircase as you enter will convince you of good things to come
As a five-star hotel it’s quite reasonably priced and is a great bit of luxury along this route. The rooms are modern and the food is great. We stayed here some years back and it ranks as one of the best hotels we have visited in Ireland.
This is a road I travel often and as I will my love letter will only get longer. Excuse the pun but I consider this road my M8.
If I have inspired you to take your foot of the gas the next time you travel this road, please like, comment, or share. Thank you for reading.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I have recommended. While clicking these links won’t cost you any money, it will help keep this site going and me travelling. Thank you for your support.