Carlingford is one of our favourite towns in Ireland, full of history, famous for oysters, and at the foot of the small but scenic mountain range the Cooley’s, which are crisscrossed by perfect walking trails. A vibrant town in County Louth, which is often frequented by bachelor parties, it is perhaps best visited midweek when its pleasures can be enjoyed in more peace. Unless the vibrant Carlingford nightlife is your goal. These are my top things to do in Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula.
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Things to do in Carlingford & the Cooley Peninsula
Carlingford lies about one hour and thirty minutes from Dublin so it’s perfect for a short stop over. It’s ideal for a one night stay and is also one of the better places to visit should you wish to break up a trip to Belfast and the sights of Northern Ireland. It ranks as one of the best things to do in Louth, a county which is quite historical on the Irish stage.
Visit the Proleek Dolmen
We travelled from Dublin to Carlingford, a 130 km trip, which took 1 hour and 30 minutes. Just outside Dundalk we took a detour to see the Proleek Portal Dolmen which is a megalithic tomb from around 3000 BC and is located in the grounds of the Ballymascanlon Hotel. It’s on a golf course but there is an easy access point from a side road near the Deerpark Stud. It’s a fully intact Dolmen and worth a fleeting visit. Best to keep an eye out for golfers with poor trajectory though.
Stay at a charming B&B
On our previous trip to Carlingford we had stayed in the Four Seasons Hotel. It was adequate, but certainly not spectacular. However having quoted me €160 for the night I took to Booking.com my favoured accommodation booking site and spent half that on a B&B located slightly outside the town.
Our first stop was here at the Walker’s Nest. It was certainly deserving of its high rating on review sites, little trinkets and ornaments bring the house to life, and each of the four rooms has a theme, be it Elephant, Owl, Bird or Butterfly. Ours was the owl room and there were owls on the cushions, walls, and on the many surfaces, Surprisingly it was all down with style and felt so homely. They also provided maps on walks in the adjacent hills.
Tour historical Carlingford centre
We drove into Carlingford and after parking we took a stroll through the town. Carlingford as a settlement first sprang up around the nearby King John’s Castle in the 12th century. It saw much prosperity in medieval times as a port, and also due to its fishing and oyster industries. It’s greatest fame perhaps owes to those oysters, Green Finned Oysters are harvested in the beautiful Carlingford Lough, and a yearly oyster festival takes place within the town.
Some remnants of those medieval times still remain within the town, not least in the streets which are narrow and lined by several medieval buildings. Market Street in the town centre features many colourful buildings and some famed antique shops and boutiques. Needless to say but a good number of pubs too. The pride of the locals is felt in the sheer number of flowers they decorate each wall, garden and lamp-post with throughout the town. Visit the Carlingford Tourist Office on the Liberties of Carlingford for a great introduction to the town.
One of these pubs has somehow blended into Taaffes’ Castle, which was a medieval merchants fortified residence from the 16th century. It used to stand at the shore line but land reclamation means it now lies inland.
Mint & Tholsel
Another distinctly medieval building is the Mint, which is also heavily fortified. It’s name presumably comes from Carlingford having a licence to print coinage in the 15th century. This is probably supported by the machicolous over the door which allowed the inhabitants to fire arrows at unwelcome visitors. We could do with bringing those back for TV licence inspectors.
The Tholsel was the original town gate where tolls were levied from for visitors to the town. It later served varying functions and the dank room underneath served as the town gaol in the 18th century.
We had a few more sights to see in the town and we started by visiting Crystal Antiques. Full of all manner of curiosities, this shop has countrywide fame through national TV coverage.
Further along Dundalk Street The Church of the Holy Trinity now houses the Carlingford Heritage centre. The church tower with its ramparts are medieval and flags rustle in the wind from atop. The grounds with its timeless graveyard, present views down to the fjord below.
The final stop on the historical walking tour is the ruin of Carlingford Priory. The priory was established in 1306 by the Dominicans and included a church and cloisters. All that remains today is the ruins of the church, as it fell into decline after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It’s a nice area to wander around for free.
Have pie at Ruby Ellen’s
We have a fond memory of visiting Ruby Ellen’s Tea Room in the town and we decided now was the perfect time to drop in for a slice of apple pie or lemon pie. The tea rooms are incredibly quaint and the cake and tea selections are to die for.
Stroll along Carlingford Lough
We stayed here a little while as the weather was less than desirable for exploring and after it cleared we took a walk along Carlingford harbour. The views across the way to Mourne mountains are pretty. It is called Carlingford Lough, but is more reminiscent of a fjord. Apparently it’s not a true fjord, so who known what it is. The full length of the harbour is an enjoyable walk and takes you out to the end of the pier.
Peer back in time at King John’s Castle
On an outcrop overlooking the
lake fjord water is King John’s castle. This 12th century castle was built by the Norman Hugh De Lacy. It takes its name from a visit by King John. The last time I visited, the castle could be walked around, but now the ravages of time have taken its toll and the area is completely cordoned off. Sad to see.
Enjoy Culinary Carlingford
The changeability of the weather forced us back to our B&B before we took a taxi back into the town for dinner. Upon our previous visit I had tried oysters for the first time and I was keen to give them a go again. Carlingford is renowned in Ireland for its oysters. We had previously eaten in Magee’s Bistro which specialises in seafood and steak, it was exactly what we wanted. The waiting staff were brilliant and our waitress in particular had a hatred for oysters. She told us stories how during the oyster festival people were drinking oysters from shot glasses. She was clearly repulsed by the whole idea. So it was perfect. Except it obviously wasn’t as good as we remembered as it was now closed.
However the owner of the current premises occupying the building did come out to us. He must have seen the dejected looks on our faces, and recommended we go to the Kingfisher Bistro instead. Funny how things work out. His recommendation was excellent the sizzling prawns were the best I ever had, and the steak…Yum. Beata’s goats cheese tartlet and cod were also fantastic. A bottle of wine (or two) later and we were back and ready for bed. The last shards of light treated us to a beautiful sunset on our return.
Work it off at the Carlingford Adventure Centre
The Carlingford Adventure Centre is the largest such location in the Republic, with a whole host of high adrenaline activities to keep visitors entertained. The Skypark, a course of high ropes and ziplines will give the biggest thrills, but they are joined rock climbing, orienteering, canoeing, and a gazillion other options. With packages catering for team building exercises as well as stags, hens and families, the diverse range of activities is sure to keep anyone happy. Contact https://carlingfordadventure.com/ for more details.
Walk in the footsteps of Irish Legends from Mythology
The Cooley mountains were the subject of a popular story from Irish mythology. In this fable, Queen Meabh of Connacht (an Irish province) stole the Brown Bull of Cooley, a prize animal, from the great warrior Cu Chulainn, and herded the beast across the country. A great chase ensued. This walk can be relived in the Tan Trail, which stretches across much of Ireland, with a looped Carlingford version.
Take a drive out to Slieve Foye
We weren’t up to this 40km walk so on the morning of our second day we took a drive out to Slieve Foye where a forest road takes you up to a viewpoint and a walk to the summit. We continued on our own circular route (driving) taking in some interesting stops including that at the Long Woman’s Grave, a story of heartbreak and well worth a read.
Walk the Carlingford Omeath Greenway
As part of a new greenway which is being built to connect much of Ireland’s east coast, this stretch is a 7 km one that travels from Carlingford to Omeath. The ideology behind much of the Irish greenways is to use the now defunct old railway lines, from Ireland’s past, when the country was far better connected by rail. The sad loss of these rails, is to the greenways benefit, and the stretch here passes railway bridges with sweeping coastal views. Ideal for all fitness types, it will soon connect the town to Omagh.
Take one of the Cooley Peninsula walks
There are several outdoor walking tours running from Carlingford, more details of which you can find on the areas official website. We took the advice of our host and selected the Molly Loop walk. It helped it more or less started at the gate of our accommodation. The 5 km route was along a road for a kilometer before finally turning off onto a walking trail. Practically the first thing we did was take a wrong turn bringing us back down to the road. The reason we choose this trail was the presence of an abandoned village up on the mountain face overlooking the lough. It had allegedly been abandoned during the Irish famine, due to a lack of food.
The Irish famine for those who don’t know was when blight attacked the potato crop for the consecutive years 1845-1849. Poverty ensured that no other food sources were available, and 2 million people perished as a result.
I presumed I had found the village and climbed over a gate into a field that was dotted with cows, so I investigated further. No just some old sheds. I did find an abandoned caravan though. So pressing on with views becoming ever more impressive we finally came to a stile. Jackpot. Rows of stone walls reminiscent of Connemara lined the hill face, and led into a small village. Very small now. There was a row of three cute stone ruins and from here beautiful views swept down to the town below. It was also a puzzle how anyone could have lived here in such hardship, exposed to the elements, and in such trying times. It was no surprise they abandoned in search of finer pastures.
Visit the Clermont Cairns atop the peninsula
We bid a final farewell to the town and took a drive along the coast to see where the oyster beds are located. All we found was the skeleton of a boat, and to be honest we didn’t know what we were looking for. We turned the car inland and took aim for the highest accessible point on the peninsula by car, the TV mast located next to the Clermont cairns. The drive up from Omeath up is essentially a paved hiking trail, and was as chilling as any drive in Ireland, and was certainly not to Beata’s taste. There are excellent drops with wide-reaching views over the lough and the Mourne Mountains. It’s a shame the cloud was so thick that day.
The summit tower and cairn aren’t the most exciting, but sometimes the thrill of a journey is in the journey itself. Certainly true in this instance.
See all the area has to offer
There’s so much more to Carlingford that it warrants several visits. Ravensdale Equestrian centre provide horse riding and trekking through the beautiful local countryside. Martin’s Pub on the main road from Dundalk hosts tours and whiskey tasting experiences in the nearby Cooley Distillery. The Cooley distillery is one of Ireland’s longest running ones, with brands such as Kilbeggan, Greenore and Connemara. For the less adult children out there, the Carlingford Leprechaun and Fairy Underground Cavern, tells the story of the last of the leprechauns in Ireland.
Carlingford is a relatively unvisited part of the country and is often forgotten in favour of the Wild Atlantic Way. But it deserves more. Perhaps you will contemplate it on your next trip. It’s an excellent springboard to start exploring Northern Ireland from too.
For more staycation ideas in Ireland, both local to Dublin and around the country, have a read of 2020 The Year to Staycation Ireland.