Beyond Dublin: Exploring Ireland’s Blackwater Valley

Take the time to visit some of Southern Ireland’s lesser-known attractions


Most people – especially international visitors – limit their exploration of Ireland to Dublin city centre. But beyond the metropolis, beyond Temple Bar, the Guinness Factory and all the other well-trodden attractions in the country’s capital, lies a rural land steeped in ancient myth and history.

Over the M50, the suburbs of Dublin give way to the deep green valleys and forests that lend the country its Emerald Isle nickname. The River Blackwater flows for 70 miles from the Cork/Kerry border, through the Cork towns of Mallow and Fermoy and over the County Waterford border where it spills into the Celtic Sea at Youghal. While it’s best known for being one of the top salmon fishing rivers in Western Europe, Blackwater has plenty more to offer visitors in search of adventure – from mountain biking and rock climbing in the Ballyhoura Mountains, to castles, priories and a traditional 1791 Irish pub experience in Castletownroche.

Bridgetown Priory


Near Mallow lies the ruins of a 13th century Augustinian priory, still with its kitchen, cloister, refectory, chapter house and church in remarkably good shape (considering it was discovered by Henry VIII in 1540 during the Reformation). In recent years, Bridgetown Priory has undergone extensive restoration work and today visitors can wander through the ruins all year round.

Blackwater Castle


If you’re really keen to soak up some Irish history, there is the option to stay in your own private castle a 30 minute walk from the priory. Blackwater Castle rises majestically above the river Awbeg and has a rich history extending back to the Mesolithic period. It is now available to hire for family gatherings, weddings and private parties where guests can enjoy free-reign of the opulent suites and reception rooms, following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Raleigh, Oliver Cromwell and even Michael Jackson – all of whom have spent time in the castle over the past few centuries.

Spinning Wheel Pub Museum

The Spinning Wheel Pub Museum in Castletownroche is a museum like no other. Step through the door into 1791, when the pub was first founded, and enjoy a warm welcome and homely atmosphere as you sip real ale and tuck into a big plate of pub grub in the company of traditional Irish singers, dancers and storytellers. Antique trinkets and fascinating collectibles adorn the old stone walls, giving the pub a cosy and authentic atmosphere. A great end to a day exploring the nearby castle and priory.

Ballyhoura Mountain Biking


One of the best ways to explore the beautiful Blackwater Valley countryside is to hire a mountain bike and take to the trails. Here you can race over 90km of purpose-built mountain tracks marked with routes ranging in difficulty, from novice to true thrill-seeker. Wind your way over natural woodland, peat bog, grouse more, rugged mountains and peaceful valleys at your own leisure, following the coloured markings as you go.

Hillwalking on Mount Hillary

There are three looped trails on Mount Hillary ranging from 40 minutes to two hours. The walk leads you through forests with spectacular views over the Blackwater Valley. Why not pack a picnic and make a day of it? There are longer alternative routes for this who wish to be challenged.

Afternoon Tea at Longueville House


Enjoy a refined afternoon tea at one of Ireland’s top country house hotels. Served in the dining room and Mount Hillary Room in front of a crackling log fire, the tea consists of freshly cut sandwiches, baked scones with Chantilly cream and garden berry preserve, followed by afternoon tea cakes and pastries served on a tiered cake stand.

If you’re interested in architecture, take a quick detour to Longueville’s Turner Conservatory, designed by the fine Victorian iron-master and glasshouse designer Richard Turner in 1865.

Fly-fishing Lessons

Take advantage of River Blackwater’s prestigious salmon fishing reputation with fly-fishing lessons at Ballyhass lakes. Master the basics of casting and, if you’re lucky, even reel in your first catch as you relax on the banks.

Activity Centre

If you’re ready to experience some real Irish adventure, head to Ballyhass Activity Centre, where you can try your hand at a huge range of activities, from outdoor rock climbing, zip-lining and abseiling, to kayaking, raft building and archery. The centre caters for people of all abilities from age eight upwards.

Cork City


Cork City was the European Capital of Culture in 2005 and in 2010 it was listed by the Lonely Planet Guide as one of the top 10 cities for Best in Travel 2010. After Dublin, Cork is Ireland’s second most important city. In fact, proud locals call it the ‘real capital of Ireland’. The centre is a web of Georgian parades, built on an island in the River Lee. The waterfronts and bridges give it a Venetian feel and at night the lights of trendy bars and restaurants reflecting in the water gives the city a vibrant cosmopolitan feel.

Reserve two or three days for your stay in Cork, exploring its many hidden delights. Don’t miss the English Market, which can be traced back to King James I in 1610 and offers a mix of family-run stores, traditional international foods and traditional Cork produce such as blood sausage (called drisheen), tripe, buttered eggs, spiced beef and dried salted cod (basttlebord).

Another Cork tradition is bell ringing at St. Anne’s Church Shandon, where visitors can climb the steeple and play a tune of their choice on the bells. The steeple’s golden fish weather vane is an iconic feature of Cork’s skyline.

Back at ground-level, pay a visit to the eerie Cork City Gaol and discover what life was like for 19th century prisoners. Was that the sound of an inmate’s shuffling feet, or just a gust of wind? Enjoy an authentic prison experience with waxwork figures, sound effects and signs telling the social history of this fascinating city.

Take a step forward in history before you depart Cork and visit the award-winning Cork Lewis Glucksman Gallery, where you will find an amazing art collection and special events such as music concerts, lectures, film screenings and craft fares. Enjoy a tea and cake at the onsite cafe with sweeping views over the gardens.

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