Knockroe stones by Abarta Guides (3)

So, you’re excited to be in Dublin for TBEX, and you’ve also given yourself a few days extra to explore more of Ireland. Now the quandary: where to go? You likely want to experience all of what Ireland’s famous for: the gorgeous green countryside, the ‘Ireland traffic jam’ of cows being herded down a windy road, an other-worldly megalithic stone circle, the hospitality and craic of a traditional village pub that also doubles as a shop, the 1,000 year old romantic ruins populated only by sheep, the fresh Irish artisan foods, the cupon tae in a handmade crafts shop. `

You may think that this is a tall order; you haven’t loads of time, and you reckon that in order to experience all this you’ll have to do a several hour trek across Ireland to Kerry, Galway, or Donegal. But, you don’t. In under an hour and a half’s journey from Dublin you can be in a very special part of Ireland, a place that everyone, including outdoor adventurers, culture lovers, foodies, fun seekers and family travellers, will enjoy. Welcome to Kilkenny.

You may have heard of Kilkenny, especially Kilkenny City, voted the 9th friendliest city in the world by Conde Naste readers this year. It is a small medieval city and home to Kilkenny Castle, St Canice’s Cathedral, one of only two Irish round towers you can still climb, and much more. There’s nearly always a festival of some sort happening; in October it’s Savour Kilkenny  on the 25-29th. You should definitely go to Kilkenny City. But what you should also do is explore the Kilkenny countryside.

It is easy to get to Kilkenny City from Dublin. You can take the train from Heuston station, several bus companies go, or you can rent a car and drive. To get to several of the fantastic places in the Kilkenny countryside you’ll need a car. I’m afraid that is true for all of Ireland; many of the gems are tucked away from public transport routes. So, think about renting a car –  perhaps carpool with some of the new blogger friends you’ll meet at TBEX. If you just can’t get a car, you can still get to some of the towns by bus. There are two routes: Kilkenny City to Thomastown and Inistioge, and Kilkenny City to Graiguenamanagh.

There really is something for everyone in the Kilkenny countryside! What do you want to experience?

You want ancient ruins?

Knockroe passage tomb is second only to those in the Boyne valley when it comes to Irish Neolithic stone carvings. Unusually, is aligned to both the rising and setting sun on Winter Solstice. If you are in the mood for an adventure, this side trip is perfect. Non sign-posted, you have to traipse across some fields to find this truly hidden gem. Finding the 12c Aghavillar monastic site along the way is easier and you can actually go up to the top of the building. Brooding and beautiful, there is a part of a round tower here as well.

Kells Priory is 1,000 years old. It is a large, walled set of ruins, and the tumbled-down parts are rather maze like. Kids love running around here, and in the field populated by sheep on the short walk to the ruins. Kells Priory is usually deserted, though on my last visit I met a man with his pet fox. This is not the only pet fox in rural Kilkenny! You may also see another man walking with one in Thomastown. With accompanying fox or not, it’s nice to take a nice little walk along the river behind the Priory, where you’ll find the restored Mullins Mill.

Jerpoint Abbey, elegant

Jerpoint Abbey dates from the 1100s, and is very elegant & beautiful. Unlike Kells Priory, there is a small visitor centre run by the OPW. Be sure to look carefully around this Abbey, because it has many carvings along and in the stone walls that you may otherwise miss.  There are many more fascinating historic sites in the area- keep your eyes open and investigate!

Just want to stroll?

In Inistioge, the charming village where the movie Circle of Friends was filmed, walk along the river Nore to ‘Eve’s’ hidden cottage, or stroll in the Woodstock Gardens and Arbouretum.

Kilkenny Trails Festival is on during the month of September, with events throughout the county.

You want outdoor adventure?

You can go kayaking, SUPing, and canoeing out on the river Barrow in Graiguenamanagh, and you can even arrange to take a half day barge trip from St. Mullins to Graiguenamanagh.  If you’d like to get into the water, there are two diving boards (or steps for the less brave) into the river along the quays.

graiguenamanagh boats

Rent bikes and cycle along the Barrow river towpaths in Graiguenamanagh (great for families as it is quite flat) or get more challenging along the Trail Kilkenny East Kilkenny bike trail.

Hike up Brandon Hill and look across five counties or hike in the Blackstairs mountains.

You want tasty artisan food?

There are several award winning artisan food producers in the area, ranging from cheese to trout caviar to unusual chocolates. Many local restaurants pride themselves on using fresh local ingredients.

There’s a whole Kilkenny Food Trail you can explore, too.

You want an old style pub?

Here are just a few of the gems, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the work of discovering more!

Graiguenamanagh is home to a pub which is also a shop, a hardware store, and a fishing and shooting depot! If you’re lucky, you may hear trad music, or the church bells as you have a tasty pint. Doyle’s is just across the street from the 800 year old (still functioning) Duiske Abbey.

On the road from Thomastown to Graiguenamanagh, just at the Coppenagh crossroads, there is a tiny pub in a farmhouse. You can glimpse the family watching telly in their sitting room as you sip your pint.

Along the village the square in Inistioge, the barman in O’Donnell’s can write your name in your pint. Better than Starbucks!

You want Irish crafts?

There is a traditional woolen mill in Graiguenamanagh, glassblowers in the Jerpoint area, a candle maker and a lovely pottery in an old stone mill in Bennettsbridge.

Thomastown is a very crafty small town, with several makers and craft shops. Do have a stroll around.

There’s even more elsewhere, all on the Kilkenny Craft Trail.

Call it getting off the beaten track, call it community-oriented tourism, or just call it a good idea- exploring rural Kilkenny will give you an authentic taste of Ireland in uncrowded, special places.

I’ve made a Google map with driving routes & some interest points and activities on it. Also do what comes naturally to you as a travel blogger –  explore!

In the map I have you starting from the area of Kilkenny Castle, heading to Kells. (The route is figure 8-ish, with a side jaunt to Knockroe passage tomb.) I’ve recommended the journey with that starting point because from that driving direction a lovely view of the Barrow valley rises up on your right hand side as you near Graiguenamanagh. There is a roadside pull-off where you can stop and savour the scene.

Here’s my Explore Kilkenny Google Map and directions. Have a great time! If you have any questions, tweet me @VibrantIreland. And watch out for those cows on the road.

Photo credits:  Top photo courtesy of Neil Jackman, Aberta Guides, all other courtesy of the author.

Author bio:  Susan FitzGerald visited Ireland 18 yrs ago and fell in love. Not with a person, but with the country! She returned to the States, sold her things & moved to Ireland. She started writing Vibrant Ireland in November 2010, when there seemed to be only bad news in and about Ireland. She gives travellers practical information as well as visit inspiration. Susan has recently begun adding other destinations to her blog, but aims to evolve a deep relationship with a special few rather than a surface experience of many. You can also follow her on Facebook: Vibrant Ireland on Pinterest, Instagram and of course Twitter.