The County Town of Carlow is in a corner of Ireland that has been inhabited since before recorded history, as the awesome Brownshill Dolmen testifies.
This Neolithic portal tomb on the edge of town is topped with a humungous granite capstone, claimed to be the heaviest in Europe.
You can make outings to noble estates on the outskirts of Carlow, like Duckett’s Grove, which has the dreamlike ruins of a Gothic Revival house that burnt down in 1933. Although not geared for tourism, Carlow has real charm, especially on the banks of the River Barrow and the old centre at Montgomery and Burrin Streets, which have rows of Georgian houses.
From around the same time there’s a striking Gothic Revival cathedral and a courthouse built like an Ionic temple.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Carlow:
1. Brownshill Dolmen
An amazing piece of prehistoric engineering, the Brownshill Dolmen is an Irish National Monument and remains a prominent local waymarker.
This megalithic portal tomb is up to 6,000 years old, and was in use for up to 2,500 years.
The gigantic granite capstone on the roof of the structure weighs more than 100 tons, and is believed to be the heaviest in Europe.
When the dolmen was built the entire structure would have been covered with an earthen mound, and the gatestone that blocked the entrance remains in place.
The dolmen also retains a certain mystique because it has never been officially excavated.
2. Carlow Cathedral
An abiding landmark for Carlow, the town’s cathedral was consecrated in 1833 and is identified by its fabulous Neo-Gothic spire and lantern.
Climbing to 46 metres, this was designed by the Gothic Revival trailblazer Thomas Cobden, and was inspired by the Belfry of Bruges in Belgium.
The facade and spire are made from a mesmerising blue-grey stone sourced from a quarry on the Carlow-Tullow Road.
The owner of the nearby Oak Park estate, Colonel Bruen also supplied the oak for the great framed roof.
The cathedral is dedicated to former Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Dr James Doyle, who passed away in 1834. His marble memorial statue was designed by one John Hogan, and carved in Rome in 1839.
3. Duckett’s Grove
For more than three centuries the Duckett family literally lorded it over the Carlow countryside to the east of the town.
Their estate covered 8,000 hectares, and in the first decades of the 19th century John Davidson Duckett ordered a Gothic Revival castellated house.
The last male Duckett passed away in 1908, and the house was later gutted by fire in 1933. The walls are practically undamaged, and decorated with castellations, window traceries, turrets and bartizans.
There are tea rooms on the courtyard where you can soak up this slightly surreal scene, while the restored walled garden has flowering shrubs, historical rose varieties and exotic peonies, all trimmed with boxwood hedges.
The warm microclimate in the gardens allows an ornamental species of banana to thrive.
4. Carlow County Museum
At Carlow’s Cultural Quarter, which also hosts the tourist office, county library and archive, the is a museum dipping into the county’s compelling history.
The venue is the old Presentation Convent, and if there’s one object that you have to see it’s the 19th-century carved pulpit from Carlow Cathedral.
In 2013 this intricately carved fitting appeared in the book, “A History of Ireland in 100 Objects” and was removed from the cathedral for safekeeping during renovations in the 1990s.
Some other curiosities include the trapdoor from the gallows at Carlow Gaol and a pipe belonging to the Irish soldier Captain Myles Keogh, who fell at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876. Also worthwhile are the exhibitions about the Carlow native John Tyndall, the physicist who first proved the Greenhouse Effect.
5. VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art
Carlow’s arts centre is a staggering modern building planned by Terry Pawson architects and completed in 2009. In a mass of cubes, the building is clad with opaque glass panels, glowing at night and laid on a concrete plinth.
As the name might tell you, the centre puts an accent on visual art, and has four high-spec galleries.
In April 2018 the headline exhibition was “Ttopology” by the installation artist Dennis McNulty, with new and retrospective works, all accompanied by “Totally Topological”, a zone inspired by McNulty’s art where kids can play and create.
Musicians and comedians touring Ireland also make a stop at the centre’s state-of-the-art, 320-seater George Bernard Shaw Theatre.
6. Carlow Courthouse
Looking like a Greek temple in the middle of the city, Carlow’s splendid Neoclassical courthouse was completed in 1834 and was part funded by the Bruen family.
The architect was William Vitruvius Morrison, and despite the orderly outer appearance the courthouse sits above a tangle of tunnels and cells.
The most recognisable element is the portico, held up by two rows of Ionic columns.
On the plinth in front is a cannon that saw action in the Crimean War (1853-1856).
7. Delta Sensory Gardens
On Carlow’s northern outskirts is a show garden attached to a garden centre selling plants and garden decorations.
If that sounds a little mundane, the gardens totally out of the ordinary.
In one hectare there are 16 interconnected areas, fastidiously manicured and sprinkled with whimsical sculptures, waterfalls, ponds, broderies, pergolas and fountains.
There’s ample inspiration for amateur horticulturalists, and it’s a joy to see the gardens change with the season, from tulips and daffodils in spring to the russet tones of the beech hedges in autumn.
One decoration that deserves a second glance is the kugel fountain, with a one-ton ball of solid marble floating in water.
8. Carlow Castle
Only the west wall and two towers of this Medieval fortress remain, but those are enough to give you an idea of the size of Carlow Castle at the peak of its powers.
The castle went up at the start of the 1210s and was most likely built by the English nobleman William Marshal, 2nd Earl of Pembroke.
The building has a tumultuous history, changing owner multiple times before it was stormed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1650. Despite all that hardship, it was a doctor who exacted the killer blow on Carlow Castle, when the walls and keep were detonated to make way for an asylum in 1814.
9. County Carlow Military Museum
In the church on the grounds of St. Dympna’s Hospital is a museum documenting the military history of County Carlow.
The museum has poignant origins as this set of military memorabilia was first assembled in memory of Donie Cunnigham, a soldier killed in a helicopter crash in 1996. The collection snowballed, and now there’s a comprehensive overview of Carlow’s participation in the First World War, the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.
You can pore over tableaus with reproductions of a Medieval battle and a trench from the First World War, and find out about Irish involvement in UN peacekeeping missions to Somalia, Lebanon and Congo.
Maybe the most exciting original artefact is a Brown Bess musket from the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
10. Huntington Castle
In the summer months you can come to be shown around this Plantation-era house from the 17th century.
The castle took the place of an earlier stronghold belonging to the Caviness clan, and was developed by Baron Osmonde from 1625. Oliver Cromwell took Huntington Castle during his Conquest of Ireland in 1650 because of its advantageous position on the road from Dublin to Wexford.
Film fanatics will be excited to know that scenes from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon were filmed here in 1975. The lime tree avenue, parterre, the Yew Walk and the estate’s fish ponds are much as they were when they were first laid out by the Esmondes in the 17th century.
Tours take you in the kitchens, drawing room, a temple of Isis in the old dungeons, and out to the sacred well of St Brigid.
Beside the lake are Ireland’s oldest hydroelectric turbines, providing the castle with its own power from 1888.
11. Oak Park Forest Park
Bordering Carlow Golf Club, Oak Park is on an old country estate that belonged to the landowning politicians the Bruens for more than 200 years.
Some 50 hectares are now owned by the Carlow Tourist Office, and its mixed hardwood woodland is threaded with circular colour-coded walking paths.
The 800-metre Lake Path delivers you to the ponds on the estate, with islands where swans, duck and an array of game birds make their nests.
The park has recently received an Irish Forestry Award for facilities like a bat sanctuary, picnic area and the outdoor exercise stations that line the trails.
12. Rancho Reilly
Out in the Carlow countryside, Rancho Reilly is a children’s activity centre in four acres of farmland.
The attraction is centred on a pet farm, with ponies, miniature goats, rabbits, cows, reindeer, pot-bellied pigs and a variety of birds.
Children will be able to handle many of these animals and take part in all sorts of other fun.
That might be riding on a barrel train, bouncing on sunken trampolines, racing go-karts, scrambling over an obstacle course or playing a round on the miniature golf course.
Rancho Reilly has themed fun at Christmas, Easter and Halloween, while there’s a cafe and coffee shop serving home-cooked meals and snacks.
13. Chocolate Garden of Ireland
In the village of Rath you can set foot in a genuine chocolate and ice cream factory.
You can stop by anytime and take part in a half-hour guided workshop, crafting your own chocolate mould.
While you’re waiting for the mould to set you’ll be treated to one of the factory’s ice creams.
Cocoa aficionados can deepen their knowledge of all things chocolate at one of the more advanced workshops, booked in advance.
Lasting more than three hours, the “Introduction to Chocolate Making” teaches you the art of making ganache, piping, tempering, and how to store and present chocolate like a pro.
14. Walsh Whiskey Distillery
On the 18th-century Royal Oak estate, the Walsh Whiskey Distillery invites visitors for tours to show how premium, hand-crafted Irish whiskey is made.
One of the largest functioning distilleries in the country, Walsh is special because every step of the process is manual, and the distillery makes all three types of Irish whiskey: malt, grain and pot still.
Writers’ Tears and the Irishman are both distilled here and have garnered multiple awards.
All of the ingredients for Walsh’s whiskey are local, as barley is in plentiful supply in Carlow, while Royal Oak sits above a 200-million-litre aquifer.
After the tour you can idle around the estate and view the newly restored Holloden House, built in 1755.
15. Milford Mills
There’s an interesting chunk of local history a short way down the River Barrow from Carlow.
In an idyllic waterside setting at Milford are the eponymous mills, a fortress-like complex going back to the end of the 18th century.
Originally these water-powered mills produced wheat and corn flour and turned barley into malt, all for export to Liverpool and Manchester.
But in 1891 the main mill was converted into an electric power station.
At that moment Carlow became the first town in Ireland or Britain to produce electric power.
The plant still functions after being re-commissioned in the 1990s.