County Tipperary’s largest town, Clonmel is in the Suir River Valley, with the Comeragh Mountains and Slievenamon ever-present on the skyline.
The town is known for its stout resistance to Oliver Cromwell in 1650 during his invasion of Ireland, inflicting big losses on his New Model Army, before negotiating a peaceful surrender.
Later the town had great political and judicial power during the Palatinate of County Tipperary, and the Main Guard building is a fine monument from this period.
Today Clonmel is associated with the Bulmers cider brand, based in the town.
For a taste of Ireland’s great outdoors you can set off for the Comeragh Mountains and Slievenamon, while enthralling historical sites like the Rock of Cashel are at your fingertips.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Clonmel:
1. Main Guard
Restored in the early 2000s, the Main Guard is a courthouse from the end of the 17th century.
On the ground floor is a five-bay arcade, with columns composed of recycled sandstone from the dissolved Inislounaght Abbey.
The Main Guard was the courthouse for the Palatinate of County Tipperary, and contained private apartments, a drawing room and dining room.
These were used to put up King James II when he stopped in Clonmel in 1689. Later during the days of the Penal Laws, the Roman Catholic priest Nicholas Sheehy was tried at the Main Guard and subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered.
At the start of the 19th century that arcade was filled in, and wouldn’t be returned to its former design until a decade ago.
2. St Patrick’s Well
In a peaceful clearing at the base of a limestone cliff is one of Ireland’s largest holy wells.
Here on Clonmel’s western outskirts, generations of pilgrims have descended the stone steps to bathe in waters ascribed miraculous qualities.
At the centre of the pool is a Celtic stone cross, weathered but still intact, while the roofless shell of a chapel sits by the water.
As well as being a place of pilgrimage, families come on warm days for picnics.
Children can paddle in the small conduits feeding the pool and you can see where the well itself, where the crisp water bubbles up from the ground.
Little more than 10 minutes north of Clonmel is what may be Ireland’s most complete medieval town.
Fethard was established at the start of the 13th century and has been ringed by walls since 1292 when King Edward I of England gave the go-ahead to similar defensive structures across Ireland.
More than 90% of the wall (1100 metres) has made it to the 21st century, and on the labyrinth of streets inside the fortifications are 15th-century townhouses, friaries and a 13th-century church.
The wall stands at a maximum 7.6 metres and the last surviving town gate is the North Gate, still sporting evidence of wickerwork dating back to its construction.
4. Carey’s Castle
The affluent school-owning Carey family built this Eclectic house at the turn of the 19th century, but it was abandoned just five decades later.
When you see the remnants you’d be forgiven for thinking that Carey’s Castle is much older, thanks to its Norman great hall, Celtic round tower and Gothic arches.
The location could hardly be more photogenic; the castle is in a glade within oak, beech, ash and spruce forest, and you’ll get there on a trail beside the mossy Glenary River.
Away from the main building you can find the an intact icehouse.
Go quietly and you may see fallow deer in the forest, while sparrow hawks circle overhead.
5. Marlfield Lake
Something unexpected about this picturesque six-hectare lake on the western edge of town is that it is totally man-made.
On former marshland, Marlfield Lake was created by the landowner Stephen Moore at the end of the 18th century.
The reservoir is fed by the spring at St Patrick’s well and its flumes once powered local mills.
Marfield Lake is now a wildfowl conservancy and a major habitat for coots, herons, various mallards and swans, many of which will come up to you for food.
6. Tipperary County Museum
The county museum moved to a new purpose-built home in 2000 and approaches Tipperary’s history from a few angles.
The collection of artefacts is massive, numbering 25,000 and the museum also has pieces on loan from the National Museum of Ireland.
One gallery maps the culture, military and social history of the region, while the other puts on short term exhibitions on specific topics.
Some of the interesting objects on show are the jersey worn by the Gaelic footballer Mick Hogan when he was killed at Bloody Sunday in 1920 and Ireland’s first Olympic medal won at St Louis in 1904 by T. F. Kiely.
7. Rock of Cashel
A simple excursion from Clonmel, the Rock of Cashel in the Golden Vale is a rough-hewn limestone outcrop topped with Medieval monuments.
It was the seat of the Kings of Munster for centuries before the 13th-century Norman Invasion, although most of its monuments are from the period that followed.
The rock is one of Ireland’s top days out and has Cormac’s Chapel and a round tower from the 12th century, as well as a 13th-century cathedral and a castle dating to the 15th century.
Cormac’s Chapel is one of Ireland’s outstanding pieces of Romanesque architecture, with carved tympanums above both its main portals and a rare Irish fresco from the period.
The Cashel Museum is inside the 15th-century Hall of the Vicars Choral, holding the St Patrick’s Cross, which was carved in the 1100s and incorporates a supporting stone believed to have been used in the coronation of the Kings of Cashel from the 300s.
8. Cahir Castle
On a rocky island in the River Suir, Cahir Castle is one of Ireland’s largest and best preserved Medieval fortifications.
It was begun the mid-12th century and 200 years later was granted to the influential Butler family who had possession right up to 1961. Most of the architecture at this Irish National Monument dates to the 16th century, despite restoration work in the 19th century after the castle had been abandoned.
There’s a riveting audiovisual presentation recalling the sieges and battles fought for this stronghold, and you’ll learn about the many movies and TV shows that have been shot at Cahir Castle, like The Tudors and Excalibur in 1981. You can also view an exhibition about the siege of 1599, and take a 30-minute tour to see historic features like a working portcullis, original machicolations, dungeons and secret passages.
9. Swiss Cottage, Cahir
After an amble from Cahir Castle you’ll arrive at a quaint cottage orné ordered by the 1st Earl of Glengall, Richard Butler in the early-1800s.
These cottages are a product of the Romantic era when there was a nostalgia for simple rural life.
It is believed that the Swiss Cottage was designed by one of the big-hitters of Neoclassical Regency architecture John Nash, who designed the famous Royal Pavilion at Brighton.
With a thatched roof and roses garlanding its porch the cottage is a quirky delight.
The salon has wallpaper by the Joseph Dufour et Cie factory, founded in Paris in 1797, there are antique instruments in the Music Room and a graceful spiral staircase in the hall.
10. South Tipperary Arts Centre
In a bright Modernist building by the Suir on Nelson Street, the South Tipperary Arts Centre is a regional cultural hub for art exhibitions, talks, live music, dance performances and poetry readings.
The centre also curates events at other locations; for instance, in April 2018 there was a Japanese film season with screenings at the LIT Clonmel campus in the north of the town.
At this time the centre on Nelson Street staged the “Ain’t I a Woman?” exhibition by Aideen Barry, Pauline Cummins and Kathy Prendergast, to mark International Women’s Day and the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland.
11. Ormond Castle
Ireland’s finest Elizabethan manor house is a brief road trip down the Suir.
Ormond Castle had been a Medieval fortress before Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond built himself a grand manor house in the 1560s.
What’s remarkable about this unfortified building is that it was constructed at a time when Ireland was swept up in conflict following Henry VIII’s re-conquest earlier in the century.
The house opens in the summer when you can take a tour to see just how much of the original architecture remains.
There’s a handsome oriel on the main facade, and a sumptuous gallery on the first floor that has Elizabethan plasterwork on the ceiling and frieze, and two imposing fireplaces.
Behind the manor house are the vestiges of the 14th-century castle that came before.
12. Comeragh Mountains
Paradise for walkers and climbers, this range begins just southeast of Clonmel and continues all the way to Waterford.
The Comeragh Mountains are known for the glaciation, producing spectacular coums (or cirques), amphitheatre-like depressions ringed by lofty cliffs and with dark loughs (lakes) at their base.
In under half an hour you can drive to the trailhead for a circular walk that will take you past two of the range’s most jaw-dropping natural sights.
You’ll see the Mahon Falls, totalling 80 metres in height and venture across moorland speckled with grazing sheep and goats to Coum Tay, skirted by epic rocky bluffs.
There’s no missing this 721-metre hill looming to the northeast of Clonmel.
The lower slopes of Slievenamon are surrounded by a host of smaller hillocks, most topped with Neolithic burial cairns.
There’s a signposted trail to the summit from Kilcash, and the rounded hillsides make for a surprisingly light walk to the top.
Slievenamon means “Mountain of the Women” in Gaelic, and this refers to a race in mythology run by women to win the hand of the eligible warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Fionn was already in love with one of the participants, Gráinne, and gave her tips to win the race.
At the peak are two prehistoric cairns and if you make the trip on a sunny day you can see across much of Southeast Ireland and down to the Comeragh range.
In rolling parkland at the foot of the Comeragh Mountains, Clonmel Golf Club promises a tricky round with constant exhilarating views of the Suir Valley and Slievenamon.
The course was founded in 1911 and was re-landscaped in 2010 with extra bunkers.
The signature hole at Clonmel is the 14th, a 185-yard par-3 with a scenic elevated tee.
Green Fees are affordable (€15.00-€25.00 in April 2018) and visitors are welcome, but as this is a busy members club it makes sense to book ahead, especially if you’re planning a round on weekends.
15. Clonmel Junction Festival
Spanning nine days from the first weekend of July, the Clonmel Junction Festival is an arts event with street theatre, live music, dance, circus acts, comedy and visual art installations.
Performances take place at engaging locations around the town, like St Patrick’s Well, and there are also pop-up cafes and food stalls.
In 2017 the Cork-based collective Glut set up shop at the festival, connecting people to locally-foraged produce, preserves and fermentations.
In 2017 there was a three-day street party on Clonmel’s Narrow Street with free live music and food.