A market town in Ireland’s Ancient East, Dundalk is minutes from the border with Northern Ireland and halfway between Belfast and Dublin.
The big local landmark is Roche Castle, a ruined Norman stronghold on a cinematic misty outcrop.
In a matter of minutes you can get to other Medieval monuments, Neolithic stones and exhilarating sweeps of nature, either on the coast or inland hills.
One of the most interesting places is the Hill of Faughart, where Edward the Bruce fell in battle in 1318 and his headless body is buried.
The mountainous Cooley Peninsula has a whiskey distillery for tours, and has made a name for its oysters, which come into season in late-summer when there’s an oyster festival at Carlingford.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Dundalk:
1. Castle Roche
Northwest of Dundalk is what’s left of a Norman castle constructed by the De Verdun family in 1236. The De Verduns had arrived on Irish soil only 50 years earlier on the future King John’s First Expedition to Ireland.
Castle Roche was at a frontier between Gaelic lands in Ulster and the Anglo-Norman territory in South Armagh.
The setting has plenty of drama, on a rugged outcrop with sheer drops on its south and west sides.
Given that the castle has been abandoned since the 17th century, there’s a lot to see.
You can trace the triangular curtain wall and see the shell of the spacious hall on the south side and come around to the west to get a great photo of the gatehouse and its fearsome pair of towers.
In 1561 the English forces based in Ireland convened at this exact spot for a conference.
2. County Museum Dundalk
In a restored warehouse from the end of the 18th century, the County Museum maps the history and culture of Louth from the Neolithic Period up to the 21st century.
Among the finds on show are pieces of prehistoric rock art and the Mell flake, an exceptionally old piece of flint sharpened by human hands and then deposited in the region by a glacier.
There are also industrial and agricultural artefacts relating to distilling, brewing, shoemaking and tobacco-growing, as well as a shaving mirror owned by none other than Oliver Cromwell.
The museum also has a small theatre where you can watch a short film about all County Louth has to offer.
This space is also used for music recitals in the summer.
In April 2018 there was also a temporary exhibition about the role of the Irish in the First World War.
3. Hill of Faughart
Ten minutes north of Dundalk is a 200-metre green hill, which merits a walk for the many historic events to have unfolded here.
Once a Medieval fortress, Faughart was also the birthplace of one of Ireland’s patron saints, St Brigid in 451, and for that reason remains a place of pilgrimage.
It was also the site of three battles, the most recent in 1318 between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Lordship of Ireland (Norman Ireland), when Robert the Bruce’s brother Edward (the last High King of Ireland) was killed by forces loyal to the English crown.
You can find Edward the Bruce’s grave a few steps from Saint Brigid’s Shrine in the graveyard of a ruined 12th-century church.
4. Saint Brigid’s Shrine and Well
Every 1 February crowds of pilgrims make the trip to the graveyard on the Hill of Faughart to venerate St Brigid.
Her shrine and well are rustic stone-built monuments on the north edge of the graveyard.
You can also make out the remnants of an old stone cross, and you’ll recognise the pilgrimage site for the many pieces of fabric tied to the shrubs close by as votive offerings.
You can stay on the St Brigid trail by stopping by the Church of St Brigid a few minutes west, which has a fragment of the saint’s skull as a relic.
5. St Patrick’s Church
This impressive Roman Catholic church was begun in the 1830s but wouldn’t be finished until later in the century because of the Great Famine.
The design was conceived by the Newry-based architect Thomas Duff, and if you’re clued up on British monuments you may detect a resemblance to the Kings College Chapel in Cambridge.
This is intentional, while the interior was inspired by Exeter Cathedral.
The Neo-Gothic bell tower meanwhile is a later addition, from 1903. In the nave, see the delicately carved granite pillars, and look ahead and to the sides at the many vibrant stained glass windows painted by Munich’s Franz Mayer & Co.
The Neo-Gothic high altar and ornamental screen on the east wall are the work of J. J. McCarthy, who took over from Duff after he passed away.
6. Proleek Dolmen
A National Monument of Ireland, the Proleek Dolmen is in the grounds of the Ballymascanlon Hotel on the west bank of the namesake river.
This is a Neolithic portal tomb around 5,000 years old and made up of four stones.
There are two portal stones, which are oriented towards the northwest, possibly in the direction of Slieve Gullion, a mountain with a lot of Neolithic activity across the border in Northern Ireland.
The portal also lines up with the sunset during the summer solstice.
There’s a smaller back stone, and the dolmen is covered with a massive capstone weighing 40 tons.
About 90 metres southeast of the Proleek Dolmen is a Neolithic gallery grave 6.7 metres long.
7. Stephenstown Pond Nature Park
For a family outing you could spend a relaxed couple of hours at this idyllic spot southwest of the town.
The nature park has forest and waterside paths where you’ll be in the company of ducks and swans.
Interpretive boards detailing the park’s flora and fauna have been set up around the banks and if younger visitors pay attention they can take part in a nature quiz at the Dairy Maid Coffee Shop after their walk.
There you’ll be tempted by scones with homemade jam or, in winter, soup with oven fresh bread.
A little way from the pond is the Agnes Burns Cottage, once home to the sister of the illustrious Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Agnes’ husband William designed Stephenstown pond for the landowner Matthew Fortescue.
8. Dún Dealgan Motte
On the brow of a ridge over the Castletown River and directly northwest of Dundalk is an abrupt motte (man-made earthwork mound). A millennium ago this was the scene of a Gaelic Irish dún (fort), which was later replaced by a Norman motte and bailey castle in the 12th century.
Nothing remains of that fortification, but at the end of the 18th century the landowner Patrick Byrne built himself a folly castle atop the mound.
This was partly destroyed in the 1798 rebellion, but a single castellated tower remains, and there’s a heart-lifting prospect of the countryside from its base.
9. An Táin Arts Centre
This independent arts space is in the former Táin Theatre, and comprises a 350-seater auditorium, a smaller studio theatre and a gallery for exhibitions.
There’s something happening at An Táin almost every night, be it dance, classical concerts, literary talks, drama, comedy or film screenings.
By day you could see what exhibitions are on.
These are rotated at short intervals, and when this post was written in spring 2018 there was a show for the Dundalk Photographic Society followed by an exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the North Louth Artists group.
10. Cooley Whiskey
A brief but picturesque drive along the Cooley Peninsula will bring you to Riverstown, home of the Cooley Distillery and its visitor centre.
Cooley is one of Ireland’s newest whiskey brands, having only been established in 1987 and distilling both grain and pure malt whiskey.
At the visitor centre can sign up for a two-hour tour, learning about how whiskey is made, from harvesting the grains, through wash, distilling and maturation.
You’ll see the 200-litre ex-Bourbon casks where the whiskey ages and find out how the drink gets its famous colour.
If you’re pressed for time you can take part in a guided tasting session for €7 instead of €15 for the full tour.
11. Air Bound Trampoline Park
One of the units at the Dundalk Retail Park has been converted into an action-packed attraction for younger members of the family or anyone who wants an hour of intense exercise.
Air Bound Trampoline Park is several hundred square metres of interconnected trampolines, filling almost every inch of the floor, and also lining the walls.
The attraction has five different zones: Slam Dunk, Dodgeball Court, Free Jumping Arena, Air Bag and High Towers, depending whether you just want to bounce around or would rather get competitive and try some ball sports.
One hour of bouncing costs €10 and before you enter you have to purchase a pair of reusable non-slip socks for €2.
12. Dundalk Craft and Farmers Market
Check the dates in advance because on the second and fourth Fridays of the month local producers come to town to sell their produce and wares.
The farmer’s market takes place on the Square from 10:00 to 14:00, selling seasonal fruit and vegetables, local cheeses, freshly caught or smoked fish, flowers, preserves, bread, homemade cakes, pastries and prime cuts of beef and pork.
On the craft side of things there are stalls selling pottery, home decorations, jewellery, clothing, yarn, fabrics and more.
13. Carlingford Lough
In under half an hour you can zip across the Cooley Peninsula to the Irish shore of the Carlingford Lough, a wide inlet separating Ireland from Northern Ireland.
The Vikings sailed up the lough in the 9th century, and its name actually has Norse origins and derives from “Fjord of Carlinn”. One of the best reasons to make the trip to the village of Carlingford is for the oysters, which benefit from the flow of freshwater from the north and south side of the inlet.
The best time to come and try them is mid-August for the Carlingford Oyster Festival.
You could also have a go at water sports like stand-up paddleboarding, or walk the greenway between Carlingford and Omeath, gazing up to the Mourne Mountains on the north shore.
14. Ravensdale Forest
Around eight kilometres north of Dundalk’s town centre is a heavily wooded area on the foothills of the Cooley Mountains, right by the border with Northern Ireland.
A special place for a walk, the Ravensdale Forest includes the demesne for the estate of Lord Clermont, whose house was razed in the political troubles of the 1920s.
There are three signposted trails in the forest, like the Ravensdale Loop, which guides you past a group of Neolithic standing stones.
For a truly scenic hike you could set off from the forest for Omeath on Carlingford Lough on the Tain Trail, crossing a brooding, misty mountainscape to the inlet.
15. Dundalk Bay
Where the Castletown River flows into the Irish Sea, Dundalk Bay is a shallow intertidal area and a habitat rich birdlife.
The bay is a Ramsar Site and Special Conservation Area for its salt marshes, perennial vegetation and tidal mudflats.
All year round, but especially in winter this supports a population of more than 20,000 waterfowl such as wigeons, Brent geese, shelducks, dunlins, curlews, greylag geese and great crested grebes.
The closest birdwatching sites to Dundalk are Soldier’s Point, Ballymascanlon Bay, Bellurgan, Rockmarshall and Lordship, all inside 15 minutes of the town.