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So it’s Sunday driving season and given the economy is no more, most of us will be getting back to the cheaper pass times. That means out with shopping trips to New York (yeah apparently people did this) and in with visiting castles and the like. So if the recession is biting and you want to have a day out, try this. It’s a one day history trip based around county Laois encompassing two medieval castles and one Jane Austin-esque Country Mansion. It shouldn’t cost you more than petrol money and about a €10 for the entire family.

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This trip is based on the fact that you have access to a car but it is an easy drive between the sites. The general location is pretty much in the centre of the country so it’s pretty accessible from most places (see map). The journey begins at a hidden gem – Lea castle on the Laois-Offaly border. To start the trip you need to get to Portarlington and follow the map to Lea.

Although it was partially destroyed in the Cromwellian wars of the 1650’s its one of my favourite sites with the damage to the structure being an integral part of the castle’s history. The story behind the destruction of Lea is key to the story of many Irish castles. The ruinous castle is a common phenomenon in Ireland. This is not because the Irish were poor castle builders but more down to a deliberate Cromwellian policy of reducing fortified sites so they could not be refortified.

Lea Castle itself is covered in ivy but as you approach it you can just about imagine it in its former glory. You can certainly see what happened in its tumultuous past – keep has been blasted in two! The castle complex is neat and relatively small but is fascinating with some really interesting architecture, archaeology and history attached to it.

You enter the castle complex through a twin towered gate house which was built later than the rest of the structure – this is evident as the stone work of the gatehouse is not keyed into the adjoining wall. The shape of the keep is worth noting – it’s not the common square shape but is the best surviving example of a type known as towered keeps.  Although it was damaged in the Cromwellian Invasion you can still make out the original form of the partially destroyed keep. It’s a four storey keep (including a basement) and originally had circular towers on each corner – this is a model only followed by four other existing castles – Carlow, Enniscorthy, Ferns and Terryglass. All these castles date to the early 13th century so you’re probably looking at one architect’s signature. There is only access to the first floor level today due to dereliction. Overall it’s a really great site to explore with a mixture of both ruins and relatively well preserved architecture on the one site.  When returning to your car be careful to close any gates you open and leave the site as you find it.

To continue on the trip return along the road into Portarlington and head towards Portlaoise on the R419. Portarlington was once a unique town, built by French Huguenots who had to flee France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Built in French style, it was unique, however it’s not worth a stop since developers have completely ruined the town. The French church, market hall and shameful condition of Arlington house are some of the last reminders of its unique history.

About 5km out of Portarlington on the Portlaoise road take a left turn to Emo. Emo house is a classic example of an Irish country mansion. Designed by James Gandon (architect of the customs house and four courts in Dublin) in late 18th century it starkly reminds you of the brutality of late 18th and 19th century Ireland. The Landlords lived in these mansions while their tenants quite literally starved.

Unfortunately its history is often presented in a sterilised and de-contextualised fashion. While the architecture and has been impeccably restored, there is another story which is often not talked about, that is the wealth behind those who built this came from abject poverty of their tenants. At Emo you can see the opulence in which the 19th century Irish ruling class lived in.

The house has been renovated to its 19th century glory with a dome based on the Roman pantheon. The house itself can only be seen on the hourly tours. The Gardens are worth seeing you can just wander about the woodland and Gardens (tours of the garden must be booked in advance). This is a spot that well worth having a picnic in – there are extensive parks and woodland to find a nice spot.

For the final leg of the tour leave Emo for the Rock of Dunamase and head back to the R419 and continue until it meets the N80 and turn left, continue along the N80 then taking the second left after you pass under the M7 motorway. Drive down this road until you come to the rock of Dunamase which is situated on your left – you can’t miss it the rock and remains of the castle rise high above the road. This castle is or I should say was akin to a fairy tale castle built high on a rock overlooking the countryside around.

`               This site was severely damaged by the Cromwellian invasion. To understand the damage – Lea castle looks like it got a trim compared the head shave that Dunamase experienced.  Bizarrely there was no action there just destruction. It was destroyed as part of the Cromwellian idea that they were starting anew in Ireland. What’s left there now is still well worth a visit.  It’s great to explore. The sheer scale of the site is impressive and there are still gate houses and walls left and it’s great fun figuring out what was what. It’s worth reading the information board at the entrance (if you have a digital camera, take a picture and zoom in to use it as a guide as you go along). This info point is useful to get some understanding as it can be quite confusing with bits of walls and arches here and there. Again the destruction at the rock of Dunamase should be seen as an integral part of Irish History – a reminder of the barbarism of 17th century Ireland.

Overall this trip is both recession and child friendly (but care is needed at both castles particularly Lea). The Rock of Dunamase and Lea castle are free, while the tour of Emo house is very reasonably priced at Adults €3/Children/Students €1/Family €8.

There are also tea rooms at Emo if you aren’t be bothered getting the flask and making sandwiches but if you’re strapped for cash the gardens and woodland are a nice place to pass a few hours and have a picnic.

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