A sledge from Ernest Shackleton’s heroic Antarctic exhibitions, a striking 16th century tower house, a daredevil motor race… Athy certainly throws up the unexpected. Fortified in the 13th century by Anglo-Normans, today’s market town is a hidden heritage gem, a place where each successive step feels like it’s criss-crossing the centuries. Shackleton was born in nearby Kilkea – hence the exhibition at the Athy Heritage Centre. Athy’s arching stone bridge was originally fortified to protect inhabitants of The Pale – hence White’s Castle. And the town was the focal point of the famous Gordon Bennett motor race in 1903 – hence the signs you can follow today, taking an historic route through Kildare and its surrounding counties. Hence… you should visit.
Newbridge dates from the 12th century, boasting a strong industrial background in rope, carpe-making and metalwork. In modern days, the latter has been buffed up to a surprising glisten, thanks to Newbridge Silverware and its brilliant Museum of Style Icons. Newbridge is home to Kildare’s only greyhound racing track. There are first class golf courses in the area, water sports, the Riverbank Arts Centre, fishing and the Curragh Racecourse is within easy access. There is a good selection of shops, coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and bars in the town.
Glendalough has St. Kevin. Kildare has St. Brigid. The feisty saint arrived here as long ago as 480AD, and though little of her original settlement survives, you’ll find a 13th century cathedral bearing her name, a flame burning in her honour, and Ireland’s second-tallest round tower at the heart of the town today. History buffs can delve a little deeper into the story of saint and settlement with the help of a digital monk (named Cogitosus) in the heritage centre, but don’t make the mistake of thinking Kildare is all about the past. Far from it… the market town is stuffed with cosy pubs, snappy restaurants and atmospheric shops, and nearby attractions range from the Irish National Stud to ritzy outlet shopping at Kildare Village.
You mightn’t think it at first glance, but Maynooth is a university town. Its leafy main street, Royal Canal and trim rows of shops and restaurants give the sense of a quiet country hub, but behind the scenes lie two pioneering colleges. St. Patrick’s is the oldest, at one time the world’s largest seminary, and continuing to educate candidates for Catholic priesthood today. The National University of Ireland is its younger sibling, with over 8,000 students researching everything from Celtic Studies to Social Sciences. The result is a unique buzz – with locals, visitors and college kids mingling around a 13th century castle, a scattering of Pugin-designed campus buildings, and of course, some good old-fashioned Irish pubs.
Need a quick shopping fix? Naas has you covered. Kildare’s second-largest town doubles as a sassy satellite for Dublin, and its streets are a treasure trove of fashion, interiors and accessories boutiques, not to mention florists and jewellery stores. Scratch beneath the shopfronts, however, and you’ll find a history stretching back to a long stint as the seat of the Kings of Leinster (Nás na Riogh in Irish means ‘Assembly Place of the Kings’). Several heritage trails peel back the layers, including stops like the town’s 19th century courthouse, a dead ringer for the Old Bailey in London, and the ruins of Jigginstown House. A Heritage Town Trail seeps along the Grand Canal.
The location of the first Guinness brewery in 1755. Guinness moved to its famous location on St. James’s Gate four years later, but Leixlip still retains its association with the family – the Hon. Desmond Guinness, founder of the Irish Georgian Society, resides at Leixlip Castle. It’s home to some Hi-tech modern business dynasties too – including Intel and Hewlett Packard. Leixlip certainly does meeting points. It’s where the River Liffey meets the River Rye, where the ancient kingdom of Leinster met Brega (Meath), and where modern-day Kildare borders County Dublin.