Located within easy reach of Dublin, County Kildare’s rural purity has been compromised somewhat in recent years, as city commuters seek to escape the rising costs of the capital. Nevertheless, it’s still where you’ll find some of the country’s best farmland, as well as being home to stud farms known for breeding some of the world’s most esteemed racehorses – and, of course, the Curragh, a flat open plain of almost 5,000 well-drained acres where horses are trained. It’s also where you’ll find the Irish National Stud & Gardens, where living legends like Kicking King and Hardy Eustace are enjoying their retirement and can be viewed by visitors.
Kildare’s past is deeply rooted in myth and legend, with a 12th century vellum manuscript, housed in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, transcribing a poem written much earlier by Ossian, son of Finn McCool. In this poem, he writes of ‘The Fair of the Liffey” being opened by the King of Leinster, a multi-day event that combined merrymaking with competition, including horseracing. The Curragh plain itself is known to have been granted to St Brigid after she helped the King of Leinster rid himself of the curse of his donkey ears, asking only that she be given a piece of land as big as her cloak for her troubles. The land-stingy King readily agreed, only to be furious and outwitted when Brigid’s cloak flowed and spread across the whole of the area, thanks, it is believed, to the power of her devotion.
Both hunting and battle have taken place on the Curragh plain over the centuries, but its current importance as a racing destination was recognised as far back as 1682, when it was declared in an anonymous account to be the place to go for ‘all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom that either pretend to love, or delight in, hawking, hunting, or racing.’ In the same year, a new horserace on this ‘excellent course’ was established, with a plate of about 40 pounds per year offered to the winner.
Located on this historic plain and currently undergoing redevelopment, the Curragh racecourse will officially reopen on May 24 with the first day of the newly-formed Curragh Spring Festival, which takes place over three days. Ordinarily, the Curragh would have hosted its opening card on April 13, but this year, to allow time for the works to be fully completed and tested, Naas racecourse will step in for the occasion.
Although the thoroughbred industry forms Kildare’s greatest appeal, there’s more to this lovely region than horses – in fact, even the Irish National Stud is also remarkable for its incredible gardens, including the gorgeous Japanese Gardens, where Eastern and Western cultures meet on a journey that charts the path of the soul from birth to death and beyond. A more recent addition, St Fiachra’s Garden, strikingly represents Ireland’s unique and dramatic landscape.
For wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, visitors to the area can climb the granite and limestone Round Tower of St Brigid’s Cathedral; no other tower with public access in Ireland is as high. Open during the summer months of May to September, it offers sweeping views for those willing to climb 33 metres above terra firma. Even without tackling these dizzying heights, the 13th century cathedral itself contains much of interest and is believed to be built on the location at which Saint Brigid established a nunnery in the 5th century. Restored in the 19th century, the Gothic-style cathedral contains a High Cross and several examples of early Christian and Norman carvings, as well as a 16th century vault. Meanwhile, for pleasures more of flesh than spirit, head to Kildare Village, which offers shoppers savings of up to 60% on luxury boutique names such as Cath Kidston, Coach, Kenneth Turner and Anya Hindmarch.
While in Naas for the races, Coolcarrigan Gardens are also worth a visit, with eight acres full of rare trees and shrubs, as well as a wildflower meadow. Punchestown racecourse is also within easy reach; this is where the Irish National Hunt Festival is held, this year taking place between April 30 and May 4.
Considered the grand finale of the jumps season, a total of 39 races are run at Punchestown, including 12 Grade 1 contests. No less exciting than the racing itself, for some, the Bollinger Best Dressed Lady Award will see stylish racegoers scouted over the course of the festival, with the winner attending an exclusive screening of the 25th James Bond movie in Paris in April 2020.
Included in the prize is luxury accommodation, not only in Paris but also in Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region. They’ll also win a year’s supply of Bollinger Champagne – definitely a prize worth donning a
Lovers of nature would do well to make their way to the north-west of Kildare, where Donadea Forest Park, a National Heritage Area, covers over 240 acres, in which a variety of paths, accessible for a range of abilities, wind through mixed woodland. The remains of a castle, walled gardens and a vast pond with wildlife and water lilies are also features. For splendour of a more manmade kind, Castletown House, erected in the 1720s, is Ireland’s earliest and finest example of Palladian architecture and should feature on any itinerary. Built for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, the house was both an outward display of clout and, in a practical sense, designed to accommodate large scale entertaining. Left destitute after its sale in the mid 20th century, the house has undergone a lengthy and painstaking process of restoration, some aspects of which can still be seen taking place, such as in the Red Drawing Room, with its 19th century silk wall hangings. Meticulous attention has also been given to Castletown’s parklands and waterways, taking care to retain their original 18th century charm. Set on the banks of the Liffey, this is also a pleasant spot for a cycle or stroll.