County Carlow (Contae Cheatharlach) is in Southeast Ireland, and historically part of Leinster. Its oldest monument is 6000 years old, and its towns have the heritage - and often the scars - of a turbulent history. It's nowadays a pleasant lowland place, with a population of 56,532 in 2016.
- 1 Carlow the county town has a fine museum, and the only castle in Ireland to survive Cromwell then be wrecked by psychiatry.
- 2 Bagenalstown or Muine Bheag was once touted as a new Versailles. You'll have to use your imagination.
- 3 Leighlinbridge is a village at an ancient river bridge, still in use.
- 4 Borris has events at Borris House and hiking in the Blackstairs mountains.
- 5 Tullow is near Altamont Gardens, Huntington Castle and Rathgall ringfort.
- 6 Tinnahinch is the eastern part of Graignamanagh in County Kilkenny across the River Barrow. Come here for Duiske Abbey and relaxing countryside.
This area is low-lying, with the River Barrow forming a natural communication route. The bedrock is impervious granite overlain by sand and gravel; not the most fertile of soils but well-drained, and not mired in bog. An entire mountain range formed over the granite, was eroded away, and replaced by a second range which in turn eroded away. So it was only the blink of an eye ago in the great sweep of earth's history when the glaciers retreated and the first known human settlers appeared. Brownshill Dolmen near Carlow town is a portal tomb erected around 4000 BC, with a colossal 150 metric ton capstone suggesting a very very VIP burial. Perhaps they were making sure its occupant could never arise and rule again.
In the early centuries AD, tribal units coalesced into petty kingdoms and then into Leinster. They're commemorated in a series of ringforts or raths (nowadays just overgrown mounds) and by the fantastical legends they weaved to show their descent from the gods. Labraidh Loinseach, for instance, was the mythical founder of Leinster, with a series of anatomically improbable adventures, though the way he yelped when hit on the shin playing hurling has the ring of truth. The area was christianised from the 7th century, with a monastery founded at St Mullins, and Carlow together with Wexford comprised the Gaelic kingdom of Uí Ceinnselaig or Kinsella which at times ruled all of Leinster.
The Normans took control of southeast Ireland from the 12th century, building wooden forts then stone castles, and re-establishing monasteries over the original Christian sites. They made sure to control the river crossings, with a stout castle at Carlow, and turrets and fortresses here and there. They carved up the territory into shires or counties: Carlow was originally much larger and extended to the east coast. It took its name from its principal town of Ceatharlach, meaning four-legged, the livestock swum across the river and brought to market there. In the 14th century, the Gaels were resurgent and the Normans were repulsed from much of Scotland and Ireland, but they clung on in Leinster. Their counter-offensives against the Gaelic chieftains were disasterous, until they hit upon a better military strategy: "Let's just pay the b****s off." And so the peace and territory were bought.
It was only in Tudor times that England was able to re-assert control, settling re-captured territory with "plantations" of loyal colonists, and separating County Wicklow from Carlow. Then in the 17th century the British Isles were convulsed by civil war. King Charles was overthrown and beheaded in England, while for six years a nominally royalist "confederacy" ruled much of Ireland from Kilkenny, until Cromwell arrived to crush opposition and smash down city walls and castles everywhere. The next upheaval, the "Williamite wars" as King James tried to regain his throne, had little effect hereabouts, but southeast Ireland was embroiled in the 1798 rebellion of United Irishmen. On 25 May 1798, 2000 rebels converged on Carlow town, seemingly unopposed, but they had walked into a trap and were shattered by a fusillade of gunfire. Some 640 of their bodies were flung into a communal "Croppies Grave", while the government troops were unscathed.
Carlow began to prosper from 1800 when the entire River Barrow was made navigable from Waterford through Carlow to Athy, and connected by canal to the Dublin-Shannon Grand Canal. Industries and commerce arrived, and later the railway. This and relief measures were not enough to prevent thousands of deaths in the Great Famine, nor mass emigration by those able to flee. The economic slump persisted through the late 19th century and into 20th century Irish independence. Industrialisation and population recovery was slow, until Carlow became the base for a couple of third-level colleges, and the M9 brought the area within commuting distance of Dublin.
There are no Gaeltacht areas in the county though the government encourages the use of Irish. So everyone speaks English, a few European settlers speak Polish or Lithuanian, and college students speak whatever they've studied or picked up by working as a barista.
The climate is temperate, with summers averaging 20 °C (68 °F), winters 7 °C (45 °F), and always a strong chance of rain.
Tourist information is available from Carlow library.
Expressway 4 / X4 runs every hour or two from Dublin Airport and Busáras to Carlow. The X4 takes 75 min and continues non-stop to Waterford and New Ross. Bus 4 also stops at Dublin Eden Quay and Heuston, taking 1 hr 40 min to Carlow and continuing to Carlow IT, Leighlinbridge, Gowran, Thomastown, Mullinavat and Waterford.
JJ Kavanagh competes on this route, with Bus 736 every hour or two from Dublin Airport and several city stops, taking almost two hours to Carlow and continuing to Kilkenny, Waterford and Tramore. They have at least one overnight run.
Bus Éireann 73 trundles across the midlands from Athlone to Moate, Clara, Tullamore, Mountmellick, Portlaoise, Stradbally, Carlow, Kilkenny, Thomastown, Mullinavat and Waterford. There are two M-Sa and one on Sunday.
And see individual towns for Local Link buses from places such as Naas and Arklow.
By car, from Dublin take N7 / M7 onto M9 south. From Rosslare ferry port, take M11 to Enniscorthy then N80 northwest.
See above for the rail link between Carlow and Bagenalstown / Muine Bheag, which takes 15 min.
Buses run from Carlow town centre to Carlow IT, Leighlinbridge, Bagenalstown and Paulstown, heading for Kilkenny or Waterford; and to Tullow heading for Arklow. Another bus links Kilkenny, Borris and Tinnahinch / Graignamanagh. There are usually only 3 or 4 buses a day, see city pages.
- Castles: there's a scrappy one in Leighlinbridge, a psychiatrically disturbed one in Carlow, a plush one near Tullow that reckons to assist the Goddess Isis, and a figment of mi'lord's imagination in Bagenalstown.
- Religious buildings: the county museum in Carlow is in a beautifully preserved convent, and Carlow also has a fine cathedral. The 12th century Old Leighlin Cathedral is still in use. Ruins include Sleaty, Killeshin and Baltinglass, but the best is Duiske Abbey across the river from Tinnahinch.
- Gardens: Duckett's Grove in Carlow and Altamont south of Tullow are the best.
- What's on? For local events listen to KCLR on 96 FM, or read The Nationalist or Carlow People, both published Tuesday.
- Canal boats: the Barrow Navigation meets the Grand Canal (which is navigable from the Liffey in Dublin to the Shannon near Longford) at Robertstown in County Kildare. It courses south to Athy, Carlow, Bagenalstown, Graignamanagh and St Mullins, where it joins the tidal river down to New Ross, Waterford and out to sea. Check Waterways Ireland for current status of locks, moorings and so on. There are restrictions on how far rented boats may be taken from base, and they won't let you venture into tidal waters.
- Go with the Flow organise canoeing at various spots along the rivers around Carlow and Kilkenny.
- Theatre and cinema are in Carlow town.
- Golf: there are courses at Carlow, Tullow and Borris, with others just across the county boundary, such as the K Club near Kildare.
- Gaelic games: Carlow GAA play football and hurling at Dr Cullen Park in Carlow. There are some 25 club teams across the county.
- Hang gliding and Paragliding launches from Mount Leinster. Contact the Irish HPA for details.
- The Wicklow Way is a 131 km walking trail from Dublin to Clonegal, which is on the boundary with County Wexford. The southern sections of the trail are lowland and pastoral, yet feel more away-from-it-all than the touristy mountain sections further north near the city.
- Gordon Bennett Classic Car Rally, open to vehicles of 30+ years, is based in Portlaoise and circles through Kildare, Stradbally, Athy and Carlow. It's held in June over the Bank Holiday weekend.
- Carlow Garden Festival is end of July.
Carlow town is the county's main retail centre, and Tullow has a few supermarkets. The smaller places may just have a Centra convenience store, often with an ATM.
- Carlow has lots of cheap and cheerful places but nothing outstanding.
- Tullow has one good restaurant in town, and a couple of country-house hotels further out with fine cuisine.
- Lord Bagenal Inn in Leighlinbridge gets good reviews.
- Carlow has the best selection, including the extensive Dinn Rí complex.
- Breweries: 12 Acres are a micro-brewery at Clonmore near Carlow. Carlow Brewing Company are now known as O'Haras and are based in Bagenalstown.
- Distillery: Walsh Whiskey is on the outskirts of Carlow.
Carlow town has the widest selection, including a couple of mid-price chain hotels, which are uncommon in Ireland. The bulk of accommodation is small independent places: in 2020/21 the B&Bs were not able to open because of the impracticality of covid precautions. And even in normal times, the county has very few camping or caravan sites or hostels. It does have some upmarket sumptuous country-house hotels away from the towns.
Natural hazards are few: the hills are low and there are no large bodies of water. So the hazards are man-made: traffic, traffic, traffic! Plus usual care of valuables and avoiding late-night drunks.
For all emergency services call free on 999 or 112. This includes emergency medical care, but for anything that doesn't obviously need hospital, call Caredoc (based in Carlow) on +353 1850 334 999.
- Kilkenny is a splendid miniature medieval city less than an hour away.
- County Wicklow rises as mountains to the east, traversed by the Wicklow Way.
- Waterford has a fascinating mix of Viking, medieval and Georgian heritage.
- County Wexford was the stronghold of the 1798 rebellion, with the last stand on Vinegar Hill by Enniscorthy.
- Dublin: all transport routes converge here. So you could easily day-trip from Carlow into the city - lots of commuters do so daily - but it deserves much longer.