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The County Town of Carlow in Ireland is thousands of years old and pre-dates written Irish history, as the phenomenal Brownshill Dolmen testifies. Initially, I only wanted to visit Duckett’s Grove on my way to Waterford from Dublin, but ended up spending an amazing afternoon in this quaint, wonderful and historic town. Though not geared towards tourism, Carlow exhibits many long-standing attractions, from the banks of the River Barrow to the rows of Georgian houses in old centre at Montgomery and Burrin Streets. There is something for everyone to enjoy in Carlow.
Getting to Carlow
The drive from Dublin to Carlow is straightforward and takes a little over an hour if there is no traffic. Simply get on the M50 and head toward the N7. Take exit 9 and merge onto the N7. Follow along the N7 for about 21km and then take the M9 for another 46km. Take exit 4 from M9 and follow R448 to Kennedy Ave in Carlo.
Driving from Dublin to Carlow
If you prefer to travel by train, it will take about an hour from the Heuston Station in Dublin. The bus will take a little longer at 1 hour 20 minutes from Busáras Centre. Either mode of transport, the cost will run you between £10 and £18.
Duckett’s Grove Castle - A Bit of History
Just as we arrived in Carlow, it started to rain. No matter. We had planned to visit the eerie remains of Duckett’s Grove castle and walled gardens which had formed the estate home of the Duckett family for over 300 years. The Duckett family arrived here in 1695. Originally a two-storey Georgian country home in the centre of a 12,000-acre estate, William Duckett, in 1818, commissioned the redesign of the home into a castellated Gothic revival style. Completed in 1830, the new design hid or removed much of the original Georgian features.
After the last male Duckett, William, son of John Dawson Duckett, died in 1908, his wife Maria Georgina stayed on in the property until about 1916. Though twice married, William Duckett had no children. His wife had an only daughter, Olive, by a previous marriage. Once vacated, the estate was managed by an agent, then local farmers, and later by the Land Commission. While empty, the IRA used the empty building for a time and left it undamaged when they eventually left. A suspicious fire eventually destroyed the home on April 20th, 1933, only a week after local residents extinguished a previous fire. When Maria Georgina died in 193, she left what we commonly know as “an angry shilling” to Olive. By this time, mother and daughter were no longer on speaking terms.
Eerie Profile of Towers and Turrets
Even in ruin, the surviving towers and turrets of the restored gardens and grounds form an eerie profile, making Duckett’s Grove one of the most photogenic, historic buildings in the country.
The grounds are open to the public during daylight hours and admission is free. There is a tea-room, a small store and toilets in the courtyard. The tea-room, serving snacks and, of course, tea, is open most days, but unfortunately, the day we visited, the owner had to go into town and did not arrive back before we had to leave. An older, local gentleman walking his dog told us he visits the property daily and has never seen the shop closed. Just our luck.
Duckett's Grove Courtyard
We arrived at Duckett’s Grove late morning. The parking lot was empty. The weather gloomy. Though overcast, the rain had stopped. We made our way from the parking lot to the massive gates of the main entrance to the courtyard. Abandoned for nearly a century, the deteriorated brick walls embody a dark, gothic atmosphere. It is a little creepy.
A Series of Inter-Connected Buildings
From inside the courtyard, one quickly realizes that this is not one huge castle, but a series of inter-connected buildings behind a huge stone fence. Once described as a house with 24 windows, 40 rooms and 27 outbuildings. The servants' quarters were in underground cellars. There is no record of how many people lived on the property, though at one time there were 11 men employed full time just to maintain the lawns, gardens and driveways.
The gentleman walking his dog parked his car in the courtyard. As the tea-room and shop were not yet open, we strolled around the outer perimeter first and took pictures in case the weather turned for the worst.
Duckett's Grove Tower from pathway
We walked clockwise around the property and followed a narrow path along the stone fence at the back of the estate. From here, it is easy to see where the main building and later additions meet. There is no symmetry to the layout which creates an overwhelming, gothic atmosphere. Coming out of the pathway, we came upon the front of the main building where a road leads up to the front door. I lingered a few minutes to take pictures. Set against overcast skies, I later added the raven I photographed flying past Stonehenge the week before.
Peering through uncovered windows, the interior of the main house had been gutted by the fire. Steel girders spanned between the walls and grass grows where the floors once laid. This is a little sad to see. Hard to imagine how the place might have looked in its prime.
Interior destroyed by fire
Restored Gardens Among the Ruins
We make our way back to the courtyard and visit the completely restored gardens. Stylistically, the gardens echo the past but reflect changing times by using plants and designs that evolved over the years. Boxwood hedges border historical varieties of shrub roses blended with a collection of Chinese and Japanese peonies. Restored pathways allow one to meander among the flowers and marvel at the garden’s beauty in contrast to the ruined mansion just beyond the garden gates.
Duckett's Grove Gardens
Back at the courtyard, empty picnic tables dotted the patios bordered with evergreen hedges. The tea room is still not open. This is disappointing, but we cannot stay any longer. It would have been nice to get more insight about the estate before we left. However, if you plan to visit, scheduled tours of the property run several times throughout the day. Just not the day we were there.
Brownshill Portal Tomb
While still in the area, we visited the Brownshill Dolmen, which is a very large megalithic portal tomb located east of town but still in County Carlow. To get here, take the R726 for about three kilometres. Watch for a tiny visitors' car park on the right side of the road. Keep an eye out for signs as it is easy to miss. Admission is free.
The dolmen sits in the middle of a barley field on the former estate of the Browne family from which it gets its name. The dolmen is visible from the road - but only if you know what to look for. From the car park, follow the narrow footpath around the field and up to the monument in the middle of a clearing.
This National Monument dates back to pre-historic times. Estimates put it at about 4,000 to 5,000 years old. The dolmen’s capstone weighs over 100 tonnes, making it the largest of its kind in Europe. Resting on two portal stones, the massive capstone slopes downwards to the west where it sits on a smaller boulder.
The Brownshill Dolmen has excited the interest of historians, antiquarians and tourists for centuries. No one really knows why it was built. There are thousands of these ancient stone monuments all over the world. Experts believe ancient farmers performed religious rituals here, possibly including human sacrifice and/or cremation. Some theories suggest that it served as the tomb of a local chieftain or marked the entrance to burial chambers. Others believe it was a border marker. After thousands of years, erosion, looting and natural earth movements, only the stone doorway remains.
The dolmen had never been excavated, so we know very little about it. However, excavations of other portal tombs uncovered both burnt and unburnt burials along with personal items such as bone pins, pendants and stone beads.
Whatever the original purpose, the Brownshill Dolmen truly represents a tangible link between the present day and the pre-historic past.
Where to Eat in Carlow
I highly recommend Lemongrass Restaurant on Kennedy Avenue for a casual or more formal meal. While in Carlow, we met up with my son, Nick, who has been traveling around Europe for a couple of years. We happened to both be visiting Ireland at the same time. In all, we spent over 2 hours eating and catching up. The service was prompt but never hurried. The staff left us to dine and chat at our own pace.
All their food is hand prepared by Asian chefs using all natural ingredients. They don’t use MSG, preservatives or artificial colourings. The beef and chicken are Irish and the produce local. I started with one of the best Hot and Sour soups I have every tasted. For the main meal, I had Chicken Szechuan with Cashew Nuts. Delicious.
Places to stay in Carlow, Ireland
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Gentleman with his dog
Gated entrance to Duckett's Grove
Garden path with bench
Duckett's Grove - original house on the left
Fire gutted rooms
Side view of Duckett's Grove
Barley field where Brownshill Dolmen is located
Rear view of Brownshill Dolmen
Field behind Brownshill Dolmen
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