Recession-busting family days out in County Kildare

We may travel far and wide, but we often don’t appreciate what wonders are on our own doorsteps.

We may travel far and wide, but we often don’t appreciate what wonders are on our own doorsteps.

Ask anyone outside the Lilywhite county what they associate with Kildare, and they’ll mention the National Stud or the film memorabilia on show at the Newbridge Silverware visitors’ centre.

There may be memories of a couple of sessions at the Oxegen festival or visits to Naas for the Punchestown National Hunt Festival. But Kildare is these days more associated with commuter-belt suburbia than wild weekends or family breaks away.

A new marketing campaign by Kildare Failte wants to change all this. ‘Into Kildare’, which will be fronted by Today FM DJ and proud Lilywhite Ray D’Arcy, aims to promote the county’s tourist attractions across Ireland and abroad.

They also want you, people who live and work in Kildare, to get out and about in your own county.

With pennies being pinched and belts tightened all round, there’s never been a better time to explore the tourist attractions close to home.

Keeping it local is also good for our pockets. Tourism directly employs 6,000 people in the county, and contributes indirectly to another 1,200 jobs. A jump of even 10 percent in the county’s tourist business would create another 460 jobs, Kildare Failte estimates.

Dr Terence Dooley is a lecturer in the history department at NUI Maynooth, with a special interest in the county’s old buildings. He is also involved in the Kildare Failte campaign.

“For a long time we have been trying to promote here in the university the idea of ‘built heritage’ as a tourist attraction. All the statistics are telling us that tourists come to Ireland to visit historic houses and gardens,” he said.

“Traditionally Kildare has not been seen as a tourist attraction filled county, yet the simple fact of the matter is that it has so many hidden treasures from its natural and built heritage. It’s only a case of marketing these and getting the information out.”

Down throughout history, Kildare was one of the first areas to be settled by waves of invaders. The Anglo Normans established the English ‘Pale’ in the 12th century and began to build fortresses and castles, which are still in existence today in Kilkea, Castledermot, Athy and Naas. We also have great monastic settlements and church buildings, including round towers which predate the Normans and are associated with our patron saint, St Bridget.

In later centuries, Kildare was the site of many of Ireland’s estimated 6,000 great country houses. Many of these have disappeared and been destroyed.

Yet in the Lilywhite county, the likes of Carton (Ireland’s only Ducal residence), Castletown, Lyons, Bishopscourt, Straffan (now the K Club), Larchill and Ballindoolin remain, with their beautiful buildings and historic gardens.

North Kildare also boasts the only National Seminary in Ireland, with its beautiful Pugin buildings, which is celebrating its 200th birthday this year. Maynooth itself was a tourist destination at the start of the 20th century, with day trippers from Dublin getting the train out.

Those looking for a day out can add to that Kildare’s long association with the racing industry.

“What we don’t often think about is that Punchestown was the forerunner to Cheltenham. In the 19th century, it was to Punchestown that the landed gentry and aristocracy.

“Then the Curragh became dotted with racing lodges as owners began to develop racing as a sport. The Curragh is a historic racing location which needs to be developed.”

The Monaghan native says that it’s fairly typical that we never appreciate the surroundings in which we grow up, something he realises when he heads home himself.

“We think ‘outside’ if we want to go for a weekend break, and head to Connemara, Killarney or the west coast. But this is to educate people that in their own area there is so much you can actually do in a day trip. It’s a case of exploring your own locality and supporting your own before moving out,” he said.

Some of Kildare’s big houses have been turned into top-class hotels and luxury destinations, which might deter families looking for a cheap local day out. But Dr Dooley argues there is a lot of variety out there.

“If you look at the likes of Castletown which is run by the OPW, it is relatively cheap to spend a day there, especially when they have events on and they cater for children.”

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