A medieval Irish city, brewed from myth and legend far older than its stone walls and castles, sits on the end of the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth of the Republic—just a stone’s throw away from County Down in Northern Ireland. The small community of Carlingford is no stranger to adventure-seeking hiking and history buffs like me, but it has also carved out a nice little niche for itself as the stag and hen party capital of Ireland—North and South.
We took the train (my first time on Irish Rail, pretty swanky compared to the bus) straight north from Dublin to Dundalk, and from there took a taxi around the hills of the Cooley Peninsula to Carlingford to set up base camp for our hike—a comfortable B&B away from the bustling village.
From the B&B, we could see the peaks of the Cooley Mountains, the small, rounded, boggy hills so common in Ireland. Although the sky was overcast, the peak was clear, so we could safely climb all the way to the summit for the best views of both the Republic and the North.
On the mountainside, we passed the ruins of an old village. Looking to the exposed hillside and sweeping views of the sea below, it was clear why its inhabitants had chosen this easily-defended hill for their settlement. Like most stone building ruins in Ireland, the walls and triangular roof supports still stood strong, if a bit mossy, after centuries of neglect.
We reached the shoulder of the hills, crossing Meabh’s Gap, a cutaway between two small peaks that legend says was carved by the soldiers Queen Meabh (Maeve in English) so she could ride her chariot over the hill to capture a prize bull—the Brown Bull of Cooley—from Cú Chulainn, a legendary fighter known as the “Hound of Ulster.” Hey, legends are legends.
As we climbed, the last gasp of the winter winds blasted us on the hills, particularly when we passed through Meabh’s Gap and walked on the bare, exposed ridgetop. My oversized raincoat blew out like a sail as we picked our way up the boggy hillside. From the windy summit of 590 meters (1900 feet), we got great views of the surrounding countryside of the Cooley Peninsula, Co. Louth, and beyond.
After another windy and slippery descent, we hit the town for dinner and a well-deserved drink. It was then that the non-Irish of the group discovered Carlingford’s legendary party reputation. While the international—mostly English—stag and hen parties are raging in Dublin’s Temple Bar, the Irish soon-to-be-weds take to this tiny burg to drink and dance the night away with other Irish revelers. We met parties from all over the country, and we simply had to ask our Irish companions, “Why here? Of all the small villages in the country?”
“Well, it’s just self-perpetuating…Carlingford is the place to have your stag… because it’s the place to have your stag!”
It made sense enough.
The next morning, we walked around the village itself, visiting King John’s Castle—the King John of Robin Hood fame—on the cute harbor of the village. From there, we set off on a shorter walk along the town’s new greenway, a beautiful and comfortable trail following the coast along Carlingford Lough.
Carlingford, as it happened, was celebrating its annual leprechaun hunt for the local kids. The town claims to have one of the last remaining indigenous leprechaun communities—and has even successfully had the local population given protected status by the European Union. We didn’t participate in the search this year, still recovering from the previous day’s hike as we were, but I got a picture with the shillelagh-wielding mascot of the hunt in the town center.
Legs stiff and bodies rewardingly exhausted, we left the hills and the leprechauns behind to rejoin the real world. Now we know the place to go for a good hike…or a good small-town stag party!