The medieval town of Carlingford on the enchanting Cooley Peninsula nestles between Slieve Foy, Carlingford Lough and the Mourne Mountains. It is less than an hour’s drive from Ireland’s two major cities, Dublin and Belfast. It is Ireland’s most well-preserved medieval town, lending it a unique feel and atmosphere. A unique blend of natural beauty, spectacular panoramas, myths and legends make the Cooley Peninsula an exceptional place for your walking holiday in Ireland.

The peninsula contains the Cooley Mountains, the highest of which, Slieve Foy, is also the highest peak in County Louth at 589 metres (1,932 ft). Carlingford Lough and the border with Northern Ireland; to the south is Dundalk Bay. The R173 regional road rings the peninsula.

The peninsula is geologically diverse, with 440-million-year-old Silurian greywacke sandstones in the northwest and southwest, 340-million-year-old limestones in the east, and 60-million-year-old volcanic rocks forming the Cooley Mountains.

Carlingford Oyster Festival

Carlingford Oyster Festival

Carlingford is also the Oyster capital of the country, and every August, the Oyster Festival draws vast crowds into this pretty village of whitewashed cottages and ancient clustered buildings. ‘An táin Bó Cuailigne’, the national epic of Ireland, is centralised on the Cooley Peninsula. Here CuchulainnQueen Maebh and the famous Brown Bull of Cooley met their fate. The route of the Tain can be followed across Ireland to the Cooley mountains. This national waymarked way is known as the táin trail.

History of Carlingford

The Vikings came to the area around the 9th Century. Carlingford originates from the Scandinavian ‘Fjord of Carlinn’, and the natural harbour allowed ships to get close to shore for disembarking. 

The town was likely an excellent base point for exploratory missions into the heartland of Ulster and beyond.

It is much later, around 1160, that the Normans arrived in Ireland and eventually made their way to the Cooley peninsula. A Norman Knight, John de Courcy claimed this part of County Louth for himself.

Carlingford only developed after the castle, known as ‘King John’s Castle’, was built. A settlement sprang up close to this fortress. The castle got its following a visit from King John in 1210. You might know King John as the younger brother of King Richard the 1st and the legend of Robin Hood. Situated on solid rock, the castle, now an extensive ruin is enclosed by the sea while Slieve Foye rises on the inland side.

The town was in a “state of ruin” by 1744, following several wars and uprisings. Notably, the ‘Cromwellian Conquest’ of 1649 and the ‘Williamite Wars’ of the 1690s took their toll on the area. However, the final nail in the coffin was the prosperous herring shoals that occupied the lough, moving to open water by the early 18th Century.

Carlingford places of interest

King John’s Castle. 

Hugh de Lacy commissioned the western part of the castle around 1186, but the visit of King John, brother of Richard the Lionheart, in 1210 gave the court its name. In the 13th Century, the eastern part was built with some changes and additions in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Taaffe’s Castle / Merchant House.

Taaffe’s castle likely originated before the Taaffe family became earls of Carlingford in 1661. It was located directly on the shore and probably a trading depot with a large storeroom on the ground floor and a residential area above.

The Tholsel.

The town gate or ‘Tholsel’ is one of Ireland’s few examples of its kind. Its function was to levy taxes from merchants entering the town to sell their wares in the market. It was also used as a Gaol (jail) in the 18th Century.

The Mint.

This fortified three-story townhouse belonged to a wealthy merchant family and was unlikely to be used as a mint. Carlingford was granted the right to mint coinage in 1467. It features some highly decorated limestone windows with excellent examples of Celtic Renaissance art.

Dominican Friary.

The order was established in Carlingford in 1305 and abandoned in the 18th Century by the Dominicans. The site also contains an old mill and mill pond.

Town Wall. 

Edward II permitted the Bailiffs of Carlingford to establish the town wall in 1326. The wall allowed the town to levy taxes on goods entering the town through the Tholsel. More importantly, it meant a much better defence for the Norman inhabitants against the annoying ‘wild Irish rovers’ that plagued the townspeople.

Walking Holidays in Carlingford

family hiking carlingford lough
A view over Carlingford town and the Mourne Mountains

Featured looped walks from Carlingford

  • Commons Looped Walk. Length. 1 hr – 1 hr30mins. Distance. 4 km. 
  • Slieve Foye Looped Walk. Length. 2hr30min – 3hrs. Distance. 8 km. 
  • Carlingford to Omeath Greenway. Length. 2 hours. Distance. 6-7 km.

Here you can find some other great walks around Carlingford.