Thoroughbred horses are an important part of the Irish psyche. Just south of the town of Kildare, the Irish National Stud at Tully covers roughly 1,000 acres, where some of Ireland's best horses are conceived and cared for. Of the 140 registered stud farms in Ireland, this is the only one open to the public. Just a 30-minute drive southwest of Dublin, County Kildare is the center of horse racing culture and home to two of Ireland’s leading flat race courses, Punchestown and The Curragh. The latter, at the eastern edge of Kildare, is the start of the largest tract (5,000 unfenced acres) of natural grassland in Europe, which attracted horse breeders as far back as the 13th century. The Curragh racecourse stages up to 20 events each year, and bloodstock sales take place at Kill, just to the northeast (Kill is the Gaelic word for church, and Kildare means "church of the oak").
Visitors to the National Stud can see horses being exercised, and the foaling unit is active between February and July. Established in 1900 by Colonel William Hall-Walker, the National Stud was bequeathed to the British Crown in 1915 and became Irish state property in 1943. When the Colonel, who was heir to a Scottish brewing family, deeded his property to the crown, he was rewarded with a title and became Lord Wavertree.
In addition to the horse museum, visitors can enjoy two gardens and the Wavertree restaurant. St. Fiachra’s garden, set adjacent to a lake, was installed to commemorate the millennium, honoring the patron saint of gardeners. It has a much more natural feel than the celebrated Japanese Gardens, which are considered the finest of their type in Europe.
Famed Japanese gardener Tasso Eida designed these gardens for Colonel Hall-Walker between 1906 and 1910, with the aid of his son and 40 assistants. 2010 marks the centenary of the completion of these world famous gardens. A modern link to Tasso Eida, who died on his return trip to Japan in 1912, was broken until a Japanese visitor in the 1980s declared to the staff that he had returned to see his grandfather’s work. Approximately 150,000 visitors a year tour these gardens.
Kildare Town, population 7,500, is home to St. Brigid’s Cathedral, which commemorates the saint who founded a religious community here in 480, when nuns and monks lived here under the same roof. The monastery became one of the three most important Christian strongholds in Celtic Ireland. Adjacent to the cathedral is the tallest stone round tower (a 108-foot-tall 12th century bell tower) that can be climbed in Ireland. The photo illustrating the view of St. Brigid's Cathedral is from the top of this tower.
Situated in the cathedral grounds is an oak sapling. In pre-Christian times a sacred oak around which Druids gathered to pray grew in the grounds behind the present Cathedral, rebuilt in the 19th century. In the 5th century St. Brigid built her church near this oak. Hence Kildare – Cill Dara in Gaelic – the Church of the Oak.Also on the grounds of the cathedral are the foundations of an ancient fire temple, a pagan practice of burning a perpetual fire. The fire temple was surrounded by a ring fence of twigs, and "no male" was allowed to enter, since maintaining the fire was the exclusive domain of the nuns. A 12th century writer mentioned that this fire had burned for centuries before, and that, miraculously, ashes never accumulated. The fire was extinguished in the 16th century, when monasteries were suppressed, but plans are afoot to rekindle it. Annually, on February 1, the feast day of St. Brigid, the flame of St. Brigid is relit. The restored fire pit foundations are shown below.