Newbridge & the Curragh
Unremarkable Newbridge (Droichead Nua), near the junction of the M7 and M9, is best known for its silverware and as the gateway to the Curragh, one of the country's largest pieces of unfenced fertile land and the centre of the Irish horse industry. It's renowned for its racecourse, the oldest and most prestigious in the country.
Strategically placed at the junction of the River Barrow and the Grand Canal, the Anglo-Norman settlement of Athy (Áth ĺ; a-thigh) shows little of its long history. Athy was founded in the 12th century and later became an important defence post. Many of the town’s older buildings remain, including the impressive White’s Castle, a tower built in 1417 to house the garrison.
Low-key Ballitore is the only planned and permanent Quaker settlement in Ireland. It was founded by incomers from Yorkshire in the early 18th century. A small Quaker Museum in a tiny restored house, documents the lives of the community (including the namesake former owner who was known for her aversion to war).
Along the Grand Canal
Heading west from Straffan, there are some interesting sites as you follow the banks of the Grand Canal, which flows gently from Dublin to tiny, tranquil Robertstown, just past Clane and well worth a detour. This picturesque villagehas remained largely untouched and is dominated by the now-dilapidated Grand Canal Hotel, built in 1801. It's a good place to start a canal walk.
Castledermot was once home to a vast ecclesiastical settlement, but all that remains of St Diarmuid's 9th-century monastery is a 20m round tower topped with a medieval battlement. Nearby are two well-preserved, carved, 10th-century granite high crosses; a 12th-century Romanesque doorway; and a medieval Scandinavian 'hogback' gravestone, the only one in Ireland.
Just south of Ballitore, the unassuming village of Moone is home to one of Ireland's most magnificent high crosses. The unusually tall and slender Moone High Cross is an 8th- or 9th-century masterpiece, which displays its carved biblical scenes with the confidence and exuberance of a comic strip.