At home with the pixies

There's magic in the air as Belinda Jackson tours grand houses and gardens, with some pints in between.

Each September, Ireland suffers a massive guilt trip for serving up yet another rainy summer; the payback is the flush of an Indian summer when the sunshine is switched back on.

The result is an island of iridescent green, making early autumn the best time to visit Ireland's grand houses and gardens.

Six of us pack a minibus to tour the southern counties: the plan is to leave Dublin for Wicklow, Kilkenny, then Tipperary and Waterford, Cork and finally Kildare, before returning to Dublin.

The trip moves from sleek, EU-funded highways to pre-union country lanes masquerading as highways, all signposted in English and Irish.

We set off from Dublin to neighbouring County Wicklow, known as "the garden of Ireland" for its extreme green. Less than an hour later, we're romping among Italianate statuary at Powerscourt Estate. The property's 19 hectares include a manicured Italian garden designed in the 1840s, which took 12 years to build. There's a fountain inspired by one in Rome's Piazza Barberini, the Bamberg gate is from a Bavarian cathedral and the walk to the Powerscourt waterfall is a favourite mid-morning activity for local mums.

The grand house doubled as Laurence Olivier's Agincourt in the 1944 movie Henry V and now houses a little cafe and a gorgeous, if pricey, uber-Irish shop selling chic knits and silver jewellery. It's a short drive from Powerscourt to Glendalough, a monastic site dating from the sixth century. Inspired by hermits hiding out in caves in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, early Irish monks tried the same thing in a much soggier climate.

There's legend swirling in the mist: the local saint, St Kevin, is said to have died at 120 years of age, Leinster kings are buried here and massive Celtic crosses covered in biblical scenes point to the roiling sky. Suitably, John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur was shot here, as were parts of 2007's PS I Love You and a remake of Lassie.

Curiosity 1: On the way to Kilkenny we spot a road sign directing us to "Fr John Murphy's Last Journey". Some of us ponder its meaning, some of us use the moment for a rustic comfort stop.

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A castle dominates the city of Kilkenny, a knot of tightly coiled streets on the rushing River Nore. Kilkenny Castle was the roost of the Butlers, a French noble family who bought it in 1391 and moved out in 1935. A 30-year renovation sees rooms decorated in 19th-century style. There's William Morris drapes and Axminster carpets, paintings of not-so-nice nymphettes flashing their breasts and an extraordinarily large toilet, dating from 1901, that sets us sniggering and earns the disapproval of our guide, a walking humour-free zone. The park includes parterre gardens and Capability Brown-style designs.

The next afternoon is spent wandering the bleakness of the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary, talking of groups of the birds around us: murders of crows, parliaments of owls and unkindnesses of ravens. Home of the Munster kings, the rock dates back to the fourth or fifth century and St Patrick is said to have performed several high-profile baptisms here. It was also the seat of power of the legendary Brian Boru, first Munster king to rule all Ireland when crowned King of Tara in 1002. The site was handed over to the church in a canny public relations move in 1101 and now comprises the ruins of a round tower and cathedral, while a 12th-century cross dominates the graveyard.

Curiosity 2: The road to County Waterford is lined with signs for the national ploughing championships. It's heartbreaking to learn it's not on for another week.

"Visitors are earnestly requested not to pick flowers," reads a sign you'd think was completely unnecessary in a garden display. But apparently not. Lismore Castle, Irish home to the Duke of Devonshire's family since 1753, is shielded from the public by its famed rhododendrons. The gardens are open to all comers and feature a spectacular corridor of Irish yews up to 450 years old. You can stay in the castle and one wing is now a contemporary art gallery. The family's had its taste of showbiz: the gift shop sells cookbooks by the lady of the house (the youngest of the Mitford sisters) and Fred Astaire's sister married into the family.

Curiosity 3: We whiz past a woman on a bike dressed in a green pixie frock, fairy wings flapping behind her as she picks up speed.

At Bantry House and Gardens in West Cork, instead of fairies at the bottom of the garden I spy a descendant of the Earl of Bantry, Mrs Egerton Shelswell-White, snipping the vegetation with practised verve. Mr S-W is roaring around on the ride-on mower, all wellies and tweedy attire. It's so charming.

The house, built in the 18th century, had a cyclist squadron stationed here during "The Emergency" (known to most of us as World War II) and then crumbled quietly on this tranquil peninsula until its splendorous restoration a decade ago. One hundred spectacular stone steps climb through the marvellous garden's seven terraces to overlook the house, a circle of mature wisteria and Bantry Bay.

Curiosity 4: It's a traffic snarl of ponies – the annual Bantry Horse Fair is in full swing. Some of the prices are wildly ambitious and several auld fellows tell me the Connemara pony is all the rage now. I fend off offers to sell me a horse or just sit on it. "Sure, he's a quiet pony and no'n'll matter you're wearin' a wee skirt ..."

Our next detour is a long one – around the Ring of Kerry – with a pit stop in the South Pole Inn, a pub in Annascaul formerly owned by Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, who joined Co Kildare man Ernest Shackleton on the ship Endurance's expedition. The Guinness is mighty fine, even at 10am, and a flock of black-faced sheep waiting outside the pub egg me on to finish my pint. Done.

It's almost lunchtime before we pull in to the Dunraven Arms Hotel in Adare, Co Limerick. This luxury hunting hotel has snaps of Gwynnie Paltrow and Princess Margaret on the walls, the scones are fluffy and the cream thick. The night before we arrived, the Norwegian ambassador slept in a room featuring the local mother superior's old walnut four-poster canopy bed. You can hunt seven days a week at world-class equestrian centres in this neck of the woods, there are two golf courses and not one but two world-class luxury hotels in the tiny village.

Our last stop before returning to Dublin is the National Stud and Japanese Gardens in Co Kildare. Kildare is renowned for its horses: knights bred their horses for the Crusades here and now sheikhs' studs see well-bred colts trot energetically over rolling green hills, watched closely by men in flat caps – not the sort of place you'd expect Japanese gardens. Designed by the father-and-son team of Tassa and Minoru Eida in the early 1900s and considered one of the best in Europe, they're counterbalanced by the Irishness of St Fiachra's woodlands and the Irish Horse Museum, all stacked into one entrance ticket.

It's just 30 kilometres to Dublin and the plane's leaving soon for the modern architecture and water-saving gardens of Australia. The flight circles over the spit of land known as Ireland's Eye, drystone walls still visible from the air. I can see yet more sheep but I've got my eyes peeled for ploughing races, a pony fair and that woman in the pixie dress.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Ireland and Etihad Airways.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Etihad Airways flies Sydney-Dublin via Abu Dhabi three times a week. Phone 1800 998 995, see etihadairways.com.

WHAT TO SEE

Powerscourt Gardens, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow,€8/€5 ($12.90/$8). See powerscourt.ie.

Glendalough, Co Wicklow, €2.90/€1.30. See www.glendalough.ie.

Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny, €6/€2.50. See www.kilkennycastle.ie.

The Rock of Cashel, Cashel, Co Tipperary, €5.30/€2.10.

Lismore Castle, Lismore, Waterford, €8/€4. See lismorecastle.com.

Bantry House garden, Bantry, Co Cork, €10/€3. See bantryhouse.com.

Dunraven Arms Hotel, Adare, Co Limerick. See dunravenhotel.com.

Irish National Stud, Tully, Co Kildare, €11/€6. See irish-national-stud.ie.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See discoverireland.com, www.heritageireland.ie and gardensireland.com.

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