When I relocated to Ireland years ago, it wasn't as a retiree but a businesswoman and a mom. My partners and I made application for and were accepted into the investor-incentive program the Irish Development Agency (IDA) was offering at the time. The group had targeted areas of the country for economic stimulation and gave us three choices for where to locate the business we planned to base in Ireland taking advantage of IDA corporate tax perks -- Sligo, Galway, and Waterford. I chose Waterford and lived in that city, running a business and raising a family, for seven years.
My choice for where to base myself in Ireland was limited by the options the IDA put before me. However, now, knowing this country as I do, I'd recommend a different region altogether for someone interested in Ireland at a retirement stage of life -- namely, the southeastern part of County Kilkenny.
Kilkenny Town itself could be a great retirement choice, but I'd say that the best retirement spot in all the Emerald Isle would be just outside that city, where you can embrace quintessential Irish country life while remaining in easy reach of the shopping, entertainment, festivals, and town amenities of Kilkenny proper. This is a region of Ireland wholly undressed for tourists, where, for every freshly painted cottage, you also find a dusty, downtrodden building that, on first glance, makes you wonder if it's shut forever...or just for lunch.
In fact, this is a tale of two villages. The first is Graiguenamanagh (pronounced Graig-na-MAN-ah and known simply as "Graig" among the locals), on the west bank of the River Barrow, where, during the summer months, colorful barges moor along the shores, families come to swim and coax each other down from the landmark diving boards, and the annual regatta attracts rowing enthusiasts.
The tranquil village of St. Mullins is the counterpart. Without the quayside facilities and mooring of Graig, from the eastern banks of the Barrow here, river life is dominated more by fishermen and the occasional kayaker than by rows of pleasure boats.
Graiguenamanagh is in County Kilkenny; St. Mullins in County Carlow. The two are separated by the Barrow River, the life and soul of the area. Choosing between these two outposts of Irish country living, you may be torn. Each has its assets. The good news is that, living in one of these villages, you'd have easy access to the other by foot or bicycle along the four-mile-long riverside towpath that joins both.
Graiguenamanagh comes from the Gaelic "Gráig na Manach," meaning the "village of the monks." Founded in 1204 at the point where the Douskey tributary joins with the greater Barrow River, Duiske Abbey, in the middle of the village, is today a buried treasure. Behind its basic exterior, you'll find a vast, bright, and uplifting space where the light bounces off the white stone walls and radiates through the stained-glass windows.
It's hard not to be drawn to places with such history.
The present town, though, is more defined by its remarkable stretch of river than its monastic past. Approaching from the Carlow side of the Barrow provides an extraordinary view of the quayside with its stone buildings, cottages, and line-up of pleasure boats and barges.
Completely off the rest of the world's radar, Graig is one of Ireland's best-kept secrets. Most who make it here do so by boat or by foot along the towpath and feel lucky and special to have stumbled onto a place of such natural beauty and tranquility. Life here, gain, revolves around the river, but there's plenty to do out of the water, too. Golfers have great options. Just 2 kilometers outside Graig, on the Carlow side of the river, is 18-hole Carrigleade Golf Course. Other notable courses in the county are Kilkenny Golf Club, Callan Golf Club, and the prestigious Jack-Nicklaus-designed Mount Juliet Golf Course that has twice hosted the WGC-American Express Championship. If you're not a golfer, the Mount Juliet resort is ideal for a leisurely stroll and a treat of afternoon tea.
If you enjoy pottery or would like to take a shot at it, programs at Mount Brandon Cottages & Pottery School cater both for beginners and the more experienced. Adult and children's classes run every week, and you can arrange for private sessions.
If you're musical, you could take up with the talented Graiguenamanagh Brass Band. Housed across the road from the town library, it claims roots as far back as 1760, making it the oldest brass band in Ireland. It has a strong following in the county and beyond and performs at official events and festivals.
The library across the road is a good place to find out about other clubs and what's happening in the area. A Reading Club meets here on the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m.
This southeastern region of the Emerald Isle is rich with old estates, gardens, castles, and period homes to satisfy the history aficionado. Kilkenny Castle and its gardens are a main attraction, but Rothe House, also in Kilkenny Town, is a lesser-known treasure. It's the only surviving merchant's townhouse from the 17th century, today a museum with recently reopened gardens. From Graig, it's just under 20 minutes to Woodstock House and Gardens in Inistioge.
These two towns on the banks of the Barrow, Graiguenamanagh and St. Mullins, have held on to their unspoiled natural beauty. Life here feels more like the 1950s than the 21st century. Go a little beyond either village, and you could imagine yourself in any past century. This is the lost Ireland so many retirees dream of.
Thinking more practically, Ireland is not a super-affordable retirement choice; however, property values today are down 50 percent and more from their pre-2008 boom-time highs. Markets elsewhere in Ireland, especially in Dublin, are moving up again. This remote region of County Kilkenny, though, remains seriously undervalued, which is one more reason it's worth a look.