Obeying the siren call of the west coast, most foreign tourists, and indeed Irish holidaymakers, put their foot down to motor through the Midlands as quickly as possible. It’s true that you’re unlikely to want to make a comprehensive tour of the area, but if you fancy a stopover off the main radial routes out of Dublin, there are some compelling sights, and a surprisingly varied landscape, to discover.
The dairy farms of County Westmeath (Iarmhí) are interspersed with large, glassy lakes, including Lough Ennell to the south of Mullingar, the county town, on whose shores Belvedere House is well worth a short detour off the N4. Among the county’s more northerly lakes nestle the quirky gardens of Tullynally Castle and the pastoral charms of the Fore Valley, where you can poke around medieval monastic remains and be entertained by their wondrous legends. The N4 ploughs on through County Longford (An Longfort), mostly rich grasslands but blending into Ulster’s drumlin country in its northern third. In the south of the county, the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre gives a fascinating glimpse of a prestigious but ill-fated Iron Age road-building project.
The River Shannon and its seasonal floodplain delineates most of the Midlands’ western border, running down through Athlone, a major junction town that lies on the M6, the railway and the Westmeath–Roscommon frontier. Just south of here, the major ecclesiastical site of Clonmacnois enjoys a dreamy setting above the river’s meanders and meadows. Elsewhere, County Offaly (Uíbh Fháilí) is known for its bogs, but the charming town of Birr, with its imposing castle and Georgian terraces, makes the best base in the Midlands. To its east rises the attractive bulge of Slieve Bloom, with a thick topping of blanket bog, beyond which County Laois (pronounced “leash”) is mostly lush grazing and cereal land.
These counties were mostly beyond the Pale, the enclave around Dublin that the Anglo-Normans retreated to in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and indeed Offaly is named after the Uí Failí (O’Connor Faly), Irish chieftains who would attack the Pale and then retreat to their strongholds deep in the boglands. In the sixteenth century, however, this region was fairly comprehensively planted, when land was confiscated from native Irish owners and given to loyal English landlords. In 1541, Westmeath was split off from County Meath, and in 1556 Offaly and Laois were created as “King’s County” and “Queen’s County”, respectively, with the latter’s main town named Maryborough (now Portlaoise) after the current monarch. Bypassed by the Industrial Revolution, many of the planned estate-towns that were attached to these landholdings remain to this day, along with the vestiges of a slow, steady rural style of living.