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.
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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.
Set in lush cattle-country, MULLINGAR, the county town of Westmeath, holds little of interest for visitors, except as a base for visiting Belvedere House, a Georgian mansion in a lovely setting on Lough Ennell.
The house stands in abundant gardens 5km south of Mullingar on the N52. The house was built in the 1740s by Richard Castle as a hunting lodge for Robert Rochfort, later the first Earl of Belvedere, the so-called “Wicked Earl”, whose main pastime seems to have been making life hell for his wife and brothers. In 1743 he falsely accused his wife Mary of having an affair with his brother Arthur and imprisoned her for the next 31 years at their nearby main residence, Gaulstown. It was only when the Earl died that she was released by their son, whom she no longer recognized. Meanwhile, the Earl had successfully pressed charges of adultery against Arthur, who, unable to pay the damages of £20,000, lived out his days in debtors’ prison.
The house itself, which commands beautiful views of the lake, has been painstakingly restored and authentically refurbished by Westmeath County Council. It holds some gorgeous fireplaces of carved Irish oak with Italian marble insets, but is most notable for the exquisite craftsmanship of its rococo ceilings, the work of a French stuccodore, Barthelemij Cramillion. Look out especially for the vivid depictions of the Four Winds, a fire-breathing dragon and a horn of plenty in the dining room, while the library, intended for night-time use, features sleeping cherubs wrapped in a blanket of clouds, a crescent moon and stars, and on the cornice a swirl of flowers with their heads closed.
A feud between Robert Rochfort and his other brother George was behind one of the gardens’main sights, the Jealous Wall. When George commissioned Richard Castle in the 1750s to build Tudenham House, a much larger mansion than Belvedere, just a kilometre away, the Earl of Belvedere spent £10,000 building this huge Gothic folly, three storeys high and nearly 60m long, just to block the view. Other features include a Victorian walled garden, enclosing an unusual collection of Himalayan plants, playgrounds for kids and a café in the old stable block by the entrance. Or you can just take a stroll around the extensive woodlands and lawns: the 45-minute Earl’s Trail, for example, will take you along the lakeshore and back, past an octagonal gazebo, a folly known as the Gothic Arch and a restored ice-house.
The far north of Westmeath shelters two compelling and whimsical attractions, the gardens of Tullynally Castle and the Seven Wonders of the Fore Valley, near CASTLEPOLLARD, a pretty eighteenth- and nineteenth-century village laid out around a large triangular green.
A little over a kilometre northwest of Castlepollard on the Granard road, Tullynally Castle has been the seat of the Anglo-Irish Pakenhams, later Earls of Longford, since the seventeenth century. Remodelled as a rambling Gothic Revival castle to the designs of Francis Johnston in the early 1800s, it remains the family home, open only to prebooked group visits (minimum 25 people) and for occasional concerts. The extensive gardens, however, and tea rooms are open to casual visitors in the summer. Terraced lawns around the castle overlook parkland, laid out by the first Earl of Longford in 1760. From here winding paths lead through the woodland to lakes, a walled garden with a 200-year-old yew avenue and a limestone grotto, as well as a Chinese garden complete with pagoda and Tibetan garden of waterfalls and streams.
The Fore Valley
To the east of Castlepollard off the R195 Oldcastle road, the Fore Valley is a charming, bucolic spot, sheltered between two ranges of low, green hills and dotted with some impressive Christian ruins. Around 630, St Fechin founded a monastery here, which had grown into a community of three hundred monks by the time he died in 665. Over the centuries since, various sites in the valley have become associated with Fechin’s miraculous powers, known as the Seven Wonders of Fore, though in truth they’re far from jaw-dropping – it’s unlikely that you’ll be converted to this brand of folk religion, but the wonders add some fun and interest to an exploration of the locale. The historical and supernatural sites are all within walking distance of the village of FORE at the heart of the valley.
The Seven Wonders
To the west of the village, on the south side of the road, stands St Fechin’s Church, now roofless, the oldest remaining building in the valley, dating probably from the tenth century. Over its main entrance there’s a massive lintel inscribed with a small cross-in-circle: the first wonder, the stone raised by St Fechin’s prayers. Up the slope and across from the church, you’ll find the Anchorite’s Cell, a fifteenth-century tower to which the mausoleum chapel of the Greville-Nugent family was added in the nineteenth century. Practising an extreme form of asceticism that was popular in the early and high Middle Ages, anchorites would stay in the tower, meditating and praying alone, with food brought to them by local people, until they died. Inside the chapel, an inscription commemorates the last hermit of Fore, and probably of all Ireland, Patrick Beglin, whose body is “hidden in this hollow heap of stones” – the second wonder, the anchorite in a stone. Like the other hermits, Beglin had vowed to remain in the cell until he died: in 1616, he fell trying to climb out, and broke his neck – thus enacting his promise.
Back down the slope and across the road you’ll see the water that will not boil, a holy well known to cure headaches and toothaches, where in the nineteenth century rites were performed on St Fechin’s Day (January 20). In the spring stands a dead ash tree, gaily festooned with sweet wrappers, stockings, knickers and coins (which caused the copper poisoning that killed the tree) – the fourth wonder, the wood that will not burn. Nearby, a stream that runs underground from Lough Lene to the south resurfaces at the ruined St Fechin’s Mill – the mill without a race.
A couple of hundred metres across the marshy valley floor rise the substantial but compact remains of Fore Priory – the monastery built on a bog. It was erected in the early thirteenth century, one of very few in Ireland to follow the rule of St Benedict, the fifth-century Italian ascetic. Attached to the central cloister, of which several Gothic arches remain, you’ll find the church to the north, the chapterhouse to the east, with the dormitory above, and the refectory to the south. A little away from the main buildings, up a small slope, there’s a circular, thirteenth-century columbarium, where the monks kept doves, an efficient source of meat in the Middle Ages.
The seventh wonder is a little removed from the others to the south of the village – ask for directions at the coffee shop. A short woodland walk will bring you down to the attractive shore of Lough Lene, which is dotted with small, green islands. A stream flows out of the lake, apparently in the wrong direction, passing under an overgrown arched bridge, before disappearing into a sink hole (to emerge at St Fechin’s Mill) – the water that flows uphill.
Athlone and around
Straddling the Shannon at its midpoint, ATHLONE is the bustling capital of the Midlands and an important road and rail junction. It probably derives its name from the Táin Bó Cúailnge, in which the remains of the white bull of Connacht, the Findbennach, after its defeat by Ulster’s brown bull, are scattered throughout Ireland; its loins came to rest here at Áth Luain, the “Ford of the Loins”. A bridge was first built over this ford in 1120 by Turlough O’Connor, king of Connacht, which was replaced by a stone bridge by the Anglo-Normans in 1210, who were also responsible for the mighty castle. The latter still casts a formidable shadow over Athlone, having weathered some bloody fighting during the Cromwellian Wars and the War of the Kings of the seventeenth century. Today, the town supports an important college, the Athlone Institute of Technology, as well as various civil-service offices and high-tech firms, but its main function for tourists is as a jumping-off point for the monastic site of Clonmacnois. Fewer visitors know about the Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre, but the evocative, 2000-year-old wooden road preserved here is also well worth a visit.
Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre
It’s a little tricky to get to the fascinating Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre, which is actually across the county border in Longford and signposted along a minor road off the R392, 20km northeast of Athlone, but its isolation in the midst of a desolate bog only adds to the appeal of the place. In 1984, Bord na Móna (the Peat Board) discovered a buried togher, an early Iron Age trackway, while milling turf here in Corlea raised bog. Dated to 148 BC, the trackway was made of split oak planks up to 4m in length that were meant to float on the bog surface, one of the most substantial and sophisticated of many such prehistoric roads found in Europe. However, the builders knew more about woodworking than the properties of the bog, because within ten years the heavy planks had sunk into the peat – which preserved them perfectly for the next two thousand years. The road connected dry land to the east with an island in the bog to the west, but it’s clear that such a prestigious construction was intended for more than just the movement of animals by farmers: it may have been part of a ceremonial highway from the Hill of Uisneach, the ritual “centre of Ireland” that marked the division of the five ancient provinces, between Mullingar and Athlone, to the royal site of Rathcroghan in Roscommon, via the narrow crossing of the Shannon at Lanesborough.
The substantial remains of Clonmacnois, pre-Norman Ireland’s most important Christian site, enjoy an idyllic location on the grassy banks of the gently meandering Shannon. Here the river descends at a shallow gradient through flat land that floods extensively in winter, but in spring, the receding flow leaves beautiful, nutrient-rich water meadows, some of the last of their type in Europe. The Shannon Callows, as they are known, become the summer home of rare wild-flowers, grazing cattle, lapwings, curlews, redshanks and rare corncrakes.
The monastery was founded, as a satellite of St Enda’s house on Inishmore, in around 548 by St Kieran (Ciarán), who with the help of Diarmuid of the Uí Néills, the first Christian High King of Ireland, erected a wooden church here. Kieran brought with him a dun cow, whose hide later became Clonmacnois’ major relic – anyone who died lying on it would be spared the torments of Hell – and who was commemorated in the Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow), the oldest surviving manuscript written wholly in Irish. Perfectly sited at the junction of the Slí Mhor, the main road from Dublin Bay to Galway Bay, and the major north–south artery, the Shannon, the monastery grew in influence as various provincial kings endowed it with churches and high crosses. With a large lay population, Clonmacnois resembled a small town, where craftsmen and scholars produced illuminated manuscripts, croziers and other remarkable artefacts, many of which can be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. However, between the eighth and twelfth centuries the site was plundered over forty times by Vikings, Anglo-Normans and Irish enemies, and church reforms in the thirteenth century greatly reduced its influence. In 1552, Athlone’s English garrison reduced it to ruins, though, as the burial place of Kieran, it has persisted to this day as a place of pilgrimage, focused on the saint’s day on September 9.
The visitor centre and high crosses
Clonmacnois’ three magnificent high crosses have been moved into the excellent visitor centre to prevent further damage by the weather. (Outside the Office of Public Works has erected all-too-faithful replicas, complete with erosion – an attempt to recreate their appearance when first carved would have been far more constructive.) The finest is the Cross of the Scriptures, a pictorial sermon showing the Crucifixion, Christ in the Tomb and the Last Judgment. It was erected in the early tenth century by Abbot Colman and Flann, the High King of Ireland, who may be depicted together (with Flann holding a pole) in the bottom scene on the shaft’s east face. Standing 4m high, the cross is carved from a single piece of sandstone and may originally have been coloured. The other two crosses are about a century older and much simpler, the South Cross featuring the Crucifixion surrounded by rich interlacing, spirals and bosses, while the North Cross is carved with abstract Celtic ornaments, humans and animals.
Elsewhere in the visitor centre there’s a good audiovisual on Kieran’s life and the history of Clonmacnois, and an interesting reconstruction of a dairthech (oak house), the type of small oratory that would have been built out of wood at this and other monasteries throughout Ireland before stone began to be used in the tenth century.
Most of Clonmacnois’ nine churches are structurally intact apart from their roofs, the largest being the cathedral straight in front of the visitor centre. It was built in 909 by Abbot Colman and King Flann, but its most beautiful feature now is the fifteenth-century north doorway, featuring decorative Gothic carving surmounted by SS Dominic, Patrick and Francis. The last High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, was buried by the altar here in 1198. Several smaller churches encircle the cathedral, notably Temple Ciarán, the burial place of St Kieran, dating from the early tenth century.
In the western corner of the compound rises a fine round tower, erected in 1124 by Abbot O’Malone and Turlough O’Connor of Connacht, High King of Ireland and father of Rory. There’s another round tower attached to the nave of Temple Finghin, which is Romanesque in style and thought to date from 1160–70.
In a peaceful, leafy glade about 500m away from the main site and signposted from the east side of the compound, the Nun’s Church is the place to escape to if a fleet of tour coaches descends. Founded by Queen Devorguilla, who retired here as a penitent in 1170, it boasts a fine Romanesque doorway and chancel arch carved with geometrical patterns.
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