Over the past three decades, Ireland has transformed itself with quiet determination. Gone - or certainly on its way out - is the image of a conservative, introspective, rural set of nations. The infamous unrest and violence, between the Republic (Éire) and Northern Ireland (as part of the United Kingdom), have faded away. An outward-looking Ireland has stepped forward, energised by cities no longer weighed down by the Troubles.
Of course, it's not called the Emerald Isle for nothing; among the romantic preconceptions visitors bring to Ireland, it is their expectations of the landscape that are most likely to be fulfilled. Travel to Ireland and you'll discover an uncommon geological richness and the warming effect of the Atlantic produce an astonishing diversity of terrain on this small island, which is splashed throughout with lakes and primeval bogland.
In the east, the crumpled granite of the Wicklow Hills sits in utter contrast to the horse-grazing plain of the Curragh just a few kilometres away, and in Connemara on the west coast, you can walk from beach to mountain to fen, from seaweed-strewn inlet to lily-covered lough, in a matter of hours. Coupled with the unhurried nature of rural living, this scenic array encourages leisurely investigation, especially on foot or by bicycle.
With the richest store of mythological traditions in northern Europe, the island of Ireland adds further interest to the landscape through the sacred associations of so many of its physical features – few counties do not shelter a pile of stones called “Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Bed”, where the star-crossed lovers are said to have slept together on their flight from the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill. But there’s much more than the resonance of place names to this treasure chest of myths, which still has a life of its own in the tradition of storytelling. The great body of Irish literature, though much of it concerns the dysfunction of real life, is often spiked with wild, fantastical imaginings, from Swift, Sterne and Wilde through to Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney. And unlikely stories and surreal comedy are integral elements of the craic, the talking therapy of Ireland’s pubs. Meanwhile, in the rich culture of traditional music, the two forms that are most likely to enrapture an audience – whether singing along or in silent appreciation – are ballads and sean-nós (“old-style” Irish-language singing), which recount tales of love, history and humour.
Many of Ireland’s mythical deities were reinvented by the Church after the tenth century as historical personages, which can make interpretation of the country’s abundance of historic sites more difficult, especially its enigmatic but awe-inspiring prehistoric tombs, stone circles and hill forts. There are few remnants of the Church itself from the so-called “Dark Ages”, when the monasteries of Ireland clung on as great centres of learning, but their elaborate craftsmanship is evident in surviving illuminated manuscripts. Stone began to be used for religious buildings only in the ninth century, and the country is strewn with fine churches, distinctive round-towers and high crosses from later periods. Doughty castles and tower houses are reminders of the unrest and oppression that followed the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion, while numerous stately homes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attest to the power of the Protestant Ascendancy, alongside Neoclassical institutions in the cities and Dublin’s extensive Georgian areas.
There is little vernacular architecture of note, however, thanks to centuries of subjugation as the laboratory for British colonialism. The poverty experienced by ordinary Irish people under foreign rule was not immediately righted by Independence in 1921, and for most of the twentieth century the economy continued to stagnate. The century’s final decade, however, saw a remarkable upswing in Ireland’s fortunes.
The North, though still blighted by sectarianism and gangsterism, received massive British and European investment and achieved far greater stability after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. So rapid was the Republic’s economic growth during the 1990s that it was christened the Celtic Tiger and, for the first time since the Great Famine of the 1840s, immigration began to outstrip emigration. Greater prosperity necessitated an influx of migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Africa, which presented new challenges to the South’s Catholic homogeneity and the rigid duality of the North. Many Irish people returned from abroad, too, bringing fresh ideas and vibrancy to commerce and culture, after the authoritarianism that followed Independence. However, the global economic crisis of 2008 hit Ireland particularly severely, bringing widespread economic hardship and drastic reductions in public spending, especially in the South. For the visitor, this has meant welcome cuts in hotel and restaurant prices, but in general terms it’s still far from clear what social and cultural effects the crisis will have in the long run.
Dublin is the Republic’s main entry-point, a confident capital whose raw, modern energy is complemented by rich cultural traditions, and which boasts outstanding medieval monuments and the richly varied exhibits of the National Gallery and National Museum. South of the city, the desolate Wicklow Mountains offer a breathtaking contrast to city life.
If you arrive on the west coast at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland’s most spectacular landscapes lie within easy reach. Clare’s coastline itself rises to a head at the vertiginous Cliffs of Moher, while inland lies The Burren, a barren limestone plateau at odds with the lush greenery characteristic of much of Ireland. To Clare’s south, Limerick’s Hunt Museum houses one of Ireland’s most diverse and fascinating collections.
County Kerry, south of Limerick, features dazzling scenery, an intoxicating brew of invigorating seascapes, looming mountains and sparkling lakes. Though the craggy coastline traversed by the Ring of Kerry is a major tourist attraction, it’s still relatively easy to find seclusion. In County Galway, to Clare’s north, lies enthralling Connemara, untamed bogland set between sprawling beaches and a muddle of quartz-gleaming mountains; in contrast, university cities such as Galway and Limerick provide year-round festivals and buzzing nightlife. Further north, Donegal offers a dramatic mix of rugged peninsulas and mountains, glistening beaches and magical lakes.
Dotted around the west coast are numerous islands, providing a glimpse of the harsh way of life endured by remote Irish-speaking communities. The Arans are the most famous – windswept expanses of limestone supporting extraordinary prehistoric sites – but the savagely beautiful landscape of the Blasket Islands, off Kerry’s coast, is equally worthy of exploration.
On Ireland’s southern coast, Cork’s shoreline is punctuated by secluded estuaries, rolling headlands and historic harbours, while Cork city itself is the region’s hub, with a vibrant cultural scene and nightlife. To Cork’s east, Waterford city houses the wondrous Viking and medieval collections of Waterford Treasures, while, in Ireland’s southeastern corner, Wexford’s seashore features broad estuaries teeming with bird life and expansive dune-backed beaches.
Inland the Republic’s scenery is less enchanting, its Midland counties characterized by fertile if somewhat drab agricultural land, as well as broad expanses of peat bog, home to endangered species of rare plants. However, there is gentle appeal in Ireland’s great watercourse, the Shannon, with its succession of vast loughs, and the quaint river valleys of the southeast.
Numerous historic and archeological sites provide fine alternative attractions. The prehistoric tomb at Meath’s Newgrange and the fortress of Dun Aengus on Inishmore are utterly mesmerizing; County Cork features many stone circles; and there’s a multitude of tombs and ring forts across the west coast counties. Stunning early Christian monuments abound, too, including those located on Skellig Michael and the Rock of Cashel and atmospheric sites at Clonmacnois, Glendalough and Monasterboice. Of more recent origin, the Anglo-Irish nobility’s planned estates, developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries around impressive Neoclassical mansions, are visible across Ireland.
Much of Northern Ireland’s countryside is intensely beautiful and unspoilt, though most of the major attractions lie around its fringes. To the north are the green Glens of Antrim and a coastline as scenic as anywhere in Ireland, with, as its centrepiece, the bizarre basalt geometry of the Giant’s Causeway. In the southeast, Down offers the contrasting beauties of serene Strangford Lough and the brooding presence of the Mourne Mountains, while, to the west, Fermanagh has the peerless lake scenery of Lough Erne, a fabulous place for watersports, fishing and exploring island monastic remains. Evidence of the plantation is also provided by planned towns and various grand mansions, often set in sprawling, landscaped grounds.
To get to grips with the North’s history, a visit to its cities is essential: Belfast, with its grand public buildings, was built on the profits of Victorian industry; Derry has grown around the well-preserved walls of its medieval antecedent; and the cathedral town of Armagh is where St Patrick established Christianity in Ireland. Further insights are provided by tremendous museums, including Derry’s Tower Museum and Down’s Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
Hurling and Gaelic football are among the fastest and most physical sports in the world, and well worth catching on your travels, whether on TV or, preferably, live. Rugby and soccer are also widely followed, while going to the races is a great day out, with less of the snobbery sometimes found in Britain. Golf (see Outdoor activities) is also hugely popular north and south of the border.
Both Gaelic football and hurling, Ireland’s two main indigenous sports, are played at a rollicking pace on huge pitches, 140m long and 80m wide, between teams of fifteen; goalposts are H-shaped, with three points awarded for a goal, when the ball goes under the crossbar into the net, and a point when it goes over the crossbar. Over two thousand clubs in villages and parishes all over Ireland vie for the privilege of reaching the club finals, held on St Patrick’s Day at 80,000-seater Croke Park in Dublin, one of the largest stadiums in Europe (see Croke Park and the GAA Museum), while the more popular and prestigious intercounty seasons begin with provincial games in the early summer, reaching their climax in the All-Ireland County Finals in September, also at Croke Park. Details of all fixtures for hurling and Gaelic football can be obtained from the Gaelic Athletic Association (wwww.gaa.ie), while there’s always something of interest on wwww.anfearrua.ie, an independent fans’ forum.
Hurling is played with a leather slíothar, similar in size to a hockey ball, and a hurley (or camán), a broad stick made of ash that is curved outwards at the end. The slíothar is belted prodigious distances, caught and carried on the flattened end of the player’s hurley. It’s a highly skilled game of constant movement and aggression that does not permit a defensive, reactive style of play. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the most successful counties, while Clare, Galway, Offaly and Wexford have emerged in the modern era. No county from the North has ever won an All-Ireland Final, though the sport is very popular in the Glens of Antrim and parts of the Ards Peninsula in County Down. Camogie, the women’s version of hurling, is becoming increasingly popular, and is also well worth watching. Dublin has won the most camogie All-Irelands, though the most successful teams in the modern era have been Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Gaelic football has similarities with both rugby and association football, but its closest relation is Australian Rules Football; indeed every autumn, Australia play Ireland in a hurly-burly series of “international rules” matches that are known for their frequent brawling. The round Gaelic ball, which is slightly smaller than a soccer ball, can be both kicked and caught. However, running with the ball is only permitted if a player keeps control by tapping it from foot to hand or by bouncing it, and throwing is not allowed – the ball must be “hand-passed”, volleyball-style. Whereas hurling’s strongholds are in the southern counties of the island, footballing prowess is more widely spread – Kerry is the most successful county, followed by Dublin, then Galway, but there are plenty of strong teams in Ulster at the moment, notably Tyrone.
Rugby union and soccer are very popular in Ireland and tickets for international matches, especially for rugby, can be hard to come by. The Republic’s home soccer matches (wwww.fai.ie) and Ireland’s rugby matches (wwww.irishrugby.ie) are played at Dublin’s recently rebuilt Aviva Stadium (formerly Lansdowne Road). Northern Ireland’s soccer matches (wwww.irishfa.com) are played at Windsor Park, Belfast. For the international rugby team, which is a joint Republic–Northern Ireland side, the main event of the year is the Six Nations Championship, a series of international games played in February and March against England, France, Wales, Scotland and Italy. You’re more likely to get tickets, however, for matches featuring the four provinces, Munster (which includes Irish rugby’s natural heartland, Limerick), Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, in the Europe-wide Heineken Cup or Amlin Cup or in the Magners League.
Soccer is played semi-professionally in both the North and the Republic, organized into the Carling Premiership and the Airtricity League respectively. Both international teams field most of their players from the English leagues; Manchester United and Liverpool are the most popular clubs among Irish fans. Glasgow Celtic are also popular both north and south, Rangers in the North, with support following Catholic and Protestant divisions, respectively.
Going to the races is a hugely popular and enjoyable day out in Ireland. A good place to get a sense of the Irish passion for horses is the National Stud in Kildare, while for details of all meetings, go to Horse Racing Ireland’s websitewwww.goracing.ie. The Irish Grand National is run at Fairyhouse in County Meath on Easter Monday Easter Monday, followed in April by the five-day Irish National Hunt Festival at Punchestown in County Kildare; at the Curragh, the classic flat-race course in Kildare, the Irish 1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas are held in May, the Irish Derby in late June or early July, the Irish Oaks in July and the Irish St Leger in September. Dublin’s race course is Leopardstown, while notable local meetings are held at Galway, Killarney, Listowel, Sligo and Downpatrick. One local oddity worth mentioning is the meeting at Laytown in County Meath, the last remaining beach racing under Jockey Club rules, held once a year when the tides are at their lowest.
Ireland is a great place for getting out and about. Cycling is one of the best ways to appreciate the quiet pleasures of the Irish countryside, while walkers can take advantage of generally free access across much of the countryside and a number of waymarked trails. With over 120 sailing and yacht clubs, plenty of lakes, rivers and sheltered coastline to explore and some great beaches for surfers, there are many opportunities for watersports enthusiasts, too. The North is covered bywwww.outdoorni.com, a comprehensive guide to outdoor activities and adventure sports.
Signposted cycling trails in the Republic include the Beara Way and the Sheep’s Head Cycling Route in Cork, and the Kerry Way. Trails in the North, however, are better documented and promoted: for detailed information on the many routes here, the best places to start are wwww.cycleni.com and wwww.sustrans.org.uk. They include the Kingfisher Trail (wwww.greenbox.ie or wwww.cycletoursireland.com), which also stretches into Leitrim and Cavan. Other cross-border routes include the recently signposted, 326-kilometre North West Trail, mainly on quiet country roads through Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo.
There are dozens of waymarked walking trails in the Republic, ranging from routes through or around mountain ranges, such as the Wicklow Way, the Táin Trail, the Slieve Bloom Way and the Western Way, to walks around entire peninsulas, like the Sheep’s Head Way, the Beara Way, the Kerry Way and the Dingle Way. The Ulster Way in the North, the oldest and longest waymarked walking trail in Ireland, has recently been redeveloped as a 625-mile circuit of the whole province, taking in the Giant’s Causeway, the Sperrins and the Mournes; it’s now divided into link sections, which can be skipped by taking public transport, and quality sections, and further development is planned. For information on these trails in the Republic, go to wwww.walkireland.ie, which also has details of day walks and of the many walking festivals around the country. In the North, wwww.walkni.com has comprehensive information on all aspects of walking. Some councils and local tourist offices have produced helpful map guides for the main routes too, but you should always get hold of the relevant Ordnance Survey map and carry a compass.
Other walking highlights include the ascents of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo and of Carrauntoohil, for more experienced walkers, in County Kerry, the easily accessible Bray–Greystones walks in County Wicklow and just about anywhere in Connemara, notably the excellent, new Diamond Hill trail in the national park; not to mention walks in the Wicklow and Killarney national parks.
Mountaineering Ireland, an organization that covers hill-walking and rambling, as well as climbing, maintains a compendious website (wwww.mountaineering.ie). Other useful walking websites include wwww.simonstewart.ie and wmountainviews.ie, while wwww.climbing.ie is devoted to rock climbing. Guided walking tour operators are available on wwww.discoverireland.ie and wwww.discovernorthernireland.com.
If you need help in a real emergency on the mountains, call t999 or t112 and ask for mountain rescue (wwww.mountainrescue.ie).
With a wide variety of migrating flocks, including a large number of rare species, visiting its shores, Ireland is a great place for birdwatching; Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, Cape Clear and Castle Espie are especially fruitful hunting grounds. The best general contacts are wwww.irishbirding.com, Birdwatch Ireland in the Republic (wwww.birdwatchireland.ie) and, in the North, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (wwww.rspb.org.uk).
Horseriding, whether over the hills or along the beaches, is also a popular pastime, for both novices and experienced riders, who also have the option of multi-day trails rides. The Association of Irish Riding Establishments (wwww.aire.ie) maintains standards among riding centres in the Republic and the North and publishes details on its website.
Golf, which was probably first brought to Ireland by the Ulster Scots, attracts huge numbers of visitors every year; the Golfing Union of Ireland, based in Kildare (wwww.gui.ie), provides details of over four hundred clubs, north and south, with online booking.
There are plenty of opportunities for sea angling and dozens of rivers and lakes for fly- and game-fishing. For information, the best places to start are the tourist-board websites, wwww.discoverireland.ie and wwww.discovernorthernireland.com. Great Fishing Houses of Ireland (wwww.irelandflyfishing.com) covers twenty or so specialist hotels and B&Bs.
Ireland’s many sailing clubs include the Royal Cork Yacht Club, established in Cobh in 1720, which is thought to be the oldest in the world. Dozens of regattas, such as Calves Week in Schull, and traditional boat festivals, such as the Wooden Boat Festival in Baltimore and Cruinniú na mBád in Kinvarra, are held every year. The most popular areas for sailing are the relatively sheltered waters of the east coast, especially in Dublin Bay; Cork Harbour and west Cork; Lough Swilly on the north coast of Donegal; Strangford Lough in County Down; and some of the larger lakes, such as Lough Derg in County Clare. For further information contact the Irish Sailing Association (wwww.sailing.ie).
Inland waterways and sheltered coasts – notably in west Cork, Dingle and Waterford – also offer canoeing and kayaking opportunities, ranging from day-trips and touring to rough- and white-water racing. The Irish Canoe Union’s website covers courses and clubs in the South (wwww.canoe.ie), while the North has a more comprehensive website, wwww.canoeni.com, that includes canoe trails for multi-day touring. See also wwww.irishseakayakingassociation.org.
There are some superb beaches for surfing (wwww.isasurf.ie) and its spin-offs, windsurfing (wwww.windsurfing.ie for the Irish Windsurfing Association, with a list of providers; wwww.windsurfingireland.net for likely locations) and kite-surfing (wwww.kitesurf.ie for the Irish Kite-surfing Association, with a list of schools; wwww.kitesurfing.ie for likely locations). For kite- and windsurfing, some of the best spots are: Rosslare, County Wexford; Tramore, County Waterford; Castlegregory, Kerry; Rusheen Bay, County Galway; Keel Strand, Achill and Elly Bay, Belmullet, in Mayo; Lough Allen, Leitrim; and Rossnowlagh, County Donegal. Surfers head for: Garrettstown and Inchydoney, County Cork; Inch and Brandon Bay, Kerry; Lahinch, Clare; Easkey and Strandhill, County Sligo; Bundoran and Rossnowlagh, County Donegal; Portrush, Antrim; and Tramore, County Waterford.
Right in the path of the warm North Atlantic Drift current, Ireland offers some of the best scuba diving in Europe, notably off the rocky west coast. Information is available from the Irish Underwater Council (wwww.cft.ie) and wwww.ukdiving.co.uk.
Cathedral and colored houses in Cobh, Ireland © Giancarlo Liguori/Shutterstock
Ireland has two hugely popular, indigenous amateur sports, hurling and Gaelic football, which occupy a special place in the country’s social fabric as ancient games whose renaissance was entwined with the struggle for independence. When played at the highest level, Gaelic football is a fast, skilful and muscular sport, in which the strongest rivalry is between old adversaries Dublin and Kerry. It’s more widespread, though more recently developed, than hurling, which is said to have descended from a game played by the legendary warrior Cúchulainn. With its heartland extending in a rough, low-lying arc from Wexford to southeast Galway, hurling is an exciting, intricately skilled stick-and-ball game that’s said to be the fastest team-sport in the world. Inter-county matches grab the limelight, but the backbone of the Gaelic Athletic Association are parish clubs throughout the country, which are the heart and soul of many communities, with around 300,000 members. If you can’t get to a match yourself, the best place to get a flavour of these passionately supported games is the Croke Park GAA Museum in Dublin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Top image © Lukasz Pajor/Shutterstock
Around 45km south of Athlone at the confluence of the Camcor and Little Brosna rivers, BIRR is the Midlands’ most attractive town, planned around the estate of Birr Castle, the home of the Parsons family, later the Earls of Rosse. Around Emmet Square – formerly Duke’s Square, but the unpopular statue of the Duke of Cumberland, victor over the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, is long gone from the central pillar – you’ll find several broad Georgian terraces, graced with fanlights and other fine architectural details, notably St John’s Mall to the east and Oxmantown Mall to the north off Emmet Street. Birr is not yet on the country’s main tourist trail but supports some appealing places to stay and eat, making it an excellent base from which to explore the Shannon, Clonmacnois and Slieve Bloom. The town comes to life in mid-August during its Vintage Week and Arts Festival (wwww.birrvintageweek.com), when shop assistants, bar staff and townspeople deck themselves out in historic regalia, and there’s a varied programme of street theatre, music, and art exhibitions.
A monastery was first founded here in the sixth century, later becoming famous for the Mac Regol Gospels (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), an illuminated manuscript named after the early ninth-century abbot and bishop. Birr was settled by the Anglo-Normans, who built a castle here in 1208, later becoming the site of an O’Carroll stronghold between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the 1619 plantation of their territory, known as Ely O’Carroll, however, Sir Laurence Parsons was given Birr, which became known as Parsonstown. A descendant of his set about reconstructing the town in the 1740s in Neoclassical style, a development which continued in stages until as late as the 1830s.
Lying to the west of Emmet Square, Birr's forbidding Gothic castle itself is not open to the public, but there’s plenty of interest in the Historic Science Centre in the coach houses, which also shelter a pleasant summertime café, and in the varied grounds. In the nineteenth century, the Parsons family gained an international reputation as scientists and inventors, partly it would seem because they were educated at home. The third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, devoted himself to astronomy, and in 1845 built the huge Rosse Telescope, with a 72-inch reflector, which remained the largest in the world until 1917. It was fully reconstructed in the 1990s, along with the massive, elaborate housing of walls, tracks, pulleys and counterweights needed to manoeuvre it, which can be seen in the garden. The fourth Earl, Laurence, and his mother, Mary, a friend of Fox Talbot’s, were eminent photographers, while Laurence’s brother, Sir Charles Parsons, was carving himself a varied and colourful career, which included building a small flying machine and a helicopter in the 1890s and spending 25 years unsuccessfully trying to make artificial diamonds. He’ll be best remembered, however, as the inventor of the steam turbine and for his exploits at the 1897 Spithead Naval Review, celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee when, frustrated at the Royal Navy’s foot-dragging, he gatecrashed in the Turbinia, the first steam-turbine ship, racing through the fleet at the unheard-of speed of 34 knots. Within a few years the technology was adopted by navies and passenger liners around the world. All of this is set in historical and global context in the Science Centre, with plenty of astrolabes, cameras and other instruments and some lively audiovisuals.
You could easily spend a couple of hours strolling around the beautiful castle grounds (demesne), especially if you buy the booklet on its fifty most significant trees. Beyond the wild-flower meadows, which are left to grow tall until July every year, lie a nineteenth-century lake, a fernery and fountain, and the oldest wrought-iron suspension bridge in Ireland, dating from 1820. The walled gardens feature the tallest box hedges in the world, which are over three hundred years old, as well as intricate parterres and paths canopied with hornbeams in the formal, seventeenth-century-style Millennium Garden.
To the east of Birr, straddling the Offaly–Laois border, rises Slieve Bloom, the “mountain of Bladhma”, named after an ancient Connacht warrior who sought refuge here. Although it extends only for about 20km across and down, the massif provides welcome relief from the flatness of the Midlands and a refuge for wildlife including bog plants such as the insect-eating sundew, and birds including skylarks, kestrels and the rare peregrine falcon. The waymarked 77km Slieve Bloom Way describes a heavily indented circuit of most of the range, before passing underneath the highest point – Arderin (527m), which means, rather hopefully, the “height of Ireland”; shorter, signposted walks are detailed on the very useful website, wwww.slievebloom.ie. OS map #54 covers the whole of Slieve Bloom, while East West Mapping (wwww.eastwestmapping.ie) produces a useful 1:50,000 map-guide to the waymarked trail, available from local bookshops. For something more organized, get in touch with the Slieve Bloom Rural Development Co-operative at the community centre in Kinnitty, who run a walking festival over the bank-holiday weekend in early May and guided walks every Sunday afternoon thereafter until November.
The best base on the Offaly side of the mountains, within walking distance of the Slieve Bloom Way, is the charming village of KINNITTY, which huddles around a triangular green that’s traversed by a tiny stream.
Ireland divides into four provinces, loosely corresponding to ancient kingdoms: Leinster (covering counties Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow); Munster (Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford); Connacht (Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo); and Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland, plus Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in the Republic). They do not have a political role, but crop up in everything from Gaelic games to weather forecasts.
If the Irish didn’t invent the pub, they’ve certainly espoused its cause with great vigour. Indeed, alongside the local church and the betting shop (for men), the pub retains a pivotal place in Irish society. It’s the place where stories are narrated, deals and pacts are made, jokes are told and, sometimes, traditional music is heard. During the 1990s, the “Irish pub” concept (albeit with “authentic” period decor manufactured in Dublin) spread to far-flung points of the globe. Yet experiencing the real thing on its home turf is still an unbeatable experience.
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