The West Midlands

This area is Ireland’s most sparsely populated but you will find some small villages and larger towns spread across the landscape from Longford to Leitrim. It’s an area well-liked by anglers for its bountiful lakes and rivers.

Further south in Roscommon and parts of Offaly and Tipperary, the landscape is mostly flat and lacks the awe of Wicklow Mountains or the west coast but the fertile countryside is unspoilt.

Most towns aren’t too well distinguished with the exceptions of Strokestown and Birr which were both designed around grand country estates and all are generally quite small.

The area is removed from the tourist trail and you’re unlikely to find leprechaun souvenirs or Guinness apparel on sale in the shops here.

The monastery of Clonmacnoise is the most significant historic site in the West Midlands.

This region was home to writer John McGahern until his 2006 death and the John McGahern International Summer School takes place each year in Carrick-on-Shannon in his honour with tours, lectures, and workshops.

Drumsna

How to Get Here

To reach Drumsna, take the N4 which connects to Dublin (two hours away) and to Sligo (30 minutes away). It’s also a two hour drive to Galway. Drumsna village is located 16 kilometres north of Longford Town and just 10 minutes from Carrick-on-Shannon. There are no bus or rail services.

Top Reasons to Visit

Anthony Trollope Trail – This walking path is named after the British Victorian writer Anthony Trollope (1815-82) and includes 27 points of interest throughout Leitrim County. Trollope, a civil servant by profession, wrote his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, while investigating the finances of the local postmaster. He was inspired by the ruins or nearby Headford House and information about the trail can be found in the Carrick-on-Shannon visitor centre.

Athlone

More than once has Athlone sardonically been described as the ‘dead centre’ of Ireland but a regeneration of the area surrounding the town’s castle and the fact that the Shannon flows through Athlone has made it an increasingly attractive option for visitors.

The freshly opened Luan Gallery and a host of new restaurants and sleek contemporary buildings fit in neatly with the two centuries old houses and shops that permeate much of the town alongside one of finest churches in Ireland.

How to Get Here

The M6 has bypassed Athlone but still allow for 30 minutes to drive down its main street on a busy day as traffic delays are still frequent. Free parking is provided on street but there are also paid car parks.

Driving from Galway will take 90 minutes while the journey to Dublin by car is two hours.

Athlone is connected to 20 major towns and cities by bus as well as scores of smaller locations throughout the country by Bus Eireann and Ulsterbus. Trains connect the town to Westport in Mayo, Galway, and Dublin.

Visitor Information

Athlone Tourist Office –Athlone Castle, Athlone, County Westmeath

Top Reasons to Visit

Athlone Castle – This impressive 13th century castle was recently renovated, the three year project ended in 2012, and the fort overlooking the River Shannon has attracted large numbers of visitors ever since.

The interior of the castle has exhibitions on the history of the town and the castle while 3D maps and touch screen displays, including the interactive How to Capture a Castle exhibit, neatly compliment the artefacts and weapons on display.

Following Catholic defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, Irish forces retreated to Athlone using the Shannon as a defensive line and the 360 degree Siege of Athlone experience will make you feel like you were right at the heart of the action in 1690.

While it may not be your typical castle experience, it’s an enjoyable experience which kids will love and it’s hard to find anything better to do on a rainy day in the Midlands.

You’ll find Athlone’s tourist office in the castle gatehouse.

Location: Town Bridge, Athlone, County Westmeath

Luan Gallery –This 2012 contemporary art gallery gave Midlands Ireland a chance to show their creative work and has helped to raise Athlone’s cultural pedigree since. The gallery is located on the banks of the Shannon and this €3.4 million extension was added to the town’s Father Matthew Temperance Hall which dates from 1897. Since then, it has been used a town hall, library, concert venue, and cinema but these days the visual arts space exhibits local up-and-coming and established artists as well as parts of the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s collection from Dublin.

Location: Grace Road, Athlone, County Westmeath

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Catholic Church – This baroque church was constructed in the 1930s in a style very rarely seen in Ireland. The church’s twin towers represent the two saints and a restoration has done much to improve the pews, floors, and vaulted ceiling.

While dedicated to Peter and Paul, Saint Patrick is represented in one of Harry Clarke’s six beautiful stained glass windows.

Location: Market Square, Athlone, County Westmeath

Where to Eat

Kin Khao – This Thai restaurant is arguably the best in the Midlands and possibly the country with dishes on the menu rarely available outside of Thailand. The Crying Tiger (grilled beef fillet) and very hot Jungle Curry are two of the best options. The food served here is extremely spicy so keep your water glass topped up.

Typical main: €15

Location: Abbey Lane, Athlone, County Westmeath

The Left Bank Bistro – The early bird menu at this restaurant is impressive with choices such as chorizo sausage, wild mushroom risotto, beef Stroganoff, and monkfish on the menu. Later in the evening, there’s a fine selection of Asian fusion meals while the tandoori chicken is the most popular lunch time option. There’s also a light tapas menu if you’re merely peckish.

A fantastic selection of desserts such as the lemon and lime cheesecake, Pavlova roulade, and Mississippi mud pie compliment your meal.

Typical main: €20

Location: Fry Place, Athlone, County Westmeath

Accommodation

Bastion Bed and Breakfast – There are small bathrooms, no TVs, no phones, and no elevators at this quirky B&B but it’s still a hip location full of nooks and crannies, the buffet breakfast is a healthy one while this accommodation is set in an historic area of Athlone.

Rates: €65

Location: 2 Bastion Street, Athlone, County Westmeath

Glasson Country House Hotel – With majestic views of Hare Island and Lough Ree as well as a challenging golf course on the grounds, this hotel is popular with those looking to be active and there are fine forest walks and boating activities in the vicinity but breakfast table discussion does tend to focus on the bunkers.

Rates: €120

Location: Glasson, County Westmeath

Radisson Blu Hotel Athlone–This hotel boasts exceptional views of the River Shannon as well as Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Church. There’s a fine pool but this hotel lacks a spa and the breakfasts are nothing to boast about but it is in a good position if you want to tour the town, castle, and Luan Gallery.

Rates: €100

Location: Northgate Street, Athlone, County Westmeath

Wineport Lodge – With plate-glass windows and orange cedar wood walls, this particular accommodation could almost be in the Nordic countries rather than the middle of Ireland. There’s a beautiful lake nearby and the lodge is surrounded by enchanting forests but the stillness can be disturbed by jet-skiers. The bathrooms are cozy, principally thanks to under-floor heating though service in the restaurant is somewhat tardy at times.

Rates: €188

Location: Glasson, County Westmeath

Nightlife

Sean’s Bar – There’s a framed certificate on the wall of this establishment, awarded for being the world’s oldest public house by the Guinness Book of World Records. While some still dispute this pub’s biggest claim to fame, it’s nonetheless a real sawdust on the floor type place. There’s a beer garden facing the river and traditional Irish music is performed here on most nights.

Location: 13 Main Street, Athlone, County Westmeath

Shopping

You’ll find many pubs, antique stores, and booksellers and one of the last bookbinders in the county on the Left Bank.

Ballinahown Irish Designer Craft Village – Two stores, Core Crafted Design and Celtic Roots Studio are located here and sell items such as bog oak carvings, honey, jewellery, glassworks, and ceramics and a visit is well worth your time.

Location: N62, County Westmeath (on road from Athlone to Limerick)

Bastion Gallery – Michael Jackson once spent two hours here in 2006 perusing the varied and chic collection of toys, gifts, and books during a recording visit to Ireland.

Location: 6 Bastion Street, Athlone, County Westmeath

John’s Bookshop – This second-hand bookshop is everything you would want it to be. Disorganised, cluttered, and filled to the brim with books; many of them rare or signed by the author.

Location: 9 Main Street, Athlone, County Westmeath

Sports and Other Activities

Cycling –Buckleys Cycles offers rented bikes for exploring the lakes, plains, and quiet country roads of the area surrounding Athlone.

Location: Kenna Centre, Dublin Road, Athlone, County Westmeath

Boating

Taking a tour of the Shannon not only serves to demonstrate the significance of Athlone as an important military location but also reveals the attractiveness of the landscape.

Viking Tours – Built in 1923, this replica Viking longship takes visitors up to Lough Ree and is now the oldest timber frame passenger ship still in service in Ireland and Britain. Tours cost €10 and take place between March and October.

Location: Athlone Castle, Quayside, Athlone, County Westmeath

Golf –Athlone Golf Club, established in 1892, is one of Ireland’s oldest though visitors today will play on a 2005 redesigned course. This 18 hole parkland is located along the shores of Hodson Bay on Lough Ree.

Resident pro Kevin Grealy provides lessons to players of all levels. This course has hosted both provincial and national tournaments and visitors appreciate the sandy greens, tree banked fairways, and smooth terrain.

Fees: €30-€35

Holes: 18

Par: 72

Location: Hodson Bay, Athlone, County Westmeath

Clonmacnoise

rsz_245761_a33bfc70

Like Chartres in France, Clonmacnoise was a site of both holy and royal significance in the early Christian period and this monastery is the most significant historic settlement on the banks of the River Shannon.

Founded between 543 and 549 by Saint Ciaran, Clonmacnoise was built for its isolation and can only be reached by one road or by boat.

How to Get Here

Many tour buses visit here and there can be a lot of cars during the summer. Parking is free but you will want to arrive early to ensure you find a spot. From Athlone, use the N62 and R444 toward Shannonbridge, the journey lasts 20 minutes.

Or from Birr use the R357 before joining the N52, it’s a 35 minute trip. There is no public transportation to Clonmacnoise but Paddywagon tours are available. To get here by boat from Athlone will take 90 minutes and a round trip on the Viking costs €15 but you need to book in advance.

Top Reasons to Visit

Clonmacnoise – English troops destroyed this monastery in 1552 after the holy site had survived centuries of hostile attention from the Irish, the Vikings, and the Normans. Clonmacnoise was founded on a ridge of natural gravel known as an esker which is part of the EiscirRiada network of ridges between Dublin and Galway. The Callows, a marshland on the Shannon, surrounds the monastery and is now a bird sanctuary.

The sons of noble families from across Europe studied with the monks here during the Middle Ages and many ruins remain such as the cathedral which dates from the 10th century (though additional features were added during the 1400s). Rory O’Connor, the last high king of Ireland, was buried here in 1198 as were many of the kings of Connaught.

O’Rourke’s Round Tower was rebuilt after being struck by lightning in the 12th century. The smallest church here is believed to have been Saint Ciaran’s burial place while restoration work on the Nun’s Church was finished two years ago and you’ll see fine Romanesque touches to the buildings.

Copies of the High Crosses stand in their original locations while the originals are now in the visitor centre in order to protect them from the elements but some of the artefacts and manuscripts which originated here are now housed in the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology and History in Dublin.

Tours are available every hour in the summer months though you will have to cope with a great many tourists.

Location: Clonmacnoise, County Offaly

Banagher

This small town on the banks of the Shannon was once a prime example of a rotten borough, an electoral constituency grossly manipulated by local aristocrats. Nowadays, it’s a popular marina village which water sport enthusiasts frequently use a base. Famous 19th century writer and poet Charlotte Bronte honeymooned here.

Hot to Get Here

It’s 40 minutes’ drive to both Athlone and Birr from Banagher and parking is rarely an issue. There are daily buses to Birr, Tullamore, and Dublin.

Top Reasons to Visit

The River Queen –This Silver Line Cruisers boat sits 54 passengers and comes with a full bar. Cruises are available during the summer.

Location: The Marina, Banagher, County Offaly

Nightlife

J. Hough’s – This pub is popular with visitors from all over the world and there’s a German piano with regular sing-along. A welcoming beer garden waits outside.

Sports and Other Activities

Canoeing – Shannon Adventure Canoeing is a flexible way to explore the river and lakes with canoes available to rent from a day to one week.

Location: The Marina, Banagher, County Offaly

Birr

Though this town dates back to the 6th century, it has an overriding 18th century Georgian theme with tree lined streets and finely preserved homes. Birr is noted for its walks and festivals throughout the year, including world’s longest running hot air balloon competition. Birr Castle is the main attraction and while the building itself is closed to the public, there’s plenty to enjoy on the estate.

Visitor Information

Birr Tourist Office – Brendan Street, Birr, County Offaly (May to September only)

Top Reasons to Visit

rsz_1364523_7491ea3b

Birr Castle Demesne – A Gothic revival castle constructed around the remains of an old 17th century home which was ruined by an 1823 fire, this is still home to the earls of Rosse. The world’s tallest box hedges can be found in the formal gardens (almost 10 metres in height) and there are rare trees, plants (3,400 in all), and shrubs from around the world.

Spring is a particularly good time to visit as you’ll see the flowers in bloom.

The grounds are located between two rivers and include a lake as well as the Historic Science Centre which was revamped last year to include new interactive displays and features exhibits on astronomy, botany, and engineering, and photography. The huge 183 centimetre long telescope was the world’s largest for 75 years after it was made in 1845.

There’s a café, craft shop, and play area for kids.

Location: Rosse Row, Birr, County Offaly

Where to Eat

The Thatch Bar – Located on the N62 road to Roscrea, this restaurant and pub is set in a thatched country house with early bird, a five course dinner, and a la carte dining options available.

Sirloin steaks served with mushrooms and rabbit and pigeon terrines are among the fine options on the menu but you’ll also find far more exotic options such as ostrich, which is farmed nearby, and kangaroo.

Typical main: €17

Location: Crinkil, County Offaly

Accommodation

Dooly’s Hotel – Originally a coach house almost 300 years ago, there’s a quiet charm to the place and large rooms. It’s also a good place to stay the night if you’re heading onto the west coast.

The hotel has a disco which continues until the early hours during weekends and will likely disturb any plans you may have for a quiet night’s sleep.

Rates: €99

Location: Emmet Square, Birr, County Offaly

The Maltings – Situated on a riverbank near Birr Castle, this hotel was built in 1810 as a storehouse for Guinness malt. Families and those with children will find the Maltings to be an attractive option. Well situated and with pleasant rooms, the hotel is aging and there is no dinner option.

Rates: €70

Location: Castle Street, Birr, County Offaly

Roscrea

This town dates to the 7th century and there are symbols of its heritage on every street. The main road cuts directly through was once Saint Cronan’s monastery and passes a modern Catholic church which has incorporated a 12th century Romanesque entry way. There are also castles and ancient towers throughout the town.

How to Get Here

Roscrea is located just off the M7 Dublin to Cork road and Limerick is one hour away. There’s plenty of free parking in the centre of town and on neighbouring streets. The town is serviced by buses to Dublin, Limerick, Athlone, Cashel, Cork, and Sligo. There are trains to both Dublin and Limerick, both 90 minutes away.

Top Reasons to Visit

Roscrea Castle – This castle was awarded to the Duke of Ormonde in 1314 by King Richard II but the interior is filled with 16th century furniture while access to the adjacent 18th century Damer House is included in the price of admission (€4) and you also get into Black Mills on Church Street, a small museum which includes a High Cross.

Built in 1724 within the castle’s walls, Damer House features exhibits on local history and is unusual for its time given that it neither replaced nor was an addition to an existing castle.

Location: Castle Street, Roscrea, County Tipperary

Country Choice – Visiting the town of Nenagh is worth it for this deli and coffee bar which serves home-made meals including Guinness casserole, Irish stew, and cheese and broccoli soup. Farmhouse cheeses are also on sale and particularly noteworthy is the Tipperary Brie.

Location: Kenyon Street, Nenagh, County Tipperary

button

Comments

comments