A weekend in the midlands: Ireland's Hidden Heartlands
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
The Irish midlands get a bit of a raw deal and are often left out of the equation when discussing the great tourist spots of Ireland. I’m delighted to see that this is starting to turn on its head now with the likes of Discover Ireland’s recent promotional campaign #IrelandsHiddenHeartlands
For years the midlands have been overlooked by tourists in favour of the dramatic splendour of the Wild Atlantic Way, the breath-taking mountain ranges of Kerry, Mayo and Wicklow, the diverse foodie culture of places like Cork, Galway, Kilkenny and indeed Dublin, and the beautiful beaches of places like Donegal, Sligo and Wexford. The midlands are less easy to market and really didn’t get a look in until recently but happily this is beginning to change. Now we’ve got greenways, cycleways and walkways to rival any others in Ireland, the food scene has come on in leaps and bounds with fantastic cafes and restaurants popping up all over the region and there are any number of brilliant spots to bring your kids. The lakeland areas are spectacularly beautiful and its spread of country houses and castles are sure to impress. It doesn’t scream ‘look at me’ like some of its mouthier counties but has a subtler charm which will appeal to the more discerning and adventurous tourist.
Growing up in Westmeath, I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate what was on my own doorstep until I moved away. I decided to rectify that by planning a weekend away with two friends to explore all the great stuff to be found in the heart of Ireland. And my goodness, were we kept busy. We hiked, we ate wonderful food, we stayed in the most fabulous Airbnb, we visited two castles, a church and took in an exhibition in what has to be of one Ireland’s most beautiful gallery spaces. All in less than 36 hours. Can you imagine what you could do if you had a week?
Slieve Bloom walks, Co. Laois / Offaly Woodfield Café, Birr
Accommodation: The Pink House, Ballinahown
Luan Gallery, Athlone
Harry Clarke Studio stained glass windows, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone
Bastion Kitchen café, Athlone
An active start to the weekend: Slieve Bloom Walks
On the recommendation of my very active sister, we found ourselves at Glenbarrow carpark, halfway between Clonaslee and Rosenallis, Co. Laois to do one of the Slieve Bloom looped walks. Due to time constraints we opted for one of the shorter ones, the 4km Waterfall Loop which starts and ends at the car park, but there are a number of longer options departing from the same place if you have the time. You can find out more here.
The Slieve Blooms bridge the counties of Offaly and Laois and are extremely picturesque and peaceful. Our route took us through some beautiful woodland areas and forested paths along the River Barrow and wasn’t overly challenging, though some of the uphill steps were clearly designed for giants. I have long legs and even I struggled to step up to the next level. After about a kilometre you reach the very impressive though bizarrely named Clamp Hole waterfall which thunders past you at two stages.
A relatively steep climb brings you back on the forest path. After an unexpected but brief torrential rain and hail storm, the sun was back, shining through the trees and creating the most stunning shadow effects. The moss was the most remarkable shade of green and the whole effect was not unlike a scene from Lord of the Rings. Eventually you end up back on the forestry road which reminded me a little of some of our Camino walks.
You will soon come to a downhill boardwalk through the woods which brings you back onto the main road, and subsequently to the car park. It’s not a taxing hike, except perhaps for the steep uphill stretch, so I found it extremely calming and meditative, with the sound of the river and the waterfalls in the background. At this point I was most definitely ready for some food. On to the next stage of our trip: Birr, Co Offaly and the renowned Woodfield Café.
It's no lie to say I would drive all the way from Dublin for a sandwich from Woodfield Café. What a little treasure of a place. We visited here on the advice of my sister Lorna who is a font of knowledge on all things midlands and absolutely loves this place. It's an organic café located within the grounds of a garden centre, selling produce grown by themselves and local growers and it shows. All of the ingredients are of high-quality and everything we tried was full of flavour.
Karen opted for one of the specials, the goats cheese salad on buckwheat with roasted veg, mixed leaves, alfalfa sprouts, cranberry and Balsamic. I’m very fussy when it comes to this dish: I don’t like when the rind is still left on the cheese or when it’s too cold and just sits on top of the salad. As you can probably tell from the pic, this one was pretty much perfect. All the ingredients worked really well together and the sourness of the cranberries was offset by the sweetness of the very good Balsamic. Divine.
I’ve been a bit of a fallen vegetarian for the past few years and have been falling further as the years progress. However, as I had it on good authority (yep my sister again) that their sausage sambos are a work of art, I felt it would be remiss of me not to try one. She wasn’t wrong – that is one mean sandwich. Organic sausages with Dijon mustard, mayo, leaves and organic cheese which could only be described as divinity between slices of the most delectable sourdough bread. It made me very happy. Aoife opted for a bacon version. Cue equally happy face. Stuffed to the gills, we still managed to fit in dessert.
Their coffee is very good and tasted even better accompanied by a slice of raspberry roulade. The meringue was perfectly crunchy with just the right amount of cream and the raspberry was, excuse the pun, the icing on the cake. Thumbs up from me. The two girls opted for the apple pie and were given two quite enormous slices. I had a little sample and it was really good. The apples were just right: not too mushy but not too chunky either – just the way I like it. The bill for the three of us came to €57, which included coffees, teas, a homemade Kombucha and sparkling water.
It’s a fab spot and the location is perfect. Chickens are roaming freely around the grounds and the building itself is so charming with flowers and fairy lights everywhere. The interior is very cool and modern with slate grey walls contrasting nicely with the brightly coloured units and minimalist light fixtures. Also, the staff are very friendly and smiley. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Birr, you have to check it out.
A visit to Birr is not complete without a trip to the castle. As the castle itself is still occupied by 7th Earl of Rosse and his family, it is only open for guided tours during the mornings of the summer months. However, the grounds are simply incredible and there is loads to see and do, including one of the world's largest telescopes, a 500 year old oak tree, a science centre and Ireland's largest treehouse, to name but a few. There are river walks and lake walks and you may be lucky enough to see an otter or a kingfisher. It's utterly fab and we are definitely coming back again in the summer.
There are wonderful views of the castle and the gate lodge as you enter the grounds through the main reception area. I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to live in such a place, and to have those extensive grounds as your garden. Imagine the summer parties. There are a number of different walks you can take during your trip: as short or as long as you like. Due to early closing hours in winter, we only had an hour to explore but we covered a lot of ground. Here are some of my highlights if you’re short on time.
The Earls of Rosse were far ahead of the game in feats of engineering and science, among other disciplines. One of the biggest draws to the site is the enormous telescope, designed and built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in the early 1840s. The telescope was the largest in the world for over 70 years: to give you a sense of the scale, the speculum mirror at the bottom has a dimeter of 1.8 metres and the tube itself is 17 metres long. Built in workshop rooms in Birr Castle, the telescope enabled the Earl to see further into space than was possible before. His most significant discovery was in relation to the spiral nature of some galaxies and was the first clue to the world of the existence of other galaxies. Absolutely fascinating.
The gardens are home to hundreds of rare plants collected by the consecutive Earls of Rosse on their travels around the world over the last 150 years. A 500 year old oak tree stands proudly in the centre of the grounds while a spiral of lime trees have a hidden meaning – they were planted in the shape of the M51 galaxy: the spiral of stars that led to his discovery mentioned above.
In the beautiful formal gardens you’ll find the world’s tallest box hedges which are over 300 years old. Here are some pics to give you a sense of their scale…
And another first for Birr - you’ll also find a Sequoia tree, the first to arrive in Ireland after its discovery in China in 1945.
For kids (including overgrown kids…):
The adventure area is fantastic for kids. It has a picnic area, sand pits and a hobbit hut but best of all, it holds Ireland’s largest treehouse. This is more of a castle than a house, with towers and turrets and numerous windows to peer out of as you pretend to be Lord or Lady of the manor.
We had to drag ourselves away as the castle was due to close but there is no doubt that we’ll be back. Definitely somewhere you could spend a day. The courtyard café opens from March but you could also bring a picnic. Additional note: the town of Birr itself is extremely pretty and has retained much of its Georgian character to this day. I was delighted to see that unlike many other Irish towns, it hadn’t fallen foul to hideous concrete developments and plastic shop frontages. It even has cool retro petrol pumps.
WHERE WE STAYED: THE PINK HOUSE
The Pink House was our home away from home for the weekend. Located in the tiny but supremely picturesque village of Ballinahown, Co. Westmeath (my dad’s home town), this Airbnb is perfectly located to visit Athlone, Birr, Clonmacnoise and the areas around the Shannon. This is the house of my dreams: eclectic, quirky and filled with paintings, sculpture and interesting objets d'art. What a find. I knew when I saw the images online that I had to stay there.
I love houses that speak volumes about the personalities of those who live there. I knew from looking at pics of Helen’s house online that we were interested in all the same things. It has so much character. We arrived on Saturday evening to a warm welcome from our host and a tour of the fabulous house. It was quite a cold day so we were delighted to see a fire blazing in the hearth. There’s something so comforting about an open fire and after dinner we spent the evening curled up in front of it.
The house itself is a gorgeous old structure and very large with thick walls and beautifully maintained sash windows with shutters. There’s a huge living room with a long galley kitchen at the back, a dining room, a utility room, a bathroom and three double bedrooms upstairs, the master of which is absolutely enormous and which was my room for the weekend.
Each bedroom is uniquely and tastefully decorated and super-comfortable. I loved the vibrant colours and patterns of the bedclothes in my room which contrasted madly but perfectly with the huge flower painting behind the bed, and the clashing designs of the cushions on the couch.
On the table in the corner stood a lamp with a retro pink and yellow print which looked amazing beside the asymmetrical mirror arrangement. The window from the master bedroom also frames beautifully the picture-perfect church across the street.
The other two bedrooms were also a good size but the colours are a little more low-key than the master. One was full of books with shelves of objects on display such as old sewing machines which very much appealed to one of my craft-loving companions. The third bedroom has a softer décor with floral-patterned bedclothes and two ornate candleholders above the bed on either side. Above the door is a gorgeous collection of old-fashioned wooden toys. Each of the three rooms has beautiful wooden floors and are all charming in their own way so you needn’t worry about arguments over who gets the best room. They’re all great.
Fret not though – all this character does not come at the expense of modernisation. The kitchen has all the mod-cons you desire including a Nespresso machine – very important for a caffeine addict like me. Helen kindly provided us with everything you’d need for breakfast including orange juice, milk, bread, butter, marmalade and eggs which I thought was a nice personal touch.
One last thing about the Pink House – bizarre as it this sounds, it has the most beautifully scented bathroom I’ve ever encountered with diffusers giving off scents of cedarwood and lemongrass. I loved the décor, especially the two framed nude charcoals on display and all the extras provided including organic soaps and handcreams. It’s all these little touches that made the Pink House that bit special. If you’re looking for something a little less ordinary, then I couldn’t recommend enough.
Rate per night (based on minimum two-night stay) - €120 *does not include Airbnb service charge or cleaning fee
Day two of our trip was spent in Athlone. We started with a dose of contemporary art.
This is the gorgeous Luan Gallery in Athlone. You’ll find it along the west banks of the Shannon, beside the landmark Church of St Peter and Paul and across the road from Athlone Castle. Full of light and with spectacular views across the river, it should be on everyone's itinerary if they're in the vicinity.
It’s one of the nicest spaces for art I’ve seen and on a glorious blue-sky day would give any Mediterranean gallery a run for its money. A long rectangular glass box overhangs the river and allows you to submerge yourself in art on one side and beautiful Shannon views on the other. Internal gallery spaces are white with wooden floors and large sash windows which on one side perfectly frame the colonaded façade of the church and its clock tower.
We were lucky enough to catch the last day of Eoin Butler's Now and Then, Here and Now show of landscapes, portraits and nudes - a beautiful body of work shown off to its best advantage in this stunning space. Oh and it's completely free to visit too.
Next stop - Harry Clarke Studio windows in the Church of St Peter and Paul
These are details of the astonishing stained-glass windows from the Harry Clarke studio which were commissioned for the Church of St Peter & Paul in Athlone. They are jaw-droppingly beautiful, especially when the light hits them at certain points of the day and are a must-visit if you happen to find yourself in the midlands. You will see the portraits of the two saints on either side of you in the hallway as you enter the church. They are exquisite but it was the faces in particular that caught my attention. The humanity and the expressions on their faces is quite astounding. Hard to believe they were achieved in glass.
Upon entering the church you’ll see an anteroom to your right which holds two particularly stunning windows: Christ in Judgement with the two saints Peter and Paul on either side, and the Purgatory window where in one of the upper panels the devil appears alongside two vicious looking dogs, and where in the lower panels we see Jesus descending into hell.
I had always believed that Harry Clarke himself was responsible for these windows but further reading has shown me that this was not possible as the artist died in 1931. These windows only came into being from 1937 and were the work of the Harry Clarke Studios which he of course founded, and which continued on after his death by artists who had worked under him or were working in his style. Richard King was one of those artists who trained under Harry and was responsible for six of the windows in this church including the Purgatory in the anteroom above. You can easily pick out which ones are his. His style is very angular and distinct.
His windows feature some of my favourite panels including this one above which comes from his St Patrick window and shows an angel appearing to him in a dream, as the story goes. The text Vox Hib refers to Vox Hibernicæum representing the voice of the people of Ireland who he hears pleading with him to come back to convert them. I love the stylised imagery and his use of colour here.
I had been wondering at the time why there was a panel on this window featuring New York and Melbourne churches but read afterwards that these represent the Church of St Patrick in their respective cities, which of course now makes perfect sense.
I was really hoping that there would be a pamphlet or some information about the artwork in the church but sadly there was none to be found. I would’ve happily paid for a booklet as I really wanted to read the stories behind each of the panels as I was walking around. As it turns out, there seems to be very little material available about these windows. Surely this is a coffee-table book crying out to be printed? The best online guide I could find was by photographer Niall McCauley who has photographed and carried out meticulous research on all of the windows and gives little notes on what’s going on in each of the panels. Fantastic work and I was so happy to find it and to consult his notes for the pics I’d taken. Here is the link to this Flickr page:
The windows in this church are an absolute feast for the eyes and for the soul. Entrance is completely free so you have no excuse not to drop in. Enjoy!
I hate to use a cliché but there really is something here for people of all ages. Forget your notions of old-fashioned museum displays and musty exhibition spaces. The exhibits here are very interactive and give a great overview of the town from prehistoric times to present day.
Its history is an interesting one - you’ll learn about the significance of the town and its strategic position on the Shannon. The story of the Siege of Athlone (1690), one of the most important battles of the town’s history, is told through an immersive multi-sensory audio-visual film experience. You’ll hear how Athlone Castle was one of the primary defensive strongholds of the Jacobites as they tried to hold off the encroaching Williamites, and how they were eventually overpowered. The town fell to the Williamites in 1691 with great damage done to the castle.
All of the information comes in easy-to-digest bite-sized chunks. Some museums can be overwhelming as you try to read vast passages of information, leaving you completely exhausted by the end. Here it’s broken up by 3-D displays, illustrations, sculptures and interactive panels allowing you to concentrate on the parts of interest to you.
You will come face-to-face with some of the important figures from its history, check out some of the costumes worn throughout the centuries and even have the opportunity to try some of them on. I can vouch for the fact that this is not only entertaining for children.
I also loved the bizarre collection of objects relating to the various trades and lifestyles that were prominent in Athlone right up to the twentieth century.
It's a great day out and couldn't recommend it more. And now for lunch…
I always make a point of stopping here to refuel when I'm in Athlone. Located not far from the castle, it's a fab spot with delicious and healthy food, good coffee and friendly staff. Oh, and they serve the most incredible cakes too so make sure to leave room.
I love this part of Athlone. All of buildings on this street are brightly painted and well-maintained and have retained an olde-worlde charm. The Bastion Kitchen is one of those places that has really added to the character of the west side of town. Service is always friendly and and it seems like the staff enjoy working there and are passionate about the good food that they serve.
This time I opted for their special lunch deal: a (large) cup of soup, a falafel pitta and a coffee – all for €11.50, which is remarkable value in today’s world. The potato and leek soup was really flavoursome and the pitta was absolutely delicious and so filling. They make a damn fine falafel which is served with homemade pesto and hummus and heaped with crunchy salad. So you would think after that feast that it wouldn’t be possible to fit in a dessert… Well there was no way I was walking out of there without sampling a cake or two. They looked so good it would’ve been rude not to. The coffee cake was an absolute winner. It’s so easy to get wrong but this one was pretty much perfect – really moist with a strong but not overpowering coffee flavour. With a little dollop of fresh cream on the side and a very good Americano in hand, I was in heaven.
The girls also had nothing but good things to say about their food. Karen’s quinoa and kale cake, served on a plate of salad with toasted nuts and hummus was full of fresh flavours and extremely moreish. But I think Aoife’s polenta cake was the outstanding dish of the day and possibly one of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot of cakes. Flavoured with orange and almond and topped with pistachio, it melted in your mouth.
Lunch for the three of us with coffees and teas came to a grand total of €50. We'll be back.
If you liked what you read above and want to find out more about what the midlands has to offer, there are some great resources available online. Here are some of the best ones: