Lough Boora: a wild beauty in the heart of the midlands
Updated: Jul 18
Lough Boora Discovery Park has to be one of Ireland's best kept secrets. Located about 16 kms from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, what was once an area of bogland has been reclaimed and developed into a wonderful eco-tourism site, teaming with birds and all types of plants and wildlife, in addition to a fantastic sculpture trail. The park is crisscrossed with a number of cycling and walking trails for all ages and abilities but aside from that, there are few man-made interventions so it's retained a certain wild beauty which seems apt for its location. Honestly, it feels a hundred miles away from civilisation and I mean that in the best possible sense. There's a little bit of magic going on here - it's a special place and one which will appeal to kids, adults, nature enthusiasts and art lovers alike.
It's free to visit the park but there's a €4 fee for the car park. The machine is located beside the bike station but only takes coins. You can hire bikes on site (which I'd highly recommend) for €5 per hour for an adult and €3 for a child with daily rates also available. Find out more here.
There are toilets and a café at the visitor centre as you enter. For information on getting to the park, click here.
Walking and cycling routes: There are routes for all ages and abilities but none too strenuous. There are options from 3.3kms to 15.8kms - more info here. We went for the 9.3 Mesolithic route with a detour to take in the full circumference of the sculpture route to finish.
And now for the fun stuff. There are loads of reasons to come here but the wonderful Sculpture Trail was the biggest draw for me and my trusty companion: my 14 year old nephew Liam. Grab yourself a map at the visitor centre and you're ready to rock. There are 24 artworks to find, some monumental like the 60 Degrees sculpture by Kevin O'Dwyer below, and others which are a little more ephemeral and have almost become part of the landscape as time and weather-conditions have changed their nature. We both loved Kevin's sculpture and the shadows it cast as the light conditions changed throughout the day. I also liked the contrasting use of materials: two are made from oak sleepers from an old bog train railway line from the 50s, and one in the centre which is made of steel: a symbol of the future and the reclaimed use of the bogland. It also makes for a good photo opp. I should state that some photo credits have to go to Liam - we were co-photographers that day. He makes a fine assistant.
The artists involved have made use of local materials in their work, as well as incorporating industrial materials associated with its bog land heritage. Mike Bulfin's Sky Train below references childhood memories of growing up in the area and the Bord na Mona peat trains at work. It's best viewed from a distance as it curves across the hill against the horizon - it looks as though it's still in operation and is about to move away among the trees at any second.
We also loved Earth and Sky by Alfio Bonanno and The Lough Boora Triangle by Jørn Rønna. Earth and Sky is made up of an inner structure of five circles rising skyward and getting progressively narrower at the top, with an outer structure of untreated vertical pieces of natural wood. The artist says 'the circles of the interior represent the rhythms of the sky and the landscape, rotating and wheeling around each other'. The best vantage point is from the interior looking upward at the sky - you really feel the pull of nature. It fits perfectly within this landscape and is the one that looks least sculptural; as if it's always been there. Lough Boora is one of the most important Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, sites in Ireland - on approach to Earth and Sky you get a glimpse of what life may have looked like here all those thousands of years ago.
The Lough Boora Triangle has a lovely concept - 'A space for meditation. A small triangular room with a very special atmosphere'. The entrance faces away from the main path so you are cocooned within, though with perfect views of the surrounding landscape. Like Earth and Sky it also has a unique skyward vantage point - a stark modern geometry which contrasts with the natural bogwood material which creates the structure.
Marianne Jorgensen's contributions are of the ephemeral kind - words like HAPPINESS, LOVE and PEACE cut deep into the surface of the black peat of the bog (which feels very nice underfoot by the way), some demarcated with white sackcloth. She carried this out in accordance with traditional bog-cutting methods. The words themselves reflect transitory or fragile states, in keeping with the nature of the work - completely exposed to the elements and subject to constant flux by extremes of weather and external conditions. You'll find them hidden away among lush greenery and off the beaten path.
The wonderful reflections of Julian Wild's System no. 30 will delight both children and adults alike. From a distance my first impression was of a strange Lough Ness type monster rising from the depths of the water but the artist's intention was not quite that. His reference was a disk, bouncing over the surface of the canal like a skimming stone. You get the best sense of this from the viewpoint below and can feel its dynamism. It's as if a coin is hopping across the water in front of your eyes and you can almost hear the gentle skimming sound. From the front it's as though the coin is bouncing out of the water towards you. It's a very clever piece of art.
The whole feeling here is an other-worldly one. It's incredibly peaceful and it's common not to meet other visitors for kilometres and to hear nothing but birdsong. It's an area of such natural beauty yet you're constantly being jarred out of it by these strange and monumental fixtures within the landscape. Kids will adore it and will relish the chance to run ahead and find the next work of art.
There's a real serenity here amongst the trees. It's not a place to rush through but one to take your time: to amble or slowly peddle your way through the many tracks and trails and without sounding too hippyish, to completely connect with nature. It's the perfect recharge for mind and soul.
Landing in the café literally seconds before the heaven's opened, Liam and I made a beeline for one of the covered terrace tables overlooking the expanse of one of the lakes. It must be heavenly in summer to bag one of those tables when the sun is beaming down but there was something pretty special about being there with that ominous dramatic sky and listening to the sound of the raindrops as they hit the surface of the water. Surrounded by the lake and forest and seated on a wooden verandah, we could've been in the wilds of Sweden or Norway. I've always had a yearning to go and rent a log cabin in the middle of nowhere in Scandinavia so there was something very appealing about this to me.
The café is Catoca where I had a really substantial chicken, avocado and salad sandwich (with lots of crisps on the side which is always good) and Liam had some cake. Their coffee machine was on the blink so I can't offer any judgements on that. Staff were really friendly too.