A spell by the enchanted lake
In his latest expedition to discover vibrant communities outside Dublin, Barry Egan visits relaxed Westmeath
Fecking flat. That was how one local wag affectionately described people from Westmeath to me in term of their dialect and disposition last weekend.
"I have a friend who lived in Athlone, but she is from the north, who has this theory that because the land is very flat, the temperament of the people around here is very even. And that people who come from mountainous areas are much more hyper - up, down! Up, down!" says Ray Byrne, charismatic owner of Wineport Lodge. "There's a placidity about the people here."
"As well as the accent!" chuckles Kelly McAteer, the very fetching wife of GAA god Dessie Dolan. "It is kind of a flat Midland's accent."
"It's not quite lyrical like Kerry," laughs her other half Dessie, who played for Westmeath and is now a compelling sports commentator for RTE, and tells me that he met his wife-to-be at The Bounty bar in Athlone on St Stephen's night 12 years ago.
"They don't take themselves too seriously," says Ray of Westmeath people. "Very placid."
The aforementioned placidity of the people reminds me of that line from At Swim Two Birds when Flann O'Brien notes: 'A wise old owl once lived in a wood, the more he heard the less he said, the less he said the more he heard, let's emulate that wise old bird.'
"Westmeath people are an incredible people," says Colm Quinn, a legend in terms of selling BMW cars in Athlone.
"It is a wonderful part of the world," says Ray as a group of local luminaries stands by the shimmering shoreline of Lough Ree and watches the sun go down.
Later, we will all have a beautiful dinner, bordering on a feast, in the Wineport Lodge hotel's acclaimed restaurant and talk about the wonder of all these Westmeath people.
But first, earlier that night, I spotted a woman out for a casual swim (at swim one bird indeed) 20 feet in front of me in the Lough. The water has a magic in these parts, clearly. Jane English - the prepossessing wife of Ray and the co-owner of Wineport Lodge - understands this magic, this enchantment, better than most.
She learned to swim in Lough Ree Yacht Club. She had the perfect teacher in her father Timmy - "he was an authority on local history and archaeology and wrote articles for many journals".
"As kids," recalls Jane, who is the eldest of five siblings, "we would spend some time with him at the club. I remember that is where we all learned to swim.
"I have this memory of dad walking along the jetty there with this homemade swimming aid, which consisted of a broom handle to which a piece of rope was attached and at the end of which was the belt from his Mackintosh coat."
"The belt," she remembers, "was securely fastened around my middle and I paddled along in the water as he walked along the jetty holding the broom handle and making sure I did not disappear under the water.
"Unfortunately," she continues, "my father passed away prematurely in 1978 when he was just 55 and never got to publish a book, which he had hoped to do eventually."
Jane who is also the grand daughter of William Hewitt, the lock-keeper in Athlone, describes herself as coming from hard-working midland Protestant stock.
Jane's mother Dorothy also loved the lake and years later she bought a lovely Dutch motor yacht called Wavesweeper.
She and Robin Baird, her second husband, sailed it for many years in the cruiser races at the yacht club.
In the summer of 1985 - the year before her daughter Jane met Ray - three boats, including Wavesweeper, made a voyage from Lough Ree Yacht Club to the Aran Islands via Ardnacrusha and Limerick.
"I was on board with my brother Robert and a family friend, Kieran McIntyre," remembers Jane.
"It took about three days to get to Carrigaholt in the Shannon Estuary where we were storm-bound as there were heavy north-west winds. After a week, it was decided to continue the journey to Aran.
"When we headed out past Loop Head the seas were very rough and it took 10 hours motor sailing and a lot of puking from me before we reached the safety of Kilronan Harbour. My mum helmed the whole way."
Jane realised on that journey what "an incredibly strong and confident person she was, and still is."
More than that, Jane made a promise to herself though: "that if I was ever go out on the Atlantic Ocean again in a boat it would only be the QE2!"
As fate would have it, a few years later, in 1986, Dorothy and Robin purchased a prime piece of land at Wineport. They started to develop it in 1993.
"Ray and I bought it from them," smiles Jane. "And the rest is history!"
They appear to have the vision to do things in Westmeath. Sometimes that vision can seem a little mad or entirely non compos mentis - certainly in the case of Colm Quinn, who opened a luxury car dealership here at the start of the bleakest economic recession in living memory.
"In 2007, having been in the motor trade for 18 years, I saw many shortcomings in the luxury car segment and realised that there was an exciting opportunity to open a luxury premium brand dealership in Athlone," Colm says.
He began discussions with BMW Ireland - a site was identified, planning instigated, funding secured "through somewhat turbulent financial markets", a contractor appointed and works were complete on the state-of-the-art showrooms in June 2009.
"Everyone thought I was crazy, building a BMW Dealership when everything was crumbling!" laughs Colm now.
"During the building process, a friend of mine passed by on the road one morning while I was doing a site walk in a hi-viz yellow jacket. . .
"He texted me and said 'If you're not careful, it will be guys in white coats taking you away!' But I had made commitments and I needed to make it work.
"Thankfully, it is working, but every day is a learning curve. We come up against obstacles but we try to stay positive and look at the opportunity the obstacle presents as opposed to the problem or issue. We don't do problems - just opportunities!"
Paddy Dunican, the general manager of Kilbeggan Races (a favourite spot for Michael O'Leary, of course, as the Ryanair grand fromage won the Midlands National with his horse Ravished) recalls meeting Westmeath race-horse trainer Dot Love in the parade ring before the race in the summer of 2001.
He asked Dot could he bet his shirt on her horse I'm On The Line. Dot had only got her licence five days before that, and it was her first race ever.
"So Dot's answer to me was that if I did, I would go home naked! The horse won at very long odds and one of our sponsors won over €700 for a very small bet," laughs a fully-clothed Paddy at the dinner in the Wineport Lodge later.
It was here that Paddy would regale me with the tale of Prince Aly Khan coming to Kilbeggan Races in the summer of 1953 with one of the most fetching actresses in Hollywood at the time - Gene Tierney.
"Everyone was waiting for the last race where Aly Khan was riding a horse called Ynys and won the race," Paddy says. "The chairman of the Kilbeggan Race Committee was the late Joe Cooney, who was also manager of Locke's Distillery [now known as Kilbeggan Distillery] which is the oldest Pot Still Distillery in the world.
"There is a story that the late Joe Cooney presented Gene Tierney with a case of Locke's Whiskey, which it is believed, she threw out of the car somewhere on the Mullingar Road!
"Typically perceived as low-key, Westmeath has produced some very talented sons - Oliver Goldsmith and John, Count McCormack amongst them ... " says Dubliner Ray Byrne, who now lives with Jane and their two kids, Glen and Robbie, beside their world-famous hotel.
"In more modern times we've had Josephine Hart, Niall Horan and Bressie.
"JP Donleavy lives in solitude and faded grandeur in one of the many crumbling mansions that sit stoically on the gentle landscape.
"It's always been a classless environment, people on the river and the islands mixing with farmers and townies. Not the place to go to be admired and fawned over, but the perfect place to slow down, relax and be yourself."
Carmel Connolly, who runs The Marketing Department, a thriving communications agency based in Athlone, says: "I love living here because it really has everything and I'm missing nothing.
"Great restaurants, great shopping, great pubs, charming villages, great people, great location - to get to and to get to anywhere from.
"The lake in minutes, the beach in an hour; Dublin in just over; the airport in less than 90 minutes. And - great beauty. You can see that for yourself," Carmel says pointing out the window of the restaurant - absolutely jammers on a Saturday night.
"But sometimes we fail to see what's in front of us. Only when I'm taking visitors to the area to show them around do I take the time to see it through their eyes and appreciate what a lovely place I'm lucky enough to live in," says Carmel.
So that fecking flat after all, then.