A day in the life: Shannon Region
Story of the day
Extending from midlands to Atlantic Ocean, casting a net over Clare, Limerick, North Tipperary and south west Offaly, the Shannon Region is diversity itself. For a fresh sense of the place, I decide to push beyond Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher, seeking out Shannon's hidden gems.
Activity of the day
"I can guarantee you'll hit something," Pat Donaghy winks, "but it may not be a clay pigeon." A public loss assessor by day, Pat took over the Esker Shooting Grounds (090 645-7030; esker.ie) in 2004, developing them to the degree that Banagher could host the 2008 World
DTL Championships last August. "It was a success for those who shot well, and it wasn't for those who didn't," he says. "What's new?"
There's no guff about Pat (his email address is gun@ esker.ie). Stag parties and corporate days are new growth areas, he says, giving me a safety rundown ("never point a gun at anything you don't want to shoot") and showing me how to hold the rifle. When he fires bright orange clay pigeons into the Bog of Allen, I hit a lot of the latter and none of the former.
Catch of the day
"No matter what you cook for people, they're always impressed if you make the bread," says Donnagh Gregson of Bunratty Cookery School (061 713500; bunrattycookeryschool.ie). Donnagh's is a brand new business, and her spotless work stations cry out for a bit of amateur abuse. She has the teacher's touch, however. Within minutes, my soda bread is rising in an enormous oven.
Today's class is 'Lunch for Friends' (€120pp), the centrepiece of which is a Burgundy-red flank of tuna from Rene Cusack's in Limerick. "If you don't want too much pressure, choose something that's easy in one of the courses," Donnagh advises, pan-searing the fish and issuing useful ad-libs about the relative merits of butchers, fishmongers and
the occasional visit to Lidl.
Discovery of the day
Falling tourism figures are general all over Ireland, and the Shannon Region is no exception. "Yes, of course they are," says Lord Rosse at Birr Castle (057 912 0336; birrcastle.com).
This is particularly ironic when it comes to the great gardens, he muses, given our alleged attachment to all things green.
This energetic Earl has been hatching plans, however. Having travelled all over Asia to fetch seeds for his award-winning gardens, he now plans to harvest Chinese visitors. "They have absolutely no interest in shamrocks and shillelaghs," he quips, bounding into the Millennium Gardens.
Once an O'Carroll stronghold, Birr Castle was inherited by the Parsons in 1620, and is today a living piece of history. Though the family home is off-limits, the demesne boasts plants in flower year-round (with late-March a highlight), an historic science centre and a huge antique working telescope. The first to identify other galaxies, the telescope evokes a giant canon with its sights trained on the stars.
View of the day
Toes don't like frost. Fingers don't like frost. But South Offaly can't seem to get enough of it. From the elegant malls of Birr, I go to meet Christina Byrne -- sprightly walker, fiddle-player and local B&B owner (Ardmore House; 057 913 7009) -- for a tour of the Slieve Blooms (086 278 9147; www.slievebloom.ie).
A low sun sets as we look over Forelacka Glen, illuminating crystals of frost, rusty fern, beech-lined byroads and a patchwork of hills and glens as intense as their native Taoiseach's worry-lines.
It's beautiful, this bareness of winter.
Dish of the day
Tonight's dinner is at the Mustard Seed (069 68508; www.mustardseed.ie) in Ballingarry, a short twist up the road from Adare. Dan Mullane's restaurant is festooned with Black & White awards, raising tantalisingly high expectations -- added to by a set price of €63 for four courses.
My starter is delicious: a cold-smoked salmon from Kenmare, and the best such dish I've tasted. Despite chirpy service and a moody dining room, however, it's followed by a portion of duck that's fatty enough to require a knife change.
Georgina Campbell and Tom Doorley have reviewed positively here, and this is the kind of venture you'd hate to see slip up in 2009, of all years.
But strike two comes the following morning, when I sit down to a plate of rock-hard bacon.
Remains of the day
Echo Lodge is the Victorian pile housing the Mustard Seed, and it's a perfect stop in a cold snap. Stepping into the lobby, I'm greeted by a cat curled up in front of a log fire. I find Jacky Frost, a poem by
Lucy Burrow ("...man keeps snug by fires inside, while outside, I am winter").
The rooms are cosy, the staff warm and the common rooms richly atmospheric. By evening's end, diners are gathered together for fireside chats. It's a real coup for a village of Ballingarry's size.