A day in the life of...Laois
Story of the day
'Hidden gem' is one of the most abused terms in travel. It's splashed over brochures and websites like ketchup, disguising the true flavours of a place, and always primes me for disappointment. However, there's really no other way to describe Laois.
Experienced by most as a blur from the M7, the county is a gem unto itself, but also home to treasures like the Slieve Blooms and the Rock of Dunamase, and surprising towns such as Emo and Abbeyleix. And all just an hour's drive from Dublin...
View of the day
Dating from the 12th century, the Rock of Dunamase was part of Aoife's dowry when she married Strongbow, and today takes the form of a splatter of ruins on a limestone outcrop off the Portlaoise-Stradbally road. It offers a beautiful reveal, too. Climbing the small hill, stepping through the ruins of an old fort, I stumble on a view of harvested fields stretching all the way to the Slieve Blooms. It's an unexpected showstopper, almost like the Rock of Cashel's baby brother.
Discovery of the day
"It's a hidden gem really," says Margaret Delaney, welcoming me into Emo Court (057 862 6573; heritageireland.ie; €3/€1), a Neoclassical pile designed by James Gandon for the Earls of Portarlington.
"A lot of people don't know about it. They can't believe it when they get here."
Uh-oh. The house looks blocky and austere from without. The parkland, charming as it is, could be anywhere. But the interiors are a revelation... beneath the domed rotunda and plastered ceilings, the home of Major Cholmeley-Harrison emerges. There are family photos, a deer-foot cigarette holder, a writing desk. It feels like someone lived here, not a museum piece. The only shame is a lack of access to the kitchen and bedrooms.
Dish of the day
When it comes to Portlaoise, Jim Tynan's Kitchen and Foodhall (057 866 2061; kitchenfoodhall. com) is a legend in its lunchtime.
I stop by at 12.30pm on a Thursday and queues are already flowing out the door.
"We're cooking from 8am," Imelda Tynan chirps. "We love our food!" I order the roast beef with carrots, mashed potatoes and potato gratin, a dollop of cabbage and a spoonful of horse-radish sauce (€12.50). It's the fill of the plate -- hearty, belly-busting fare served in a maze of rooms off Hynds Square.
Looking around, I see old regulars, businesspeople, travellers off the M7. A deli sells everything from Prosecco to fresh butter. It feels as though I'm in the beating heart of Laois.
Activity of the day
The Rough Guide describes Laois as an "oddly accidental" county. There's nothing accidental about the spring-fed lakes at Laois Angling Centre (087 996 2864; laoisanglingcentre.ie), however. Developed with Laois Leader funding, they've been stuffed with trout, tench and carp, allowing John and Enda Phelan to diversify business on their Coolrain farm.
"When you lift the rod into him, that's the thrill," says John, who takes me out in the hope of hooking a rainbow trout. With rates from €20/€10 per half-day, we're in the company of all sorts -- bank managers, children, even a former world-champion angler.
The lodge is full of fishing kitsch, including a plate bearing the legend: 'Work is for those who don't know how to fish.'
Remains of the day
There's been a changing of the guard at Roundwood House (057 873 2120; roundwoodhouse.com; B&B from €65pps), the quirky Palladian house run for 26 years by Frank and Rosemarie Kennan.
Having charmed reviewer after reviewer by blurring the lines between country house and family home, the Mountrath property has now passed into the hands of the couple's daughter, Hannah, and her Canadian husband, Paddy.
"If you aren't mesmerised by this house, you are already dead," gushes the Bridgestone Guide. I'm tempted to take my pulse.
Roundwood House is an unpretentious beauty, sure, but it won't appeal to everyone. Do you see worn fabrics, wobbly antiques and peeling paint as signs of character or neglect?
Do you want to share a dinner table with other guests?
Would you match a Georgian bedroom to a bathroom with a lino floor, no shower fixture and stocked with large bottles of Timotei?
These are all questions to answer before you stay. If you like it, you'll love it -- Hannah and Paddy are a warm and hospitable couple, their one-of-a-kind home is madly colourful and the grounds are mature, secluded and child-friendly.
If you like your comforts to be of a more conventional kind, however, have a peek at the newer rooms in the yellow house out back, or look elsewhere. It's a curiosity shop of a stayover, to be enjoyed on its own terms.
For more on Laois, see discoverireland.ie/eastcoast.