Friday 22 September 2017

Dublin to Sligo: Life off the fast lane

Castletown House
Castletown House
Lough Ennell.
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

In the seventh part of this series exploring the hidden gems around our new motorways, Pol O Conghaile has 10 great detours from the M4.

The route

The M4 forms part of the main driving route from Dublin to Sligo.

Although the motorway itself is only 62km long (stretching from Lucan to Kinnegad), dual carriageway continues to Mullingar, and a mix of single and dual carriageway carries on to Sligo.

The tolls

There is currently one toll on the M4, with cars charged €2.90 at Enfield.

The counties

The M4 passes through Kildare, Meath and Westmeath.

The N4 continues through Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo.

The speed limits

There is a 120km/h limit on the M4. Along the N4, the limit is 100km/h.

The must-sees

Castletown House, Mullingar, Longford, Lough Key, Boyle and Sligo are all accessible from the M4. For more sights along the route, visit discoverireland.ie.

The bypassed town

Maynooth was one of the first towns to be bypassed by the M4, and it's as good an ad for inter-urban motorways as you'll find. It's unrecognisable from the bottleneck of my youth. pedestrians saunter across the road, Main Street is shaded by beech trees, and a stress-free drive along the Royal Canal leads to the similarly liberated town of Kilcock.

I make a beeline for the 13th-century Maynooth Castle, a one-time Fitzgerald stronghold. A sparkling new granite entrance and exhibition space plays nicely with the old limestone keep and, across the road, I find lots of kooky detail in the Anglican St Mary's Church.

My favourite is an ancient typo corrected by a stonemason undertaking restorations in 1770 -- on an original plaque, he has inserted the missing 'i' in 'parishoners' (sic).

Details: Exit the M4 at Junction 7 for Maynooth. Maynooth Castle (01-628 6744; www.heritageireland.ie) is open daily from 10am to 6pm.

The hidden gem

Okay, Castletown House -- Ireland's largest Palladian pile -- isn't exactly a hidden gem, but I'm amazed to find so much going on here.

Pulling into the car park, I expect to run the usual gamut of 'Don't Touch' signs, but find ads for children's workshops, a summer Sunday concert series and a country market scheduled for August 22.

Dating from the 1720s, the house itself is as imposing as you'd expect. But there are smaller charms too -- such as the ring-sections of oak, hazel, willow and other trees fixed to the courtyard railings, and Claire Hanley's The West Wing restaurant, housed in the original kitchens.

Outside, a steady stream of dog walkers, buggy pushers and cyclists get the most from the parkland grounds.

Details: Exit the M4 at Junction 6, following the R449 to Castletown House (01-628 8252; www.castle townhouse.ie). Guided tours from 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

The overnight suggestion

Several details catch my eye in Mornington House. The potted tree set against dark-wood floors in the dining room. The bay windows, the odd threadbare rug, the strawberries in the walled garden.

Warwick and Anne O'Hara reckon they've had some 15,000 guests over the years. When I arrive, they sit me down for tea and a chat, as eager to talk politics as the history of this Victorian home, which has been in the family since 1858.

In my bedroom, I like the big, brass bed-frame and floral-print wallpaper. Three windows allow a lovely light in, and there are fine views of Knockeyon Hill nearby. At breakfast, I spend a while talking history with Warwick as he serves a fry-up in the dining room.

Details: Mornington House (044 937 2191; mornington.ie) is 4km (2.5 miles) outside Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath. It has two nights' B&B plus one dinner from €145pps.

A stop to shop

Despite the recession, the Village At Lyons continues to evolve. When I stop by, Clodagh McKenna is chasing around sweeping floors and clearing tables, having just launched a new cookery school, branded store and café at the opulent canal bank enclave.

Set in restored 19th-century buildings, the Village looks and feels like a movie set. It's best known for La Serre restaurant, but you'll have little difficulty flexing your shopping muscles too. Upmarket interiors stores complement McKenna's new General Store, where her retro Love aprons (€35) sit invitingly alongside deli specials such as string-tied parcels of chicken-liver pâté (€3.50).

The Canal Café serves a mean charcuterie platter (€9), but it's a mess when I visit (there's no lock on the bathroom, they can't take Laser, and our tea doesn't arrive).

Teething problems, I hope.

Details: Exit the M4 at Junction 6, passing through Celbridge and Ardclough. The Village At Lyons, 01-627 9510; villageatlyons.com.

Stretch the legs

Mullingar is the last place I expect to find a looped walk. But there it is, a two-mile jaunt kicking off at Market House, passing sites such as All Saints Church and the Greville Arms Hotel, before turning to follow the bend of the Royal Canal at Harbour Bridge.

James Joyce lived for a time in Mullingar, and I find a wax figure of the author (complete with tennis shoes and Biro in his breast pocket) at the Greville Arms.

Joyce is put in the ha'penny place by Carl Payne's exuberant statue of Joe Dolan, below. Reaching out to passers-by outside Market House, it's both cheesy and fun -- a bit like the star from Mullingar himself.

Details: Exit the M/N4 for Mullingar. The Mullingar Loop is online at discoverireland.ie.

The pit-stop

A swanky new service station is set to open on the M4 at Enfield later this year, but until then, drivers are left with an older generation of N-road pit-stops.

I stop off at the Esso just before Mullingar (known locally as Hamill's), drawn in by an eight-bay forecourt. The 24-hour shop has a good selection of papers and magazines, a Nine One One deli doing a combo of sandwiches with strawberries and cream (€5.49), and is full of natural light. So far, so good.

Then I pay a visit to the toilets: shared-sex cubicles that appear to be constructed from plastic, and in which the dusting only goes to head height. They're just about passable.

Details: Exit the N4 just before Mullingar for this Esso Service Station (044 934 7084).

The scenic detour

Blind harpist Turlough O'Carolan travelled the country performing his tunes, so it seems fitting that a scenic O'Carolan Country route exists today.

Passing through Roscommon and Sligo, it's possible to see plenty of highlights without straying far from the N4 (including views over Lough Key's Doon Shore), but venturing further afield pays off with gems such as Arigna, where you can take a corkscrew road up the old mining mountain to striking views over Lough Allen.

The official route finishes in Keadue, where O'Carolan was buried in 1738, but you can play with it as you please.

Details: The 120km (74.5 miles) O'Carolan Country Tour kicks off in Carrick-on-Shannon.

The lunch break

Weirs has lost little time in exploding on to the Irish gastronomy scene. Within a year, Pat and Una Weir's pub has netted flattering reviews by both Paolo Tullio and Tom Doorley, and was voted Leinster's Best Gastro Pub at the recent Irish Restaurant Awards.

Weirs serves a short day menu from 12.30pm-6pm (there are early bird and à la carte menus in the evening), and I go for the special -- chicken marinated with chilli, garlic and lemon juice, served with Caesar salad and chips (€12.50). The chicken is tender with a nice stroke of spice; the Caesar dressing I find heavy but satisfying (thumbs up to generous strips of Parmesan), and the crisp, home-cooked chips are fluffy inside. Nice.

This is tasty, no-fuss grub, served with a personal touch. When I drop in for a pint later on, the owners even offer me a lift back to my digs.

Details: Exit the N4 just after Mullingar, driving for 3km (2 miles) towards Multyfarnham. Weirs (044 937 1111; weirsmultyfarnham.ie) opens Wednesday to Saturday.

One for the kids

If you fancy a stretch of the legs, a scenic view and a supersized playground all in one, look no further than Lough Key Forest Park. Hell, bring a caravan.

Try the walking trails. Or the Lough Key Activity Centre, with its 300m tree canopy walk and spooky old servants' tunnels. Or you could climb the Moylurg observation tower (it's ugly, but the views are super), wig out in the outdoors adventure playground, or test your wits in Ireland's only Boda Borg, a concept akin to the Crystal Maze.

Details: Lough Key Forest Park (071 967 3122; loughkey.ie) is on the N4 just south of Boyle, Co Roscommon. Entrance to the playground costs €5 per child.

The en route activity

There are some super lakes threaded along the N4, but they don't enjoy the profile of the likes of Lough Erne, Lough Corrib or Lough Derg. That's a shame, but at least it means they're spared the summer crowds -- when I arrive at Lough Ennell, I literally have the place to myself.

Lilliput Jonathan Swift Park (the author used to holiday in the area) has a host of activities to choose from -- angling, boat hire, an activity centre -- but I like the look of the Par 3 pitch and putt course best. Overlooking whispery rushes and mercury-coloured water, it's gorgeously tended, spotted with picnic tables, and fleshed out with huge beech and sycamore trees.

Details: Exit the N4 at Mullingar, taking the N52 south. Jonathan Swift Park (044 934 8650; lilliput boathire.com) is 16km (10 miles) from the N4. Pitch & putt: €6/€4.

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