Life off the fast lane: The M8
In the sixth part of his series exploring the hidden gems around our new motorways, Pól Ó Conghaile has 10 great detours from the M8. Photography: Ronan Lang
The lunch break
I swing into Cashel with the intention of eating at Café Hans, but a 25-minute wait for a table is just too long. So I grab a bite at the Cashel Palace Hotel.
I have fond memories of this place -- we stopped here as children, and my own daughter loves climbing over the low-lying Mulberry tree branches in its walled garden. Unfortunately, my food experience doesn't match the memories. The award-winning Bishop's Buttery restaurant is closed (despite the website saying it opens daily), so I'm left with the Guinness Bar. I order a Cashel Blue salad with poached baby pears and toasted walnuts (€7.50). It arrives with peppers that aren't mentioned on the menu.
There are positives, but the service is mournful. Everything seems like an effort, and there are no thanks when I pay, just an outstretched hand. Bah!
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 7, 8 or 9 for Cashel. The Cashel Palace Hotel (062 62707; cashel-palace.ie) is set back off Main Street.
The en route activity
Leaving the M8, the roads get thinner and thinner until I come to an old farmhouse with a note saying 'Ring Bell Please'. I fear the worst of the Mitchelstown Caves, but John English tells me that, since their discovery in 1833, his family has been determined to let the caves speak for themselves, and to avoid cheapening them with tacky cafés and souvenir shops.
The result is a seduction. We slink down some tight, dank, concrete steps, descending 200 feet into the earth. When we hit a level, the passageways quickly flower into jaw-dropping caverns.
Carved by ancient swirl-pools, stuffed with stalactites, stalagmites and calcite formations that glitter like diamonds under the flashlight, they make for a world-class show-cave.
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 11 or 12. Follow the signs for approx 6km (3.7 miles) to Mitchelstown Cave (052 746 7246; mitchelstown cave.com) in Ballyporeen. Entry costs €7/€2.
One for the kids
"Apples are still alive when you eat them," Con Trass tells me. "They're respiring, so the warmer it gets, the more water they use up."
It's just one of several revelations I'm privy to at the Apple Farm in Moorstown, Co Tipperary -- a wonderful campus that somehow manages to combine fruit orchards, a camping and caravan park, a farm shop and a playground without a scintilla of stress.
Inside the shop, I pore over boxes of Jonagored apples (€7 for 6kg) and bottles of juice made from hand-picked apples (€2), before Con takes me on a tour of the strawberry beds.
If you're lucky, you may get to pick your own here -- and the taste is all kinds of luscious.
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 10, taking the Clonmel Road from Cahir for about 6km (3.7 miles). The Apple Farm (052 744 1459; theapplefarm.com) is on the left-hand side at Moorstown.
A stop to shop
Newbridge is not a place I expected to find dresses worn by Marilyn Monroe, letters signed by Audrey Hepburn and suits worn by the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night.
And yet there they are — in the Museum of Style Icons at the Newbridge Silverware complex off the Old Dublin Road.
The celebrity memorabilia is,of course, a clever exercise in branding, but the silver itself is
Newbridge’s Hollywood Collection includes an Ingrid Bergman bracelet for €150, a Marlene Dietrich brooch for €100, and I also spot cufflinks from €20.
Details: Exit the M7 at junction 12. Newbridge Silverware (045 431301; www.newbridgesilverware.com) is open daily until 6pm, and entrance to the museum is free.
The scenic detour
In 1903, when the speed limit on Irish roads was just 12mph, a group of daredevils set off on a mad dash around the Kildare, Laois and Carlow countryside.
The occasion was the Gordon Bennett Cup — a 104-mile race widely credited with making the Irish public ‘car-conscious’.
The Gordon Bennett route is now signposted and mapped, and can be joined at different points for a detour. These are hit and miss, it has to be said (the River Barrow section from Monasterevin to The Heath is basically the bockety old N7), but things pick up along the N80 to Athy, where I pass the Rock of Dunamase, a dramatic fortress that once belonged to Strongbow.
Details: The 166km (104 mile) Gordon Bennett Route (gordon bennettroute.com) can be joined at several points, including Kilcullen, Carlow and Portlaoise.
The bypassed town
Until recently, I've only really experienced Abbeyleix as a bottleneck. Now the M8 has flushed it of traffic, however, the place is freed up for discovery all over again.
And there is plenty to discover. The old schoolhouse houses a curate's egg of a museum. There's a fab playground behind it, and the town streets are lined with a saddler, cafés, restored fountains and, of course, Morrissey's pub.
The place dates from 1875, the staff still wear grocers' coats, and you might order from them a pint, a packet of Bird's Custard or a quarter pound of pear drops.
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 3 for Abbeyleix. Admission to Heritage House (057 873 1653; abbeyleixherit age.com) costs €3/€2.50.
The overnight suggestion
It's so hard to tell the quality of a country house from a website. It's only when you pull up the drive, witness how the door is answered and see whether the interiors are just-so or fusty and dank that you can really relax.
Justin and Jenny Green's Ballyvolane House, dating from 1727, gets it right. It can be an expensive stay, and only one bedroom has a shower, but the place oozes quality. My room comes with an enormous free-standing, mahogany-panelled bath and bay windows overlooking gardens, from which much of the evening's dinner has been crafted.
There is home-grown asparagus in the risotto, homemade raspberry ice-cream for dessert, and homemade Ribena left on my dresser as a nightcap.
Throughout the house, beautifully kept Italianate interiors are complemented by log fires, a baby grand piano topped with family photos and the best-stocked honesty bar I've come across.
Everything reeks of love, and I grab a breakfast of fresh hens' eggs before hitting the road.
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 16 for Rathcormac. Ballyvolane House (025 36349; ballyvolanehouse.ie) has three nights' B&B plus two dinners from €325pp (mid-week only).
The hidden gem
After my stroll along the River Suir, I pop into the Swiss Cottage -- a rustic folly designed by John Nash for the Butler family in 1810. The OPW guide (a young art history graduate) gives a wonderful tour, explaining to us how the thatched roof, cedar shingles and tree trunk supports were created to give the impression of a house that has grown up from the soil.
The result is a quirky, one-of-a-kind attraction, and a bizarre insight into the lives of the aristocracy that built it.
In effect, it existed so that they could pretend to be peasants.
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 10 for Cahir. Follow the R670 for about 2km (1.2 miles) to the Swiss Cottage (052 744 1144; heritageireland.ie). Tours cost €3/€1.
The pit stop
I'll go out of my way to stop at an Applegreen service station (barista coffee, cheap fuel and smart design tick all my boxes). But the branch at Urlingford is a stinker.
First, there is a grotty awning. Then I visit the gents, where I'm greeted by a ghoul of a smell, a rusty vending machine, mouldy residue on the 'stainless' steel urinals, missing tiles, several pieces of chewing gum dumped into the plughole and a dust-clogged air vent. And the check-chart says the place has been tended to an hour before!
In the shop, staff tell me that business crashed after the M8 bypassed Urlingford (the once-hectic Josephine's restaurant is now closed, with chairs stacked forlornly on tables). There's a decent coffee counter, and petrol/ diesel is cheap at 128.9c/ 120.9c, but I won't be returning.
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 4, entering Urlingford. The Applegreen (056 883 1516; applegreen. ie) station is at the southern end of the town on Main Street.
A stretch of the legs
If you're the kind of walker that favours gentle flats over rugged peaks, you'll love the 2km stroll linking Cahir Castle and the Swiss Cottage in Co Tipperary. Part of the Tipperary Heritage Way, the route meanders along the River Suir, passing forest, rocky outcrops and Cahir golf course as it winds towards the pretty cottage ornée.
The riverbanks are bulging with large beech, oak and horse chestnut trees, humming with summery insects, and I spot the odd angler casting off for brown trout. It's a lovely interlude (and sending someone ahead with the car will save the return trip).
Details: Exit the M8 at Junction 10, parking beside Cahir Castle. The walk to the Swiss Cottage (052 744 1453; coillteoutdoors.ie) is signposted from there.
The M8 is the main driving route from Cork to Dublin. When a 40km stretch from Portlaoise to Cullahill/ Castletown opened this June, it brought the motorway to completion.
The M8 now stretches 149km from Cork to just before Mountrath, at which point it dovetails with the M7 and continues towards Dublin.
There is currently one toll on the M8, with cars charged €1.90 at the Rathcormac/ Fermoy bypass.
On the M7 there is a further toll, with cars charged €1.80 west of Portlaoise.
The M8 passes through Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Laois.
The speed limits
There is a 120km/h limit on the M8. Along certain M/N7 sections, the limit is 100km/h.
The Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle, Mitchelstown Caves, the Glen of Aherlow and Cork City are all accessible from the M8.
Visit discoverireland.ie for more sights and activities along the route.