Thursday 8 December 2016

M50 to Dundalk: Life off the fast lane

Published 31/07/2010 | 05:00

St Peter's Church, Drogheda
Beaulieu House

In the eighth part of this series exploring the hidden gems around our new motorways, Pol O'Conghaile has 10 great detours from the M1.

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The route

The M1 is the main driving route from Dublin to Dundalk. The motorway is 80km long, stretching from the M50 to Dundalk.

A 14km cross-border section opened in 2007, connecting with Newry, from where it continues as the A1/M1 to Belfast.

The speed limits

There is a 120km/h limit on the M1.

The counties

The M1 passes through the counties of Dublin, Meath and Louth.

The tolls

There is currently one toll on the M1, with cars charged €1.90 near Drogheda.

The must-sees

Newgrange, Slane, Drogheda, Dundalk, Monasterboice, Mellifont Abbey, Meath's Gold Coast and the Cooley Peninsula are all accessible off the M1. For more sights and activities along the route check out discoverireland.ie

The bypassed town

Drogheda is a great spot for a gander -- I love the Highlanes Gallery in the former Franciscan friary on St Lawrence Street (Louth Craftmark has a shop here, and there's also a café run by Anderson's of Glasnevin) and nuggets such as the Old Sweet Shop on West Street.

I stop into St Peter's Church. A small shrine dedicated to St Oliver Plunkett is squirreled away here, the centrepiece of which is the saint's head -- rescued by friends following his martyrdom in 1682 and exhibited beneath a wizard's hat of a brass spire. It's a grisly relic, but a fascinating one.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 8 for Drogheda. St Peter's Church is on West Street.

The lunch break

Driving around Dundalk, it's by complete chance that I spot Mizu Café, an opulent little eatery hidden away in a restored Georgian townhouse on Jocelyn Street. First impressions are super -- with walls shaded light-blue and cream, sash windows and a tall, light-splashed conservatory opening out into a redbrick courtyard. The owner has taste.

The café is associated with Mizu Spa on River Lane, I discover, and the emphasis is on healthy fare. I find the self- service arrangements counter-intuitive, though: customers enter through the basement, choosing from a counter of pre-prepared food and paying their bill before taking a tray back upstairs to the tearooms. Table service would better suit the space.

At any rate, I take a quesadilla filled with Cajun chicken and cheese (€5.95). It's a tasty wrap, not too filling, and comes with a small bed of mixed leaves, mint, carrot shavings and sesame seeds -- a fine effort for the price.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 16, following the R172 into Dundalk. Mizu Café (042 938 1630; mizu.ie) is at 1 Jocelyn Place, and opens Monday-Saturday from 9am to 6pm.

The scenic detour

On maps, I think the Cooley Peninsula looks like Ireland's earlobe. It packs a shed-load of history into a small space, however -- Cúchulainn forged his legend here, Fionn Mac Cumhaill is said to lie with his feet in Carlingford Lough, the Mourne Mountains are steeped in impish leprechaun lore, and the area is today a European Destination of Excellence.

It all makes for a great drive, and the logical place to stop off (or turn around) is Carlingford. Overlooking the Lough, the town is like an outdoors museum, with a medieval mint, tholsel and priory dotted among shops, pubs, and gourmet restaurants like that at Ghan House. If you swing by over August 14-15, you can check out the annual oyster festival, too.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 18, taking the R173 for 20km (12.5 miles) to Carlingford.

Stretch the legs

What better time to stop off and enjoy Meath's Gold Coast? Squeezing the car under the railway bridge at Laytown, I cruise along a seafront long beloved by Dublin day-trippers, parking on the strand at Bettystown.

It's a sunny Saturday, and cars are full of people snoozing and eating ice-cream; the beach itself spotted with punters. There's a lot of rubbish about, despite several bins, but if you walk a few hundred metres north or south, the beach opens up and the flat, compact sand is suited to a stroll.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 7, taking the N1 and R150 through Laytown. The distance to Bettystown is about 12km (7.5 miles). Parking costs €2.

The pit-stop

On my way south from Dundalk to Dublin, I get a tantalising glimpse of the future of motorway service stations in Ireland -- a construction site south of Junction 5. It's one of three due to open later this year (two of which are on the M1), and they can't come soon enough.

In the meantime, I swing through Dublin Airport, looping under the virtuoso new Terminal 2 building to visit the Esso station there. This could be one of the first experiences of Ireland for holidaymakers picking up rental cars.

I find a small Snack & Shop outlet, with fuel at 136.9c/127.9c per litre. The toilets are dreadful. Set around the side and shared by all, there is a wet floor, murky residue behind the taps, rubbish on the windowsill, and a filthy door with confusing check-charts.

Queuing up to use this dump after me are two little girls. Ugh.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 2 for Dublin Airport's Esso Service Station (01-844 5607).

One for the kids

Built for Archbishop Cobbe in 1736, Newbridge House must once have been one of the most exclusive residences in north Dublin. But today, it couldn't be more inclusive.

I coast through some stunning parkland to a car park surrounded by smoking barbecues and the squeals of ecstatic children. They're crawling all over an adventure playground stuffed with tunnel slides, zip wires and climbing ropes -- a super facility, and absolutely free.

From there, I make my way past the sandstone-spotted Georgian house to investigate its little café and traditional farm. It's a top-notch family attraction, and one to which I'd happily drive for an hour or so to spend a day with the kids. Well done, Fingal County Council.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 4 towards Donabate. Newbridge House (01-843 6534) is about 2km (1.2 miles) along Hearse Road. Entry to the farm costs €4/€3.

A stop to shop

Marshes Shopping Centre advertises itself as the "last word in sensual shopping". Whatever that means, I'm not sure, but it's certainly a pleasant place to spend an hour. A mock-period façade, marble flooring and glass dome beat Newry's Buttercrane mall -- if rising UK VAT and exchange rates could tempt shoppers back from Northern Ireland.

I grab a baby fleece on sale at Mothercare (€7.25), before dipping into McArdle Butchers, a bright and industrious business where a friendly staff member helps me find some gluten-free sausages (€1.99), and a loaf of bread delivered from Brenda's Bakery in Dunleer (€1.50).

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 16 for Dundalk. The Marshes (042 939 5250; marshesshopping.com) is on Rampart Road.

The hidden gem

Beaulieu House dates from the 17th century, but it's also a family home. Set on the Boyne outside Drogheda, the estate was converted to its Dutch style by Sir Henry Tichbourne in the 17th century, and today is occupied by his 10th generation descendent, Gabriel De Freitas.

The Grand Hall, Edwardian bathroom and walled gardens are all worth the trip, but the relief plaster ceiling in the drawing room is a show-stopper, within it a painting of the goddess Aurora in her chariot. There are parallels between Aurora and Gabriel. Until recently, the latter raced under the name of Gabriel Konig, and a garage houses classic cars, including a 1968 Vauxhall Viva.

News cuttings evoke a glamorous driver who once crashed in Phoenix Park, telling onlookers that "after the brakes failed, the scenery was the next option".

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 8 for Drogheda. Beaulieu House (041 983 8557; beaulieu.ie) is between the R167 to Baltray and the R166 to Termonfeckin.

The en route activity

The M1 traverses the pages of Irish history. And you don't need to be a buff to enjoy the Boyne Valley either -- from Newgrange to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre and the medieval walled town of Drogheda, there's something for everyone along the way.

On this trip, I detour to Monasterboice -- one of those must-sees I've always known about but never gotten around to visiting. It's a pint-sized monastic site, but I'm blown away by Muiredach's Cross, a 17-foot chunk of sandstone dwarfing the tourists around it. I scour its 10th-century Biblical panels, searching out depictions of St Michael weighing souls and Moses striking the rock.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 10, following the N51 and R132 for about 7km (4.5 miles) to Monasterboice. See also discoverireland.ie/boynevalley.

The overnight suggestion

I'm looking forward to the Millhouse in Slane, a boutique hotel that owner Janey Quigley has fashioned out of a Georgian mansion beside Ireland's oldest mill. The website says a new café is open daily since May, and B&B is available from €70pp.

I pitch up to find a sign on the door: 'Closed for Wedding.' I call the landline several times over the coming days, but nobody picks up. When I do eventually get Janey on her mobile, she tells me the Millhouse is now only doing weddings, private events and Sunday lunch. She apologises, and makes a change to the website.

It's frustrating.

Luckily enough, Tankardstown House in nearby Rathkenny offers a pretty stellar accommodation alternative. I've stayed in the courtyard houses here, which are kitted out to luxury specs, but there are also six heritage rooms in the 17th-century manor house itself, and special offers are currently packaging accommodation with dinner in the new Brabazon restaurant.

Details: Exit the M1 at Junction 10, following the N51 for 12km (7.5 miles) to Slane. Tankardstown House (041 982 4621; tankards town.ie) has B&B plus dinner from €140pp on Fridays.

Irish Independent

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