Secret Ireland: Lough Ree
In part two of our series on hidden Ireland, Pól Ó Conghaile discovers medieval monasteries, great walks and the best smoothie in Longford. Photography by Ronan Lang
The self-catering cottages
The Hodson Bay (above), Radisson and Sheraton hotels are all offering good winter accommodation deals in Athlone, but for something a little different, check out Owen and Helen Egan's Carnakilla cottages beside the Portlick woodlands.
Built with Douglas fir, the cottages evoke North American fishing lodges, and are styled to match an original built by descendants of Ernest Shackleton in 1967.
Owen has recently built a crannóg, and another building here works as a get-together space -- it's thatched with reed from Lough Ree, and the bobbins and ridge detail are hewn from local hazel.
Details: The five cottages, which front on to Lough Ree, are priced from €380 per week in winter. Glasson, Co Westmeath. Tel: 087 226 5982; shannon-holidays.com.
The island hideaway
Longford enjoys one of the lowest tourist profiles in Ireland. That's harsh for a county in dire need of visitors, but music to the ears of those who like their travel off the beaten track.
Saints Island is a case in point. Reached via a thinning succession of country roads (and, ultimately, a gravelly causeway) the island cradles the remains of a 13th-century Augustinian monastery. Stashing the car and hopping a stile, I stroll up to investigate the old church and ivy-clad cloisters.
The graveyard is at once remarkably remote and tended like a golf course. Crumbling cloisters look like bridges sunk into the earth; lichen crawls all over the church shell, and sunlight has the lake twinkling like a bag of silver coins. There literally isn't another soul in sight.
Details: Newtowncashel, Co Longford.
The looped walk
There are loads of spots for a stroll around Lough Ree, but one of the quirkiest is St John's Wood, near Lecarrow. I stop here with the intention of finding Rindoon Castle, built by Normans to shore up the invasion of Connaught, and am pleasantly surprised to find a newly launched 3km looped walk.
The ivy-covered ruin looks out on Lough Ree from a small peninsula, alongside the relics of an old church, windmill and hospital. If the 'Beware of the Bull' sign tacked on to the trailhead freaks you out (it's disconcerting, to say the least), head instead for the little slipway just up the road, where you can enjoy similar views over Lough Ree with the added benefit of some wild-trout fishing.
Details: Warren Point, Co Westmeath. See discoverireland.ie/ walking.
The bumpy boat trip
Lough Ree is the third-largest lake in Ireland, and it's peppered with curiosities such as Hare Island, where Viking gold was found in 1802, and Inchbofin, to which Air Corps helicopters were deployed last winter to deliver fodder for cattle belonging to the sole, 75-year-old inhabitant.
The best way to explore these islands is by boat, and I do just that with Terry Benson, whose Barracuda Boats offers the choice of a cruiser or a 140bhp open-topped powerboat. I opt for the latter, and we putter up the River Shannon before making a beeline for Inchmore, home to pretty much an abandoned village (though islanders do spend some time here in summer).
From there, we're pelted with rain as we pass Coosen Point and venture into the inner lakes, right up as far as the Wine Port. It's a super taster of Lough Ree, even if I do ship a soaking, and Terry can go south too, as far as Clonmacnoise, for €20/€10pp (with a minimum charge of €50).
Details: Athlone, Co Westmeath. Tel: 087 230 1981; barracudaboat trips.com.
The perfect potter
Athlone's Left Bank, sandwiched between the Shannon and a broody Norman castle, is a plum spot for a mosey. I pick my way through the shops here, browsing quirky jewellery in the Bastion Gallery, checking out John's Bookshop and Sean's Bar (which claims to be the oldest in Ireland), before pausing to watch staff at work in a beautiful old liturgical book restoration business.
Then it's over to the Left Bank Bistro for a bowl of carrot and lentil soup (€4.90). The soup is spicy and served with a knockout slice of homemade brown -- just what I need after a soaking on Lough Ree.
Details: Fry Place, Athlone. Tel: 090 649 4446; left bankbistro.com.
The sneaky shop
The pastel-blue shopfront of Gleeson's Artisan Food & Wine Shop puts the hook in me, and I'm reeled in by the yummy smells, sounds and smiles that follow. Inside this Roscommon rarity, a quick scan reveals €1 treacle scones, taster cubes of Mossfield cheese, and gluten-free brownies from Woodfield Farm in Glenamaddy.
Though I ate at Gleeson's restaurant up the street (the owners also run a 19th-century townhouse), it's the deli for which I would return. It's small and sure-footed, similar to Country Choice in Nenagh or Partridge's in Gorey, and you can even create your own gourmet sambo (€4.95) from ingredients such as spiced beef, homemade pickle, grilled chicken breasts and basil pesto.
Details: Market Square, Roscommon. Tel: 090 662 6954; gleesonstownhouse.com.
The harbour by a humpbacked bridge
After several decades of lobbying, the Royal Canal has finally re-opened following a €36 million restoration project. Bridges have been rebuilt, towpaths cleared and all 46 locks replaced in a revamp that opens up the old waterway to walkers, cyclists, boaters and fishermen.
I pull up at Richmond Harbour in Clondra, where the canal converges with Camlin and the Shannon rivers. It's all very pristine and expectant -- you can practically smell the fresh paint on the black and white lock gates, and the humpbacked bridge and old corn mill evoke bygone days when many passengers embarking at the harbour here were emigrating to America.
Today, copper beaches lean over the wintry water, and a small playground and several new picnic tables make a hopeful stand against the encroaching weather.
Details: Clondra, Co Longford. See waterwaysireland.org.
The blackest of bog oak
Driving through Newtowncashel, you'll notice bogwood sculptures scattered throughout the town -- a drinking bird here, pigeons on a rock there. They are the work of Michael Casey, a bogwood sculptor "lifting art out of the dark sods of the west", as a placard in his studio puts it.
Visitors are welcome -- just ring the bell, ignore the barking dog and you'll soon be nosing around a small exhibition space stuffed with works hewn from millennia-old bog oak and yew.
Casey's studio, which he shares with his son, Kevin, is a stone's throw from Barley Harbour. Silent but for the lapping water and whispering reeds, this cut-stone spot is a lovely little pause for thought, with swans necking in the near distance, and a tempting outdoor dip in finer climes.
Details: Barley Harbour, Co Longford. Tel: 043 332 5297; bogwood.net.
The strawberry smoothie
The Hodson Bay Hotel must have as many lives as a cat. Once the childhood home of Mary O'Rourke, it has expanded restlessly as a hotel, with the most recent addition of a swanky new leisure centre and spa showing up the ageing conservatories of the older building.
I stop into Juice at the Bay, the café and juice bar here, for a smoothie crammed with OJ, strawberries and bananas (€4.95). It's pricey, but it does the job, served up cool and slushy and making me feel 10pc healthier than the lady next to me who orders a coffee.
It's a new take on an old stop-off and, of course, the views remain top-notch. I sit for a while by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a garden of young oak and ash trees while, in the distance, cruisers and yachts putter about beyond reeds bending in the wind and rain.
Details: Hodson Bay, Co Westmeath. Tel: 090 644 2020; hodson bayhotel.com
The olde-worlde cuppa
Think of Glasson and the Wineport invariably comes to mind. The upmarket setting for RTE's 'The Restaurant' isn't the only eatery in town, however. Stepping into Grogan's, I find myself in a dark, wood and brass pub dating from 1750. It's full of rugby memorabilia and eccentric touches such as an old swear jar and a trio of bar stools with slung-leather seats. The pub opens up into a bigger, brighter restaurant out back, but I only have time for a cup of tea (€1.90).
It's a cheery interlude.
Details: Glasson, Co Westmeath. Tel: 090 648 5158; grogansof glasson.com.
The cottage industry
Back in the 1800s, Knockcroghery was the centre of a thriving clay pipe industry. Duídíns were crafted for use in Irish wakes, filled with cheap, twist tobacco and laid out for mourners, who enjoyed a smoke before cracking them and laying the pieces on the grave of the departed. The industry fell into decline, however, and never recovered after the Black and Tans burned Knockcroghery in 1921.
I learn all of this during a chat with Ethel Kelly, who runs the Clay Pipe Centre in the village. She makes souvenir and gift pipes from original moulds, working away beside a large brick kiln. "Even last year I had a few people ordering them for wakes," she tells me. "It was a really unusual custom, but a nice one." The pipes start at €7, and you can also pick up one of Ethel's 'Bog Buddies' -- turf pieces cut like cookies from the surrounding bogs to resemble sheep, angels and flowers.
Details: Knockcroghery, Co Roscommon. Tel: 090 666 1923; oghamwish.com.