Secret Ireland: Munster magic
Pól Ó Conghaile explores Ballyhoura country, a region straddling Limerick, Cork and Tipp.
The fly-fishing lesson
Once upon a time, Ballyhass Lakes was an old limestone quarry. Today, it is a spring water trout fishery, complete with self-catering houses, tackle shop and an activity centre offering kayaking, rock-climbing, abseiling, archery and a low-ropes course. It's quite the transformation.
I pull up at the lakes, near Mallow in Co Cork, for a fly-fishing lesson with the on-site expert, Tom Lofts (€30 per hour). Needless to say, when Tom casts off, it is poetry in motion. When I follow, I'm reminded to put my protective goggles on in case I hook an eyeball.
Gradually though, I start to get the hang of it. Holding my thumb up, I snap the rod back and flick it forward, landing the fly onto the lake. It sinks a touch, and I start reeling it in, alternating between slow draws and fast chucks. When a trout bites, I jerk the line, and the hook flies clean out of the fish's mouth. Better luck next time perhaps?
"Let's try that again," Tom says through his laughter.
Details: 022 27773; ballyhasslakes.ie; daily permits from €20.
The electric bike ride
If you fancy seeing Ballyhoura Country on two wheels, but don't like the idea of getting worn out in the process, don't fret. There is a gentler, electric alternative to mountain biking.
Powered by built-in batteries, electric bikes offer the rewards of cycling without the effort, propelling cyclists for up to 40 miles with the energy it would take to power a 100w light bulb for one night. You can twist the handle like a throttle, or use 'pedal assist' mode. The former tootles along at about 15kmph; the latter depends entirely on you. Like a regular bike, the faster you pedal, the faster you go.
I link up with Marty Mannering, a Limerick fireman who runs goeco.ie, for a spin from Lough Gur to Grange Stone Circle on a Wisper Alpino.
It's an effortless excursion. After an initial jolt, the bike hums along, transporting me from summery byways to the Bronze Age in minutes.
Details: 061 381427; goeco.ie; weekend electric bike experiences start from €150pp.
The boy from Bruree
In the US, ex-presidents splash out on legacy libraries, gathering documents and memorabilia together in multi-million dollar tributes to their terms in office. Eamon de Valera, on the other hand, opened his museum in a schoolhouse in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Bruree.
De Valera was born in New York in 1882, but came to live with his grandmother in Co Limerick after his father died two years later. He went to school in Bruree, and referred to it as 'áit an-speisialta', a very special place.
He returned to open the museum as a 90-year-old man.
It's a tiny place, with artefacts including Dev's spectacles, walking stick, locks of his hair, old school copybooks, rosary beads, newspaper clippings and a notepad signed a fortnight before his death, all of which combine to create a charming picture of a complicated man.
Details: 087 311-6008; ballyhouracountry.com; €5/€2.50.
The overnight suggestion
Pulling up to the gates of Ballinwillin House in Mitchelstown, I spot a herd of red deer through the trees. After a busy day in Ballyhoura, I'm left wondering whether my eyes are playing tricks on me. But no, it transpires that the deer are farmed for venison by my hosts, Patrick and Miriam Mulcahy.
And venison is just the start of it. Patrick and Miriam also farm wild boar, Irish grazers and Iron Age pigs, as well as purebred Kerry and Charolais cattle.
Not only that, but a homemade wine cellar contains some 13 wines from the couple's vineyard in Hungary. The label? Chateau Mulcahy. It's safe to say this is a pretty unique farmhouse. Patrick welcomes me with a wine tasting session, kicking off with a glass of 'Anna Lilly' sauvignon blanc (named for a friend's daughter), before we tuck into Miriam's one-pot wonder -- a rich venison bourguignon -- in the kitchen.
"We want to take people back in time," Patrick says.
Visitors can tour the farm, stay overnight in converted stables, book a wine-tasting session (from €15pp) or enjoy a suckling pig baked in a clay oven (€25pp, groups only). I'm not surprised to learn that many do all three.
Details: 086 256-1578; ballinwillinhouse.com; B&B from €40pp
The pop-up picnic
There are no two ways about it, hiking or biking through the Ballyhoura Mountains is going to work up a healthy appetite. Thankfully, Morris Herr, owner of the Old Bake House (pictured), has come up with a tasty way to slake it -- a gourmet picnic from his restaurant in Bruff, Co Limerick.
Collecting a straw hamper and tartan rug, I drive on to Lough Gur, undo the leather straps, and lay the mouth-watering feast out on a wooden table. Homemade breads, baked ham, Cashel blue cheese, salmon fillets, pastries and tea are all quickly demolished. Tastiest is the crab salad, which has a hidden tang in its chilli, lime and red onion mix. I spooned great lumps of it onto the homemade brown.
It's a super idea, complete with cutlery and napkins, and the Old Bake House has plans to deliver to the mountain bike trails too. However, if the weather is against you, you can always do things the traditional way, with lunch in the restaurant itself.
Details: 061 382797; bakehouse.ie; picnics from €30 for two people.
The hidden heritage hub
Kilmallock was once the crossroads of Munster. Today, it's bypassed by the N20 connecting Cork and Limerick, and the result feels like an open-air museum.
Wind whistles through the ruins of old Norman walls and gates. A 13th-century collegiate church and Dominican priory stand like historical shells. A forlorn little museum on Chapel Height squirrels away motley trinkets -- a bedraggled Fenian cap, Civil War shells and an old hearing horn.
In the collegiate church, look out for the Fitzgerald tomb in the south transept. It's hard to see through the bars, but a cartoonish, metre-long skeleton on the lid depicts Death grasping a gravedigger's spade and squashing a corpse under his foot. 'Memento Mori', translated as 'Remember your mortality', is the inscription.
On Wolfe Tone Street, a homemade sign sits outside a row of brightly painted old cottages. "Walk in and go back in time," it says, leading to an old hearth, a picture of Pope John Paul, a washing jug, pots and iron-frame beds with knitted spreads. It could easily be the tagline for the entire village.
Details: 063 98019; discoverireland.ie/limerick.
The mountain bike trails
Haven't heard of Ballyhoura? You're not alone. Sprawling across North Cork, East Limerick and South Tipperary, the region hinges on the Ballyhoura Mountains, and it's one of the best-kept secrets in the staycation game. However, don't bank on it staying that way for long.
The main reason for this is its cracking stack of mountain bike trails. Graded loops are threaded through the mountains, and range from a 6km starter trail to a 51km bone-rattler. From the dummy-friendly signage to bike-hire and wash facilities, the whole operation feels brand new.
Renting a front-suspension bike from Trailriders (trailriders.ie; €35 a day), I hit the loops with Diarmaid O'Leary.
It takes some huffing and puffing to get up into the hills, but the single-track descent is a brilliant pay-off. Barrelling around bends, dodging rocks and catching tantalising glimpses of the Golden Vale ... it's exhilarating stuff.
The key is to stand up, float your body about, feather the brakes and concentrate hard.
Mountain biking is the new surfing -- combining natural resources and all-weather enthusiasm in a day out.
Details: 063 91300; ballyhouramtb.com. Parking costs €5.
The enchanted lake
"They say there isn't a museum in Western Europe that doesn't contain something from Lough Gur," tour guide George Finch tells me, walking me around the edge of this ancient lake.
People have lived at Lough Gur for at least 5,500 years -- you can't swing a picnic rug without hitting a stone circle, Neolithic settlement, hill fort, medieval castle or mass rock of some kind. The unbroken habitation has led to an almost tangible aura of mystique -- it's a pretty sacred spot.
"Every seven years, so it is said, Gur demands the heart of a human being," as Mary Carbery's memoir, 'The Farm by Lough Gur', recounts.
Even after the extensive archaeological surveys of recent decades, its depths are probably still strewn with treasure from all ages. A visitor centre tells the story of this remarkable area, but you could just as easily bring a football or fishing rod, and steps beside the 'spectacles' -- a Stone Age settlement -- lead up to a wonderful panorama. The only things escaping the enchantment are the smelly public toilets.
Details: loughgur.com; guided tours (087 273-9199) cost €5pp.