Ireland's best-kept secret
Published 08/04/2013 | 05:00
I had never gone to Offaly as a tourist before, but then, who goes home on a holiday? I went on St Valentine's weekend, with my partner.
I have passed through Offaly several times on my way to somewhere else, a tourist destination – the west, the south – but have never approached home with anything other than a familiar expectation.
For me, the place names are at once familiar, not just the towns and villages, but the townlands too, and every twist, turn and bump on the road: the fields, bogs, graveyards and churches, the schools, walls, pubs and GAA clubs, I know them all and paid my respects in February.
And through it all runs the Grand Canal, alongside which I lived until the night of a particular incident.
I crashed my first car when I was 19 – a white Fiat 127 that spun out of control while driving too fast, too late, and hit loose chippings on the road.
When the crunching stopped, I climbed through the back window, across a field, up a drain, through a ditch and walked half a mile to the house of a friend, no injury evident other than a fat lip and bloodied nose. He took me home.
You could say I was lucky: the crash led me on the path to where I am now.
As a consequence, two months later, I decided to leave home on the great adventure that is life, still in full play.
Now, aged 45, pushing back against middle age, and a certain melancholy, I was home again, this time in the company of Lady Jane, happily taking on the role of unofficial tour guide.
We stayed in Kinnitty Castle Hotel, which will be familiar to many as one of the country's top wedding destinations. The reason is not very hard to see.
If it is romance you are after, then Kinnitty Castle is the place for you, but not if you are looking for the palazzo marble and chrome chic so beloved of the Celtic Tiger.
If you are after the real thing, however, then Kinnitty Castle is the real thing.
It's been a castle through the centuries, but is now also a comfortable hotel, with a charm not confined to wedding weekends with the in-laws, but something more evident in the stillness of a midweek night.
At around 1am on a wintry Tuesday, with other guests about the place – including a scientist I would see later at another castle – the charm turned to a certain eccentricity.
At such a moment, Kinnitty Castle reveals her true self – for it is a she – and seeps into you like fog over a wet field. What an extraordinary experience.
The next night, St Valentine's, we enjoyed a fine meal in the very fine restaurant, at a table by the window that looks out over the rolling fields of the parish, a mist hovering harmlessly but with intent.
Later we went the short distance to Giltraps, as it is called, but known locally as Percy's – that is, Percy Clendennen, an upstanding man of Fine Gael, where we enjoyed a pint in the company of my brother Matt and his wife Maria, who live in Kinnitty.
They are on a campaign for their son, Rory, and for the parents of children with autism everywhere, a campaign I will write about again.
Percy's son, John, will soon be an agrifood entrepreneur of some significance, his Giltraps pork products – if that is what he choses to call them – for which I can vouch, and I do not exaggerate, are among the finest around.
I imagine John will be supplying Kinnitty Castle before long. His products would be suited to a hotel which prides itself on the excellence, and elegance, of its food, which we enjoyed in the Sli Dala Restaurant.
If you are a real tourist, you may want to take in Birr Castle Demesne, about 20 minutes away, which is world renowned as a centre of scientific excellence.
Starting with the Historic Science Centre in the old stable block, with its cafe and shop, you can explore 50 hectares of park land, if you have the mind to, or the legs.
If you are more sedate, however, then you may be even more interested in the formal gardens, or, indeed, Birr's world famous engineering and astronomical wonder – the Great Telescope.
According to the Midland Tribune, the castle itself, home of the Earl of Rosse – the ingenious Parsons family – will soon be opened to the public for the first time, which is just another reason to visit the thriving market town of Birr.
You can take in the history, if you want, or you can participate in the various activities laid on at Kinnitty Castle, horse-riding, clay pigeon shooting, tennis – whatever takes your fancy. I gave Jane the unofficial tour of Offaly, Ireland's best-kept secret, which involved various fields and bogs to which I have a certain attachment.
But it was not until we deviated to the banks of the Grand Canal that the entire experience made sense.
I was born and reared, and until that accident, had lived a life by the canal, rural and isolated in a community apart, bachelor farmers of small holdings dressed in black on black bicycles. It was a good life.
The next time you are passing to somewhere you imagine more wonderful, stop off, take your time, involve yourself and spend a night or two in Offaly, at Kinnitty Castle Hotel, an experience you are unlikely to forget.