Surrounded by ancient monuments, lush green countryside, flowing water and beautiful towns and villages, the Lakelands truly is one of Ireland's last hidden gems. A largely undiscovered holiday destination of choice for the domestic traveller, Ireland’s Lakelands region stretches through four zones of water: Lough Erne, the Upper Lakelands with Lough Allen & Lough Key, Lough Ree and Lough Derg. With a unique beauty, a fascinating history and a rich and varied culture to explore, it's the perfect place to add to your summer bucket list.
The Lakelands offer a special getaway experience no matter what floats your boat. Vast expanses of water under wide skies and miles and miles of reed covered shoreline, pristine lake beaches and secret, sheltered coves make it a treasure right in the heart of Ireland. Keen to know more? Read on.
A shimmering jewel on the Shannon, Lough Ree, is in the centre of Ireland and the ideal starting point to unearth the long, dramatic and bloodstained history of the region! 29 km in length, it runs from Lanesborough in County Longford to Athlone in County Westmeath with shores in three counties – Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon. It narrows at Athlone, a buzzing town complete with all the activities, attractions and dining options to suit every budget. As a Medieval crossroads of Ireland's trading routes, the area is rich in history and cultural heritage. Lough Ree is also an important sanctuary for wildlife. Whether you’re cruising the waterways in a splendid boat or relaxing, it is the perfect place to get away from it all; to find peace and quiet.
Located on the banks of the Shannon in the town, the castle started life as a timber fort in 1129 and evolved over time into a bold and imposing defensive stronghold. The building was heavily fortified in the late 13th century and extensively remodelled in the Napoleonic era. The castle which had played a major role in the defence of the town for some 750 years was modernised and refurbished in 2012 with the opening of a state-of-the-art museum and visitor centre and with staff dressed in costume it brings the whole experience to life. Climb the steps to the castle keep and enjoy the views across the majestic River Shannon or climb higher still to the castle battlements and look across the rooftops of the entire town!
As you meander down the Shannon, just south of Lough Ree, you'll find one of Ireland's most important early Christian monastic sites - Clonmacnoise Monastic Settlement. Did you know this was Europe's first university? It was founded in 550 AD by Saint Ciarán and as it was located at the crossroads of two medieval trading routes, it soon boomed to become a major centre of learning and a bustling hive of trade and the arts by the mid-8th century. Interestingly, Saint Ciarán founded his first monastery on Saints Island on the western side of Lough Ree prior to establishing Clonmacnoise.
Clonmacnoise became a centre of craftsmanship and many fine examples of stone carving can be seen in the surviving high crosses and ornate features on the 10 remaining churches on the site. It was also famed as a centre for the illumination of manuscripts and The Book of the Dun Cow, produced at Clonmacnoise, is the oldest surviving manuscript written entirely in the Irish language and which can be viewed in the Royal Irish Academy.
In its 1400 year old history, the site has been raided and raised many times - 8 times by the Vikings, 27 times by other forces such as Irish kings, the Normans and by other monasteries, but was always rebuilt. However, under the reign of Henry VIII the monastery was destroyed by English soldiers for the final time in 1552, leaving the site in the state in which it exists to this day. Did you know, Rory O'Connor, the last High King of Ireland was buried at the alter of the Cathedral in 1198 which you can view when you visit?
As you wander through the site you’ll appreciate that Clonmacnoise is a unique monument to a significant chapter of the history of Christianity and civilization in Ireland. Tours are available and the visitors' centre is brimming with information about the storied history of the monastery.
If you want to take home a physical memory of your visit then a trip to the Celtic Roots Studio, situated in the craft village of Ballinahown, is a must. Combining a workshop and gallery space with an interpretative centre and display of historic artifacts made from bogwood. This natural material was formed from trees that became engulfed in the local Lough Boora Bog thousands of years ago and preserved in the low oxygen atmosphere of the peat. Now, discarded bogwood is reclaimed by Celtic Roots Studio and slowly dried out over two years before it is carved and polished into contemporary sculpture and jewellery. The studio offers classes on small-scale wood carving that give an understanding of what it takes to sand and polish wood. Take home your own hand-carved piece of 5000 years of history!
While the Lakelands can be fully explored off the water, if you wish to add another string to your bow you might want to immerse yourself in all things watery and become the skipper of your own boat! You don’t need any sailing experience or licence to cruise the waters of the Shannon. Vessels catering for 2 to 12 people can be easily hired and with full training given, you can skipper the boat yourself right the length of the lake and down the river Shannon. All it takes is a little throttle and you’ll be cruising at knots through the clear water, from one destination to the next.
Locaboat Holidays is just one company that offer a complete service from boat hire to tuition and everything else you might need to get you cruising from the town of Glasson in Westmeath, it’s the perfect place to start off on your watery journey past the many islands to be found on Lough Ree’s body of water, past historic castle ruins and willow trees bending to trail in the water and miles of rushes on the shoreline that give haven to waterfowl of all descriptions. Sit back, relax and enjoy a meal on deck with your cruiser safely moored in the evening, while watching the sun dip in the sky as you plan your next day discovering the Lakelands.
Alternatively, if you want to step back in time, then sail with the Vikings on board a longship with Viking Tours in Athlone! Your bearded tour guide will capture your imagination, telling you about Viking hoards, high kings, big battles and saintly scholars all while you view the stunning natural beauty of the River Shannon. There are sailings every day on the incredible 21 metre long replica of a Viking Knarr which incidentally is the longest serving passenger ship in both Ireland and the UK!
If you’re looking to have a splash in the Shannon, be sure to check out Baysports, located in Hodson Bay. There are a wide range of activities, from Ireland’s largest water park with water slides, obstacle courses and trampolines to lake and river safari tours. It’s not to be missed for those eager for unforgettable fun!
The abundance of activities and sights on Lough Ree is apparent, however there are endless experiences on and off the water across the entire Lakelands region.
You can explore Lough Key Forest Park which rests between the expanse of forest, parkland and hills, all waiting to be explored by the adventurous among you, by zip wire or canoe or electric bike!
Heading further north, you can discover the stunning Lough Allen, which is overlooked on the Eastern shore by Sliabh an Iariann Mountain and from the Western shore by the Arigna Mountains, providing outstanding views and begging to be explored by foot or bike - the perfect destination for thrill seekers.
Another hidden gem is Lough Derg, Ireland's second largest lake with shores in three counties - Galway, Clare and Tipperary. You can read more about what Lough Derg has to offer here.
This is just a taste of what the Lakelands has to offer. Make it the perfect summer and add the Lakelands to your holiday trip list! Find out more on: www.discoverireland.ie/lakelands