Tuesday 16 July 2019

10 great reasons to visit Monaghan

The drumlin county

Kayaking on Lough Muckno, Monaghan
Kayaking on Lough Muckno, Monaghan
Silverhill Farm duck at The Courthouse Restaurant, Carrickmacross
The Lodge at Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co. Monaghan
Patrick Kavanagh's grave, at Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan
Liz Christy at Swallow Studios, Co. Monaghan
Tommy Bowe's 2009 Six Nations jerseys at Monaghan County Museum. Ireland won the Grand Slam that year.
Cycling on Black Island, Lough Muckno
Goodies at the Glaslough Chocolate Co. in County Monaghan
Harvest Time Blues Festival, Monaghan
Irish Country Quads, Monaghan
Round Tower, Clones, Co. Monaghan
An aerial view of Concra Wood Golf & Country Club, at Lough Muckno, Co. Monaghan
Hot air ballooning over Castle Leslie, Co. Monaghan
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

From Castle Leslie to Kavanagh Country, from delicious duck to quirky cultural treasures, Monaghan is back on the map.

There’s more to Monaghan than stony grey soil, you know.

Long overlooked as a staycation option – seen as a place to pass through, rather than a destination in itself - the county is slowly but surely changing perceptions.

Sure, it lacks the big landscape hits of the Wild Atlantic Way, or a bustling anchor-city like Kilkenny or Galway. But that’s ok. That's not what Monaghan is about. Like its rolling drumlins, the county's charms are subtle rather than in your face. It works a slow and surprising spell. 

‘God is in the bits and pieces,’ as Patrick Kavanagh wrote. Here are 10.

Lough Muckno

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An aerial view of Concra Wood Golf & Country Club, at Lough Muckno, Co. Monaghan

Concra Wood Golf Club, Co. Monaghan

‘I’ll go out for a paddle myself later when I’m finished,” says Janet Coogan, whom I meet leading a bunch of schoolchildren in kayaks along the lakeshore.

“It’s just so peaceful.”

She’s right. Set just outside Castleblaney, this picturesque little lake punches way above its weight in terms of activities. As well as kayaking (pictured above, top), it’s a hit with fishermen, boasts several walking and cycling trails, and is also home to a local Waterski & Wakeboard Club, Ski Muckno.

The only blip is the sad sight of a broke-down and boarded-up Hope Castle (built by the family associated with the Hope Diamond). It was destroyed by an arson attack in 2010, and has yet to be resuscitated.

Monaghan got its name from the Irish Muineacháin - ‘county of little hills’ - and there’s no shortage of those around Lough Muckno. The best place for an overview is Concra Wood Golf Club, where drumlins appear to dance around the water.

Details: mucknoadventure.com; skimuckno.com; concrawood.ie

The Courthouse Restaurant

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Silverhill Farm duck at The Courthouse Restaurant, Carrickmacross

Silverhill Farm duck at The Courthouse

The reputation of Conor Mee and Charlotte Carr's Courthouse restaurant - set in a heritage building in Carrickmacross, as the name suggests – is spreading.

The upstairs space is atmospheric, with bistro tables and brick walls illuminated by light spilling through French blinds. Staff strike just the right note of friendliness and professionalism, too. it all feels very welcoming and assured.

Irish ingredients are to the fore on Mee's menu, as you might expect – Fivemiltown goat’s cheese and a Carlingford crab mayo are name-checked on my visit – but I’m especially tickled to find a spiced honey duck breast from Silverhill Farm up the road. Served with orange, carrot puree and peppercorns, it’s a tasty and tender affair, never overpowering or chewy, and well-priced at €18.50. 

If you do stop at The Courthouse, try quenching your thirst with a locally-brewed Brehon blonde. It’s a malty, citrusy craft beer from the Brehon Brewhouse, which also does brewery tours (from €10pp).

Details: courthouserestaurant.ie; brehonbrewhouse.com

Read more: Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at The Courthouse Restaurant, Co Monaghan

Bog-snorkelling, baby…

Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar takes part in the Irish Bog Snorkelling Championships in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan

Yes, minister!

Lest we forget, Monaghan is the birthplace of bog-snorkelling. Or Doohamlet, to be precise. Ever since the first practitioner donned a wetsuit and splashed into a murky ditch in the middle of the bog, the sport has gone from strength and strength – to the extent that it will now feature in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Well, not really. But it is splendidly mad. And Leo Varadkar (pictured) has done it. This year's Irish Bog Snorkelling Championships kick off on September 12.

Details: irishbogsnorkelling.com

Patrick Kavanagh Country

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Patrick Kavanagh's grave, at Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan

Patrick Kavanagh's grave in Inniskeen

They said / That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges / Of the little farm and did not know the world / But I knew that love’s doorway to life / Is the same doorway everywhere.

Many will know Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Innocence’. What’s less well-known, however, is just how intact the Inniskeen landscape that inspired him remains today.

A short, 13.5km walk, drive or cycle takes you past the family homestead (scene of ‘A Christmas Childhood’), Billy Brennan’s Barn (“the wink-and-elbow language of delight”) and Inniskeen Road, where the bicycles went by “in twos and threes” on the eponymous July evening. It's a gorgeously intimate trip.

If you don’t fancy guiding yourself, contact the Patrick Kavanagh Centre to arrange a performance tour full of impromptu poetry recitals. The centre itself, housed in an old Presbyterian church in Inniskeen, evokes the poet’s life and works with displays including his death mask, paintings illustrating ‘The Great Hunger’ and a model of the Christmas Childhood scene.

Outside, a tiny wooden cross marks the poet's grave. Fitting for a man whose gift – and genius – was to see the universal in everyday things.

Details: patrickkavanaghcountry.com.

Tommy Bowe!

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Tommy Bowe's 2009 Six Nations jerseys at Monaghan County Museum. Ireland won the Grand Slam that year.

Grand Slam glory from 2009

Monaghan isn’t short on celebs and cultural heroes – Pat McCabe, Charlene McKenna, Barry McGuigan, Oliver Callan and designer Helen Steele are all from the county (as was Liverpool FC’s first manager, ‘Honest’ John McKenna).

But Irish rugby’s flying No.14 is flavour of the month.

Ok, the Emyvale winger isn’t exactly going to give you a guided tour. At the heart of Monaghan County Museum, however, you’ll find a strangely moving display featuring all five of his jerseys from Ireland’s historic, Grand Slam-winning Six Nations campaign in 2009.

Moving, because this is a genuine piece of rugby lore (remember the try Bowe scored against Wales?). Strange, because in the case alongside those neatly-folded green jerseys are items ranging from a Holy Communion bread-cutter to a medical device once used to treat TB.

Other exhibits in the museum include a 12,000-year-old Irish deer skull found in Lough Muckno, and the 14th-century Cross of Clogher. Definitely browse-worthy.

Details: monaghan.ie/museum; free.

Read more: Rugby World Cup Travel Guide: Tommy Bowe's inside line on Cardiff

Designs for life

Monaghan has a rich textile heritage, in both linen and lace.

What may surprise you, however, is that textiles are still getting TLC in small and charming pockets of the county. Think of Helen Steele (you'll find some of her wares at the Silverhill Farm Shop in Emyvale). Or Carrickmacross Lace.

Then there is Liz Christy, who weaves sumptuous scarves, throws and other goodies in her Swallow Studios near Castleblaney. Liz bases her colour palettes on Monet’s paintings, and passers-by are welcome to drop by to watch her team at work (see video above) and have a nose around the shop.

Scarves range from €75 to €200, a Kavanagh Collection is inspired by the earthiness of what she terms “the odd Monaghan character”, and there are cute little woolly sheep keyrings, too. 

Details: lizchristy.com; helensteele.com; carrickmacrosslace.ie.

You can drive like a demon

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Irish Country Quads, Monaghan

Off-roading in Monaghan

Not on the roads, now – let’s clear that up first.

Once you get off them, however, and sit into one of the cars at the Irish Rally School in Scotstown, you can make like Lewis Hamilton. Cars range from a Ferrari F355 Berlinetta and Porsche 911 to a Mark II Ford Escort - from €265 for a half-day experience. Who needs Monaco when you have Monaghan!

For another dose of adrenaline, try Country Quads in Carrickakelly (from €40pp). Thumbing the throttle as you whip around a farmland obstacle course, the ATV (all-terrain vehicle) emerges as an unlikely stress-buster. “It takes your mind off everything,” as I was told on my last visit. They’re not wrong.

Details: rallyschoolireland.ie; irishcountryquads.com

It’s the country music capital of Ireland

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Harvest Time Blues Festival, Monaghan

The Harvest Time Blues Festival

Remember Big Tom? Around here, he was never forgotten.

Monaghan was a major stomping ground  during the Irish showband era, with a key crossroads in Castleblaney... which last year bestowed the freedom of the town on Big Tom and another native, Paddy Cole.

The Irish Nashville? “It was before disco,” as one local reminisced. “The thousands that clamoured. They literally took over the fields.”

But here’s the thing. It’s not over. In hotels throughout the border areas – including the Glencarn in ‘blaney – a new wave of Country & Irish cult figures is drawing in the crowds. What’s more, the audiences for Nathan Carter, Derek Ryan, Mike Denver and others aren’t all older folk chasing nostalgia. They’re young jivers. It’s a strangely contagious buzz... at one point, I found myself searching Big Tom on Spotify.

The Monaghan Country Music Festival takes place over the August bank holiday weekend, but if country isn’t your thing, don’t worry. The Harvest Time Blues Festival (September 4-6) is building up a real head of steam, with acts this year including 82-year-old Missisippi legend Leo ‘Bud’ Welch.

Details: monaghancountrymusicfestival.com; harvestblues.ie

This heritage hit

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Round Tower, Clones, Co. Monaghan

Round Tower, Clones

What’s there to see in Monaghan? Rather a lot, if you’re a heritage buff.

Heritage sites in the county include Monaghan's handsome St. Macartan's Cathedral, the 12th century round tower at Clones (the town began life as a fifth century monastic settlement), as well as St. Tiernach's church and grave.

One of the things I was most intrigued to find in the Monaghan County Museum was a customs sign in use along the border up to the 1990s. It turns out you can take guided tours of the border, too (€50pp in a daytrip from Dublin, including lunch). It’s not just Northern Ireland that has seen the Troubles give way to tourism.

Details: clonestown.com; bordertours.ie

Castle Leslie & Glaslough

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The Lodge at Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co. Monaghan

The Lodge at Castle Leslie

Back in 1991, Sammie Leslie opened a tearoom on her family’s estate.

From modest beginnings, she has spent the guts of 25 years regenerating one of the most unique estates in the border counties and what, to my mind at least, is Monaghan’s most iconic place to stay (and play).

But Castle Leslie is more than that. A Blue Book property forming the beating heart of Glaslough village, it consists of a spectacularly-kept Scots-baronial-style castle, a luxurious 30-bed lodge, a boutique spa, a spotless arena and equestrian centre, and a 1,000-acre estate braided with hills, lakes, pathways and enormous old trees. If you’re looking for country house seclusion, look no further.

Paul McCartney and Heather Mills married at Castle Leslie. So did Gordon D’Arcy and Aoife Cogan. There are 80 gins available in the Lodge bar, including ShortCross from Northern Ireland (try it with apple or orange). Neither lodge nor castle feels fusty, which is quite an achievement given the history and eccentricities on display (was that really Winston Churchill’s christening dress I saw?), and the service seems genuine and thoughtful.

If you stay, amble down to the village for a visit to Glaslough Chocolate Company. Oh, and there are pet-friendly self-catering apartments and a two AA Rosette restaurant, too. An overnight break including dinner and B&B costs from €135pps at the Lodge, and €145pp at the castle.

Details: castleleslie.com; irelands-blue-book.ie

PS: For more to see and do in Monaghan, see monaghantourism.com and discoverireland.ie.

Read more:

10 great reasons to visit Leitrim Cavan: A hideaway in lovely drumlin country  Rugby World Cup Travel Guide: Tommy Bowe's inside line on Cardiff

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