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Ireland on a shoestring: €99 night away in Blackwater Valley

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Blackwater Valley Annabella Lodge North Cork

Blackwater Valley Annabella Lodge North Cork

Springfort Hall Cafe

Springfort Hall Cafe

W&H O'Keefes

W&H O'Keefes

Blackwater Valley Doneraile Park Georgian House North Cork

Blackwater Valley Doneraile Park Georgian House North Cork

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Pol O Conghaile shows you how to spend a night away for just €99.

1The Blackwater Heritage Trail

Following the Blackwater Valley from the Claragh Mountains near Millstreet to Cappoquin, my notebook quickly fills up with discoveries I never knew were there to be made.

At Castletownroche, for example, the 800-year-old ruin of Bridgetown Priory lies hidden away near an old viaduct.

Parking the car, I slip from nave to presbytery, from choir to moss-covered cloisters, with birds twittering away outside. There isn't a soul in sight.

Further along, there's a 3,500 year old megalithic tomb at Labbacallee, swans glide along a section of the Blackwater Way near Fermoy, and the awesome Lismore Castle watches over the water beneath the Knockmealdown Mountains.

Next time, I'm bringing the fishing rod.

Details: See discoverireland.ie/ blackwatervalley.

2 Four-legged friends in donkey heaven

"It all started right where you're standing," Paddy Barrett tells me. "My father worked for the ISPCA, and he came across a lot of abandoned donkeys on his travels. He brought them back to the rest fields here with his Morris Minor and trailer."

Paddy surveys his family farm. He has long since taken over from his dad. Allied with the Donkey Sanctuary UK since 1987, the Liscaroll operation has grown to take in hundreds of abandoned and mistreated donkeys yearly.

Sadly, there is little market for the animals in the current recession. In 2011 alone, 374 donkeys were rescued from towns and countryside all over Ireland.

A tour of the sanctuary takes me along farm walks, past picnic tables and a video room. I get to meet donkeys like Lorcan, rescued in Galway city after being chased into barbed wire on a building site.

Today, he's in donkey heaven.

These are loving, trusting animals. They are powerful workers, gentle and robust, "but not one bit dumb", Barrett smiles. "They love all this fussing and rubbing."

You can visit for free, and if you wish to adopt a donkey, the cost is €20 for a year.

Details: Free. Tel: 022 48398; thedonkeysanctuary.ie.



3 A walk in the park at Doneraile

Bang in the middle of Munster, between the Ballyhoura and Boggera Mountains, lies the 450-acre expanse of Doneraile Wildlife Park.

Though originally landscaped for the fabulously wealthy St Ledger family, it's a good recession fit too. A visit is absolutely free.

I pull up under a blue, wintry sky and set off exploring the forest paths and river walks.

Spring is the time to see bluebells and rhododendrons, but you can also spot Sika deer and black Kerry cattle, roam among waterfalls, hunting bridges and centuries-old yew trees, and enjoy all the rolling rural vistas of an estate laid out in the 'Capability Brown' style.

The best of those vistas is found near the playground by an old Spanish chestnut tree, its thick roots coiling above ground.

The bench here is a lovely place to sit, looking over the Awbeg River towards Doneraile House, with its sash windows and curved end bows.

The Georgian pile isn't just notable for its architecture, incidentally. It was here that Elizabeth St Ledger was discovered eavesdropping on her father's Masonic lodge in 1712.

The young girl was inducted to ensure her silence, becoming the only Irish lady Freemason.

Details: Free. See heritageireland.ie.

4 Lunch at Springfort Hall Cafe

Following the River Blackwater gives me an appetite, and driving through Mallow to quell it, I spy a sandwich board outside the Springfort Hall Cafe.

Lunch specials include a beef stew (€9.50), a goat's cheese salad (€5.95) and a ploughman's lunch (€7.95).

I order the ploughman's. A chunky chopping board arrives laden with thick hams and salamis, chunky cuts of Ardsallagh and Gubbeen cheese, a tangy tomato and pepper relish, a sliced egg, and a clump of cos leaves sprinkled with sundried tomatoes and black olives.

Other than the cheese, which is rock-hard, it's a hearty plate, rounded off with a cup of Illy coffee.

The cafe is associated with nearby Springfort Hall Hotel, I learn, which recently won an AA Rosette for its food. Its deli shelves are lined with treats such as Skelligs Chocolates and homemade cherry and porter cakes; its walls with atmospheric photos of Mallow in the 1970s.

Details: Tel: 022 43779; springforthall.com.



5 Mallow's historic rebel trail

Driving through Mallow, my heart sinks. Traffic is choked up, there's a grubby, depressed feel to many of the shopfronts, and the Tudor-style clock tower is languishing under a 'For Sale' sign.

It's a far cry from the spa town once fancied as the Irish Bath.

But it's worth sticking around. Following the historic rebel trail, I stumble across the birthplace of Thomas Davis, Mallow's greatest son and patriot, a former Black and Tan barracks, and a location from Ken Loach's War of Independence movie, 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'.

There are other nuggets, too. Did you know Anthony Trollope, the celebrated English writer of the Victorian era, once lived here? That a Spa House dating from 1828 still retains its well room?

Or that Cork County Council recently took possession of the reticent Mallow Castle, with an eye to developing it for tourism?

In channelling its past, let's hope Mallow can brighten up its future.

Details: Free. See mallow.ie.

6 A spot of old-school shopping

There's nothing like buying old-school goodies in an old-school shop. In Kanturk, I swing by Jack McCarthy's butchers, which began life 120 years ago when a local baker decided to switch trades.

Five generations later, McCarthy and his son Tim's prize-winning black pudding was served for Queen Elizabeth at a State dinner in Dublin Castle.

Sliabh Luachra air-dried beef and sausages filled with ingredients ranging from Bramley apple to Ardrahan cheese are other items on the shelves, alongside a very tempting gourmet breakfast pack.

It bundles six sausages, black and white puddings, and rashers for just €6.99.

Later, back in Mallow, I stumble upon W&H O'Keefe's on Main Street. Hidden under an old bay window, its antique wooden shelves are crammed with glass jars of sweets, and there's a steady stream of customers buying Lotto tickets and newspapers.

"We haven't changed in 130 years," the shop attendant tells me. I ask for a portion of wine gums, which she weighs in an old shop scales and tips into a small, brown paper bag.

"We only stock Maynard's," she says. "They're the best."

Details: McCarthy's, tel: 029 50178; jackmccarthy.ie. O'Keefe's, Main Street, Mallow.

7 Overnight in Annabella Lodge

In the golden age of homespun hospitality, there were some 4,500 approved B&Bs in this country. Today, that figure has plummeted to 1,850, according to B&B Ireland.

That's some cull, even allowing for all the Celtic Tiger craziness. Many of the B&Bs that have survived, however, have done so for a reason -- there remains a market in Ireland for friendly and unpretentious accommodation aimed at travellers on a budget.

A five-minute walk from Mallow's town centre, I find Sean and Margaret O'Shea's Annabella Lodge on a rise overlooking a railway bridge.

The couple, who formerly ran The Rakes bar in town, have operated here for almost 16 years, mixing basic, comfortable rooms with frills such as free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee facilities and Sky Sports in the living room.

Breakfast is cooked to order and served in a bright conservatory overlooking the V-shaped garden outside, with birds whipping around its feeders. Fresh fruit, freshly squeezed juice and porridge with brown sugar and honey are on the menu, too.

Details: B&B from €30pps. Tel: 022 43991; annabellalodge.com.



THE BUDGET

All prices are calculated per person, and include one night's accommodation, two meals (breakfast and lunch/dinner), and all activities. For this trip, we've also added €30 for petrol costs within the county. NB: Prices subject to change and availability.MONEY SAVING TIPS

Citylink (citylink.ie) has 10pc off bus fares booked online -- it serves Mallow from Cork, Galway and Limerick. The Cork Racecourse in Mallow has a three-day ticket for its Racing Home for Easter Festival (racinghomeforeaster. com; April 7-9) from €30pp.

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