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Ireland Unlocks: 10 great things to do in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands this summer

In our new staycation series, Thomas Breathnach journeys from Cavan to Lough Derg in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands

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Cloughoughter Castle, Co Cavan. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Cloughoughter Castle, Co Cavan. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

The ancient landscapes of West Cavan - near Cavan Burren Park

The ancient landscapes of West Cavan - near Cavan Burren Park

The Olde Post Inn

The Olde Post Inn

Fuchsia Lane Farm

Fuchsia Lane Farm

Lough Oughter

Lough Oughter

Lough Key Caravan and Campsite

Lough Key Caravan and Campsite

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Cloughoughter Castle, Co Cavan. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Channelling through a lock gate along the River Shannon, freshwater thunders through the sluices, as if the next chapter of your staycation is being uploaded.

But out on these waterways, there’s no sea spray or ocean breezes, rather a lush and languid riverscape blushed by a palette of whitethorn blossoms, a kingfisher’s bolt of blue, the gentle crunch of bulrushes as cattle mosey along the banks. Even in Ireland, you’ll rarely experience a serenity like this.

But that’s the nature of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands: a nine-county basin where landscapes shape-shift, from the evergreen wilds of Co Leitrim to Cavan’s very own Burren and the Shannon callows; the uniquely Irish habitat dreamily translated as “water meadows”. Here you can escape the crowds for a trip that feels like a timelapse, from a trending microbrewery in Athlone to the ancient monastery of Clonmacnoise. These off-radar lands have inspired wordsmiths from WB Yeats to Thomas MacDonagh. And no kidding: visiting is poetry in slow motion.

Anticipation for the season is rising, according to Ray Byrne, owner of Wineport Lodge on Lough Ree. “Irish people have always loyally supported this part of the country, but with so many planning to staycation this summer, we’re hoping Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands will become even less of a secret,” he says.

1. Lough down

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Lough Oughter

Lough Oughter

Lough Oughter

As Ireland’s “Lake County”, Cavan boasts some beauties, but nowhere gets the drone footage rolling like Lough Oughter (above, and top), located outside Killeshandra. Appearing like a border-region Lake Bled, the lake is centred by a forested islet where Lough Oughter Castle has stood since 1200. And if that’s not impressive enough, the site originally featured a crannóg. Not kitted out with your own kayak? Outfitters like ruraladventure.ie or cavanadventure.com will get you there.

2. Lockdown link

We all seem to have gotten green fingers during lockdown, which is why The Organic Centre in Co Leitrim makes a greater horticultural haven than ever. The friendly outfit in Rossinver offers visitor courses on everything from cheese-making to fertiliser-mastering. Or just pop in to wander the gardens before fuelling up at their grass-roofed eco-café, with treats like aromatic chickpea tagine or zucchini and cheese muffins. theorganiccentre.ie

3. Woodland wander

Center Parcs has put Longford’s pristine woodlands on the map, but you don’t need to splash out for an executive lodge to enjoy them. Once part of the former demesne of the same name, Newcastle Woods (just adjacent to the resort) offers 28km of tracks and trails, from the 5km church walk to a 700m stretch of wheelchair-accessible forest pathways. Amid the flora and fauna, keep an eye out for the resident fallow deer!

4. Future’s bright

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County Clare, Ireland

County Clare, Ireland

Getty Images/Perspectives

County Clare, Ireland

From Slieveanilra to Coumaniller, Irish placenames featuring the eagle (iolar) date back centuries. After a 110-year absence, white-tailed sea eagles have returned to breed around Lough Derg, with the original Mountshannon chick now nesting across the border in Tipp (during lockdown, live streaming of a nesting site in Glengarriff, Co Cork was a virtual hit, too). Ten new eagles will be released in Ireland next month. npws.ie

5. Country cuisine

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Neven Maguire and volunteers with some of the meals they prepared for vulnerable community members around Blacklion, Co Cavan.

Neven Maguire and volunteers with some of the meals they prepared for vulnerable community members around Blacklion, Co Cavan.

Neven Maguire and volunteers with some of the meals they prepared for vulnerable community members around Blacklion, Co Cavan.

Neven Maguire’s MacNean Restaurant in Blacklion brought destination dining to the Cavan panhandle. Dishes like organic chard and ricotta ravioli will wow — just make sure to book ahead! You’ll find outstanding gastropubs along the Shannon, like The Derg Inn in Terryglass for its 12-hour slow-cooked lamb shanks, while Sabrina Amodeo’s Tuscany Bistro serves an Italian menu showboating fresh local ingredients that puts the buonissima into Ballina. Try the homemade cannelloni with creamy Cashel Blue sauce. macneanrestaurant.com, @gastrotipp, tuscany.ie

6. Shannon sundowners

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Lukers Bar in Shannonbridge. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Lukers Bar in Shannonbridge. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Lukers Bar in Shannonbridge. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Luker’s of Shannonbridge is a traditional grocers-bar that ranks as one of Ireland’s greatest pubs. The Victorian fireplace is a great spot for a pint while enjoying tales of Shannon lore from owner John Joe Ryan. Dead Centre Brewery in Athlone is a popular taphouse whose flagship Marooned IPA is a fruity ale crafted with Kilbeggan organic oats. Prefer a caffeine kick? Head to The Old Barracks Coffee Roastery, an adults-only coffee bar in Birdhill, Co Tipperary. lukersbar.com, deadcentrebrewing.com, theoldbarracks.ie

Three amazing stays

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Fuchsia Lane Farm

Fuchsia Lane Farm

Fuchsia Lane Farm


7. €€€ Located in a former postmaster’s residence, freshly refurbed rooms at The Olde Post Inn in Cloverhill offer a characterful base for exploring Cavan’s highlights (the on-site restaurant being a star attraction). theoldepostinn.com

8. €€ Fuchsia Lane Farm in Terryglass offers a rustic self-catering base for your explorations. Pick from the quaint Granary Cottage (above) to the spacious lodge, sleeping two to eight people. fuchsialanefarm.com

9. € Lough Key Caravan and Campsite in Co Roscommon welcomes self-contained caravans and campers this season, with limited tenting spots available for later in July. Families will love the forest park adventure centre, too. loughkey.ie

10. Did you know...

The award-winning Shed Distillery in Co Leitrim is due to open a new visitor centre and café this summer, adding further jobs to the area. During lockdown, they pivoted operations from the iconic Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin and Sausage Tree Vodka to produce hand sanitiser for local frontline workers. thesheddistillery.com

Your say

“I love the little travelling farmers’ market that moves between the villages of the northeastern shores of Lough Derg. Meet the locals, get a bit of insider info...”

— Sinead Cahalan (@sineadcahalan)

* Next Saturday, we’re off to Cork. Let us know what you love about it at #IrelandUnlocks, by tweeting @Indo_Travel_ or @indoweekend, or email travel@independent.ie!

NB: See irelandshiddenheartlands.discoverireland.ie for more. Opening dates, prices and offerings are all subject to public health guidelines and change.

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