There’s a surprising amount of heritage, trails and activities to discover on a short break...
The older I get, the worse I am with heights.
I felt that before I harnessed up to hoist, haul and zip-line my way around the aerial obstacle course in Lough Key Forest Park. And I feel it even more as I cling to a telegraph pole suspended several metres above the forest floor, taking deep breaths as I wait for a staff member to come and free the rope I’ve managed to get entangled.
It’s a willowy winter morning in Boyle, Co Roscommon, and my son Sam and I have arrived early to tackle the high ropes course at Zipit Forest Adventures.
We have the place almost to ourselves. Around us, bopping between the wires, pads and branches, are wrens, goldcrests and a robin that appears to be on an adventure circuit of its own. A low sun rolls along the horizon line and we set to work after a safety briefing, our chilly fingers slowly warming up as the courses grow more challenging.
And then I get stuck.
For me, Lough Key is one of those parental benchmarking spots — somewhere we return to be confronted with the reality of just how much the kids have grown.
I brought ours here when they were knee-high and could barely tackle the playground. I returned when they were steadier on their feet, walking through the servants’ tunnels and along the tree canopy walk.
And now here I am with a 12-year-old disappearing into the distance like a monkey.
Thankfully, Zipit staff have been supervising closely. One of them pulls on a harness, hops onto the course and frees the rope (and mortified parent) in jig time.
“I had to dig deep for that one,” I sigh.
“There’s a much bigger one coming up,” he laughs. “But you’ll be grand. Just shout if you need help.”
A few sections later, there is indeed a much bigger pole to climb. But to hell with it. Sam has hung around, doesn’t seem too bothered and the zip lines between trees are addictive. The fizz of wheels on wire sounds like knives cutting through the mulchy air. I take yet another deep breath and dig in. We reward ourselves with a hot chocolate and rocky road biscuit at the cafe overlooking the lake.
By now, more cars are pulling up. Bikes are being taken from racks, walkers are on the paths; people pause to watch swans preen on the water. On a nature and history trail, we learn how the former Rockingham Estate, granted to the King family under the Cromwellian Settlement, has come to be reborn as an activity hub, caravan and camping park, and community treasure.
“People can now appreciate the beauty of the park and what you can do with it, rather than resenting the history of it,” as manager Louise Fitzpatrick puts it.
I’m sure lots of people have heard of Lough Key. But how many from outside the county would place it in Roscommon? Or have a sense of Roscommon as a destination, in the way you might think of, say, Sligo or Wexford?
Maybe it’s because there isn’t a big tradition of tourism here. Maybe it’s because Roscommon is landlocked, or one of Ireland’s least populous counties (you could fit everyone who lives here into Croke Park).
But once you think of attractions like Lough Key, or the inflatable summer aqua-park at Baysports (set by the Hodson Bay Hotel on Lough Ree), or the Arigna Mining Experience (with tours led by former miners), or cruisers gliding along the River Shannon, or stays like Kilronan Castle and Clonalis House, or the National Famine Way (stretching 165km from Strokestown House to Dublin), or the history and myths of Rathcroghan, then you might look at it differently.
That was my plan for our Roscommon road trip, anyway. But when I told people where we were headed for a couple of days, the reaction was one of bemusement.
“Roscommon is the county hidden in plain sight,” read a press release by Visit Roscommon last year. Tourism and hospitality folk here are very aware of theirs as a county more passed-through than pinned in maps.
On our drives, I try to choose roads I haven’t travelled much before. I make a point of stopping at places whose names have intrigued me, like Roosky, Tulsk and Knockcroghery.
Beyond the bigger towns, there is so much farmland. Hedgerows grow hypnotic in their scratchy, wintry sameness; ruin after ruin seems to be half-eaten by nature, from the husks of abandoned houses to derelict single-pump petrol stations and rusting corrugated roofs. It’s a remoteness that can feel strange and sad, but also fresh and free of crowds.
“It’s almost other-worldly,” says Johnny O’Sullivan, director of the Hodson Bay Hotel, who joins me for a walk around a new 5km loop open to hotel guests on Yew Point.
The 140-acre peninsula is fringed with native oak and hazel woods, and the hotel has plans to add A-frame cabins close to Lough Ree. “And to think that you are just 10 minutes from the motorway to Dublin.”
Another place where this sense of eerie emptiness and the great outdoors combines is Strokestown Park, where a €5m investment has rebooted the Palladian mansion, walled gardens, walking trails and National Famine Museum.
“You walk around any big farm in Ireland and the ghosts of the Famine still walk there,” as professor Kevin Whelan put it in RTÉ’s documentary The Hunger.
This isn’t an open farm, but the sentiment holds. Last time I visited Strokestown House, I found a decaying pile with an earnest but boring and ageing museum attached (Sam is about as interested in a visit as doing the dishwasher). But now, there’s a much more immersive, interactive journey telling the story of the Famine, its politics and context, the waves of emigration, coffin ships and, of course, Strokestown’s Denis Mahon — infamous as the first landlord assassinated during the Irish Famine, in 1847.
“It’s ironic” that Mahon’s home now hosts this museum and the trailhead for the National Famine Way, which traces the footsteps of 1,490 emigrants who walked from here to Dublin, agrees Strokestown Park manager John O’Driscoll. The museum, and a house tour, give a fascinating insight into the parallel lives of the time, ranging from haunting photos of local mudhouses to the huge gallery kitchen, and from documents warning of poverty and extreme hunger to contemporary recipes for lobster soup.
“It was like a ticking time-bomb,” O’Driscoll says.
At its height, Strokestown Park was a 30,000-acre estate, and you get a sense of the massive wealth on walks around its gorgeous gardens and passing through its set-piece dining and drawing rooms — which carry an interesting story of deterioration of their own. By the time the big house was sold on by Olive Pakenham Mahon in 1979, we learn, she was living mostly in just a single room.
Bit by bit, I feel like we’re getting a deeper sense of this drive-through county.
At Keenan’s, the small, family-run roadside hotel in Tarmonbarry, there are cosy rooms and a warm welcome next to a bulging River Shannon. At The Purple Onion next door, we tuck into a perfectly cooked rump of local lamb. In Roscommon town, we pass a Lecarrow limestone sculpture of a sheep and lamb outside the county museum, before stopping for lunch at Rogue & Co, a bustling cafe with disarmingly friendly service and walls hung with eclectic prints and artefacts.
“That’s very good beef; you should check the name of the butcher,” Sam says matter-of-factly as we tuck into a juicy burger served with applewood cheese, pickles and thin chips with sriracha mayo.
It feels like another benchmarking moment.
At Tulsk, our travels go even further back in time when we stop off at Rathcroghan Visitor Centre (Cruachan Aí), a gateway to the historical landscape nearby.
“It’s an archaeologist’s dream,” says its manager Daniel Curley, who takes us on a tour of what he describes as the oldest and largest unexcavated royal site in Europe (“being an unbiased Roscommon man”).
The tour is “a dipping of our toe” as he puts it, taking us to just a few of the key sites in a landscape riddled with the remains of ring-forts, standing stones, burial mounds and ancient gathering places he says would have hosted “the Electric Picnics or Glastonburies of their day”.
The archaeology spans some 5,500 years and is a key location in the mythical tale Táin Bó Cúailnge, though lots of drawings, maps and storytelling are needed to bring the vague shapes and weather-worn signage to life.
“This is the beating heart of Connacht, basically.”
Rathcroghan, like Roscommon itself, feels hidden in plain sight. I’ve driven by on the N5 many times, but never known the stories stashed beneath these little hills. Curley even shows us Oweynagat, the “Cave of the Cats” with a blink-and-you’d-miss-it entrance that opens up to a 37-metre portal said to be the gateway to the “Otherworld”.
Aptly, Roscommon is one of the counties in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands, the brand Fáilte Ireland is developing to grow slow tourism in the Midlands. Next time we’re back, I dread to think how big my son will be, but I’m sure the place won’t feel like such a secret.
Roscommon will be on the radar.
The Purple Onion
This bar, restaurant and little art gallery in Tarmonbarry offers warm service, great local lamb and treats like salted caramel filled mini-doughnuts. purpleonion.ie
Rogue & Co
Every town should have a cafe like this. James & Rikki O’Gara’s place does bustling brunch, baked goods, wines and creative sambos at good prices. rogueroscommon.com
This family-run bakery, deli and restaurant in Castlerea has grown from a business that once sold just apple tarts and soda bread. It’s cherished locally. bennysdeli.com
Lough Key Forest Park has a €5 parking charge; activity prices vary. loughkey.ie
Zipit rates range from €18 to €40pp zipit.ie
Full tickets to Strokestown House and the National Famine Museum from €16/€9pp. strokestownpark.ie
The Rathcroghan Museum costs €6/€3, with 2.5-hour guided archaeological tours at €17/€6. rathcroghan.ie.
NB: Pól’s trip was partly hosted by Visit Roscommon, and he stayed as a guest of Keenan’s and the Hodson Bay Hotel keenanshotel.ie; hodsonbayhotel.com; visitroscommon.ie