Secret Ireland: Ely O'Carroll country
Pól Ó Conghaile discovers an area fit for Gaelic lords and US presidents. Pictures: Ronan Lang
I don't know one end of a horse from the other, but Sam Deverell kits me out with riding boots and a helmet and introduces me to 17-year-old Sinbad, and in no time at all we're hacking out around the rolling fields of Annaharvey Farm, an equestrian centre four miles west of Tullamore.
"The horse has a brain, he's not like a motorcycle," Sam says, teaching me how to start, stop and turn with an appropriate tug of the reins or prod of the heel to Sinbad's belly.
The gentle old sport horse co-operates, but trotting is a step too far -- I nearly break my backside on the saddle.
Out on the farm, we saunter along the undulating eskers of O'Carroll country, watching the sun set over the hills near Tullamore, splashing through a water-logged ditch and heading back to base when the evening chill starts to redden the knuckles.
Annaharvey is a good example of a farm diversifying -- its 80 horses can provide everything from an hour-long introductory lesson to a week-long residential course. You can stay at its B&B, and I take home a jar of Lynda Deverell's pear chutney (€3) from the tearooms too.
Details: A one-hour ride costs €35/€25. Tel: 057 934 3544; annaharveyfarm.ie.
The overnight option
You can't fault the Bridge House Hotel's location. It's bang in the middle of Tullamore, straddling an early 20th-century building and garish modern extension. The Omniplex is across the road, and all the pubs, shops and cafes of Offaly's county town are right on the doorstep.
It's obviously a hub of local activity too, with busy entertainment listings, friends chatting away in the lobby and plenty of fitness fanatics making use of the large gym facilities. An outdoor hot tub, it's fair to say, is the last thing I expected to find overlooking downtown Tullamore.
It's also a sound stay for the rate. I order a lovely, juicy burger (€13.95) in a floury bap from the lounge bar -- a classy mix of bank seating, slim-cut stone walls and an oblong bar.
Afterwards, I grab a pint of Guinness (€4) in the library bar. It's the kind of place you'd expect to find fake books, but it turns out to be nice and intimate, with a friendly barman plying his trade beneath a wood-panelled ceiling.
The mock-classicism is overcooked and the corridor connecting the rooms with the restaurant feels long and disjointed, but I'd definitely recommend the Bridge House as an Offaly base.
Details: Two night's B&B with one dinner from €149pp at weekends. Tel: 057 932 5600; bridgehouse.com.
The geographical centre of Ireland
Moneygall will be centre of the nation's attention when president Obama visits next month, but geographically speaking, Birr is closer to its actual centre.
Ireland's belly button is full of quirky gems. In Birr Castle demesne, you'll find a hulking great telescope -- the first to identify the spiral shapes of some galaxies. Linking the castle with St Brendan's Church is Oxmantown Mall, an elegant little row of Georgian townhouses, and in Emmet Square, I stumble across a pair of old Shell petrol pumps. They feel like a flashback to the 1950s.
The pumps aren't the only motoring curiosity. Outside St Brendan's, a plaque marks the site of the world's first automobile accident. On the evening of August 31, 1869, Mrs Mary Ward was thrown from her seat as a steam carriage built by the third Earl of Rosse took the sharp bend here.
"Fearfully injured," the 'Kings County Chronicle' reported the following day, the Earl's guest was "prematurely hurried into eternity".
The village drive
Ely O’Carroll country is the name given to the parts of present-day Offaly and North Tipperary once occupied by those famous Gaelic lords, the O’Carroll clan.
The O’Carrolls held sway over an area stretching from the Shannon to the Slieve Blooms for several hundred years, and highlights today range from Leap Castle, onetime principal seat of the clan, to Banagher, where I discover Charlotte Bronte honeymooned in 1854.
If you feel like getting under the skin of the place, take a spin along the Slieve Bloom village drive — a route threaded through villages such as Cadamstown, Clonaslee and Kinnitty.
The latter is a walking hub and host to some thumping trad sessions, though you wouldn’t think it of a midweek afternoon.
An old Guinness sign is being swallowed by ivy outside Glendennan’s bar. Peavoy’s shop window is stuffed with Kellogg’s cereal boxes.
Best of all is the 30ft replica of the Pyramid of Cheops lurking behind the church. It’s a burial chamber for the Bernard family, formerly of Kinnitty Castle.
The living history book
Brian Cowen’s last official public engagement as Taoiseach was to cut the ribbon on a new visitor centre at Clara Bog.
It was a low-key affair, but the raised bog itself, full of intricate ecosystems and rare species of flora and fauna, is a little universe unto itself.
Despite being only 460 hectares in size, Clara is one of the best remaining examples of an intact raised bog in Western Europe.
Attached to an enhanced library, the new visitor centre puts the nature reserve into context, telling a story some 10,000 years in the making — from the formation of the bog to the dragonflies and insect-eating Sundew plants that call it home.
Afterwards, I drive through the bog itself on the nearby Rahan Road.
The surface wobbles and ripples as it cuts through a brown expanse preparing to burst with springtime colour.
Details: Free. Tel: 057 936 8878; npws.ie.
The hidden valley walk
The Slieve Bloom Walking Festival runs from April 29 to May 2, but you don’t have to haul out the hiking boots, or even take to the mountains, to fill up on fresh air in Ely O’Carroll country.
Glenbarrow is tricky to get to, but it’s worth persisting with. I come at it through the old Quaker village of Rosenallis, trundling along a series of bohereens before parking the car and walking through a scraggy tunnel towards the source of the Barrow, Ireland’s second-longest river.
There are several loops in the valley. I follow a path carpeted with pine needles for 15 minutes or so, stepping over gnarly roots, squelchy puddles and sandstone slabs before reaching a waterfall that splashes down a series of rocky steps into the brownish water below. It’s a cracking little spot, remote and cosseted — a pit-stop along the Barrow’s 120- mile route to Waterford.
The Big House
If the Obamas are looking for somewhere to stay on their forthcoming visit to Offaly, they need look no further than Ballyfin House. All of the rooms in this five-star Georgian country house, which opens for business after a decade-long restoration on May 1, are fit for a president.
From the first step, it’s clear that Ballyfin is special — my foot lands on a first-century mosaic from ancient Rome.
Elsewhere, rooms are crammed with exquisite antiques, inlaid mahogany floors were crafted in the 1820s by the firm that worked on Buckingham Palace, the stuccowork is lavish and crisp, and a sumptuous 80ft library conceals a secret doorway leading to a castiron conservatory.
Pick of the scratchers is found in the Westmeath room — a gilded French bed, the posts of which bend to meet in an overhead canopy resembling a Fabergé egg. From the chocolate biscuits to the honey-coloured paths cutting through the 600-acre demesne, the attention to detail is mouthwatering.
And the price? Doubles starting at €950 per night (albeit fullboard) make 15-room Ballyfin the most exclusive hotel in Ireland by a country mile.
Just as the Secret Service would want it… Details: Tel: 057 875 5866; ballyfin.com.
A bit of a bite
€4 bags me a hearty bowl of tomato and roasted-pepper soup, with two slices of crusty homemade brown, at Emma’s in Birr. It’s a price to smile about — and the grub is good too.
On a chilly weekday, the café/deli is swinging with local business. I take a pew on one of several tall stools overlooking the kitchen and prep area, casting an eye over a blackboard listing dishes such as bacon, brie and sunblush tomato wraps, and home-cooked ham and Cheddar sambos.
Cakes disappear from their displays by the slice, and old-style grocery shelves add to the atmosphere.
It’s a chirpy little nexus, TLC is invested in the coffee and kids can dive into the books, toys and colouring materials in a little hideaway down the back. I find the tomato soup a touch acidic, but the bread is chunky and fresh. It’s grand value for less than a fiver.
Details: 31 Main Street, Birr. Tel: 057 912 5678.