Tuesday 16 January 2018

Secret Ireland: Lough Derg

The climbing tree
The climbing tree
Lough Derg way
Harbour hideaway
Larkins pub

Pol O Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile revisits a childhood haunt and gets a taste of Florida on our largest lake.

The climbing tree

As a kid growing up in Co Galway, the highlight of weekend outings to Portumna Forest Park was the massive old Monterey cypress tree in the car park.

You could get lost in its playground of unfolding branches and, driving around Lough Derg today, I wanted to see if it was still there.

It is. The same branches are worn smooth by generations of kids playing 'Swiss Family Robinson', and I swing from it like a baboon for old time's sake. What could be freer (in all senses of the word) than climbing a tree?

The former demesne is home to a 450-hectare park laced with family-friendly trails, fallow deer and lakeshore viewing platforms, but the old tree is still the best.

Details: 8am-6pm (winter hours). See coillteoutdoors.ie.

The Lough Derg Way

You don't have to get into or even on to the water to enjoy Lough Derg. Far from it.

A 117km scenic drive -- or cycle if you're feeling frisky -- circuits the lake, and hikers can tackle the Lough Derg Way, a 58km waymarked way from Limerick to Dromineer via Killaloe.

I take on a stretch of the latter, starting from the arched bridge crossing the border between Clare and Tipperary, before winding up into the Arra Mountains.

Splashes of purple heather and orange crocosmia look like Jackson Pollock has been let loose on the ditches, and boggy bohareens lead to sensational views from Tountinna. From here, you can descend to the lakeshore at Castletown.

If you fancy walking with a group, the East Clare Walking Festival runs from October 21-23.

If you don't fancy walking at all, The Lookout near Portroe offers the panorama without the pain.

Details: Tel: 087 686 7548; eastclarewalkingfestival.com.

The Holy Island

When St Colum Mac Cremthainn first came to Inis Cealtra in the 6th century, he intended on living like a hermit.

The draw of Holy Island was too strong, however -- he soon found himself presiding over a monastic community, and devotees and day-trippers seem to have been coming ever since.

I take a ride to the island from Mountshannon Harbour with Ger Madden, who steers his shallow-bottomed dory through the reeds to dock against a tiny pier in about three feet of water.

Walking to the round tower and church at the other end, we find grounds tended like a golf course, but I'd love to meet the genius who slotted Perspex windows into a restored 10th-century roof.

Ger, who remembers fishing on Lough Derg with hazel rods, knows Holy Island inside out. Its reputation is built on religious gems such as the Roman-esque door on St Brigid's Church, but there are plenty of pagan artefacts too -- including a bargaining stone you shake hands through to seal a deal.

"'Tis cheaper than going to a solicitor," he says.

Details: €10/€5. Tel: 086 874 9710; eastclareheritage.com.

The harbour hideaway

The high profile of West Clare has always been a bone of contention in the east county, which doesn't have the Atlantic coast or Cliffs of Moher to haul it through the recession.

The flipside of that is a quieter experience for visitors who do stray off the beaten track.

Ireland has 84 Blue Flag beaches, for instance, but did you know two of them are on Lough Derg?

At Mountshannon, I find a family kayaking around the piers of a beach deserted save for lifeguards.

Nearby, there are picnic tables by the harbour, with small yachts bobbing in the breeze.

A swan minds its signets, a climbing pyramid rises out of the town playground, and Dagmar Hilty, who moved to Ireland from Liechtenstein 30 years ago, is preparing fillet steaks from Kavanagh's butchers in Scariff for evening meals in An Cupán Caifé. Hidden gem, anyone?

Details: Tel: 087 294 3620 (An Cupán Caifé); blueflag.org.

The overnight suggestion

It's a clear night, and a canopy of stars is spread out over Coolbawn Quay when I check in. It's quiet, too.

A wedding is scheduled for the weekend, but at the moment, the gigantic cruisers tied up at the marina seem more like the ghosts of Celtic Tiger past.

The resort here takes the form of a little village, with cottages and a schoolhouse scattered around a bar, spa and marquee. It feels toasty when I step into my lodgings, a decadent hideaway scattered with crushed velvet, fresh flowers and a basket of turf beside the sitting room stove.

My stay is short, but the service touches are sweet: an early breakfast is arranged so I can that hit the road before 8am, and I'm given the rundown on restaurants from Brocka on the Water to Terryglass.

I wind up the evening with a quiet pint, looking through a porthole window onto the lake.

Details: Two nights' B&B plus one dinner from €159pp. Tel: 067 28158; coolbawnquay.com.

The pub grub

The marina at Garykennedy is a sweet spot on Lough Derg, welcoming pleasure craft with stone-wall moorings, an old castle tower, a safely enclosed playground and a forest walk.

A few steps away lies the thatched Larkin's, the hottest word-of-mouth pub in the lakelands. Step through the half-door and you'll find a picture of JFK and Jackie O over the fireplace, flagstones and ceiling beams, and a stand-up Steinway with keys yellower than a sea dog's teeth.

I enjoy a good chowder (€6.50), as opposed to a great one -- the creamy thickness and a generous mix of mussels, finely diced carrots, onions and white fish warms the cockles without ever hitting the heights of, say, Mitchell's in Clifden.

A three-course menu is also available from €20pp, and if kids are in tow, they can run the ants from their pants in the walled garden out back.

Details: Tel: 067 23232; larkins.ie.

Lord of the ring forts

Some 2km outside Killaloe, I park the car on the roadside, slip through a metal turnstile and stroll down a walkway carpeted in pine needles until I come to a huge, tree-studded ring fort.

It's a trail through time, right back to the earliest settlements on Lough Derg.

Beál Boru, as the fort is known, is probably where local boy Brian Boru -- High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014 -- got his name.

Excavations have uncovered axes, coins and pottery from the era.

Stepping through the old moat and scrambling past beech and ash trees on the bank, I come to the top of the inner ring.

The artefacts waiting in the crater are a little too modern -- the remains of a fire and scraps of litter and beer cans -- but the atmosphere of the Stone Age citadel remains.

Details: Tel: 061 376866; discoverireland.ie/lakelands.

Welcome to wakeboarding

It's all in the attitude," says Mark Dunne. "If you think you're not going to get it, it's hard. But if you relax and give it a go, you'll do just fine."

That's all very well. But sitting in the dun-coloured waters of the River Shannon, with my feet clipped into a wakeboard and my hands clutching a line that extends from a powerboat packing the same heat as a Hummer jeep, it's hard not to think -- and over-think -- about what's about to happen.

Sure enough, Mark tips the throttle, the line grows taut and I crumple into the river.

Wakeboarding is the waterborne equivalent of snowboarding, and this stretch of the Shannon is ideal for it -- the reeds along the riverbank eat up the boat's wake, keeping the water oddly calm.

Dunne's clubhouse is the Tubal -- a former RAF re-fueller anchored north of Portumna -- and he knows how to handle beginners. Tips are simple, speeds low, the Red Hot Chili Peppers pump from the stereo and, when I finally do stand up, there are whoops of encouragement from the boat.

It's all in the technique, of course, as Mark and his buddy Gavin demonstrate, putting on a show of jumps, twists and 360s as I give my arms and thighs a break.

"We're trying to do a Florida sport in Ireland," Mark says -- one reason there are hot-air pipes on the powerboat and a briquette-fired 'sauna' on the Tubal.

My last ride is my best. I manage not only to stand up but also to surf over the boat's wake into the fresh water outside it. Mark banks into a broad U-turn, I whip outwards in a turning arc approaching 40mph and the adrenaline rush is awesome.

"Yeah!" he shouts. "You're the world's newest wakeboarder!"

Details: Sessions from €50pp. Tel: 087 257 3661; irishwaterski.com.

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