UNTIL President Obama discovered that he had family roots in Co. Offaly, this sizable part of the Irish Midlands was inexplicably over-looked. Even the fact that Taoiseach Brian Cowen was an Offaly man did little for the reputation of the place — indeed he was often unkindly called a BUFFALO, standing for Big Ugly Fellow from Around the Laois-Offaly border area. And of course it usually wasn’t ‘fellow’ and neither was it complimentary.
Yet Co. Offaly has charms aplenty, probably more redolent of the Ireland of yore than the more traditional destinations of Kerry, west Cork and Clare.
Here in the stronghold of the O’Carroll clan are more than 400 castles, haunted houses, the sites of bloody battles, Neolithic stones, great wooded valleys, monasteries, friaries, pagan wishing wells and bullaun stones with their ancient magical significance.
Here are 10 good reasons, amongst many, to head for Offaly:
Charleville Castle was finished exactly 200 years ago, snagging and all, for the Bury family — the big shout around these parts back then. Built by Francis Johnston, this is the largest Gothic-style castle in Ireland, with the finest Gothic interiors in the country. The castle played host to Lord Byron, who held many parties here during the 19th century.
I need hardly tell you that the place is haunted, severally, but most notably by Charles Bury’s eight-year-old daughter who met an untimely death here. The castle hosts many events, including “fright nights” for ghost fanciers. Charleville has been investigated by many paranormal investigation groups from around the world, and has appeared on Living TV’s Most Haunted and Fox’s Scariest Places On Earth, as well as, less scary, Northanger Abbey. Charleville is also host to various festivals and concerts.
2. Following in Barack’s footsteps
OK, until President Obama fetched up here, Moneygall was just a sleepy Irish Midlands village, and none the worse for that. If you want to follow in Barack’s footsteps, pay a visit to Ollie Hayes’s pub where the 44th US President, naturally, enjoyed a pint of Guinness.
3. Taking a tour round Tullamore
Tullamore, oddly enough, is the scene of the world’s first aviation disaster. In 1785 the town was seriously damaged when the crash of a hot air balloon resulted in a fire that burned down as many as 130 homes.
Coincidentally, Co. Offaly may also have been the site of the world’s first fatality caused by a road traffic accident. Until recently the received wisdom was that an Irish lady, Mrs. Bridget Driscoll, was knocked down and killed in Crystal Palace in 1896 when a car, a Roger-Benz, came hurtling round a corner at the breakneck speed of 4 mph.
But recent research indicates that the world’s first road fatality may well have occurred at Birr Castle (see below) in 1869. The victim was Mary Ward, a cousin of the Earl of Rosse, who lived in Birr Castle. Ward fell from the family’s steam carriage and died after being crushed under its metal wheels.
Tullamore was part of the first English plantation of Offaly in the 1570s, and as such has a rich history. It’s also the venue for Ireland’s largest agricultural show, which takes place every August — weather permitting… which it doesn’t always!
4. Visiting a castle
Birr is situated in the middle of the county and indeed the centre of Ireland — as is also Blue Ball just up the road, Glassan in Westmeath and the Cat’s Stone in Mullingar. However, Sir William Petty in his Grand Survey in the 17th century pronounced Birr Umbilicus Hiberniae — so that seems unambiguous enough.
Birr Castle abounds with curios. Its main claim to fame is the huge telescope in the castle grounds. Built in 1845 by Lord Rosse, this huge Heath Robinson contraption was until 1917 the biggest telescope in the world. This huge engineering feat truly makes one marvel at the range of human curiosity.
Just up the Camcor River from the telescope, and still within the castle grounds, is Ireland’s oldest suspension bridge. Built around 1820, it’s a pedestrian bridge from which you can appreciate the wonderful trees and shrubs lining the river.
If you have even a passing interest in botany it is an essential visit to see one of the greatest displays of magnolia in Ireland, and of course the oldest box hedge in the world — as all you box hedge fanciers out there will already know.
5. Beat your way to Banagher
Anthony Trollope, the writer, reputedly invented the post box, and he possibly did it in Co. Offaly. He lived in Banagher, so,
send your postcards from here and you’re commemorating a small part of information technology history. Of his time in Offaly, the English novelist said: “The Irish people did not murder me, nor did they even break my head. I soon found them to be good-humoured, clever — the working classes very much more intelligent than those of England, economical and hospitable.” You’ll probably find much the same yourself in Offaly.
Speaking of literary matters, Charlotte Brontë married the curate in Banagher and lived here for several years. So just maybe the quiet waters of the Shannon which flow past Banagher is the way to awaken the literary muse within oneself.
Just to complete our linguistic and literary tour of this corner of Offaly, the phrase “Well that beats Banagher (and Banagher beats the devil),” more than likely comes from here, although Derry’s Banagher also lays claim to it. The most commonly proposed explanation is that Banagher was entitled to send two members to Parliament following its charter of incorporation in 1628. These two MPs were usually chosen by the local lord, and not subject to popular vote — so if you could beat that for skullduggery you truly were beating Banagher.
6. Ghost hunting (again)
If it’s ghosts you want, Offaly has plenty of them. Leap Castle, hard by Clareen in Co. Offaly, has guarded the pass from Slieve Bloom into Munster since the 13th century. Visit this place when a tarpaulin of drizzle blots out the mountains, and the grey granite walls of Leap create a foreboding appearance which fits well with its dark reputation — the most haunted castle in Ireland.
Uninvited guests — of which you can be sure there have been many — were treated to boiling water, tar, arrows, rocks, and other early weapons of mass destruction, rained down on them from overhead murder-holes.
Leap Castle has always had a reputation as a charnel house. Current owner of Leap Castle, Sean Ryan, has lived here — along with his wife and daughter — since 1994. He takes the bloody aspect of Leap Castle in his stride and insists it isn’t all doom and gloom. “Most of the spirits we see are good-natured,” says the Master of Leap, quite matter-of-factly. “We’ve had no problems — but there’s definitely a presence here, no doubt about that. Some visitors find there’s actually a physical barrier to entering. Some people have described a stranglehold round their neck.”
Sean will give you a conducted tour of the place… if you think you’re hard enough. Tel: 00 353 509 31115.
7. Contemplation at Clonmacnoise
At the happier end of the spiritual spectrum stands Clonmacnoise. Here at the crossroads of ancient Ireland, nearly 1,500 years ago, St Ciaran founded a monastery which helped shape Christianity. On a natural gravel ridge overlooking the Shannon sits this magnificent ecclesiastical site. Several high crosses remain, plus assorted churches and gravestones.
Look out especially for the little Nun’s Church, a short walk away from the main buildings. This is home to what is surely the most beautiful doorway in Ireland. The small, one-room church was built by Devorgilla in the 12th century, and the Romanesque western doorway exquisitely frames the bucolic Offaly countryside.
8. Take in the Pyramids
Well, actually, there’s only one of them. Kinnitty Pyramid is the only one of its kind in Ireland, situated in the graveyard of the Church of Ireland in the village, and standing 30ft high. Built in the 1830s, it is an exact replica of the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. Odd in the extreme. For exceptionally fine, conducted tours of Kinnitty contact Leslie Parsons whose minibus will take you to every corner of the county. He’ll even pick you up at the airport. Tel: 00 353 87 276 3565.
9. Take a hike
The Slieve Bloom Way is a 48-mile walking trail which stretches across the eskers, bog land and mountains of Counties Laois and Offaly. En route you’ll pass ruined castles, haunted follies and prehistoric dolmens. The landscape of Offaly is surprisingly hilly, immensely charming and criss-crossed by quiet boreens — ideal for cycling, or that long forgotten pleasure, motoring along quiet roads. The Slieve Bloom Walking Club www.slievebloom.ie offers guided walks to the mountains. It’s a great way to meet people — you walk the walk and talk the talk.
10. Look for a fine soft day
Boora Bog is a cutaway peat bog in a quiet corner of Offaly. It’s now maintained as a nature reserve by the Irish Wildlife Trust, and is simply enchanting. There are two angling lakes, should you fancy a spot of contemplative fishing. A prehistoric site was discovered at Lough Boora in the 1970s — there have been Offaly folk appreciating the quiet surroundings here since 6,800 BC.
Where to stay
Kinnitty Castle Hotel, Kinnitty
Tel: 00 353 57 9137318
As of late 2012, offering romantic castle get-aways from €95 per person sharing includes one night’s stay in a luxurious abbey court room with bottle of prosecco and chocolates on arrival, followed by a four-course evening meal and full Irish breakfast the following morning.
The Bridge House Hotel, Tullamore
Tel: 00 353 57 9325600
Situated in the centre of town, the Bridge House was offering weekend breaks from €149 per person sharing. Package included two nights’ bed and breakfast with one evening meal.
The County Arms Hotel, Birr
Tel: 00 353 57 912 0791
The four star, luxury hotel is offering several breaks including a one-nighter short break with full Irish and continental breakfast in Cooke’s restaurant and four-course dinner cost €65pps.
Chestnut Cottage, McDonalds Farm
Tel: 00 353 57 9151509
This property is Bord Fáilte (Irish Tourist Board) approved, and was the original home of the McDonald family for generations. The Chestnut Cottage has been restored, keeping as much as possible of the Old World character of the cottage while adding all the modern comforts. It is located close to the main farmhouse, in a nice farm garden with orchard. Dogs welcome! Cost was €300 per week.
Other recommended accommodation:
Tel: 00 353 57 913 7009
Tel: 00 353 86 199 5555
Tel: 00 353 87 276 3565.