Roscommon’s great outdoors

The unshowy landlocked county is also home to one of Ireland’s most beautiful outdoor attractions

 

The western seaboard counties of Galway and Mayo are two of Ireland’s tourist-trail crown jewels, with coastlines that are global travel stars. Little wonder that neighbouring Roscommon, to the east of its two illustrious neighbours, struggles to get noticed. In fact, recent Fáilte Ireland figures revealed Roscommon to be the joint least-visited county by domestic travellers, along with its midlands neighbour, Longford.

Locals will say tourists tend to pass through Roscommon as they head west for holidays, but those who do are in fact missing a beautiful county – all the better for the fact that the masses that often descend on the west coast are all but absent in Roscommon.

Shaped rather like an upside-down butternut squash, with the root at the southern end of Galway, landlocked Roscommon doesn’t have the towering majesty of the coastline and mountains of the likes of Kerry. Instead, the land is flat, with rolling green hills spreading out on either side as one makes one’s way through narrow country roads, lined by hedgerows on either side. That green, flat landscape lends a mellow atmosphere to the county that permeates its people.

The jewel in the crown of Roscommon’s natural beauty is Lough Key Forest Park – ironic indeed that a body of water is a landlocked county’s biggest draw.

But this is no ordinary park. The former home of the King family, the 350 hectares of bog, conifer forests, canals and lakeside woodland, is a treasure trove of outdoor activity.

Cycling trails, woodland Segway routes, zip-lining, boat tours and Ireland’s first tree canopy walk are all incorporated into the 19th-century parkland, which has the feel of a southern French village more than a town in Ireland’s midlands – or the Hidden Heartlands, as Fáilte Ireland’s new tourist initiative has branded this central segment of the country.

The history of the park is also explored by a self-guided tour – which incorporates the canopy walk – and tells the tale of the King family’s residence on the lands at Rockingham House, which burnt down in 1957, and how the grounds were taken over by the State shortly afterwards, leading to the amenities the public can enjoy today.

A lookout tower on the site of the former house gives views out over the entire park and surrounding landscape, while former service tunnels provide a fascinating glimpse back into the time of Ireland’s landed gentry.

These days, those holidaying on the grounds are in campervans or tents, as well as those in boats, who can enter the lough via the River Shannon.

Culture aplenty

As well as abundant natural beauty, Roscommon also packs a punch in terms of cultural attractions. Anyone who has driven west on the N5 will be familiar with Strokestown, a small, rural Irish town with an incredibly wide boulevard down its main street – it’s in fact the longest width-to-length ratio of any street in Ireland, and the second widest in the country, making it wholly stand out on the drive across the country.

Most drive straight through the town, noting this architectural anomaly of sorts, before heading on their way. But the town itself has a huge draw in Strokestown Park House – an 18th-century Palladian mansion, which was the home of the Pakenham family.

The estate began to fall into disrepair until it was bought by a local businessman, Jim Callery, in 1979 – initially for the purpose of expanding his truck business – but who saw the historic relevance of the property and has since put his own personal wealth behind the conservation project.

The grounds also include a six-acre walled garden and a museum serving traditional Irish dishes, but it is the Irish National Famine Museum that is the biggest draw of the lot, telling the story of what is regarded as Europe’s greatest catastrophe of the 19th century in all its saddening detail, with workhouses, the Irish Poor Law and the mass emigration and death that occurred, thoroughly examined.

It’s a portal back to a time when Ireland as a country was at its very weakest and most vulnerable and helps to give an understanding of the various pieces of the jigsaw that fell into place to cause loss of life on such a grand scale.

Ancient relics

A short drive from Strokestown can be found Rathcroghan, outside the village of Tulsk, which in contrast to Strokestown is a tourist attraction that has much yet to do in terms of letting itself known to the world.

The village is the location of a tourist centre that highlights the largest unexcavated Royal Complex in Europe, which is believed to have somewhere in the region of 240 sites, including standing stones, barrows, cairns and fortresses.

As many of the relics are on private land, it’s up to the visitor centre’s manager, Daniel Curley, to educate those visiting, with his staggering knowledge of Celtic mythology. A tour does include visits to sites to which the centre has been granted access, including Rathcroghan mound, potentially one of the largest ceremonial mounds ever used in the country.

Going underground

Part of Roscommon’s land that has been explored underground are the mines of Arigna, in the north of the county, where the town’s mining experience explores the area’s history of coal mining that started in the 1700s and ended with the closure of the mine in 1990. One is able to descend into the tunnels that the miners themselves used to work in day in, day out.

Gaining access to a mine is unusual in itself, but what truly elevates this experience are the guides, who are all former miners and spent time working underground in Arigna, enabling them to give an understanding of this most arduous of professions that a regular tour guide simply wouldn’t be able to do.

Roscommon virtually defines off-the-beaten track travel in Ireland. It’s also a gift for those looking for an Irish travel experience without the tour buses and the crowds. For now at least.

Tadhg Peavoy travelled to Roscommon with the support of Fáilte Ireland

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