20 hidden treasures around Ireland
Visit Druid sites, kayak past Viking settlements or see a lamb being born
Ballyhoura mountain bike trails
Rindoon Castle, Lough Ree. Photograph: Gerry Dwyer, irelandswildlandscape.com
Outdoors and Dirty Centre at Ballyconnell offers solo hovercraft racing
Skylark Experiences on Inishbofin, off the Connemara coast, offers a complete immersion in island life where you get to spend time sheepfarming, birdwatching, seaweed harvesting and even planting a ridge of spuds. All for €495 including four nights full-board and ferry. It’s lambing season now and you can accompany the farmer on his regular checks and even help deliver a birth. Later on will be sheep-shearing and sheepdog training. The island is transforming itself into an ecotourism hub with birdwatching weekends, guided archaeological walks and sustainable fishing. It deserves support. dolphinhotel.ie/skylark-experience
Cavan has a range of surprises amid its lakes, forests and richly-wooded islands. The Bear Essentials teddy bear hospital and museum in Bawnboy will teach you to make a fully-jointed mohair bear using centuries-old techniques; the Outdoors and Dirty Centre at Ballyconnell offers solo hovercraft racing and rage buggies while Cavan Canoeing sends you out to an island castle on Lough Oughter near Butlersbridge. For the visceral intensity of warfare don’t miss the second World War Trench Experience at Cavan County Museum, Ballyjamesduff, where they’ve recreated the trenches, a field kitchen and sleeping quarters of the Battle of the Somme. odd.ie, bearessentials.ie, cavancanoeing.com
Ballyhoura Mountains have more than 90km of mountain-bike trails undulating over wooded hills across a swathe of southeast Limerick and northeast Cork. You can hire a bike at the trailhead to explore the boardwalks, forest roads and narrow single-track sections. There are also attractive walking trails throughout the forest, kept safely separate from the bike routes and Ballyhoura Bears Walking Club organises regular hikes, while Ballyhoura Horse Trails will bring you out riding. Perched on the side of a mountain in Kilfinane is the Ballyhoura hostel which has a sauna and drying room for when you get drenched. visitballyhoura.com
Limerick by kayak offers a revelatory perspective on the city. After a quick practice session to hone your skills Nevsail Watersports brings you kayaking from the Hunt Museum towards King John’s Castle and past the Treaty Stone and Sarsfield Bridge to the heart of medieval Limerick, bringing to life more than 800 years of dramatic local history. Passing under the old bridges and landmarks associated with the Vikings, Brian Boru and Cromwell is a heady experience. nevsailwatersports.ie
Lough Boora Discovery Park, Co Offaly offers 5,000 acres of otherworldly moorland that includes a sculpture park of 26 installations created using old locomotives, rail tracks, sleepers and stone. There’s Fairy Avenue, which is home to 14 fairies, and bike hire to help you explore the 22km of off-road, tarmacked, cycle trails through this dramatic post-industrial landscape of cutaway bogs that is now a wildlife reserve for 130 species of birds, including the rare grey partridge. A visitors centre café is open weekends. loughboora.com
Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh boasts a dizzying amount of activities, from the Flying Boat Base at Castle Archdale Country Park to the Hare Krishna temple on Inis Rath and the pagan idol on Boa Island, that looks suspiciously like an X Files alien. You can rent bikes and kayaks at Archdale Park from March 17th, and don’t miss the museum there that details the 10 German U-boats that were sunk by planes from here when the area was a cornerstone of the RAFs anti-U-boat campaign. It is definitely worth spending a day exploring nearby Enniskillen too. castlearchdale.com
The Battle of the Boyne Centre in the recently restored Oldbridge House tells the history of the infamous event in July 1690 when King William of Orange led 36,000 men against his father-in-law, King James II who had 25,000 troops. Weapons and army uniforms are on view and interactive screens lay out the strategies used in the largest troop-battle ever fought in Ireland. Panels and maps along the estate trails bring the battle alive and clarify how important the stakes were for the British throne, the French in Europe and religious power in Ireland. battleoftheboyne.ie
Lough Gur, Co Limerick, boasts the largest stone circle in Ireland, right by the roadside between Limerick and Bruff. Its main rock, the 4m-tall Rannach Croim Duibh, is a powerful monolith, but the whole site is pretty magical. A visitors’ centre helps explain the context, with ancient artefacts and information about the local geology, botany and archaeology. It all knits together to offer a profound sense of the homes, rituals and burial sites of the first farmers. The lake itself is also beautiful, an undiscovered haven. loughgur.com
The Inishkea Islands, off the Mullet Peninsula in north Mayo, are a lost world of eerily abandoned homes and a once-thriving whaling station built by Norwegians in the early 20th century. Seals and seabirds now reign amid early-Christian settlements with holy wells and carved cross slabs. This former thriving community ended after a hurricane took the lives of 10 locals in 1927. What remains are coastal middens built up over 7,000 years containing “purple purpura” shells used by monks to illuminate manuscripts and dye clothes. Regular boat trips leave from An Fód Dubh (Blacksod) pier in Summer; at this time you’ll have to charter a boat, which is worth it for the huge populations of Barnacle geese and other wintering birds.
The Hill of Uisneach near Mullingar, Co Westmeath, in the centre of Ireland has an energetic and spiritual potency as befits one of the most sacred sites of ancient Ireland. This was where the great ritualistic fire ceremonies of Bealtaine were once held and now the key site of Druidic ritual is accessible again thanks to two local men, spoken-word artist Marty Mulligan and former Blizzards manager Justin Moffitt, who offer exhilarating tours each weekend. There’s also a small visitors’ centre offering occasional rituals and spoken-word events. Open weekends only. uisneach.ie
Ballyshannon, once a thriving wool, leather and salted-fish port, has some of Ulster’s finest Georgian houses and a hotel dating back to 1781, Dorrian’s Imperial Hotel. There are three different heritage routes through the Donegal town along sections of the River Erne to an 18th-century haunted barracks, a workhouse for 900 people and the island of Inis Saimer, where Parthalon, a chieftain from Scythia landed 5,000 years ago. The town is a hive of traditional crafts, with the Local Hands cooperative and Tirconaill Art and Crafts displaying a wide selection. Check out Dicey Riley’s, a bar since 1856 and now home to the Donegal Brewing Company.
Clara Bog Nature Reserve, Co Offaly is the best remaining example of midland raised bog in western Europe. A boardwalk meanders through 10,000 years of history, over the concealed dangers of deep pools and quaking surfaces. It was preserved after impassioned pleading by the likes of botanist David Bellamy in the 1980s, and then in 2011, Brian Cowen opened a visitors’ centre as his last official engagement as taoiseach. The skylarks, hares, heathers and rare mosses are a treat to behold, just don’t stray too far from the boardwalk. npws.ie/nature-reserves/offaly
Killybegs International Carpet Making & Fishing Centre in the former Donegal Carpets factory from 1898 will show you how to hand-knot a carpet like those made for Queen Victoria, the Vatican and the White House. Skilled practitioners demonstrate the work on ancient hand-knotting looms, while in another room you can use a trawler bridge simulator to manoeuvre a fully-laden trawler into Killybegs port using real navigational equipment, electronic charts and radars. Negotiating shallow waters and dealing with storm winds is hair-raising stuff. Just out the road in Kilcar, the Donaghy family at Studio Donegal are keeping alive Ireland’s last fully working hand-weaving clothes factory, where the tweed is spun and woven upstairs, before being sown into garments downstairs. visitkillybegs.com, studiodonegal.ie
Rindoon, Lough Ree is a 2km-long forgotten Anglo-Norman settlement jutting out into Lough Ree. The remains of a church, castle, mill, hospital, harbour and turreted town wall are all just waiting to be explored. It thrived as a trading post in the 13th century until Gaelic chieftains reasserted control and it was abandoned. The town walls are still 6m-tall in parts, with covered walkways for sentries and tall slit windows for archers pointing out towards the lake. It’s been described as “a storybook in stone” which very few people ever get to see. In summer hire a boat, but at this time of year it is best to drive.
Blackstairs Mountains rising from the Barrow river are a special area of conservation with extensive areas of dry heath dominated by bilberry and small amounts of crowberry that are well worth exploring. Climb to the summit of Mount Leinster, known as Suidhe Laighen “the seat or meeting place of the men of Leinster”, to the RTÉ transmitter and a 5,000-year-old cairn. Keep an eye out for the Cailín Slipes, two tracks made by the feet of a giant’s daughter sliding down the side of the mountain. They are raised, peat-covered tumbled-down remnants of Stone Age walls similar to those in the Céide Fields in Co Mayo. Blackstairs EcoTrails in Borris, Co Carlow offer guided tours of the area, pointing out the ecological riches on offer. blackstairsecotrails.ie
Fore, Co Westmeath feels as though it never entered the 20th century, never mind the 21st. This monastic village has been catnip to pilgrims for eons because of its “Seven Wonders of Fore” that Féichín left as a sign of his (and God’s) omnipotence. Evidence of his miracles still exist: there’s a tree that won’t burn, a river that flows uphill and water that won’t boil. A narrow-walled causeway across a marsh leads to a 13th-century Benedictine priory with a sacred rag tree where people still come to entice favours from St Féichín, whose 10th-century chapel stands nearby. Its walking trail has just won a National Heritage Project Award and Jane’s Coffee Shop has an unmissable teabrack.
Drogheda is a minor revelation in terms of the amount of great sites it contains, from the head of St Oliver Plunkett, to the glorious viaduct stretching across the Boyne river and the Martello tower and Viking look-out at Millmount hill, where the legendary Milesian warrior-bard-astronomer, Amergin, may be buried. There’s also original town walls at Featherbed Lane and Laurence’s Gate, some glorious 18th-century buildings and the truly innovative Highlanes Gallery in a converted 19th-century church. The town can also claim the exemplary Brown Hound Bakery, specialising in pumpkin doughnuts and chocolate banana bread. And in terms of bars, don’t miss the Victorian purity of Clarke’s Bar, and the otherworldly Tí Cairbre, famous for its music sessions since the 19th Century.
Athlone. Major renovation to its mighty 13th-century castle rising up on limestone bastions over the Shannon river have transformed this midland town to a genuine, though overlooked, tourist attraction. Interactive displays by the company behind Belfast’s Titanic Museum and props by Windsor Workshop who worked on the Harry Potter and Star Wars films bring the castle to visceral life. The Upper Keep uses 360-degree projection and 4D sound layering to evoke the bloody Siege of Athlone in 1690 by Cromwell’s New Model Army. Across the road, the Luan Gallery juts out over the Shannon showing exhibitions of local and international art, some on loan from IMMA. For one of the finest Thai meals in Ireland try Kin Khao Thai restaurant – its vivid yellow exterior beside the castle is hard to miss.
Tinahely, Co Wicklow is a beautifully preserved village that offers a surprisingly rich day out. Children can immerse themselves in the Activity Barn at Tinahely Farm Shop which has ping pong, fuze ball and a large indoor beach. There are also donkeys, ponies, pot-bellied pigs and goats to pet and feed. But the real attraction is the on-site tearooms and gift shop where you can buy artisan foods to take on a picnic to the nearby Tomnafinnoge Woods, an ancient oak wood that provided timbers for Westminster Hall and the British naval fleet. The forest was saved from destruction in the 1980s and is now a dense arboreal wilderness with kingfishers, deer and even woodpeckers along the Derry river. tinahelyfarm.ie, visitwicklow.ie/attractions/tomnafinnoge-woods
Jerpoint Park, Co Kilkenny is a deserted 12th-century medieval town of the Cistercian Abbey, where the main crossing of the river Nore was formed by a toll bridge. There are the remains of a court house, woollen mill, a tannery, a brewery, 14 taverns and the site of two water wheels on the little Arrigle river where the monks of Jerpoint used to fish and which now feeds the fish ponds of Goatsbridge Trout Farm. The park is downstream from the Mount Juliet Estate, with 2km of great salmon and brown trout fishing on the Nore from March 17th. The park opens for the summer on April 14th. The many great foods produced in the area are available at Knockdrinna farm shop including cheese, cured meats and smoked fish – perfect for picnics. jerpointpark.com