Ditch the coastal addiction and head to the midlands
The midlands have a lot more to offer than roads to elsewhere
Cruisers at Shannonbridge, Co Offaly
Kayaking on Lough Ree.
Boats at Clonmacnoise.
I have to admit that the midlands of Ireland have always represented a bit of a blank spot on the map for me. Up to now, my instinct has always been to drive through this region as quickly as possible while going somewhere else. Call it “coastal addiction” if you will, but it was only when we organised a weekend camping get-together in the most physically convenient location to all of us that I even considered heading so far inland for a break.
And so, we arrived at a campsite on the shores of Lough Ree at about 7pm. We were meeting with friends who were coming from different corners of Ireland to gather by the lake where the three counties meet (Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon – something I learned from a Brendan Shine song when I was a child).
The Lough Ree East campsite was an instantly relaxing one. The reception was a small wooden structure situated well inside the grounds opposite the smart-looking sanitary block. Behind the toilet-and-shower building was another timber structure housing the common room and kitchen. Down by the lake shore, there was a slipway from where you could launch boats or kayaks, or yourself if you felt like it.
There was wonderful mixture of people present. Camping is a great leveller in terms of social atmosphere, where everyone gathers to communicate and relax and take time to talk. It’s one of the principal reasons a friend of mine Christophe loves camping. He was late to the cause, having finally only discovered it about five years ago. Now, he says, it’s one of the most perfect breaks he has because “it’s the only time we can really talk as a family”.
The absence of screens is a key factor. That and the back-to-basics nature of the experience. You are outdoors all the time. Even when you’re asleep, you have to be aware of the elements and your battle against them. For this reason, I never go camping in Ireland without my ski jacket and woolly hat. With it, one can sit out in the evening around the barbecue. Without it, you get cold.
We’re now at the point in life where our children have outgrown most family holidays, including camping so it’s essentially a gathering of friends who like to go camping, accompanied by a dwindling number of younger people ranging in age from 12 to 16.
The first thing that hit us when we arrived at our sylvan corner of the camp site was tent envy. We bought our large five-man tent in a liddly-aldi shop about 15 years ago and even though it’s still a fine tent that can accommodate five or six people, camping technology has moved on since. Our friends from Sligo had a tent resembling an aircraft hangar. There were no poles; instead, they had inflatable support beams that allowed the tent to be erected in record time, with the inner bedroom already inside the outer shell.
The other two tents and their occupants duly arrived as we were setting up our own while the early arrivals with the aircraft hangar cooked magnificent rib-eye steaks and marinated chicken kebabs on their family-sized barbecue.
The teenagers dispersed into the ether of the campsite to hang out with similarly-aged fellow campers and we, the adults, all sat around as the evening drew in. We were joined by a young couple from Switzerland who had the rare experience of having spent two weeks travelling around Ireland in warm weather without having seen a drop of rain. We lit our mini-barbecue for campfire use, beer and wine were produced and we sat out until midnight swapping stories and viewpoints of our different countries.
There was a very pleasant atmosphere all around. Sometimes when camping, you’ll get a slightly rowdy element of people with a bit too much to drink or too much to say or both, but there seemed to be a mutual respect and understanding of one another here, without the owners having to do rounds to ask people to keep it down after midnight.
The next morning, after a comfortable sleep (air beds are the essential item here) I got up to get supplies for breakfast-making duties in Athlone – just a five-minute drive away. It’s amazing how much talking you can do when you’re in camp and the early afternoon was upon us before we knew it, so it was down to the lakeside with the kayaks to see a bit more of our surroundings.
If you make a day of it, there’s lots of Lough Ree to explore. Close by is Wine Port Lodge of The Restaurant fame. Out on the main part of the lake, there are islands to explore, such as Hare Island (a place mentioned in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in the 11th century) and Inchmore, the largest island and site of an early monastic settlement and ring fort. I underestimated the size of the lake and overestimated my overall fitness level so I only paddled around the two inner sections. That was a delightful adventure in itself, accompanied by dragonflies as I paddled along a dreamlike narrow passage through reeds and colourful water lilies.
As the evening drew in and the children began to finally tire of messing about on kayaks and swimming, it was back to one of the campsite’s most useful facilities: a cosy pub right across the road. The Dog and Duck may sound like the kind of place you’ll find in Hackney or Bognor Regis but it’s pure Hidden Heartlands charm.
When we arrived back around the table and the barbecue, we in the pub contingency were delighted to find that it was someone else’s turn to make dinner: a simple evening meal of chili wraps washed down with some home-made cider provided by our fellow campers from Cobh. It was still fermenting and the bottles exploded like a Formula One driver’s champagne when we opened them but when you’re camping, there’s lots of room for such mess.
The next morning, we packed our gear with heavy hearts and weary heads and began to disperse. Before leaving, we made two more diversions to a couple of places that were not to be missed: Clonmacnoise (I’d never been to this extraordinary spot before, I’m ashamed to say) and Killeen’s Bar & Grocery in the picture-postcard village of Shannonbridge. It completed the picture of the perfect weekend of slowing down a couple of gears and discovering that the Midlands really do have a hidden heart after all.
Conor Power stayed at Lough Ree East Caravan & Camping (loughreeeast.wixsite.com/loughreeeast), where it was €24 per night for a family tent. Entry to Clonmacnoise site and visitor centre is €8 per adult, €4 for children.