Uncovering the mysteries and thrills of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands
A trip down the world’s tallest inflatable water slide is a heart-racing introduction
Aerial view of the Hodson Bay Hotel on Lough Ree.
As I have no head for heights and an aversion to being out of my depth, the prospect of experiencing the world’s tallest inflatable water slide does not so much quicken the pulse as induce palpitations. My 14-year-old daughter and her friend have no such qualms, however, so off we head to Baysports (baysports.ie), Ireland’s largest inflatable water park, right beside the Hodson Bay Hotel on Lough Ree on the outskirts of Athlone.
There is something ridiculously magnificent about the sight of a dozen or so inflatables afloat on the lake, not least because a little has been lost in the translation between the Irish-themed blueprints (Clonmacnoise, Athlone Castle) and the Chinese manufacturer. But the girls have a ball scaling them and jumping off or sliding down. We also spend an hour pottering about in a pedal boat – kayaks and paddle boards are other options.
Fair play to Richie O’Hara, who has more than 35 years’ experience in outdoor sports. He started the business in the depths of the recession in 2007, and continues to develop it, with a new cafe open this summer alongside a picnic and barbecue area.
To my shame, he tells me that grandparents often say at the end of their session: “I can’t even swim.” Wetsuits and buoyancy aids are provided. I’ll get my float.
Richie takes me out on a boat to the middle of the lake – a boat-topped stone marker reminds me that we are also in the centre of Ireland – to better appreciate my surroundings. In return I tell him my inflatable joke: What did the inflatable headmaster of the inflatable school say to the naughtiest inflatable pupil when he caught him with a pin? You haven’t just let me down; you’ve let yourself down; in fact, you’ve let the whole school down!
Back in the hotel, I indulge in my sort of triathlon: steam room, sauna and spa treatment. The latter usually sends me to sleep, but my lime and ginger salt scrub has other ideas. Relaxing afterwards in what I like to think of as the recovery room, I nod as Van Morrison sings on my complimentary iPod: “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”
Later, we set sail from the hotel’s own jetty for a Viking tour of Lough Ree en route to Athlone, with Viking Mike at the helm delivering an impressive running commentary on local landmarks and history.
Our Scandinavian visitors naturally get a fair mention, as do the English, who established the world’s second-oldest yacht club on Lough Ree. The pleasure boat itself is an English import, almost 100 years old and a labour of love. Viking Mike, an uncle of the author Arnold Fanning (we are all related), also offers cruises as far as Clonmacnoise.
Athlone honours its great citizens not so much by halves as at the double. There are two plaques to TP O’Connor, an MP for almost 50 years, the last 44 of them remarkably as an Irish Nationalist MP for a Liverpool constituency. A distinguished journalist, he also has a plaque in London’s Fleet Street, which states: “His pen could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines.” The journalist in him would appreciate the irony that the first plaque gets the year of his death wrong, but it has been corrected for the second edition.
There are also two statues to the town’s most famous son, the tenor John McCormack, a marvellous sculpture outside the civic offices and a bust beside the Luan gallery. It’s a fine building with wonderful views over the Shannon, but for my money the greatest art is to be found across the road in St Peter and Paul’s. Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows are an absolute delight, rich with delicate detail to be lingered over.
Opposite is Athlone Castle. Not much is left of the original, it having been on the receiving end of a lot of bloody history. But much has been lovingly restored and our enthusiastic guide bombards us entertainingly with information. Custume Barracks is the oldest in the country, the only one named after a noncommissioned officer, who died heroically defending the bridge during the Siege of Athlone in 1691.
Sean’s Bar, the oldest in Ireland according to the Guinness Book of Records, serves an excellent pint of Guinness, according to me. They don’t do food, but the barman directs us to the Bailey, which serves decent grub and is the former home of Hanna Greally, author of Birds’ Nest Soup, a harrowing memoir. If you fancy finer fare, the Sheraton does a superb lunch with seafood a speciality.
The Wild Atlantic Way may have snared most tourists, but the Hidden Heartlands – stretching from Cavan to Clare – has a nice ring to it (though some operators miss the Lakelands label of old). Looking at a map of the Shannon and Erne waterways, stretching from Belleek to Killaloe, inspiration strikes – Ireland’s Intestines! (Dissimilarities with Don Draper do not stop here.)
We stop off in Portumna Castle, a magnificent edifice built in 1618 by Richard de Burgo, but tragically gutted by fire in 1828. Re-roofed by the Office of Public Works in 1968, its restoration is ongoing. The ground floor is open to the public, as are the lovely walled gardens and tearooms. It looks out onto Lough Derg and there are looped trails for the energetic in the 1,500-acre Portumna Forest Park.
At the other end of the social scale is the Irish Workhouse Centre, where we see how the other half lived – and died – during the Great Famine, when Portumna’s population shrank by two-thirds. The building has been painstakingly restored and a museum opened last May featuring period artefacts and photographs.
We overnight in the Abbey Court Hotel in Nenagh; an old friend I last visited when taking part in the local Dromineer Literary Festival. Dinner in the town’s Peppermill Restaurant is exceptionally good.
Killaloe is our next destination, a five-star tourist town that I have unaccountably never been to before. Back on the water, this time in kayaks and a Canadian canoe courtesy of My Next Adventure (mynextadventure.ie), a new venture set up by Cillian O’Mara and Keith Drayton.
Killaloe and its sister village of Ballina on the opposite bank of the Shannon are picture postcard perfect, but getting in a boat and paddling up the canal to join the broad, majestic Shannon (Shane MacGowan’s Puckaun is but a few pucks away) puts you right in the middle of the picture. It’s a relaxing exercise, like a nature ramble on water. No sooner do I learn how rare kingfishers are than I see three of them, flashes of blue flitting from tree to tree.
A welcome side effect is to work up an appetite for an excellent pub lunch at Flanagan’s on the Lake, where we are treated to an impressive flyboarding display as part of Féile Brian Ború – Killaloe’s own famous offspring. There is a blueway on Lough Derg, with kayaking trails guiding you from pier to pier, but we spend the day tootling along back roads, veering off at every opportunity down lanes with old-fashioned green Mohicans to the lough. Some end up in fancy marinas, others in crumbling jetties, but all rejoice in marvellous views of the water.
Holy Island looks divinely tempting, but so does the seafood menu in Goosers (goosers.eu), which overlooks Killaloe Cathedral, which must be worth an indulgence, or pudding, or something.
Martin Doyle was a guest of the Hodson Bay Hotel , Athlone, Co Roscommon hodsonbayhotel.com and the Abbey Court Hotel, Nenagh, Co Tipperary abbeycourt.ie For more information about tourism in the midlands, including suggested itineraries, see irelandshiddenheartlands.discoverireland.ie