Nestled in the center of Ireland amid the bogs, far from scenic seacoasts and mountains, Co. Offaly is rarely featured on the usual tourist itineraries. It is an off-the-beaten path destination, although that may change now that a connection with President Barack Obama has been established - his great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, came to the US from Moneygall, Co. Offaly (a small village off the main N7 Limerick/Dublin Road with one church, a post office, five shops, and two pubs).
If and when President Obama visits his ancestral homeland, the village may evolve into a tourist curiosity, in the tradition of Ballyporeen, a small Tipperary hamlet that President Ronald Reagan put on the tourist map once he visited in 1984, or Dunganstown, New Ross, the family homestead of President John F. Kennedy.
Up until now, Offaly’s main claim to tourist fame has been the 6th century monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise, according to Christina Byrne, owner of a local B&B in Co. Offaly. Half-way between Dublin and Galway, Clonmacnoise draws enough visitors to heave Offaly into the list of top 10 most popular Irish counties, after such obvious choices as Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Clare, Wicklow, Antrim, and more.
Christina, who is a regional director of the new B&B Ireland association and was in NY recently on a promotional tour, sees a constant flow of visitors at her B&B although only 20% come from the US at the moment. She hopes this will change after the proposed Obama visit.
Because lodgings in Co. Offaly do not see as many tourists as some other parts of Ireland, they have to try harder to attract and hold guests. Christina’s own B&B – Ardmore House (www.kinnitty.com), is a restored Victorian stone residence filled with antiques near Kinnitty Castle. When guests arrive, Christina serves tea/coffee and homemade scones in front of the fireplace. She makes her own jams, marmalade and Irish soda bread. She also seeks out local organic produce for breakfast including Mossfield farm cheese (www.Mossfield.ie), and Gleneske yogurt. A fine fiddle-player, Christina provides her guests with a sampling of traditional Irish music at local pubs or at the castle. Christina also offers walking and heritage packages to guests.
Once in Co. Offaly, visitors will find a surprising array of local attractions. Here are the “Top 10”
1. Clonmacnoise (www.heritageireland.ie), Shannonbridge – A 6th century monastic settlement that has become the main attraction of County Offaly, located beside the Shannon River at an historic crossroads of Ireland. Founded by St. Ciaran in 545 AD, it was a great center of learning for nearly 1,000 years, and was a virtual city until reduced to ruin in 1552. Declared a national monument in 1955, it contains more than 200 points of interest including 10th century high crosses, a 62-foot round tower, and the grave of Rory O’Conor, last high king of Ireland. The grounds also offer a visitor center with exhibits and guided tours are provided.
2. Birr – A blend of Georgian squares and tree-lined malls, this is a “heritage town” (www.heritagetowns.com/birr.shtml) of well-preserved 18th century architecture. Birr is considered to be in the exact center of Ireland, making it convenient to travel to/from all directions. From August 13-20, the town will be hosting the annual Birr Vintage Week & Arts Festival (www.birrvintageweek.com).
3. Birr Castle & Demesne (www.birrcastle.com), Birr – For over 400 years, this property has been the private residence of the Earl & Countess of Rosse (Parsons family) who still occupy it and it is considered to be Ireland’s oldest inhabited home. Although the castle is not open to the public, visitors are welcome to explore the 100-acre gardens and a six-foot reflecting telescope developed by an earlier Earl of Rosse in 1845. The gardens are filled with more than 1,000 species of trees and shrubs. The hornbeam alleys and box hedges are featured in The Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world.
4. Historic Science Centre (www.birrcastle.com/historicScienceCentre.asp), Birr – Located in the restored stables of Birr Castle, this museum spotlights Ireland's great contributions to science, from astronomy and photography to the invention of the steam turbine engine. Browse through original artifacts, photographs, drawings, letters, and learn from interactive models, audiovisuals, and interpretative displays. The galleries here show a much-underrated side of Ireland. It's a fascinating place to visit on a rainy (or a sunny) day.
5. Slieve Bloom Mountains (www.slievebloom.ie) – A vast mountain park with the largest continuous area of upland blanket bog and forestry in Ireland. Highlights include eco-trails, forest paths and a sign-posted walk known as The Slieve Bloom Way. Wildflowers bloom year-round including “a carpet of bluebells” in May. Annual events include the Slieve Bloom Walking Festival (May 1-4) and a Storytelling Festival (October12-16).
6. Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre (www.tullamoredew.com/heritage-centre), Tullamore – To learn more about Irish whiskey, take a 45-minute guided tour of this visitor centre, housed in the original Tullamore Dew Distillery on the Grand Canal. You’ll also learn how Tullamore Dew got its name, using the initials of one of the 19th century whiskey-makers (Daniel E. Williams). At the end of the tour, a sample of Tullamore Dew awaits all adult visitors.
7. Lough Boora Parklands (www.loughbooraparklands.com) – This is a vast open bog parkland between Birr and Tullamore, with looped walks, fishing lakes, wildlife sanctuaries, and a 50-acre outdoor sculpture trail.
8. Leap Castle, Clareen – situated south of Birr, this old fortress, once the home of the O’Carroll clan, is considered as “the most haunted castle in Ireland.” It is open to visitors by request (tel. 057-913-1115)
9. Charleville Castle – located about one mile south of Tullamore, this castle is a fine 19th century gothic-revival building set in Charleville Forest. A majestic oak tree on the grounds is the oldest in Ireland. It is the setting each year for the Castle Palooza Music Festival (www.castlepalooza.com). This year’s dates are July 31 & August 1.
10. Ballinahown Irish Designer Craft Village (www.irishdesignercraftvillage.com), Ballinahown – Straddling the border of Counties Offaly and Westmeath, this local craft enterprise makes the most of being located in the middle of the boglands. It is home to several artisans including the Celtic Roots Studio, producer of sculptured bog oak statues and jewelry. The products are made from thousands-of-years-old oak and yew trees naturally preserved in the bog, and then retrieved and fashioned into unique sculpted carvings. Take home a piece of the bog!
Patricia (Pat) Preston has written 23 travel books (15 about Ireland). Her latest book, Ireland Travel 101 (http://www.IrelandTravel101.com) has just won 1st Place in the Travel Guide category of the North American Travel Journalists Association annual competition. Visit Pat’s web site (http://www.IrelandExpert.com).