Visitors to Ireland usually tour the west coast, as well as going to Dublin in the east. I want to tell you about the Irish Midlands and particularly about the lovely places along the banks of the mighty River Shannon.
This beautiful majestic waterway flows down through the center of Ireland. I suggest that you hire a cruiser and take some time out from your busy life to travel along this peaceful scenic river. A few days into your holiday, I guarantee you will be as relaxed as the locals seem to be.
I’ve lived in Athlone all my life. It is in the very centre of Ireland. By Irish standards it is a big town, divided in two by the river Shannon.
Connaught is on one side of the bridge and Leinster on the other.
In the past, Athlone was of great strategic importance, as the enemy could approach the town by river. In the eleventh century, King John built a stone castle on the Connaught side of town. This big castle still stands today. A Visitors Center within tells the whole history of the area. There are plenty of mooring spaces in the town.
Clonmacnoise lies a few miles south of Athlone. There is a jetty for boats nearby. I make a point of visiting this monastic site at least once every summer. It is a spiritual experience for me.
In the era when Ireland was known as ‘The Island of Saints and Scholars’ students came to Clonmacnoise from all over Europe. Founded by St Ciaran in the mid-6th century, it became a great center of religion and learning.
Visitors can see three high crosses, the remains of a cathedral, seven churches and two round towers. It gives visitors an authentic sense of the history of Ireland. To dig deeper into the fascinating history of Clonmacnoise, you can visit the on-site interpretive visitor center.
Mention ‘The Bog’ to any person, over fifty, who has grown up in the Irish midlands and they will groan, myself included!
The Gaelic for the word ‘soft’ is ‘bog.’ The midlands bogs are like a soft carpet of decayed vegetation, over 10,000 years old. Partially decomposed remains of dead plants form layer upon layer of soft soil, to a depth of 10 meters. As visitors travel south from Athlone by boat, they will see bog land on both sides of them.
Irish bogs provided the only source of fuel to Irish households for many generations. We called it ‘turf’, otherwise known as peat. There was a lot of hard work involved in ‘saving’ this turf and all the family had to help. And there was immense satisfaction in seeing your shed full of turf as the winter set in.
Many of my family live in housing estates in Dublin and Galway. When they come home to Athlone they always suggest that we go for a walk on the bog. A vast expanse of brown flat bog stretches into the distance, as far as the horizon.
There is a silence on the bog like nowhere else on earth. The soft soil absorbs all the sound. It is a magical place, with great folklore attached. Bodies have been found buried there, mummified in the soft peat. These are thousands of years old. Bogs are one of the few ancient landscapes that still look almost exactly the same as they did thousands of years ago. They are a bridge with our past.
Without bogs we would lose astonishing plants like sundews, sphagnum mosses and cotton grass; spectacular birds like hen harriers, and curlews. All this can be seen by those traveling by boat through the flat midlands of Ireland.
There are three lakes on the River Shannon and Lough Derg is the most southerly of them. Surrounded by hills and low mountains it is a beautiful lake with gorgeous little villages all along its shores.
Some years ago my husband and I decided to hire a boat in Scotland. As we had always wanted to see The Scottish Highlands we hired a cruiser that took us along The Caledonian Canal. Whilst the scenery was indeed spectacular, what we missed was people.
There were no villages along the way. Ireland is completely different in this regard. All along the banks of the Shannon are small Irish villages where tourists to our country get the chance to meet country men and women, in their little shops and pubs. This is another reason to take a trip to the lovely midlands of Ireland and give your mind, as well as your body, a real rest.
Enjoy Ireland’s majestic Midlands!