Two decades after a memorable visit to the midlands, Martin Claffey returns to the Hidden Heartlands.
Some 25 years ago, I applied for a job in Athlone. My late father was from the townland of Killogeenaghan 8kms outside Athlone, while my grandparents are buried in the nearby ancient monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise, once at the heart of Ireland’s golden age, leading Europe out of the dark ages. It would be a perfect fit, surely?
Alas, the best-laid plans fell flat in comic circumstances more suited to the All-Ireland Drama Festival, held annually in Athlone. I left my suit, pristine and perfectly pressed by my mother, at home in Cork, and ended up heading for interview dressed in leather jacket and borrowed trousers, looking like a cheap and incapable teenage doorman.
The job didn’t come my way, and my return trips to the region have been fleeting. A quarter of a century later and I enjoyed a memorable return to Athlone with my wife and three children, aged one, three, and four, for a relaxing summer break.
While the Wild Atlantic Way has hogged the headlines in the past five years, closely followed by the Ancient East, the ‘Hidden Heartlands’ initiative is opening up some of the precious gems at Ireland’s historic centre.
Athlone is right at Ireland’s heart. Athlone Castle, overlooking the Shannon, was defended by Colonel Richard Grace as a Jacobite garrison held off 10,000 Williamites in 1690. A year later, Athlone fell to the Williamites after a bloody second siege.
Under the castle walls is the pick up for Viking Tours Ireland (www.vikingtoursireland.ie). Vikings prowled the Shannon from the ninth century, raiding Clonmacnoise in 842 AD. Now a replica viking ship offers daily sailings to Clonmacnoise to the south of Athlone and up Lough Ree to the north ever day (sailings until November 2).
‘Viking Mike’ McDonnell, originally from Tralee, Co Kerry, has been operating his service since 1998. “I’m out of Kerry 40 years,” says Viking Mike, who used to sail boats in Fenit in his youth.
Working in agricultural management in Athlone, the BSE ‘mad cow disease’ crisis saw Mike’s agricultural job go, but an offer to skipper a boat on the Shannon emerged. “At the end of the season the boat’s owner said ‘you took to that like a duck to water. Any chance you’ll buy the boat off me?’ So we came to a very loose lease-purchase arrangement and the rest is history. It’s the biggest tourist attraction in Athlone,” says Viking Mike.
I took Viking Mike’s cruise north of Athlone, up the impressive and vast Lough Ree.
Along the route we pass some of the many islands dotted around the lake, some with the ruins of religious settlements. The islands are no longer inhabited, with the last islander dying two years ago, and many are now used for keeping drystock animals during the summer months.
The Viking tour is a relaxing cruise which can be taken in any weather conditions. The only way to stop this Viking marauder is if the water level of the Shannon rises too high to allow cruisers and boats pass under the bridges.
My stop is Hodson Bay. After a coffee at the Hodson Bay Hotel, it’s time to enjoy some activities on the water at Baysports (www.Baysports.ie).
Baysports is a centre for kayaking, paddle boarding, canooeing, and pedal boats. But the biggest attraction here is the waterpark, which includes the world’s tallest inflatable waterslide. An army of lifeguards keep watch: wild thrills but in safe conditions.
Socks are worn for grip to climb the various slides, though plunging down one of these giants saw my sock disappear into the depths of Lough Ree. If anyone finds a stinky Slazenger ankle sock, I’d like it back, please.
There’s a junior waterpark option for younger children, while even swimming in Lough Ree is a cathartic experience. A day at the bay will leave you breathless but exhilarated.
There’s a much gentler pace at Glendeer Pet Farm (www.glendeerpetfarm.ie), located at Curryroe. Youngsters interact with domestic animals like goats, deer, ducks, and donkeys, and more exotic creatures like capuchin monkeys, meerkats, emus, parrots, racooons, lizards, llamas, and alpaca.
It’s the extras beyond the pet farm that make Glendeer an even more attractive destination, however, with a 1km wooded fairy trail walk, a indoor adventure playbarn, with a soft play area for kids; an outdoor playground with zip lines, obstacle course, and maze. Adults can visit the 1850s traditional cottage, laid out with the utensils of the day.
There are some excellent accommodation options in Athlone, but it’s hard to match the Sheraton Athlone (www.sheratonathlonehotel.com). Location alone is a huge selling point – in the heart of the town, one of the entrances is directly into the Athlone Towncentre shopping centre. Guests at the Sheraton get a platinum card offering discounts at many stores at the centre.
Managed by Garrett McGuinness, The Sheraton boasts a modern fitness centre (classes including spinning and boxercise are free, if you’re up for it), swimming pool, award-winning spa, and relaxation suite. Dining options include an impressive French-themed restaurant, La Provence, the S-Bar & Bistro, a more casual alternative, and the Harvest Cafe, where the Sheraton’s hearty and healthy breakfasts are served.
Rooms boast floor to ceiling windows; high-speed wifi is standard. There are kids clubs in the summer evenings.
Athlone has some fantastic restaurants, and two of the best are The Fatted Calf (Tue-Sat, Church Street, www.thefattedcalf.ie), and Thyme (Custume Place, www.thymerestaurant.ie), both showcasing the finest local and Irish produce.
Run by husband and wife Feargal and Fiona O’Donnell, The Fatted Calf’s hip menu is the right choice for the restaurant’s funky, informal interior. T’is far from prawn wontons with spiced pineapple jam that I was raised but no fear, I adapted with vigour.
The John Stone steak for two is a house speciality. The wine list is extensive and beers include St Mel’s Ale produced in nearby Longford. Head chef Dee Adamson picked up the Best Chef in Ireland accolade at the Irish Restaurant Awards earlier this month.
Over on Custume Place, Thyme Restaurant, opened in 2007 by John and Tara Coffey is a favourite in Athlone and winner of the Best Restaurant Award in Westmeath at the 2019 Irish Restaurant Awards.
Thyme specialises in modern, Irish, fine dining enjoyed in cosy surrounds. The menu changes to make the most of local and seasonal produce – the week’s menu’s suppliers were noted on the bottom and West Cork appeared to be the farthest distance any ingredient had travelled.
A cured trout starter was a particular hit. And the white chocolate cheesecake, small but perfectly formed with rhubarb ice-cream was a grand finale to savour. Too much of this and it won’t just be the Shannon that is broad and majestic.
Alongside Thyme restaurant is Dead Centre Brewing, a brewpub overlooking the Shannon. On a summer evening there’s outdoor seating: try the Seeking Sunshine Pale Ale as you watch the boats go by.
Across the river, in the shadow of Athlone Castle, is Sean’s Bar, which lays claim to being the oldest pub in Ireland. There’s live music most nights; try a glass of Sean’s own whiskey.
On our final day we travelled to Clonmacnoise, founded in the sixth century by St Ciaran and a centre of learning and religion for 600 years. There are two round towers here, and Clonmacnoise is accessible from the water or by road. It is the burial site of many of the high kings of Tara – as well as my own regal ancestors.
About 30kms outside Athlone is Clara Bog Nature Reserve and Boardwalk, in Co Offaly, a special area of conservation dating back up to 10,000 years, and home to many protected wildlife species. The Old Croghan Man bog body was discovered just 12km from here. There’s an interpretative centre in nearby Clara village.
There’s even more reason to visit Clara now, a village in party mode after local boy Shane Lowry’s incredible win at The Open at Portrush last weekend.
The 1km boardwalk loop at Clara Bog runs right through the wetland, a chance to breathe in some fresh air on a relaxing stroll - a perfect way to end a perfect break in the heart and soul of Ireland. We’ll be back very soon. I might even bring the suit this time.