A trip to Athlone, the geographical heart of Ireland, left Eoin Edwards able to indulge his passion for all things historical.
You know how it is. Once you get a tune into your head, it’s there all day.
Except in my case it was there all weekend.
Cork folk never mind a drive to Thurles, the home of the GAA, but when you approach any crossroads in life, such as the one I encountered outside the Tipp town, there is something in our psyche that makes us want to go the extra mile, explore a new trail.
So, with the choice of Thurles or Tullamore staring me in the face it had to be Thurles and off I swung onto the N62 with Roscrea and Birr in my sights, and final destination Athlone (yes, Athlone) as I belted out:
“Oh I left from my home in the town of Athlone on the way to the Three Jolly Pidgeons...”
Now a Corkman heading any further north than the Tipp capital is prone to getting nose bleeds but for some reason or other passing signs with oh- so-familiar names like Banagher, Kilbeggan, Cloughjordan, Terryglass, Portumna, Kilbeggan, put me at ease as I launched into the chorus to the chagrin of my wife and amusement of passing motorists:
“Lough Rea, oh Lough Rea, where the three counties meet...”
A few verses later as I was skirting along Clara Bog, one of the best remaining examples in western Europe of a relatively intact raised bog, where you can experience 10,000 years of history in 10km, the thought struck me… What in the name of God was I doing, heading to Athlone on a Friday evening after work.
I must have had water on the brain, and indeed I had, Lough Ree, the Lake of the Kings, geographical centre of Ireland, where for the weekend I would be berthing myself in the waterways metropolis of Ath Luain.
A favourite location for a retreat for folk in the midlands and even Dublin, an hour away, and centrally located within walking distance of the town, is the Radisson Blu Hotel, my home for the weekend.
On the banks of the Shannon it is a near neighbour to one of Ireland’s oldest and much loved pubs, Seán’s Bar — the best bar none, they say.
This hotel knows its clientele. We arrived on a Friday evening and the place was hoppin’, swamped even, well the lobby and bar were, but this is an establishment that easily caters for large groups, everything from bible lovers to hen parties (I’m told the stags go rutting to another town usually).
And then there are lycra lads on fundraising treks — and showband shenanigans, with some of the big national names regularly on the hotel’s concert stage.
The place is a hive of activity, and like Seán’s Bar, which holds the Guinness Book of Records “Oldest Pub in Ireland” title with an official date of 900AD, the hotel welcomes visitors from all around the world, as well as from across Ireland.
The weekend I visited there were hundreds attending talks on spirituality at a conference organised by <i>The Sacred Heart Messenger</i> magazine.
Other forms of spirituality were also in full swing at the hen party, but that’s someone else’s idea of a heavenly weekend.
After a good night’s rest and breakfast, the first thing, and best thing, I did the following morning was head for the wonderful Athlone Castle, five minutes’ walk from the hotel, where I was wowed by its magnificent visitor centre, interactive exhibition rooms, café and welcoming guide, Gearóid O’Brien, popular local author.
The man could talk for Ireland, and boy does he know his history. The interactive centre uses 3D maps, audio-visual installations and illustrations by Victor Ambrus — renowned for his work on Channel 4’s Time Team — to bring the story of the castle to life.
Tickets from €4 for children and €8 for adults (family of four €20).
With a bellyful of information we headed back to the hotel for lunch.
With views overlooking the old town and the River Shannon the hotel is a favourite spot for summer bbqs, drinks receptions and a relaxed summer’s evening.
The outdoor Riverside Terrace allows guests to sit and enjoy a drink while watching the boats go by or take off from Athlone Marina which is what we did an hour later, entering the lock on one of the many cruisers operating on the river for a short visit to Clonmacnoise, the monastery founded in 544 by St Ciaran.
Today, visitors can see three high crosses, a cathedral, seven churches and two round towers. They will also pass through the visitor centre, which displays a number of cross-slabs and the 9th Century Cross of the Scriptures.
The trip down river was long and a little featureless at times, but some of the boats, such as the ones offered by a company called Flagline, are luxurious.
Back at the hotel that evening water was still on the mind as guests had full use of the hotel’s Synergy Health and Leisure Club, with an indoor pool, a fully-equipped gym with views over the river, sauna and steam room.
If you had enough of the water then Luan Art Gallery, entry to which is free, is located just across the river from Radisson Blu Athlone.
It was closed on the day we visited but another art form, fashion was on offer, thanks to the selection of boutiques and high-street stores on the hotel’s doorstep.
Visitors to the area will never be caught out for things to do and among the other main attractions are Baysports, located in the picturesque Hodson Bay, an ISA-accredited boat training and water sports centre and the home of Ireland’s largest inflatable waterpark.
The centre offers a variety of water-oriented activities, including boat, bike and walking trips that allow guests to experience the beautiful Lough Ree from both the water and the land with a lunch break included.
The waterpark has exhilarating slides and challenging climbing walls.
You can begin your maritime adventure by taking The Viking Cruise Ship from The Radisson Blu Hotel, Athlone to Baysports. Prices for Baysports from €10 per hour.
The aforementioned Gearóid O’Brien gives a wonderful educational taste of the town on his walking tours which can be booked at the hotel.
If you want to venture further afield then head to Birr Castle and Science Centre where you can travel back in time with the Parsons family, Earls of Rosse, when the castle was a hub of scientific discovery and innovation.
The interactive galleries reveal the wonders of early photography, engineering, astronomy and botany. The largest telescope in the world for over 70 years has been fully restored here.
The Arigna Mining Experience, Ireland’s last working mine, is worth a visit as are The Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre and Portumna Castle and Gardens.
The Sail Away With Me package at Radisson Blu Hotel Athlone includes overnight accommodation with breakfast, a two-hour cruise of Lough Ree with Prosecco and strawberries and dinner that evening in Elements Bistro. Prices start from €100 per person sharing.
Radisson Blu Hotel, Athlone Northgate Street, Co Westmeath; 090 644 2600 www.radissonblu.ie/hotel-athlone
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