Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands have more to offer than you can achieve in one trip, but it’s a region that reveals more with each visit.
A lush expanse of forests, trails, lakes, canals and the stunning Shannon River – welcome to Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Here, at the centre of our country, is a playground of delights. From water sports and hiking routes, to art installations and grand castles, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands definitely has it all.
So, with this in mind, here’s our guide to making the most of the array of experiences on offer – and what sights you won’t want to miss.
1. Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park, Co Westmeath
Where can you find a mythical Irish noblewoman, a disappearing lake and a traditional blacksmith’s forge in one place? Answer – Dún na Sí, Co Westmeath. The park, established in 2008, showcases the very best of Ireland’s natural landscape, steeped in notes from history and a touch of the ‘modern’ found in its sculpture garden.
The amenity park is the largest section, and focuses on nature and observing creatures in their natural habitats. The ‘Art in the Park’ initiative is an annual competition for local communities and schools and focuses on artworks made from recycled materials. Here you’ll find 6ft pencils sticking out of the earth and Grainne Óg gazing over the hills.
Meanwhile, in the heritage park, journey back to traditional Ireland in the recreated fisherman’s cottage and blacksmith’s forge and learn about why the blacksmith was thought to have special powers. These glimpses into history will have your kids’ imaginations running wild, while the park and on-site playground make it ideal for any family.
Perhaps most intriguing is the turlough, which translates as ‘dry lake’, and is a geographical anomaly to Ireland. Through a system of swallow holes and springs, the lake fills with water in winter and empties in summer – and its ecological system radically changes each time. In midsummer it is a sea of grass and yellow irises, undulating in ripples of water. Flowers abound, and bird watching and flora spotting is highly encouraged.
2. Portumna Castle and Gardens, Co Galway
Although Portumna Castle was gutted by fire in 1826, entering the gated castle grounds visitors are struck by its undeniable grandeur. Built sometime before 1816 by the de Burgo family, it became the seat of one of the most powerful noble families for 200 years.
The magnificent castle remains and is still open on the ground floor, where you’ll find curios from the castle’s history. Bizarrely, this includes the bones of a family dog buried on the site and unearthed some years back. In what once were the stables is a reception and lovely tearoom, serving a restorative selection of cakes, teas, coffees and sandwiches.
There’s a marina on the site, with Locaboats – a cruise company running for more than 35 years – operating regularly. Beyond this is the sublime Portumna forest walk, with numerous walking and cycling trails. One, the Rinmaher Point Walk, brings you 1.5km into the forest, past deer, and leaves you at a beautiful bank overlooking Lough Derg. With a flask of tea and a book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better spot for some relaxation.
The park is a true wonderland, and perfect for family days out. Filled with accessible walking trails, incredible scenery and enough fairytale beauty to keep the kids entertained, it’s the ideal setting for some summertime family fun.
3. Terryglass, Co Tipperary
Situated at the north-eastern edge of Lough Derg, is the picturesque and charming village of Terryglass. Its proximity to the lough means that sailing is a huge passion around these parts, with Emerald Star running numerous tours from the harbours and quays dotted around the town centre, making it an ideal spot from which to explore the lough by boat – or even jet ski.
At the centre of the village is the delightful double whammy of Paddy’s Bar and The Derg Inn, two pubs set either side of each other. Stop into The Derg Inn for an elegant meal of monkfish scampi and sirloin steak with cognac sauce. Then move on to Paddy’s Bar for live music that resonates through its bright red shutters.
Sailing is not the only allure of Terryglass – the town also offers a range of walking trails for all abilities and group sizes. The ‘Graves of the Leinstermen’ loop lasts 3-5 hours and starts from the purported graves of the Leinster King and his men who were felled by Brian Boru, taking in vistas of the lough and through meadows. Another scenic route is the Lough Derg Garden Trail, which stretches from Portumna to Ballina-Killaloe and passes through 35km of gardens. Join the trail at Fancroft Mill and Gardens in Roscrea, Co Tipperary.
4. Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna, Co Galway
If you’re in search of some Irish history, just down the road from Portumna Castle and Gardens is the Irish Workhouse Centre, based in a former actual workhouse. Despite the passing of the years, the building retains its imposing sense of dread. On approach you can sense the terror it once held for people, and inside they’ve made an effort not to underplay the full horror of the workhouse system.
In contrast to this is the incredibly warm and welcoming staff, with enough knowledge on the workhouse system to fill an encyclopedia. Also in the centre is an exhibition of bog wood sculptures depicting those who would have passed through the building’s foreboding walls. It is a heart-rending tribute to the human spirit.
This is a moving and lasting reminder of a part of the region’s dark past, expertly managed by those with a passion for their local history.
5. Arigna Mining Experience, Co Roscommon
The Arigna Mining Experience goes to great lengths to accentuate the close ties between the coal mining industry and Carrick-on-Shannon. The centre, located on top of a hill, is built on a slant, giving it the appearance of descending into the earth – just like a miner. Also impressive is its focus on the heritage of the mines from the 1700’s until their closure in 1990, offering an interactive ecological insight into the energy industry.
The exhibition of mining artifacts and photos prime you for your descent, with a series of photos showing family lineage in the mines, with father and son duo Vincent and Andrew Gilraine deep in the tunnels, picks in hand and soot barely concealing the family resemblance. The mines themselves are enhanced with lights and sounds.
Once you surface, take in the stunning panorama view from the hilltop, with Lough Allen clearly in sight. Local legend tells of Fr Seán Tynan, a beloved figure, who tried to drum up interest in the lough by claiming there was a monster in it. The man tasked with spreading this rumour exaggerated the tale so much that it became a public joke.
Or, embark on the Miner’s Way, a customisable and engaging walking route that caters to all levels. It is one of the twelve stages of the Beara Breifne Way, a walking route stretching from Cork to Cavan that follows the route taken during the historic 14-day march of O’Sullivan Beara in 1603.
6. Lough Boora Discovery Park, Co Offaly
For centuries, the fertile lands of Lough Boora, as well as the lough itself, gave generations of people nourishment, shelter and a deep connection with the natural world. Given that it was once the site of an ancient settlement, it’s only fitting that Lough Boora Discovery Park, established on its site, is now be a hive of activity and life.
Now one of the most important Mesolithic sites in the country, the park allows visitors to experience its history in intimate and unique ways. Explore the site of the settlement on the Mesolithic Route, one of five walking trails totaling 50km, or rent a bike and explore the rolling terrain at a leisurely speed.
The park’s inventiveness when it comes to history is on display in its Sculpture Garden, with 24 of the most innovative environmental sculptures in the country on display. Numerous artists drew inspiration from the bog lands, creating such stunning works as ‘Sky Train’, which repurposes an old train similar to one Bord na Móna would have used to transport peat. Perched on a hilltop, the rusted carriages catch the evening light, creating a scene of timelessness and beauty.
As well as all this, there are fishing spots, fairy trails and wildlife watching points dotted through the expansive park, with delights for the whole family.
7. Acres Lake Floating Boardwalk, Co Leitrim
The Floating Boardwalk at Acres Lake really is a marvel. The stately bridge is seemingly suspended over still water and winds gracefully from one side of the lake to the other. It’s also a perfect distillation of what Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands has to offer – sublime lakes and canals, energising walking trails and surprising architectural and scenic attractions.
Kayaking, canoeing, fishing and sailing are popular here, with rivermania.ie running frequent lessons and group activities on the water. Connected to Lough Allen via the canal, Acres Lake is an ideal spot for sailing, with Carrick Craft and Emerald Star all operating nearby. As there is no licence requirement for hiring a boat, Acres Lake is a great spot to get to grips with sailing. A walking trail circles the lake and crosses over the Floating Boardwalk, linking you to Leitrim town, and is popular with cyclists.
Nestled in reeds is a modest marina, where you’ll spot people simply sitting in their boats, enjoying the sights and the gentle swaying of the water. The locals clearly revel in the tranquility of the area, and it’s easy to see why. The boardwalk is the very definition of relaxation, with benches positioned at perfect angles to savour a mesmerising sunset over the mountains.
8. Cruising on Carrick-on-Shannon and kayaking in Killaloe
With the Shannon running right through the area, this region is a paradise for water lovers. Whether you’re looking for exciting experiences and challenging team-building activities, or prefer to leisurely drift down the Shannon in the comfort of a cruise boat, you’re spoiled for choice in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.
Although located near the idyllic town of Killaloe, Co Clare, the UL Adventure Centre thrives off of thrills and offers a range of them to visitors. Everything from stand-up paddling (SUP), sailing, kayaking and windsurfing is available on the stunning Lough Derg, with a team of highly trained and passionate staff on hand to guide you every step of the way.
If you want something gentler, the Moon River Cruise in Carrick-on-Shannon is a luxurious way to see the beauty of the Shannon. Launched in 1995, the cruise has taken 30,000 people along the River. With creature comforts like coffee, tea, snacks and onboard entertainment, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Sit back and bask in the easy rhythm of life on the Shannon.
9. Corlea Trackway Visitor Centre, Co Longford
Explore the Shannon from a different perspective with the Corlea Trackway, an artfully preserved and reinterpreted Iron Age trackway dating from 148 BC. After a number of pre-historic, heavily decayed oak planks were discovered in a bog in 1984, an 18-metre stretch of the track was preserved and placed on display. Built to allow passage for ancient wheeled vehicles, the trackway is the only one of its kind in Europe.
The interpretive exhibition on display explains how the road came to be, as well as fleshing out its huge significance for Irish tribal history, with exquisitely detailed dioramas and comprehensive guides dotted around the airy purpose-built centre.
Once you’ve absorbed the history of the trackway, go for a stroll on the nearby walking trail, passing by bogs that still hold part of the ancient trackways and watch as peat is cut and prepared for fuel.
10. Sean’s Bar in Athlone, Co Roscommon – the oldest pub in the world?
James Joyce once threw down the challenging of crossing Dublin without passing a pub. The same could almost be said of the entire country where it’s almost impossible to pass a pub that doesn’t claim to be the oldest in the country.
Sean’s Bar, however, is the real deal. On first inspection in Athlone town centre, you’d be forgiven for dismissing its blue and white pseudo-Greco style exterior as just another pub – and you might even miss the lettering outside emblazoned with its official title as the oldest pub in Ireland.
Seán’s Bar is Ireland’s oldest pub, and may even be the oldest pub in the world
But once inside you are instantly transported back to the 1940’s. Archeological records show that the walls of the pub were standing – and serving – as early as 900 AD. This makes it a contender for the oldest pub in the world. And if you need further convincing, a massive frame holds a wedge of wattle and wicker salvaged from the renovations in 1970, allegedly from the original structure.
The bar truly has something for everyone, from live trad, to those looking for a quiet place to nurse a pint, to disco music for the younger crowd. Be sure to sample the bar’s own whiskey blend, which can be found throughout the heartlands but can only taste better at source.
Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands have more to see, experience, eat and drink in than one trip could ever accomplish, but it’s a destination that only grows more magical with each visit. There are delights for everyone, whether you’re a family of five, a young couple or just someone seeking an easy-going trip away, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.