Trip idea: Ireland's Lakelands

Devenish Island, County Fermanagh

Ireland's hidden waterways are a world away from the rest of this island, connecting north to south, county to county and mystical past to modern present.

An 800-year-old castle, mysterious pagan idols, a Global Geopark and Europe’s oldest pub – there’s quite a journey to be had around Ireland’s lakelands. It’s time to explore what inspired Nobel prize-winner WB Yeats to preserve in words the timeless calm of "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore"...

Ireland's lakelands

Lough Erne

Explore counties Cavan and Fermanagh as you enjoy Lough Erne’s liquid landscapes of bays, inlets and islands that make up this idyllic stretch of rural bliss. Some special places to discover…

A driving 12 mins
Marble Arch Caves
The Marble Arch Caves

The majesty of the Marble Arch Caves

Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination… Who was always envious of Willy Wonka and his magical underground boat trip? The Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark connects not only counties Fermanagh and Cavan, but a sweep of low green fields with a subterranean warren of waterfalls, rippling rivers and airy chambers – and a gentle cruise through the underworld...

If you have more time

Run by Neven Maguire, award-winning MacNean House & Restaurant caters to the vegetarian as carefully as to the meat-eater. Enjoy.

B driving 23 mins
Florence Court
Florence Court

Get fancy at Florence Court

There’s a certain, timeless grace to Florence Court: soft, sandstone pillars arch gently down either side of this Palladian mansion, stretching like arms out to its verdant gardens, leafy forest trails and welcoming visitor centre. Follow the path to the Florence Court Yew, thought to be the parent tree of all Irish yews, and drink in 300 years of pomp, poise and pristine elegance. Hungry? The Tully Mill Restaurant on the estate will fill you up.

If you have more time

Pop into Crom Estate on Upper Lough Erne, where the Earls of Erne have sat for almost four centuries.

C driving 31 mins
Devenish Island
Devenish Island

One in a million: Devenish Island

Ok, maybe not a million – but this IS one of no fewer than 154 islands on the River Erne! A monastery was established here back in the 6th century, before being raided by the Vikings and later burned. Thankfully, the oratory of St Molaise and the 12th-century Round Tower survived and a short ferry trip across the water from the mainland transports you to this tiny patch of rock and a medley of artefacts that paint a faithful record of the island’s monastic past. Take a boat trip to see Devenish from the still Erne waters.

If you have more time

500 years after Tully Castle was burned down during the 1641 Rebellion, its four walls reach defiantly above its manicured gardens into the sky.

D driving 33 mins
Boa Island
Boa Island

Goddesses and graveyards on Boa Island

Ever wondered what beauty meant in medieval times? Boa Island might have the answers: the two mysterious anthropomorphic statues of Caldragh graveyard have three faces between them and despite being 1,500 years old, they’re aging pretty well! While the statues are thought to portray Celtic deities, the island itself is named for Badhbh (pronounced ‘Bive’), the ancient goddess of war. Keep an eye out for crows and wolves while you’re here – Badhbh was said to take the form of both.

If you have more time

Take a quick ferry trip across a narrow stretch of Lower Lough Erne to Lusty Beg Island for a unique dining experience at its famous restaurant.

E
Enniskillen Castle
Enniskillen Castle

Batten down the hatches in Enniskillen Castle

Right on the banks of the River Erne, the turreted Enniskillen Castle has that certain air of chocolate-box sweetness – until you realise that its history is scarred by decades of battle, siege, capture and recapture between local clans and the English. Inside, Enniskillen Castle Museums tell the whole story, from the Maguire Chieftains right up to the Great Famine, the Plantation and the Second World War. Fascinating.

If you have more time

Feast on Head Chef Noel McMeel’s fine food at The Catalina Restaurant in the Lough Erne Resort.

Lough Key and Lough Allen
Lough Key and Lough Allen

Lough Key and Lough Allen

Watch Roscommon and Leitrim open up before your eyes, spilling secrets of long-forgotten saints, crumbling castles and fairy-filled forests…

F driving 36 mins
Drumshanbo
Drumshanbo, Lough Allen

The secret spa of Cleighran More

Deep within St Hugh’s Holy Well and Sweathouse, the water runs orange – a mysterious miracle, or simply an iron-rich water source? All we know for sure is that this spot was the original restorative spa over three millennia ago. Though now crumbling, the originally cosy, cave-like structure of the Sweathouse trapped the heat of its occupants and the mineral-rich water, creating a sauna right here in the Leitrim countryside on the banks of Lough Allen.

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If you prefer your water without rainbow hues, try a spot of angling in nearby Drumshanbo (pictured, image ©Oliver Dixon) on the craggy shores of Lough Allen and fish your worries away.

G driving 4 mins
Castle Island
Castle Island

Brave a boat tour to Castle Island

One of 32 islands on Lough Key, Castle Island is that bit special because – you guessed it – it’s home to the hulking figure of an 18th-century folly that dominates the tiny island’s skyline. Named McDermott’s Castle in honour of a local King who lived on the island in the 1100s, this hidden gem is well worth hiring a boat on the mainland for a trip out to explore. 

If you have more time

Treat yourself to a slap-up meal at the AA Rosette Award Winning Douglas Hyde Restaurant in Roscommon’s Kilronan Castle Estate & Spa.

H
Lough Key Forest Park, County Roscommon
Lough Key Forest Park

Lough Key Forest Park: bring your camera

Towering oak, beech and red cedars; wood anemone and yellow iris scattering the forest floor; fallow deer stepping carefully through the branches – this is a cornucopia of Ireland’s most breathtaking wildlife. Once you’ve had your fill of the local flora and fauna, try out the park’s manmade treats: a 47-room puzzle trail, over 100km of walking and cycling trails, a woodland Segway tour – and the only Tree Canopy Walk in Ireland. Keep an eye out for the souterrain and fairy bridge, too! To warm up? Have a hearty lunch at the Lakeside Café. 

If you have more time

Check out Boyle Abbey: the silent, almost ghostly ruin would be unrecognisable to the flourishing monastic orders that dwelt here in the 12th century.

Lough Ree
Lough Ree

Lough Ree

Twinned towns, pristine castles and a positively ancient watering hole lie ahead on your trip around Lough Ree!

I driving 22 mins
Lanesborough
Ballyleague-Lanesborough

Joined at the hip: Ballyleague-Lanesborough

Straddling the Shannon River, the towns of Ballyleague and Lanesborough are separated by a bridge and two counties, the former in Roscommon, the latter in Longford. Like twins with separate identities, there’s a charm to how these towns have grown together while carving out their own specialities: Ballyleague is the perfect stop for a spot of angling, while Lanesborough is home to the beautiful 19th-century St John’s Church and was the first ever crossing point on the River Shannon north of Athlone.

If you have more time

Rathcline Castle has certainly seen better days, but is worth a quick stop to wonder how such a colossal structure was constructed back in the 800s!

J driving 17 mins
Casey's Bogwood Sculptures
Casey's Bogwood Sculptures

Stretch your legs at Culnagore

On the shores of Lough Ree's 90 acres of ancient woodland, an excitable chirping echoes all around: the cheery welcome of Culnagore’s resident colony of garden warblers, a small, secretive bird rarely found in Ireland. You get the sense that time has forgotten this place… making it the perfect spot for a picnic! Take the time to plan ahead, fill a basket with fine, local produce from the Longford Farmers’ Market (open Fridays 9.30am-2pm) and feast to your heart’s content.

If you have more time

Head to nearby Casey’s Bogwood Sculptures (pictured), where father-and-son duo, Michael and Kevin Casey, create sculptures from the dark peat of the Longford boglands.

K driving 44 mins
Saint's Island
Saint's Island

Say a little prayer on Saint's Island

It takes a little exploring down the winding roads on Lough Ree’s western side to find Saint’s Island monastery, founded by St Ciarán in the 6th century. Although Ciarán soon moved on to greater things – founding Clonmacnoise some years later – Saint’s Island evolved over time to become a hub of scholarship, thanks to the foundation of an Augustinian priory on the same site in the 1200s. Though mostly in ruins, the unspoiled triple-light window in the east gable is still enough to transport you back to medieval times. (Image ©SE Neenan)

If you have more time

The Corlea Trackway, Europe’s largest Iron Age oak road, has existed since 148 BC – and 18 perfectly preserved metres of it are on display in the Longford Visitor Centre.

L
Athlone
Athlone Castle

Art and artefacts at Athlone Castle

Built in 1210 to defend the crossing point on the River Shannon, Athlone Castle still gives the impression that it could withstand a siege or two! This fortified stone giant has remained at the heart of the town’s history for almost a millennium, today housing a Visitor Centre that explores the Siege of Athlone, the town’s military past and countless ancient artefacts.

If you have more time

Savour a pint at Athlone’s Seán's Bar: tracing its roots to the year 900! Or reserve a spot at The Fatted Calf for its seasonal Beef Club night and see why it’s the pride of Westmeath.

Lough Derg
Lough Derg

Lough Derg

Saints, scholars and High Kings: they may conjure up ethereal images of a distant past, but this rich history is alive and well on the shores of Lough Derg.

M driving 31 mins
The Irish Workhouse Centre
The Irish Workhouse Centre

History and heartbreak at the Irish Workhouse Centre

During the dark and dreary trials of the 19th century, the workhouse was an unfortunate fixture on Ireland’s landscape, the last resort for thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods had been ravaged by the Great Famine. Stop a while in the Galway town of Portumna, walk through the same doors as the “inmates” did in the 1800s and explore this sad part of history through the Centre’s seven preserved buildings.

If you have more time

Not far from airy Portumna Forest, magnificent Portumna Castle sits in stately elegance on the shores of Lough Derg. At almost 400 years old, it’s looking pretty good! 

N driving 25 mins
Holy Island
Holy Island

Where the saints sleep: Holy Island

The name says it all: transformed into a monastery by St Caimin in the 6th century, Holy Island in Clare remains a site of religious significance today. Couples come from around the world to renew marriage vows at the Bargaining Stone, or simply to explore the round tower, holy well and ancient churches – one built by legendary Irish king, Brian Boru, whose brother was once the monastery’s abbot. The island’s name in Irish, “Inis Cealtra” means “island of the burials”; step inside the Saints’ Graveyard and you’ll soon see why.

If you have more time

Leave the car behind in favour of Killaloe River Cruises and cruise down the Shannon, taking in the sights of County Tipperary on one side and County Clare on the other.

O driving 23 mins
Killaloe
Killaloe

Killaloe: birthplace of Brian Boru

Linked to nearby Ballina by a splendid 13-arch bridge, Killaloe is a traditional Irish Heritage Town: friendly, proud and historically rich. Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, was born here in the 11th century and his many descendants – he had at least three wives, six sons and three daughters – built many of the town’s churches, including St Flannan’s Cathedral. Boru’s ferocious legacy includes fighting the infamous Battle of Clontarf at age 88, so it’s no wonder he has gone down in history as one of Ireland’s most iconic figures.

If you have more time

Try out the Cherry Tree restaurant, beloved of Georgina Campbell Guides for its beautiful "waterside location and consistently excellent contemporary cooking".

P
Nenagh Castle
Nenagh Castle

The heart of the town: Nenagh Castle

The crenellated tip of Nenagh Castle towers above the town, a limestone giant that seems utterly at odds with the modest, modern bungalows that sit at its feet. Visitors can scurry up the 101 steps of the castle’s spiral staircase and enjoy unobstructed views of Nenagh and County Tipperary. Built in 1200, the castle was once partially blown up by a disgruntled local, Soloman Newsome, who became irritated by the birds nesting in the tower’s ivy. Thankfully, it has been carefully restored in recent years!

Come at festival time

Visit in August to enjoy the food, crafts, art and drama of the Terryglass Arts Festival, the pride of this 1,500-year-old town.

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