Home to Clonmacnoise, Birr Castle and vast swathes of wildlife-strewn bogland, Offaly is a slow-burner whose charms make a lasting impression
Back in the 6th century, Clonmacnoise lay at the centre of Europe. This was an early Christian crossroads famed for exporting art, learning and faith all over the continent.
“I will never forget that place,” Pope John Paul II said of the monastic settlement in 1979. St Ciarán and his monks, who founded the site, were clearly busy people: remains at Clonmacnoise today include nine churches, three superb high crosses, an iconic 12th-century round tower, and the ruins of a cathedral.
Fully one-fifth of Offaly’s land area is covered by bog. Throughout Europe, ancient peatlands like these have largely disappeared, but the Irish midlands still have plenty around to prove just how abundant in wildlife these mysterious places can be.
Full of intricate ecosystems and exotic flora and fauna, bogs are little universes unto themselves. Take Clara: despite being only 460 hectares in size, it’s one of the best remaining examples of an intact raised bog in western Europe.
The new visitor centre here tells a story some 10,000 years in the making – from the bog’s genesis in an ancient lake; to the famine roads dug by 19th-century labourers; to the sphagnum moss and Sundew plants spread across it today.
Or take Lough Boora, where a 2012 “BioBlitz” recorded over 940 species. Amidst the thatches of bog cotton and tiny wild orchids here you’ll find cycle paths, picnic spots and a unique, 50-acre sculpture park.
Art in the park
Sculpture in the Parklands sees artists inspired by the bogs’ rich natural and industrial legacy. Industrial materials found in the bog, such as locomotives, rail lines or timber and stone, have been used with the turf to create amazing season-changing sculptures that are now part of the landscape.
In 2003, Lough Boora gave up another treasure – an Iron Age “bog body” known as Old Croghan Man, estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Now on display in Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland, Croghan Man is believed to have died from a stab wound.
As well as its early religious achievements, Offaly was the site of a great scientific success, when the spiral nature of certain galaxies was observed for the first time through the historic Birr Telescope.
The “Leviathan”, built in the 1840s and shaped like a big, black canon, is the centrepiece of Birr Castle demesne. For 70 years this was the largest telescope in the world.
It still works. And it’s still as much an object of marvel as the stars it observes.