North Westmeath – an unexplored, elegiac land
by Manchán Magan
Dismissed all too often as a mere western adjunct of Co. Meath, Westmeath is, in fact, the spiritual and geographical heart of Ireland. Its lakes, rivers, woodlands and canals provide a last bastion of the mythic, elegiac Ireland in which nature reigns supreme. While it lacked tourism infrastructure in the past, its enviable trove of pre-Celtic, Bronze Age and Medieval remains are now firmly on the tourist trail, with alluring activities for families, children, retired folk and outdoor types.The county is split in terms of character and tourist highlights between the northern half, stretching from Mullingar to the Cavan border, and the southern half dominated by Athlone and reaching west almost as far as Galway. It just so happens that Collinstown is the perfect spot to base yourself to explore the northern half – an unexplored and potent wonderland.
Collinstown’s greatest amenity is the glorious blue haven of Lough Lene, which was designated Ireland’s first ever inland Blue Flag Beach in recognition of the super cleanliness of its water and the excellence of its tourist facilities, which include changing rooms, shower, toilets and ample parking. A well-maintained wooden jetty stretching out into the lake makes it an ideal swimming point, with a sandy bottom and a rope to fence it off from boats or other water vessels. On a calm day when the water looks like a vast mirror, as crystalline as any Nordic fiord, there is no finer place.
Collinstown is a quiet crossroads village surrounded by several prehistoric ringforts, and with a mystery encoded in the Irish version of its name, Baile na gCailleach. The name is said to mean townland of the veiled women or the wise hags. It is thought to be connected to a community of holy woman who lived nearby on Nun’s Island on Lough Lene, but it could easily pre-date this nunnery, (if such a place ever existed). Co Louth also has a Baile na gCailleach (translated as Callystown), and it too is said to have once housed a nunnery, but that was in the 16th century and the name has been in use for centuries before then. Collinstown could easily have been a gathering place for women with medicinal or spiritual powers. Certainly, it has an allure today that is potent and engaging. There’s an aura of calm and ease to the village, with two cosy pubs, a busy little shop, a pitch ‘n putt course and a thriving hurling team, the Lough Lene Gaels.
A selection of ring forts to the west of town are remnants of the inhabitants on this area long before villages and towns were developed. At least one of these early settlements is attributed to the Viking chief, Turgesius, who is said to have settled there and on an island on Lough Lene, which still bears his name today. His time in Collinstown ended when he was killed by the High King of Ireland, Máel Sechnaill mac Maíl Ruanaid.
In the local church, St Mary’s (Roman Catholic) Church, there’s a half-sized replica of an early Christian bell which was found on an island on Lough Lene. A second replica of the bell is used in Dáil Eireann by the Ceann Comhairle to impose order on boisterous TDs. The original bell, which was found by a lad fishing eels in 1881, is now in the National Museum. From its design it appears to be early Christian, and could conceivably have been St Feichín’s personal bell from the 7th century.
The time-warp village of Fore feels as though it never entered the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The area was catnip to pilgrims for eons because of the “7 Wonders of Fore” that the local saint, Féichín, left as a sign of God’s (and his) omnipotence. Evidence of these miraculous manifestations still exists: there’s a tree that won’t burn, a river that flows uphill and water that won’t boil. Doubters and heathen cynics are free to try to disprove them, but it’ll bring seven years bad luck.
Abbey: Make sure to visit the 13th century Benedictine priory that is accessed along a narrow walled causeway across a marsh. You’ll pass a penny-scattered stream and a sacred rag tree where people still come to entice favours from St Féichín, whose 7th century chapel stands nearby.
Hermit’s Cell: A tower structure above St Féichín’s little chapel dates from the 15th century. It originally formed part of the town defences, but was then adapted in the 17th and 19th centuries. An anchorite, or Christian hermit, occupied a space in the tower for many years and his simple cell can still be visited. The Baron of Delvin restored the tower in the 17th century and converted part of it into a family mausoleum, with the remains of his ancestors beneath vast flagstones and a small oratory built on top.
Nelly/Nancy Loop Walk: A new walking trail now extends across the marshland at the abbey up towards the Ben of Fore past ancient beach and oak trees and around to the local school and church. It is the first of many trails that will eventually criss-cross the whole region.
Café: Jane’s Coffee Shop is well worth a visit for her delicious tannin-rich teabrack and the wonderful locally-roasted Bell Lane coffee. The shop has a select collection of local books, prints and cards for sale, including fascinating written accounts of the monastic metropolis, which at its peak had 3000 monks from right across Europe.
Bars: There are two wonderful traditional bars in the village – both are iconic and definitely worthy of inclusion in the top 50 pubs in Ireland. Ita Halpin’s Seven Wonders Bar and Beatrice Coffey’s Abbey House Bar will have occasional music sessions that go on long into the night, but every single day you can be guaranteed the best of story-telling and fun if Ita and Beatrice (known as Beezie) are behind the bar.
On the very north-eastern tip of the county, this dense deciduous woodland is said to be one of the largest planted beech forests in Europe. A tangle of trails winds up past flax pits, famine fields and a booley shelter to a cairn looking out across Lough Sheelin into Cavan. At a dizzying 258m above sea-level, it’s the highest point in Co Westmeath, and you can increase that height to a vertiginous 260m by standing on your tippy toes.
Just up the road from Mullagmeen is one of Ireland’s greatest archaeological secrets – an array of passage tombs and cairns that are just as impressive as any in the Boyne Valley, but without an entrance fee or the sense of being on a tourist treadmill.
As you approach the site, past dilapidated cottages, new bungalows, old graveyards, the ruins of an aristocratic mansion and two Medieval lime kilns, you’d be forgiven for dismissing the pair of green bellies that rise in gentle undulations from the County Meath landscape as unworthy of further attention. But in fact these hills of Carnmore East and West, preserve an extraordinary collection of ancient ceremonial sites, Neolithic artwork and some of the oldest free-standing buildings known to mankind. Loughcrew is certainly a heady place, with the remains of corbelled passage tombs scattered across the hills, which are decorated at significant points with indecipherable symbols: a profusion of concentric circles, zig-zags, swirls, cupmarks, radiating lines and coiled curls. The site offers tantalising glimpses into the lives of our ancestors from 5000 years ago, and great views across 18 counties that stretch out in all directions.
At night the pole star lies directly in front of a massive rock seat, from where the cailleach (witch), Garavogue, used to monitor the cosmos. In recent years a local family have opened Nellie’s Coffee Shop in an old cottage just beneath the passage tomb. It is part of their Loughcrew Megalithic Centre which offers a good summation of the history and folklore of the site and a fine pot of tea and scones.
At the bottom of the sacred Carnmore hill on which Loughcrew tombs are situated is a fine landed estate of the Napper family, who invite tourists to visit the Loughcrew Gardens with a spectacular 17th century yew walk and an adventure centre featuring tree-top zip-lines, assault courses, Zorb football and a sylvan Crystal Maze. There’s a fine tearooms here in a wooden chalet on site hosts fine trearooms with delicious home treats.
If Loughcrew is 15 minutes north of Collinstown, then 15 minutes west is Tullynally Castle, home of the Lords of Longford for eons. The castle, which is just beyond the town of Castlepollard, is a 17th century building, renovated in the Gothic Revival style in the early 19thC. It has 120 rooms which stretch over two acres. Surrounding the castle are 12 hectares of walled enclosures and woodland groves peppered with exotic species that the famous planting collecting family would have amassed over centuries. The Pakenham family have lived here for 10 generations, and parts of garden are unchanged since 1740. In summertime when the gardens are open it is definitely worth spending a few hours wandering the serpentine ponds, Victorian paths, jasmine and old rambler rose-lined routes that wind under canopies of old beech and reveal sudden views of Lough Derravaragh.
Tullynally Gardens offers some fine views over Lough Derraverragh, where according to mythology King Lir’s children spent 300 years having being turned into swans by Lir’s jealous wife, Aoife. As the irish for Tullynally is Tullach na n-Eala, the hill of the swans, it is up to you to decide whether the current castle could be on the site of King Lir’s earlier one. Either way you’ll be enchanted by this castle and the gorgeous tearooms in the courtyard.