Best selling author, Felicity Hayes-McCoy and her husband, Wilf set off on a journey to explore Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Part one of her journey sees the couple stay in the lovely Tullamore Court Hotel, and discovering nearby Birr Castle, Lough Boora Discovery Park, Kilbeggan Distillery and The Grand Canal Greenway.
In my childhood we never used the term “staycation, though all our holidays were spent in Ireland. The Wild Atlantic way was just “the west”, a trip to Ireland’s Ancient East was “going to granny in Enniscorthy’s” and, having no family in what was then prosaically known as “the midlands”, I saw Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands as landscape to be travelled through on the way to somewhere else. But, recently, on a trip organised by Golden Ireland, I realised why the name “Hidden Heartlands” was coined.
Tullamore Court Hotel
It was one of those breaks we’re all getting used to, booked and looked forward to after months of not getting out much. Our primary concern was that our hotel would comply with Covid regulations, so the information on the Tullamore Court’s website, and the staff’s evident care when we arrived, were reassuring. The required masking in public spaces, and the system of booking for meals, made things relaxed and efficient, and the welcome from David at Reception couldn’t have been warmer.
Tullamore is a bustling, charming town, full of unpretentious Georgian architecture, and the Tullamore Court is close to both the station and the town centre. Having unpacked, Wilf and I strolled out and found plenty of independent businesses and shops, including a super bookshop, the town’s splendid, modern library, and lots of places to sit and watch the world go by. Later, after dinner in the bar, we put our feet up in our comfortable bedroom and considered our plans for the following day, a leisurely schedule that would take us from a castle to a distillery, via a picnic provided by the hotel.
Breakfast was served at our table in a bright, airy garden-room. I loved my vegan choice of baked mushrooms and vine tomatoes on sourdough toast, and Wilf was delighted by his creamy scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Feeling well set-up for the day, we collected our picnic basket, and set off for Birr along country roads between rich, rolling fields. Birr Castle, home of the Earls of Rosse since 1620, has an exhibition showcasing the family’s interest and involvement in astronomy and engineering research from the nineteenth century onwards. Having checked it out, we walked in the grounds where, in springtime, grass is let grow for a wildflower meadow, and magnificent trees provide changing colour all year round. The family was in residence, so the castle itself was private, but at other times visitors can book guided tours of five of the main reception rooms.
Afterwards, we drove to Lough Boora Discovery Park, an area of natural and manmade lakes, wetlands and woodlands, where human hands have assisted the regenerating power of nature to turn a peat-harvesting site to a haven for animals, plants and birds. Its 50km of trails provide a contrast to the castle’s more formal gardens, and make it a great place for a day’s exploring on foot or by bike. Despite our hearty breakfast, we were hungry, and the hotel’s catering didn’t disappoint. David had suggested we picnic at one of the wooden tables by the lakeside, where an inquisitive swan swam up to join us. Opening our wicker basket, and spreading out stripey napkins, we ate chicken and salad sandwiches, scones with butter and jam, chocolate-chip cookies and fresh fruit, and watched leaping fish creating ripples on the lake. It would have been easy to spend an entire day at LoughBoora, but our visit to the distillery was booked for three o’clock. So, we drove on, promising ourselves that, one day, we’d be back.
Dating from 1757, the Kilbeggan Distillery is the oldest in the world. It’s still a functional, craft-sized distillery, and our guide’s knowledge of, and pride in, its work testified to its central place in the local community. The small group on our tour included people who evidently knew a lot about distilling. Others, like myself, were simply enchanted by the old stills displayed in the cobbled courtyard, the stone walls, weathered slate roof and imposing brick chimney stack, and the sound of the creaking timber waterwheel turned by the little River Brosna. While Wilf took in the detail of the distilling process, I listened with half an ear and took photos, remembering that my Enniscorthy granny’s house had once been a cooperage where barrels like those piled up around me had been produced. The tour included a tasting, and there’s a little bar in the courtyard, where visitors can sit and enjoy more tipples, cocktails, teas, coffees and snacks. There’s a shop too where, among other things, I spotted Kilbeggan whisky chocolate – very moreish, and handmade in a premises next to the distillery which includes a coffee shop.
That night, we slept like logs after another dinner in the hotel bar – my prawn and haddock linguine with spinach and peas was delicious, as was Wilf’s hot smoked salmon salad starter. The following day we’d planned to borrow the bikes the Tullamore Court makes available to guests, but it looked like rain so, instead, we took a walk by the canal. Among the Hidden Heartland’s pleasures are its long, quiet stretches of the Grand Canal Greenway, which make walking and cycling a joy. We set off on foot and, advised again by David, dropped into a bookshop run by the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society, which also houses a collection of archive material, and is a fine resource for anyone tracing their roots in the area, or interested in its history and heritage. I could have stayed much longer, browsing and chatting to the staff whose knowledge of their subject is encyclopaedic, but the threatened rain held off and the pleasant canal beckoned, so we wandered on.
It was great to discover so much that I’d been missing all my life. Friendly people, a lovely hotel, gorgeous, wide-open spaces, and far more to enjoy – and return to – than I’d ever imagined when we set out.
Read Part II of Felicity and Wilf’s Hidden Heartlands trip here.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy is the author of the USA Today bestselling “Finfarran” novels, published by Hachette Irl, which have been translated into seven languages and are available in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook. Born and educated in Dublin, she built a successful London-based career, as an actor and then a writer Her memoir The House on an Irish Hillside, published in 2012, continues to be read worldwide. A sequel Enough Is Plenty: The Year on the Dingle Peninsula, illustrated with her own photos, was followed by a second memoir, A Woven Silence: Memory, History and Remembrance.
Dingle and its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage, a cultural guide to West Kerry, was co-written with her husband Wilf Judd with whom she divides life and work between rural Ireland and inner-city London.
Her next book The Keepsake Quilters, a standalone novel set in London and Wicklow, will be published in October 2022, followed in 2023 by a new Finfarran novel.