Discover history that reaches back centuries as you explore incredible castles, haunting monastic sites and an eerie workhouse and an ancient fort around Lough Derg
Stand on Killaloe Bridge as the waters of the River Shannon open out before you and it’s easy to imagine how things might have looked back in the Middle Ages. Humanity has had a light touch here – nature is still the dominant force – but centuries of settlers have most definitely left their mark, from the monastic island of Inis Cealtra to Brian Boru’s waterside fort. All around the lake you’ll find echoes of the past and the people that have settled in the small hamlets, villages and towns that stud the shoreline, which makes exploring this part of the island an experience that’s full of surprises. There’s the market town of Portumna, which contrasts a 17th century castle replete with aristocratic elegance, with the brutal horror of a 19th century workhouse. There’s Tuamgraney, home to Ireland’s oldest church in continuous use -, 10th century St Cronan’s, as well as a small artisan chocolate factory, woollen mills and the much-loved local pub of Nuala’s. And there’s Killaloe and Ballina, where you can walk in the footsteps of Brian Boru, sip on flat whites in Italian-style cafés and browse small artisan shops. Thrumming with history and buzzing with vibrant towns, Lough Derg will keep you captivated.
The Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna
Sitting just off St Brigid’s Road in Portumna is a building whose past is etched into its imposing grey walls, vast empty yard and endless windows. The workhouse in Portumna was built for 600 inmates and operated from its opening in 1852 to the early part of the 20th century. Today, an excellent tour, run by very passionate guides, illuminates the life and times of “the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”. The workhouse is open seven days a week from March to October.
Portumna Castle is a real showstopper – and as you walk along the long avenue that leads to exquisite formal gardens, the full majesty of this early 17th century Renaissance-style building becomes clear. Rescued from ruin by the OPW in 1968, the castle had fallen into disrepair after it was abandoned in 1826 after following a devastating fire. Today, the exterior at least is restored to its former glory, and while inside may still be a work in progress, there is a good exhibition on the history and restoration of the building on the ground floor.
Driving into Portumna, you’ll cross a five-span road bridge linking County Tipperary to County Galway. It’s a beautiful entry to the town, by any standards, with wide river views that open up on either side. Stop a little if you have time and take a closer look at the bridge – if you’re lucky you might get to watch it in operation – the pivot-swing action is quite a sight…
If you’re staying at the pods in Portumna, try and persuade owner Dick Ridge to show you around Portumna Abbey. A Portumna native, Dick is a font of knowledge about this incredible 13th century Cistercian ruin, from secret tunnels, to inverted heads carved into the stone, to hidden coffins within the walls. If you explore by yourself, you’ll still be wowed with the beautiful cloisters, crumbling ruins, and medieval graveslabs that lie here.
Climb the steep steps, reach for the top and mind your head… This is Nenagh Castle, and once you get outside, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views of Nenagh town and the green countryside that surrounds it. The castle is the oldest building in town and was completed in 1220. It’s remarkable that this soaring cylindrical keep has lasted so long, but today it’s the finest example of its kind in Ireland. Take the tour to get a real insight into the history.
Béal Ború, Killaloe
It’s a short walk out of Killaloe along the lough until you get to Béal Ború, Brian Boru’s Fort. Today, little remains of the place where Brian Boru was either born or reared, but what does remain is a huge grassy earthwork that was once a ringfort and later an Anglo-Norman castle. On the walk back into town, turn right just as you get to the water and follow the Aillebaun Walkway. You’ll be rewarded with great views, as well as top heritage sites including St Lua’s Oratory, a 10th century church that was relocated to the church grounds when its original home on Friar’s Island in the River Shannon flooded.
Towns and villages of Lough Derg
What makes a trip around Lough Derg so enjoyable is all the little villages you pass through along the way. If you are travelling by water, it’s a delight to stop off for lunch at the pretty village of Terryglass; have a pint in Larkin’s thatched pub in Garrykennedy; or a wander around St Cronan’s Church in Tuamgraney. But driving around the lough is also a wonderful way to explore its hidden nooks and crannies, from the panoramic viewpoint at Portroe, to the elegance of Mountshannon.
It might not look like much from the shore, but Inis Cealtra is one of the most famous monastic sites in Ireland, with a round tower, six church ruins, a holy well, a graveyard and even a “bargaining stone” over which marriages would have been arranged. A place of pilgrimage until the 19th century, the site is associated with the 6th century Saint Caimin and was torched by the Vikings in 836 and 922. Jump on a boat trip from Mountshannon Pier with local historian Gerard Madden and the fascinating history of this compelling place will be illuminated to the full.