Art, music, architecture and a curious connection with a literary legend – follow the Royal Canal from east to west and discover the unexpected.
Did you know that you can follow in the footsteps of James Joyce as you stroll around Mullingar? Or that the glorious stained glass windows in St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford were almost lost to a blazing inferno? Have you ever wondered exactly how pewter is made? Or what’s really involved in judging an egg competition? Here are just some of the hidden gems you’ll find around Mullingar and along the Royal Canal.
Larch Hill Gardens
Deep in the County Meath countryside are Larch Hill Gardens, an intriguing mix of high-concept Georgian landscape design and the ultimate day out for keen poultry fanciers. A rare example of a “ferme ornée”, Larch Hill was created in the mid-18thcentury and mirrored the fashion for ornamental farms with decorative buildings and parkland liberally ornamented with follies and statuary. These days, Larch Hill keeps in touch with its farming roots by hosting poultry sales for chickens, ducks, geese and exotic fowl – and offers a entertaining rural day out for families, complete with demonstrations and competitions. (larchill.ie)
Mullingar is known for the traditional craft of pewter making. This pliable metal alloy has been used in Ireland for over 800 years to create everything from jewellery to drinking goblets. A visit to the Mullingar Pewter factory gives you a fascinating insight into the casting, turning and delicate hand finishing involved in pewter. Take a tour of the workshop to see skilled artisans at work and then browse the visitor centre to select the perfect pewter gift. (mullingarpewter.com)
St Mel’s Cathedral
The stark, imposing exterior of St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford town belies the treasures you’ll find within. Elaborate plasterwork, soaring limestone pillars supporting the domed ceiling, an elaborate organ with 2,300 pipes, and the pièce de resistance – stained glass windows of extraordinary beauty, created by the masters at Harry Clarke Studios. With their glowing jewel tones, intricate designs and startlingly contemporary feel, these windows are well worth a visit to the cathedral, which was rebuilt after being almost completely destroyed by fire in 2009.
Joe Dolan – Mullingar’s music man
Mullingar is a town known for its music and no performer holds a warmer place in the town’s heart than native son, Joe Dolan. This charismatic singer had a string of hits over a long career and was still wowing audiences right up until his death in 2007. The next year, his hometown decided to honour Joe’s memory with a life-sized bronze statue in the Market Square. Now, no trip to Mullingar is complete without a selfie with the great man.
James Joyce and the Mullingar connection
Think of James Joyce and Mullingar may not be the first destination that springs to mind but the legendary Irish writer had surprisingly strong connections to the town. Joyce lived here briefly in the early 1900s when his father worked with Westmeath County Council and references to that time surface throughout his work. The Royal Canal, the Victorian railway station and the mystical Hill of Uisneach… all these well-known landmarks have been preserved forever in Joyce’s incomparable prose. Today, you can raise a glass to the great man in the Ulysses bar at the charming old Greville Arms Hotel – another Joyce favourite. (grevillearmshotel.ie)
Climb the stairs from the Days Bazaar café on Mullingar’s Oliver Plunkett Street and a world of beauty opens up. This is the Chimera Gallery, a surprisingly large space with whitewashed walls, creaking wooden floorboards and art… everywhere. Paintings and photographs dapple the walls or lean against each other on the floor; sculptures, large and small, invite you closer to discover their secrets. Browse through the eclectic exhibitions of Irish and international artists, stop and chat with owner Dave O’Shea and maybe even find that piece of art that stops you in your tracks and makes you fall in love. (http://chimera-gallery.com/)
The Wonderful Barn
On land that was once part of the Castletown estate in County Kildare stands an extraordinary structure known as the Wonderful Barn. It looks somewhat like a giant corkscrew but it’s actually a grain store, with a strange, cantilevered staircase wrapped around the outside, and a crow’s nest viewing gallery on top (because who doesn’t need one of those on their grain tower?). Built in 1743, the barn was a famine relief project, commissioned by Katherine Conolly of Castletown, and it also served as a decorative folly that marked the end of a tree-lined avenue on the great estate. (http://castletown.ie/)