Exploring the Irish MidlandsThe bar was a small one, set beside a crossroads, surrounded by Midlands bog. A small shop abutted it, selling tractor parts and Wellingtons alongside the ubiquitous baked beans and chocolate. There was no village for a few miles, but the bar was popular, judging by the lines of vans, small cars and even a ride-on lawnmower that were parked outside.
We went in the main door and nearly collided with a hospital bed, parked immediately inside. The middle-aged occupant was propped up comfortably, a pint of Guinness on his tray table, a fag in one hand and playing cards in the other. The pulley dangled above his head, and the bed was pumped up high so that he was on a level with the bar tables. His friends were arranged around him on stools.
"That's Joe," said the barman, nodding towards your man in the bed. "He has MS. Every couple of weeks, his friends push him a couple of miles down the road from the hospital to the pub. He has a few jars here, and then they push him back up the main road. The nurses and doctors don't mind; they say it does him a power of good. Bucks him up for the week, like."
Certainly, Joe seemed in a cheerful mood, leaving careful white rings around his pint. Another pint was already settling for him on the bar. Who says the Irish healthcare system is lacking? Not Joe, that's for sure.
The Midlands of Ireland. Land of curling turf bogs, single storey pubs sinking down into the ground and small villages where everyone says hello to you, whether they know you or not. The air is so wet you could wring it out, and the whole country has a fresh rain-washed look, and indeed it is. Frequently. The River Shannon bisects the country from north to south, meandering through a peaceful series of loughs, reed fringed riverbanks, and locks. This is paradise for the coarse fisherman. Perch, bream, trout and championship pike are caught in the Shannon's waters. Indeed, the saying goes, the air is so wet that the fish don't know they've left the river as they fly through the air on the fisherman's line.
This land is often overlooked in the rush to visit the known highlights of the country and many travellers miss out on a memorable experience, as they race to Galway, the Blarney Stone or the Cliffs of Moher. But this is the Ireland of dreams, the real Ireland, the place that will linger in memory long after the tourist coaches have departed. A place where the cream on your pint of Guinness (Not too cold now! Drink it like a local!) is as white and frothy as the nodding heads of the bog cotton that cover the peat for miles.
Many travellers to Ireland like to make their base in Dublin, and certainly, this is an excellent choice. The city has lots to offer: the Guinness Brewery, Trinity College, the James Joyce Centre, the bulbous peninsula of Howth, and the long waterfront at Dun Laoghaire are just the froth on the pint that is Dublin. However, Ireland's recent boom --the "Celtic Tiger"-- and Dublin's well-known tourist attractions, have made the city grow and grow and grow.... Traffic is often "cat", as the locals say, meaning it's a gridlock of jammed streets going nowhere, and the traveller who chooses an inner city hotel for their entire stay, may find they never leave the city. What looks on the map like a simple day trip to explore the unspoilt Midlands may turn into a frustrating day of traffic jams on Ireland's national road system.
Take that charming inner city hotel or atmospheric B&B for part of your stay. You can seldom go wrong with Dublin's charming streetscapes, Georgian atmosphere and plethora of pubs. An inner city base makes great sense to experience the country's largest, and most multi-cultural city, but if you intend exploring the country outside of Dublin, then other options are available that are better suited as a touring base.
A mere twenty miles outside of Dublin, and accessible by train or a direct main road, is the pretty village of Kilcock, in County Kildare. The Royal Canal flows through here, now a peaceful backwater, but once a major lifeline for Dublin, bringing the Guinness from the brewery at St James Gate to the west. The Royal Canal Way, a long distance walking path, traces its banks, and often the only souls you will meet are the swans and the jumping fish.
Kilcock retains a village atmosphere. A handful of pubs ranging from modern to traditional, shops, restaurants and takeaways, many set around the village square means that everything is to hand. It is a short drive away from the slightly larger village of Maynooth, with its imposing and historic college and castle, and about twenty minutes by car from the bustling town of Naas. The world-famous Curragh of Kildare is nearby, where the thoroughbreds preen and prance on race days, and fortunes can ride on a gleaming chestnut hide.
Maynooth castle is easily visited. You will find it right in the centre of town, between two streams: Lyreen and Owenslade. Today, the imposing stone bulk of the great keep, foursquare and solid, is the most obvious of the remains. It was built around 1203, in the Anglo-Norman period, but like many antiquities in Ireland, sits on the site of earlier earthworks. Ring forts, mottes, hill forts and ancient farmers' walls. These less obvious remnants of earlier civilizations spread over the Irish countryside. A keen eye will often spot the telltale circle of trees crowning a faerie fort. They say the little people danced in these rings, enticing the unwary away from homes and family. Spend a day on a wind-swept hilltop, with only the stones and sheep for company, and you'll believe it's true.
Most tourists visit Ireland in the warmer summer months: June, July and August. Then the days are long; the birds sing the morning into existence before 5am and the long purple twilight steals in after 10pm. Then the lanes are bursting with green. Hedgerows run riot, and wildflowers stud the banks. Then too, there's a smile on every face, for isn't this the Irish summer and the grandest place in the world to be?
Accommodation during these months is traditionally hard to find. The schools are on their long summer holidays, and many Irish families compete with overseas visitors for a place to stay. However, there is one excellent option that stands out for those wishing to base themselves in this area.
Royal Canal Court apartments, run by Lucan man, John Coyne, are three blocks of modern, tastefully furnished apartments, situated right on the Royal Canal, a mere three minute walk to the village of Kilcock. Rented to students at Maynooth College during term time, the apartments are let for short-term summer rentals the rest of the year. The extremely comfortable two and three bedroom apartments have everything you need. Furnished with a combination of double and single beds, they are ideal for families, or groups of friends traveling together. The small, modern kitchen boasts a state-of-the-art cooker, microwave, refrigerator, washing machine, and has cookware, crockery and utensils. The dining table, in the spacious lounge, can seat six, and patio doors open onto a small balcony overlooking the Royal Canal. A TV offers a choice of cable channels and radio stations.
Geared for individual students, the bedrooms have ample cupboard space, comfortable beds, and a desk. The warm wooden floors and timber and tile finish make the apartments appealing, and inviting to come home to after a long day exploring Dublin, or the Midlands.
John rents the apartments during the summer months, for a few days, or a few weeks at a time. Advance booking is preferred, but John can often accommodate last minute travellers at short notice. And, best of all, the price is extremely reasonable.
From your base at Royal Canal Court, you can stroll the five minutes to the village, to have a quiet pint at The Green Ribbon by the Royal Canal. Take your drink over the road, and sit on the dock to watch the swans glide past. Maybe there'll be some riotous water sports in progress, or small boats pulling in to enjoy the evening. Alternatively, take the train into Dublin for the day, and explore the historic inner city area without fighting the traffic.
From Kilcock, the Midlands, the River Shannon and the wonder of Newgrange are easy day trips. Don't forget the famous Wicklow Hills, where rounded domes of purple heather and hidden loughs entice even the most inactive to take to their feet. Or the seaside towns of Arklow and Wicklow, and their wind-tossed beaches, and lesser-known attractions: The lifeboat museum at Arklow, or the small village of Ardamine, where legend has it the one of the first settlers to arrive in Ireland from across the water is buried. Or the beautiful Vale of Avoca, used in so many films and TV shows and the promontories of Wicklow Head and Mizen Head. Or visit the other Hollywood, and climb up to St Kevin's Seat, and see where the saint used to sit and meditate and pray during his solitary life.
Endless choices, and so much to explore. It's no wonder that people return to Ireland again and again.
Further inquiries about Kilcock Apartments can be directed to John Coyne. Visit his webpage at http://www.royalcanalcourt.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Telephone inquiries can be directed to (086) 252-1440, or from outside of Ireland, +353 86 252 1440.
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