Visiting County Westmeath or just passing through Athlone? This part of the Irish Province of Leinster has a number of attractions you will not want to miss, plus some interesting sights that are slightly off the beaten path. So, why not take your time and spend a day or two in Westmeath when visiting Ireland?
01 of 07
Here are some fast facts on County Westmeath:
- The Irish name for County Westmeath is Contae na hIarmhí, literally translated this would be the "Western Middle".
- Until 1541, Westmeath was an integral part of Meath - together they formed the "Fifth Province" of Ireland, the "Middle".
- The car registrations issued in Westmeath have the letters WH on the number plate.
- Westmeath's county town is Mullingar, other important towns include Athlone, Castlepollard, Kilbeggan, Kinnegad, Moate, and Rochfordbridge.
- The size of County Westmeath is given at 1,764 square kilometers.
- The number of inhabitants was determined to be 86,164 during the census of 2011.
02 of 07
Athlone is nice for a walk through the winding streets and across the wide Shannon just south of Lough Ree (which also is the actual border of Westmeath here). Here, you can watch at leisure while boatmen (or those pretending to be on a hired cruiser) try to navigate the bottleneck that is the lock connecting the lower and upper parts of the Shannon. But pride of place must go to the castle, overshadowing both bridge and lock. This is a military installation first and foremost, and Athlone Castle lets the visitor be sure about this.
At first glance, all notions of a romantic, fairy-tale castle are dispelled. So, is Athlone Castle worth a visit? Yes, it is. The museum will give you an insight into just why this fairly insignificant town played its part in Ireland's military history. Guarding the road to the west. Afterward, explore the shopping areas of the town itself. They have been much improved over the last few years, giving Athlone's economy a much-needed boost and making... it the shopping capital of Westmeath and the Midlands.
03 of 07
The estate around Belvedere House, a historic building near Mullingar, is fit for explorers of all ages, which is somehow fitting, as famed explorers made their home here. Would you know that the Abominable Snowman got his name from the owner of this Westmeath holding? He also brought a bear home from his Himalayan travels, today commemorated by a statue in the park. This is dwarfed by Ireland's largest folly, the "Jealous Wall" of legend, built to screen the view from the neighbors. This was a family feud taken to extremes, but today Belvedere House is the most family-friendly attraction in County Westmeath. For the kids, there is a Narnia trail and splendid gardens await the adults, complete with fairies and the Celtic lore of trees. For the more practical-minded, a small eco-garden has been set up near the lake shore. Take some inspiration home and start digging.
04 of 07
Fore Abbey is a trace of the once powerful Benedictine order in Ireland, investing the site with historical importance. Monks used to live, pray, and work here on a grand scale. And medieval remains around the sprawling and still impressive monastic ruins bear witness when the insignificant village of today was a very significant place indeed. The sheer size and location of the main ruins, however, will be more important to most visitors. Both are impressive and make for an ideal photo opportunity. But do not neglect to look for holy wells, the wonders of Fore and...the dovecote. The last is hidden in plain sight.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
The Franciscan Abbey in Multyfarnham is one of the spiritual centers of County Westmeath, but it was neglected for a long time and has only been fairly recently revitalized by new activities of the order. Many medieval parts were sensibly restored and brought into the modern age. The church itself has a core structure from the middle ages, combined with modern stained glass windows that show the (local and pre-Christian) legend of the Children of Lir.
Most impressive are, however, the Stations of the Cross. Not the interesting, modern ones in the church proper, but those in the gardens. They are life-size and very detailed. From Pontius Pilate holding court to Jesus being born to his tomb, even including a Golgotha that actually is a hill (with a friendly reminder that climbing the same is dangerous and hence forbidden). The statues may not be of the most artistic merit, but the whole installation is certainly impressive.
06 of 07
The Lough Ree Monster
Here is a bit of the really hidden Ireland: literally hundreds of tourists cross Lough Ree every summer's day, part of the Shannon, on cruisers and other boats, looking out for shallows and rocks, at the same time enjoying the unspoiled landscapes. Seldom do they give a second thought about what might lurk beneath the surface of Lough Ree, watching and waiting: the Lough Ree Monster! Ireland's answer to Scotland's Nessie has a long legendary pedigree and harks back to (at least) the early middle ages. And sightings have been noted fairly recently as well. So, either it is a very long-lived, imaginary creature, a misinterpretation of natural phenomena or a cryptozoological wonder. A large-scale expedition a few years back found no conclusive evidence to prove or disprove the existence of the monster. So keep looking... even though many modern "sightings" may be easily explained by the amount of drink taken.
07 of 07
Visiting County Westmeath and stuck for something to do in the evening? Well, you could do worse than head out into a local pub (which, by default, will be an "original Irish pub") and then join a traditional Irish session. Why not give it a try?
Most sessions start at around 9:30 pm or whenever a few musicians have gathered. Here are some reliable venues:
Athlone - "Sean's Bar" and "The Thatch"
Moate - "Egan's"