Planning to visit the central County Westmeath in Ireland? Even if you are 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 County Westmeath when visiting Ireland?
Here is what to do and see in Westmeath.
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 license plate.
- Westmeath's county town is Mullingar, other important towns include the college town of Athlone, Castlepollard, Kilbeggan, Kinnegad, Moate, and Rochfordbridge.
- The size of County Westmeath is given at 710 square miles.
- The number of inhabitants was determined to be 88,770 during the census of 2016.
The town of Athlone is a nice stop for a walk through the winding streets and across the wide Shannon just south of Lough Ree (which is also the border of Westmeath). Here, you can watch while boats try to navigate the lock which creates a bottleneck connecting the lower and upper parts of the River Shannon. However, the top attraction in Athlone is certainly the castle, which overshadows both the bridge and the lock.
At first glance, all notions of a romantic, fairy-tale castle are dispelled. This is a military installation first and foremost, and Athlone Castle lets the visitor be sure about this.
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 because of its strategic position 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 County Westmeath and the Midlands in general.
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.
All of these fun quirky details on the property are dwarfed by Ireland's largest folly - the "Jealous Wall" of legend. The imposing wall was built by the original owner Robert Rochfort after a feud with his brother, who lived on the neighboring estate. The eccentric Earl who created the splendid home was known to take things to extremes, but today Belvedere House is the most family-friendly attraction in County Westmeath. For children, there is a Narnia trail but adults will also love the splendid gardens, 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.
Fore Abbey: Benedictine Powerhouse
What remains of Fore Abbey is only a trace of the once powerful Benedictine order in Ireland. Monks used to live, pray, and work here on a grand scale. Founded sometime in the 7th-century, the mostly medieval remains of the sprawling and still impressive monastic ruins bear witness to a time when the small village of today was a very important 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. Be sure to look for holy wells, seek out the seven wonders of Fore and the dovecote (pigeon house). The last is hidden in plain sight.
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. The first friars came to Multyfarnham in the 1200s and some of the existing structures date back to the 16th century. 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 - an important story in Irish mythology.
Most impressive are, however, the Stations of the Cross. Skip the modern ones in the church itself and instead make a pilgrimage to the gardens. The life-size Stations of the Cross are extremely detailed. From Pontius Pilate holding court to Jesus being born to his tomb, even including a Golgotha made of an actual hill. The statues may not be absolute artistic masterpieces, but the scale of the installation is certainly impressive.
The Lough Ree Monster
Here is a bit of the really hidden Ireland: literally hundreds of tourists cross Lough Ree every summer's day. As they cruise down part of the River Shannon by boat, they are often looking out for shallows and rocks while enjoying views the unspoiled landscapes. Very few visitors ever give a second thought to what might lurk beneath the surface of Lough Ree, watching and waiting: the Lough Ree Monster!
Ireland's answer to Scotland's Loch Ness Monster has a long legendary history and harks back to (at least) the early middle ages. There have been recent sightings of the ancient monster as well. That means that Country Westmeath is home to either a very long-lived, imaginary creature, fascinating natural phenomena or a zoological 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 a few too many pints at the pub beforehand.
Visiting County Westmeath and stuck for something to do in the evening? One of the most beloved nighttime activities is a trip to a local pub to join a traditional Irish music session. Why not give it a try?
Most trad sessions start at around 9:30 pm or whenever a few musicians have gathered. Here are some reliable venues:
Athlone - "Sean's Bar" (which claims to be the oldest pub in Ireland) and "The Thatch"
Moate - "Egan's"