County Offaly is right in the heart of Ireland and is one of the Emerald Isle’s hidden gems. Bordered by the River Shannon to the west and the Slieve Bloom mountains to the east, this county is full of history and links to our ancient past.
Boasting vast tracts of boglands, nature discovery parks, woodlands, rivers, streams, monastic settlements, ancient castles with a few ghosts thrown into the bargain, County Offaly has something for everyone.
Table of Contents
- Finding County Offaly On An Irish Map
- Towns of Offaly
- Castles of County Offaly
- Monastic Offaly
- The Great Outdoors in Offaly
Finding County Offaly On An Irish Map
County Offaly is located in the midlands of Ireland and is often referred to as Ireland’s hidden heartlands.
It is part of the province of Leinster.
In the Irish language the name for County Offaly is Contae Uíbh Fhailí (pronounced kun-tay ee wawl-ee). The literal translation of the name is the county of the children of Failge. Failge Berraide was a legendary local king who lived around the year 510, and the county now bears his name.
The nickname for this county is ‘the faithful county.’
In centuries past it was known as “King’s County.” It was named in honor of King Philip II of Spain, who was married to the English Queen Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII, and often referred to as ‘Bloody Mary.”
She ascended to the throne of England in 1553 and immediately set about trying to strengthen English control of Ireland. She seized lands from disloyal Irish subjects and granted them to loyal subjects. Counties Offaly and Laois were part of these 16th century plantations of Ireland and English efforts to subdue the wild Irish.
Towns of Offaly
Full of history and hidden treasures, Offaly’s towns are renowned for their heritage, archetecture, and a few castles along the way. Here’s a quick look at some of the main towns of County Offaly.
Tullamore is considered the most central town on the island of Ireland, and it’s located half way between the cities of Dublin and Galway.
It’s the capital town of the county of Offaly, and the gateway to the midlands of Ireland.
In 1798, the Grand Canal created a link from this land locked town to the port of Dublin in the east. Economic prosperity followed as goods could move easily from the rural heartland to the capital city.
Tullamore is home to many fine old buildings including a Gothic Revival church, Saint Catherine’s which dates back to 1818, and Charleville Castle, which is surrounded by majestic oak woodlands.
The town is famous for the whiskey that bears its name, Tullamore Dew. The old distillery warehouse and visitor center is located on the banks of the Grand Canal. Tours of the distillery are available and you can enjoy a time of storytelling, history and of course a little taste of the famous spirits.
Birr is one of Ireland’s most picturesque and historical heritage towns.
It was built around the Birr Castle estate by the Parsons family, the Earls of Rosse. It boasts many tree-lined malls and avenues lined with elegant houses from the early 19th century.
In the 6th century, Birr was home to St. Brendan, who legend believes crossed the Atlantic in a small boat, and discovered America.
A castle on Williams Street now stands on the original site of Birr’s ancient monastery. Mac Regol, a monk and scribe of the 8th century created the Book of Birr, a copy of the Gospels. It is now housed in the Bodleiam Library in Oxford University.
In 2011, the small village of Moneygall grew famous overnight when the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama, visited his Irish ancestral home.
His ancestors, on his mother’s side, were Kearney’s who left Moneygall after the Great Irish Famine.
Obama’s 3rd great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, left Monegall for New York in 1851 in search of a better life in the New World.
Edenderry is situated on the banks of the Grand Canals, but it was established in medieval times long before the creation of the man made waterway.
The ruins of Blundell Castle can still be seen on Blundell Hill. The town we see today was designed and created by the 2nd Marquess of Downshire. It boasts many elegant town houses with entrance arches and fine architecture.
A statue of the Marquis of Downshire (1788-1845) can be seen in the grounds of the Church of Ireland.
This was the home of an Anglo Norman family, the Berminghams, who founded a Franciscan Friary in 1325. The ruins of the Friary are adjacent to the road with public access.
Edenderry is an ideal place to base yourself if you like course fishing and walking. For cyclists, the banks of the Grand Canal stretch from Dublin through Kildare and Offaly to join the River Shannon. It is easily accessed in Edenderry.
Castles of County Offaly
With over 200 castles found dotted all over the county, Offaly is brimming over with history from medieval times to the 16th century, when the plantation of Ireland began in earnest.
Many of these castles lie in ruins, but luckily many are still intact, and are open for visitor tours.
Birr Castle was first built in Medieval Times by Anglo Norman settlers. The original castle was built on a motte, or earthen mound.
It was once the home to the O’Carroll family, but in the 1590’s it was sold to the Butler family who held vast lands in County Kilkenny and this area.
In 1620, the castle was given to the Parson family by James the 1st of England. Sir Laurence Parsons undertook remodeling the castle to resemble an English House.
Over the centuries the castle has survived sieges and fires, and continues to be owned by the Parsons family.
Birr Castle is home to the Great Telescope, which dates back to the early 1840’s, when the Third Earl of Rosse designed and built the largest telescope in the world.
With his giant telescope he made many astronomical discoveries in the 1800’s. People traveled from all over Europe to gaze at the stars through this amazing telescope on the grounds of Birr Castle. It can still be seen to this day.
The extraordinary telescope has been magnificently restored and can be viewed by the public.
Leap Castle is located in a small town called Coolderry in County Offaly. It’s said to be the most haunted castle and home in all of Ireland.
How old it is has become a matter for debate. Some historians believe it dates back to the 12th century, while others believe it was built in the 15th century.
Whatever the historical truth may be, this castle boasts a long and disturbing history, with tales of dungeons, captives and ghosts.
The castle is in private ownership, but tours can be arranged. Be fair warned, some believe this may even be the most haunted castle in the world.
Charleville Castle is located near the town of Tullamore. It is surrounded by ancient oak forests where Ireland’s Celtic druids are said to have roamed.
Charleville Castle was the dream of Charles William Bury, the Earl of Charleville, who first came up with the plans for this grandiose building back in 1798.
The gothic style castle we see today was designed by one of the leading architects of the day, Francis Johnston. The castle was under construction for fourteen years before completion.
It stands today as a monument to the local Irish craftsmen who made such a grand dream possible.
Clononey Castle, was the stronghold of the Coghlan Clan, in the 15th century, one of nine castles owned by this powerful family.
However, the Coghlan’s were disposessed when Henry VIII seized their castle. He bestowed it upon Thomas Boleyn, the father of his future second wife. during the war of dominion by England.
When Ann met her terrible fate and the Boleyn family fell from grace, two of Ann’s cousins took refuge in the castle in Offaly. They remained their until their deaths, and are buried beneath a tree in the castle yard.
The castle has been restored to demonstrate what castle life was like back in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is open to the public for tours.
Kinnity Castle is located in the foothills of the Slive Bloom Mountains, and is now a four star luxury hotel.
This 13th century castle is situated on 650 acres of parklands with over 60 acres of rolling lawns.
This medieval castle dates back to 1209, but today you can stay in luxury, while appreciating many of the original features of this medieval revival castle.
Sitting on the banks of the River Shannon, the Shannonbridge Fortification is one of the most notable buildings seen from the river.
Built by the British military in 1810, the purpose of the building was to protect the vital bridge over the river Shannon from a potential French invasion.
This was the era of Napolean and the English were very afraid of an attack by the French from the West. The Shannon waterway was seen as a perfect way for the French to access the midlands and strike a blow to the heartlands of Ireland.
A self guided tour of the fort can be undertaken and there is a free exhibition in the main building.
The onsite café has some lovely seating overlooking the river.
The fort itself lies in County Roscommon, but the town of Shannonbridge is linked to it by the bridge over the Shannon River.
Offaly is a sacred landscape, with the remains of many ancient monastic sites dotted around the county.
Monks arrived in this area between the fifth and seventh centuries to continue the work of Saint Patrick. High crosses and round towers dot the landscape. Here are some of the most important sacred sites of the county.
Located on the banks of the River Shannon, the ruins of the monastery first founded by St Ciarán in the 6th Century are known as Clonmanoise.
When it was first founded it was a great center of learning, with students attending its university from all over Europe.
Among the ruins you’ll find the remains of a once impressive Cathedral. Two magnificent round towers stand sentinel beside the flowing waters of the Shannon.
Three high crosses remain together with the ruins of nine Churches, and over 700 early Christian graves.
A visitor center and enclosure has been built to protect some of the original high crosses. For many people, Clonmacnoise is one of Ireland’s thin places.
Durrow High Cross
Durrow in County Offaly is where Saint Columcille founded an important monastery way back in about 550 AD.
The Book of Durrow, is a beautifully illuminated Gospel manuscript that is older than the Book of Kells. It was here in County Offaly that monks first illustrated this magnificent book. It is on display in Trinity College along with the Book of Kells.
Little remains of the original monastery. An old church now houses the High Cross of Durrow to protect this ancient stone carving. It stands about 3.6 metres high.
A holy well is located about 700 yards away from the high cross exhibit. An old stone plaque lies beside the well with the year AD 550 inscribed on it.
An annual pilgrimage takes place in the village of Durrow each year on the feast day of Saint Columcille. The ritual and processions are known as the Pattern of Durrow, and this cultural practice dates back to around 1463.
Seir Kieran was the site of an important 5th century monastery founded by Saint Ciarán. You’ll find it in the current day village of Clareen.
This monastery was a frequent target of Viking raids in the 9th and 10th centuries. A rampart was erected for protection at this time.
In 1548 the monastery was burned and destroyed by the English. The priory was dissolved in 1552 and the remains became the local Church of Ireland.
The base of a ninth century high cross was discovered in the graveyard sometime in the 1930’s. It boasts engraved scenes from the bible. The shaft and top of the cross have never been located. The base of a round tower is also visible at this site.
On the 5th of March each year, local people gather to go on a pilgrimage around the holy sites associated with Seir Kieran and its monastic remains.
Lemanaghan Early Christian Site
Lemanaghan (pronounced leh-man-ah-han) is a townland (the name of a district in Ireland) that is close to the village of Ballycomber.
The remains of an early Christian site are found here. The original monastery was founded by Saint Manchan who died of the plague in 664 AD.
The ruined remains of a medieval church are found here. A holy well and a holy tree can be found behind the church.
Locals often visit this holy well on Fridays.
In the village of Boher, a 12th century shrine from this site can be seen.
A stone lined causeway, known as a togher, connects the graveyard of the Church with a small stone cell. This stone enclousre is knows as St. Mella’s Cell. Mella was the mother of Saint Manchan.
Two stones with cup-shaped hollows for water, known as Bullaun stones, can be seen here. These stones are found at many early Christian monastic sites in Ireland.
In centuries past a pilgrimage route existed between Lehmanaghan and Clonmacnoise. A statue in Ballycomber commemorates this pilgrim trail.
The Great Outdoors in Offaly
This midland county is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. From bogland discovery parks, to boating on the River Shannon, Offaly is a little slice of paradise for everyone.
The Grand Canal
A man made waterway, the Grand Canal runs from Dublin port, flowing in a westerly direction to reach the River Shannon near the town of Banagher in County Offaly.
Construction of the canal commenced in 1756, and for many years it was a main transportation route for goods moving between Dublin and the surrounding areas of Leinster. The arrival of the railway in the second half of the 19th century, brought the canal traffic to a near halt.
There are forty-four locks, aqueducts and bridges over the canal. A tow path runs parallel to the waterway and can be enjoyed by walkers and cyclists.
For walking enthusiasts, it takes about 5 days to travel by foot from Dublin to Offaly along the banks of the canal.
Lough Boora Discovery Park
Lough Boora was once located on a turf bog run by Bord na Móna. Today the area has been transformed into an adventure and discovery park.
The park is home to a sculpture display. It’s where art meets nature.
The artwork on display has been inspired by the natural environment and the industrial legacy of Irish bogs.
These large sculptures are on permanent display at the park.
This outdoor wonderland comprises four distinct areas. You’ll find the Lough Boora Parklands, the Turraun Wetlands, Finnamore’s Lakes area and Cloghan Wetlands/Loch Clochan.
These beautiful parklands can be enjoyed in any season. There are walking trails for everyone. Some are only a short stroll, but others will take you on a long and enjoyable ramble through many amenities.
Clara Bog Nature Preserve
Clara Bog is a raised bog where turf was once harvested. Today the remaining turf forms over half of the remaining raised bog in North West Europe.
Clara Bog has been established as a Nature Reserve and covers an area over 464 hectares of raised bog.
Many protected wildlife species can be found here. A looped timber boardwalk takes visitors on a tour of the boglands. Interpretive panels provide information about the cultural, historical and geographical significance of raised bogs in Ireland.
Visitors to the interactive interpretive centre can learn about Ireland’s peatlands, their importance in supporting biodiversity, and the history and archaeology revealed in the layers of bog.
Cruising the Shannon from Banagher
County Offaly is bordered to the west by the River Shannon, Ireland’s longest river. Cruising the Shannon is a wonderful way to explore this amazing inland waterway.
The River Shannon meanders through magnificent countryside, with many historic towns built along its banks.
From the town of Banagher, you can rent a boat and decide whether to head north or south on the river. Heading north you can visit Shannonbridge, Clonmacnoise, Athlone, and Portumna Castle.
Heading south you’ll visit Lough Derg, Holy Island and the town of Killaloe.
The Bog of Allen
Offaly is home to a portion of the Bog of Allen, Ireland’s largest peat or turf bogland. Turf production has drawn to a close as Ireland fights climate change.
For decades turf or peat was harvested from the Bog of Allen and used to produce electricity.
But Ireland has made a bold move and is replacing turf as an energy source.
The Bog of Allen and outher peatlands in Ireland will be restored to become carbon dioxide reservoirs that support the environment and surrounding ecosystems.
Croghan Hill is not very high, just 768 feet, but it rises from the flat land of the Bog of Allen in County Offaly. This hill is the remains of an extinct volcano.
It’s well worth a climb, because it commands extensive views of Ireland’s midland counties. It stands just north of the small village of Croghan.
On the summit you’ll find a stone marker. A sculpture reminds people that this hill was once a volcano.
This mystical hill is thought to be a Bronze Age burial site.
It is believed that there was once a church on top of the hill in the time of Saint Patrick, where a Bishop MacCaille lived.
Local legends also associate the hill with Saint Brigid.
Slieve Bloom Mountains
Whether you’re interested in biking, hiking, equestrian pursuits, angling, bird watching or just taking scenic drives, then you’ll find plenty to do in the Slieve Bloom Mountains.
There are many beautiful walking trails. The Cadamstown Trail and Kinnity Forest Trail are the two many ones in County Offaly.
The Slive Bloom Mountain website is a wonderful resource for anyone planning on touring the area.
The Offaly Way
The Offaly Way is a marked walking trail that is about 26 miles that links the Slieve Bloom Way to the Slí Mór Way (pronounced shlee more), and that crosses the Grand Canal Way.
Ireland is home to many signposted walking trails and is truly a hiker’s dream. Offaly boasts many walking trails.This route passes over a fairly flat landscape so it’s not a difficult walk.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s photographic tour of County Offaly.
You’ll find lots of helpful information on the Visit Offaly website.
This inland county may not be the first to spring to mind when planning a trip to Ireland, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s so much to see and do, it truly is one of Ireland’s hidden gems.
Thanks for following my recipes and ramblings.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad –Irish American Mom
Pronunciation – slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad – rhymes with parade
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