At the heart of the old Ely O'Carroll territory, Offaly is Ireland's most sky-minded county. In the grounds of Birr Castle, there's the Parsons family's famous restored 1845-vintage 1.83m astronomical telescope – rated one of the Seven Wonders of Ireland - through which the 3rd Earl of Rosse observed his discovery of the spiral nebulae. And in Tullamore, there's a thriving amateur Astronomical Society whose members point out that the wide clear skies of Offaly have encouraged the regular observation of heavenly bodies since at least 1057 AD, when astronomy was the province of moon-minded monks.
On a more modern note, the Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre is housed in the restored 1897 canal-side bonded warehouse, which formerly stored the famous local whiskey. The Centre explores Tullamore’s distilling, canal and urban history with entertaining style. Style is also the theme of the new County Hall in Tullamore, which has been awarded the An Taisce Sustainable Building accolade.
Back in Birr meanwhile, the restored gardens of Birr Castle are an added attraction. And it’s also in the heart of historic hunting country. Offaly is home to the Ormonde, which may not be Ireland's largest or richest hunt, "but it's the oldest and undoubtedly the best." Once upon a time, they invited the neighbouring County Galway Hunt for a shared meet, and afterwards the carousing in Dooly's Hotel in Birr reached such a hectic pitch that the hotel was joyously torched by the visitors. Dooley's was rebuilt to fulfill its central role in Birr, and the hunt from across the Shannon has been known as the Galway Blazers ever since.
The Grand Canal finally reaches the great river at Shannon Harbour in Offaly, after crossing Ireland from Dublin through Tullamore, and on the river itself, waterborne travellers find that Offaly affords the opportunity of visiting Clonmacnoise, where the remains of an ancient monastic university city give pause for thought. In the south of the county, the Slieve Bloom Mountains rise attractively above Offaly's farmland and bogs. These are modest heights, as they attain just 526 m on the peak of Arderin. However, it is their understated charms which particularly appeal, and in the Slieve Blooms we find Ireland's first organised system of gites, the French concept whereby unused farmhouses have been restored to a comfortable standard for self-catering visitor accommodation.
Nestling in a valley of the Slieve Blooms is the unspoilt village of Kinnitty, where Offaly's quality of life is most in evidence. And in the far east of the county, where Offaly marches with Kildare, we find Clonbulloge, top title holder in Offaly in the Tidy Towns awards, a pretty place on the banks of the neat stream known as the Figile River. Yet in Offaly they’re not afraid of life’s more earthy joys – Annaharvey Farm at Tullamore has found itself a special niche in the annual national ploughing context.
Local Attractions and Information
Banagher Cloghan Castle (15C Tower House) 0509 51650
Birr Castle Demesne & Historic Science Centre 0509 20336/22154
Birr Tourism Information 0509 20110
Clonmacnoise Visitor & Interpretive Centre 090 9674195
Edenderry Canal Festival (June) 046 9732071
Shannonbridge Clonmacnoise & West Offaly Railway 090 9674114
Slieve Bloom Rural Development Society 0509 37299
Tullamore Offaly Historical Society 0506 21421
Tullamore Offaly Tourist Council 0506 52566
Tullamore Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre 0506 25015
Tullamore Tourism Information 0506 52617