With its territory traversed by the rail and road links from Dublin to Cork and Limerick, Laois is often glimpsed only fleetingly by inter-city travellers. But as with any Irish county, it is a wonderfully rewarding place to visit as soon as you move off the main roads. For Laois is the setting for Emo Court and Heywood, two of the great gardens of Ireland at their most impressive.
And it’s a salutary place to visit, too. In the eastern part, between Stradbally and Portlaoise, there's the Rock of Dunamase, that fabulous natural fortress which many occupiers inevitably assumed to be impregnable. Dunamase's remarkably long history of fortifications and defences and sieges and eventual captures has a relevance and a resonance for all times and all peoples and all places.
But there's much more to Laois than mournful musings on the ultimate vanity of human ambitions. With its border shared with Carlow along the River Barrow, eastern Laois comfortably reflects Carlow's quiet beauty. To the northwest, we find that Offaly bids strongly to have the Slieve Bloom Mountains thought of as an Offaly hill range, but in fact there's more of the Slieve Blooms in Laois than Offaly, and lovely hills they are too. And though the River Nore may be thought of as quintessential Kilkenny, long before it gets anywhere near Kilkenny it is quietly building as it meanders across much of Laois, gathering strength from the weirdly-named Delour, Tonet, Gully, Erskina and Goul rivers on the way.
Along the upper reaches of the Nore in west Laois, the neat little village of Castletown has long been a tidy place. Castletown has for the past seventeen years climbed steadily up the rankings in the annual Tidy Towns contest. Having been the tidiest village in all Ireland in 2001, Castletown repeated the performance and then some in 2002, and at the annual awards ceremony in Dublin Castle, it was announced that Castletown was both the tidiest village, and the national overall winner in all categories. This high standard has been maintained, and the most recent National Awards ceremony saw Castletown very much in the frame.
Local Attractions and Information
Abbeyleix Abbeyleix Heritage House
+353 (0)502 31653
Abbeyleix Sensory Gardens
+353 (0)502 31325
Ballinakill Heywood (Lutyens gardens)
+353 (0)502 33563
Donaghmore Castletown House Open Farm +353 (0)505 46415
Donaghmore Donaghmore Workhouse Museum
+353 (0)505 46212
Emo Emo Court
(Gandon house & gardens) +353 (0)502 26573
Portlaois Dunamaise Theatre & Arts Centre
+353 (0)502 63356
Portlaoise Tourist Information
+353 (0)502 21178
Slieve Bloom Slieve Bloom Rural Development Assoc. +353 (0)509 37299
Stradbally National Steam Traction Rally
(August) +353 (0)502 25444