On the second leg of his Irish Odyssey, Travel Editor Neil Sowerby enjoys splendid food and lodging at The Wineport, while exploring ancient monastic and boozing haunts...
ST CIARAN was partial to a drop of the red stuff. He was educated in France – and so was his palate. Spiritual heir to St Patrick, hermit for a spell, survivor of Viking raids on the Monastery he created at Clonmacnoise, this wine-loving Irishman was slain by a plague on the banks of the Shannon at only 30.
'Apparently, a whisper carries from one side of the door to the other, allowing lepers to confess their sins without infecting the priests'
Miracles were attributed to Abbot Ciaran – lots of bringing back to life and that – but a comparable marvel, in the chaos of the sixth century, was the regular arrival of his precious barrels from Bordeaux. I like to think of him, swaddled in rough-spun robes against the Celtic mists, travelling up river to the perfect landing place he’d found – on the reedy edge of Lough Ree.
It became known as The Wineport. Today that’s the name of a fabulous restaurant-with-rooms on the spot. Naturally the wine list is epic in homage. This former boathouse was reborn as a simple eaterie in 1993 and has grown organically into a lakefront boardwalk of cedar-clad lodgings.
But before settling into its hospitable embrace we felt we had to make the pilgrimage to Clonmacnoise – one of Ireland’s most important sites. A boat journey was possible but we were already booked in for a cruise to that metropolis of Middle Ireland, Athlone, so we drove the 20 miles.
They were tough, they had to be, those Dark Ages monks. I’m judging that by the level of Goretex and fleece penetration during our tour of the “ecclesiastical city” on its windswept tump above the marshy, corncrake-haunted Shannon Callows. It was once an important crossroads, hence the scale of the development. Inside the boundary wall there are early churches, round towers and graves in abundance – and in remarkably good nick considering the elements.
Between the 7th and 12 centuries, before its inevitable decline, this place was a beacon of hope, a bastion of learning. Scholars came to learn here; kings to be buried. Most of what we see today is from that time, post wattle and daub. Worth the visit alone are three principal high crosses inside the museum (those outside are replicas). I particularly liked the Cross Of The Scriptures, its carved panels depicting the arrest of Jesus, the Crucifixion the Last Judgement.
The biggest building is the ruined early 10th century Cathedral, its glory the much later carved Gothic doorway featuring St Francis and St Patrick. Apparently, a whisper carries from one side of the door to the other, allowing lepers to confess their sins without infecting the priests. A westerly was howling too much for us to test the theory (the confession, not the infection).
In truth,this area of Longford, Westmeath and Offaly is not Ireland at it most spectacular. Its charms are quieter. A five-mile train trip round the Blackwater Bog is hardly white knuckle stuff, but the Clonmacnoise and West Offaly Railway (spring and summer only), just outside Shannonbridge, takes you to the heart of this quintessential Irish element. If you need to cement your knowledge of bogland’s contribution to both energy supply and conservation of flora, fauna and birdlife, cross over into Co Kildare and visit Peatland World at Lullymore.
Further south of Shannonbridge along the N62 is Birr. It’s an attractive Georgian to town to wander about, but the main reason to visit is Birr Castle. It’s privately owned, so you’ll only see its exterior, but the 50 acres of parkland are gorgeous and don’t miss The Great Telescope.
In the early 1840s, the Third Earl of Rosse designed and built the largest telescope in the world – and it remained so for some 70 years. With it, he discovered the spiral nature of some of the galaxies, and from 1845-1914, anyone wishing to witness this phenomenon had to come to Birr. It is is arguably the largest historic scientific instrument still working today. (www.birrcastle.com).
Back at Wineport, we ventured out into Goldsmith Country, along the eastern side of Lough Ree, so called because of its association with Oliver Goldsmith, the 18th century writer best known for his play, She Stoops To Conquer. His anti-enclosure poem, The Deserted Village, was apparently inspired by Glasson (“Sweet Auburn” in the poem), the nearest village to our base.There’s precious little to see, even following the Lough Ree Trail booklet, but it’s a pleasant rolling landscape of hedgerow and fuschsia.
Grogan’s in Glasson is a cosy bar offering good seafood, but it’s way second best to Wineport, where chef Cathal Moran’s upfront treatment of well-sourced ingredients is a delight. Lamb’s from Slaney Valley, game from Co Clare’s Dromoland Estate ans bee from a local farm in County Westmeath.
From our candlelit meal overlooking the Lough I particularly enjoyed the signature starter of roast crown of local wild pigeon, creamed wild mushrooms & potato rosti,while the mussels from Kilmore Quay were exemplary.
Room with a view at WineportEarlier it had been hard to tear ourselves away from the cosy Bollinger Bar (or in my wife’s case, the rooftop hot tub), but sunset on the balcony of Cantenac (all rooms are named after wine regions or makers) with its views of bobbing ducks and distant shores was irresistible.
The four star lodgings are modern and upmarket functional, given solidity and class by top quality wood features, fine sandstone bathrooms and much quirky decor, usually involving cat figures. Owners Ray Byrne and Jane English and manager Norma Wilson run a tight ship – almost literally. The urge is to jump on a boat, which we did next day.
The private-hire Barracuda vessel, Sea Monster, was bound for Athlone. Skipper Terry Benson was a canny inland sea dog, endeavouring to convince us of the perils of our route south on those days, such as this, when the Shannon was in full spate. Lough Ree is a sprawling expansion of the great river, dotted with islands home to monastic ruins. Hare Island, one of the largest, has yielded large amounts of Viking treasure.
We thought Terry was continuing in whimsical vein when he told us of his father Larry’s regular Thursday and Sunday traditional music sessions for 30 years until his death, in Sean’s – Athlone’s and reputedly Ireland’s oldest bar. We’d see a portrait of the bearded fiddle legend above the piano.
And there it was (Google late confirmed everything) as we sampled the Guinness in pleasantly shabby surroundings after visiting Athlone Castle Museum with it mementos of native son, the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack. Athlone’s a bustling place, awash with technological initiatives, but this little “Left Bank” is a gem of a district.
I liked the sweep of Athlone’s riverfront, the greyness broken by the vivid dayglo colours the Irish love to daub their buildings with. We had lunched across the broad Shannon at the Olive Grove – great views and fine Med-influenced food with the bonus of a bottle of Dungarvan Black Rock Stout from Waterford, a stunning craft brewery alternative to the Big G.
All was well. A contemplative glass of wine awaited us back in Wineport. Not by the barrel load, alas. A local holy fellow, in Sean’s, regaled us with one of the tales surrounding St Ciaran, our Loughside lodging’s tutelary presence. Seems best to close with a miracle.
King Aengus of Munster had seven minstrels whose songs about dead heroes pleased him. These minstrels were one day murdered by his enemies. They threw the bodies into the waters of a bog and hung their harps on a tree.
Aengus mourned the loss. But St Ciaran informed him that the identity of the murderers and the place of the killing had been revealed to him. The king accompanied the saint to the spot. After Kieran had fasted a day on bread and water, the bog went dry, and he and Aengus saw the seven bodies of the songsters lying in the mud.
Kieran then prayed that they might come back to life. Although a month dead, all seven arose, their lives fully restored. Taking their harps, they thanked their benefactors with a recital of their sweetest songs.
The music’s in the air and in the blood around here. Seans has sessions most nights.
Emerald Experiences: Wineport Lodge
Wineport Lodge is part of Emerald Experiences; a new collection of stylish hotels and resorts across Ireland. Enjoy a two-night wellness break for £220 per person sharing at this lakeshore retreat, including an hour’s spa treatment for each guest, followed by a dip in the rooftop hot tub, breakfast in bed each day and a delicious dinner in the famed restaurant one evening. To book visit www.emeraldexperiences.co.uk.
For details of Wineport Lodge visit www.wineport.ie.
For more information about holidays and visiting Ireland see www.Ireland.com or call 0800 039 7000.
Barracuda Lough Ree boat trips: www.barracudaboattrips.com.
Sean’s Bar, Athlone: http://seansbar.lightholderproductions.com
The Olive Grove, 12 Custume Place, Athlone +353 90 647 6946 www.theolivegrove.ie.
Grogans of Glasson: http://grogansofglasson.com.
Neil Sowerby flew from Manchester to Dublin with Ryanair. www.ryanair.com and chose car hire from Hertz www.hertz.co.uk.
Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T2 Long Stay. Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks – low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link.
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