A History Lovers Guide to County Westmeath

by Regan Kelly

cAs many people may well know, Ireland has been a culturally vibrant place for centuries. Gaelic Ireland was rich in songs, monuments, religion, aristocracy and folklore. From Kings and Castles to Monolithic Tombs, our ancestors have left behind a world in which very little is known, or has been explored. The history of this land is often complex and mind-boggling, but it often surprises us.

Gaelic Ireland was split up into five kingdoms, Leinster, Munster, Connaught, Ulster and Meath. The former four kingdoms are now used to refer to provinces. However, the Kingdom of Meath is often forgotten about. Meath is of course its own county nowadays, but it really was the size of a province in the past. Meath included the counties of Westmeath, Longford and even parts of Offaly. The province and its king enjoyed a booming trade, culture and overall life, and become quite powerful.  The area situated around the Boyne valley in modern-day Meath is known worldwide for displaying ancient Irish cultures, through sites like Newgrange and Tara. Nowadays, we have two Meaths, and the only reason for this is King Henry’s fear, that the Kingdom of Meath was becoming too powerful. So, he split the two counties up in 1543.

Growing up in the midlands, I often took for granted the multitude of historical sites within the area, sometimes the region is often considered a bypassed land, with not much to do. However, when analysed, these counties are heaving with cultural and historically significant sites, from the Gaelic period to the Victorian era. Unfortunately, I have always felt that this county has been blatantly ignored in our national narrative here in Ireland, this county has stories to tell, and as long as there are ears to listen for listening, we will shout them from the rooftops! There is no shortage of historical sites in Westmeath, so here is a list comprised of some of the most interesting, all conducted by a local!

The Hill of Uisneach

Located between the towns of Mullingar and Athlone, nestled right next to the Village of Loughnavalley, is the Hill of Uisneach. This site is not only hugely important to the people of Westmeath, but it is a nationally treasured site. The hill gives us an interesting insight into Gaelic Ireland, being the symbolic and ancient centre of the Island. In reality, it is actually quite close to the geographic centre of the Island. This site is said to have been a gathering place for high Gaelic nobility and is where the ancient festival of Bealtaine was celebrated. In fact, this festival tradition is kept alive to this day, through the “Festival of Fires” which celebrates pagan and ancient Celtic beliefs. The site is bustling with neolithic tombs, Medieval roads, Burial mounds and wells. So, If you want to learn more about what it was like to be a high roller in Gaelic society, make sure to visit the Hill of Uisneach!

Athlone Castle

Athlone Castle

Located in the famous old town of Athlone, this castle is renowned nationwide for its historical importance and its insight into Irish history. The castle was originally built in the 1200s, marking one of the many entrances to the province of Connaught. Although, there may have been an earlier castle on the site, as way back as the 1000s. The castle has many notable features throughout, where visitors can explore what life was like for the town’s early Norman settlers. Nowadays, the castle has benefited from a multi-million euro investment. This includes a new multi-sensory unit, which really can place you back in time!

Fore Abbey

Moving on to the complete opposite side of the County, we cannot describe Westmeath without taking a look at Fore Abbey. Located within the picturesque little village of Fore, in the Northern Part of the county. The Village itself can be seen as a tourist attraction, with just 1 shop, tourist office, school and pub. The main attraction, however, is the massive Monastery ruin, which takes up much of the village’s landscape. The monastery was founded in 630CE, by Saint Feichin, and was the home of up to 2000 students and 300 monks. Of course, visitors must familiarise themselves with the local legends. Like the Seven Wonders of Fore! This site can be wandered around freely and has been fantastically restored.

St Brigid’s Well

Located in the sleepy hills just outside the town of Mullingar, this fantastic little area has some of the most relaxing vibes in all of the country. Neatly placed a short walk from one of the many lakes that inspired the county’s nickname, “The Lake County”. This well incorporates part of an ancient spring, where experts believe, local Celtic peoples worshipped the goddess Brigid. They also believe that it took place between the spring equinox and the winter solstice. Nowadays, the site takes a more Christian feel, with stations of the cross, a small chapel and a statue of Brigid. Although, when inside this little area, one cannot help but feel connected to the once vibrant culture that is associated with this land. With picnic benches and areas to rest, this is the perfect little spot to take a break and take in the fresh country air!

Belvedere House Gardens and Park

A trip to Westmeath couldn’t be completed without visiting, Belvedere House Gardens and Park! This beautiful piece of land has an unrivalled amount of activities to do, or you can even just sit back and enjoy the stunning views, for which Lake County is renowned worldwide. Belvedere House is a fantastic Georgian Villa dating back to the 1740s, and visitors can take a tour of this beautiful house, to see how the other half lived in the Victorian era. Located near the house is the Walled Garden, which is renowned nationwide, as it contains some of Ireland’s best selection of rare plants. Through one of their guided tours, visitors can explore the history of the area, including the famous story of the “Jealous Wall”. After all of this, you can sit down and have a bite to eat in their on-site cafe!

Sean's Bar - the oldest bar in Ireland

Sean’s Bar

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sit and have a pint, or some food, in one of the oldest businesses in Ireland? Well then, look no further than Sean’s Bar in Athlone! This fantastic little pub acts as a meeting place for tourists and locals alike, and has been serving the area since before 900AD! This is reflected inside the pub, with its decor and aura celebrating its place in Irish History. There is even a list, where each previous owner of the bar can be traced back hundreds of years. SO why not stop off and have a pint in Ireland’s Oldest Pub and Business?

Killua Castle

Killua Castle

Although bordering and only a few short minutes from County Meath, Killua Castle is on our side of the border! This is a fantastic castle and has been beautifully restored from ruins in recent times. The lands were granted in 1667 to Benjamin Chapman, and a castle was built. However, the original castle was demolished and a new one built on the same site in 1780. After a series of successions and the castle being passed hands through lords and their families, it was sold in 1949. What is also interesting about this site is, that it is credited with being the first site in which Walter Raleigh planted potatoes in Ireland after they were used in South America. So, why not take a trip down to Killua Castle and Immerse yourself in local folklore and history?

Kilbeggan Distillery

This is the perfect pit stop for any history lover, who is also partial to a dram! Kilbeggan Distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in Ireland and has been operating for 200 years. The site was originally owned by John Locke, and the distillery had been known as Lockes Distillery. This was a vibrant distillery and flourished in the local area, providing employment for the town and county. Like hundreds of other distilleries across Ireland, the facility reached a state of decline and shut its doors in the 1950s. Although, thanks to conservation work in the 1980s, it reopened as a museum and in 2007, finally reopened as a distillery. Almost everything has been restored to working order, including the old water wheel, and the steam engine! This is the perfect stop-off for any history lover, all in the centre of Westmeath.

Tullynally Castle

For a trip to the country like no other! This fantastic castle is located just outside the town of Castlepollard, which is around 20 minutes from Mullingar. The castle is steeped in history and has been a prominent figure in the town since it was built. The house has been owned by the Packenham family for over 350 years and boasts an impressive amount of tourists each year. it has 120 rooms and twelve acres of parkland and gardens. So if you love history and gardens, make sure to take a trip to Tullynally Castle and experience that natural beauty that Westmeath is known for!

Columb Barracks

What finer note to end it on than a piece of recent history! This magnificent barracks is one of the finest examples of forgotten history that the county has to offer, with stories galore. The barracks were originally built in the early 1800s and were recognised as being one of the finest military installations in Ireland at the time. Its size can only really be appreciated when inside the walls, one could argue that this barracks was a town within a town. Unfortunately, the barracks were forced to close in 2012, eradicating generations of military families in the town. Nowadays, there are some community organisations based inside, making use of the fantastic buildings. However, if you really want to explore the history, take a trip inside. One can experience time standing still, as most of the buildings haven’t been touched since its closure. There are also tours available, through local historians such as Ruth Illingworth. Enquiries can be made in the town’s tourist office, or even local businesses like the Greville Arms Hotel. So, what are you waiting for? If you are a true history lover, make your way down to Columb Barracks in Mullingar!

Of course, there is more to this county than Historical sites. However, these sites need to be recognised in a national context as being well worth a trip. From Victorian and Georgian houses, Parklands, Lakes, Castles, Bars and Distilleries, there really is something for all sorts of history lovers in Westmeath. The principal town and administrative capital of Mullingar, has a vibrant culture, nightlife, Sports and Historical scene. Located only a short 80km drive from Dublin, this town is easily accessible. With regular bus and train routes from the capital. From Mullingar, many of the smaller towns and villages can be reached, using the local Townlink Bus service. So, what are you waiting for? Westmeath is waiting for you to explore it, and who knows, you might never leave!