During the boom years of economic growth in Ireland, from the mid-1990s to 2008, newly built motorways bypassed many small Midlands towns. But for a slice of authentic Ireland, this region is worth lingering in. That’s not to say its pleasures are all workaday; visitors can sample first-class food and rural peace in spa hotels or farmhouses, experience festivals, walk or cycle through lush countryside, and follow well-developed tourist trails—all in an area where life moves at a different pace.
The flat plains of the center of Ireland are made up of elegant places rich in delights that attract the culturally curious. Art galleries and heritage museums cluster around the town centers of Birr, Athlone, Tullamore, and Cavan. You won’t find many international coffee chains or behemoth brands, but you will discover age-old industries such as lace making, crystal making, and whiskey making. Slow down and appreciate the gentle pace of time-burnished G&G (Grocery & Guinness) pubs, old-school barbers, or hardware and drapery stores complete with high shelves, long counters, and garrulous owners. With blink-and-you’ll-miss-them one-tractor villages, half the fun is in driving down a back road and stumbling on a teddy-bear shop or craft workers sculpting wood. Spend enough time in the region and you might even get to recognize the difference between a Cavan twang and a Tipperary brogue.
The big set pieces are here, too. Among them are Clonmacnoise, Ireland's most important monastic ruins; the gorgeous gardens of Birr Castle, now open to the public for tours for the first time in its history; and some of Ireland's finest Anglo-Irish houses, including Strokestown Park House and Emo Court. As for scenic pleasures, this region has its fair share of Ireland's 800 bodies of water, and much of the landscape is blanket bog. The River Shannon, one of the longest rivers in Europe and the longest in Britain or Ireland, bisects the Midlands from north to south, piercing a series of loughs (lakes): Lough Allen, Lough Ree, and Lough Derg. The Royal Canal and the Grand Canal cross the Midlands from east to west, ending in the Shannon north and south of Lough Ree. The Midlands comprises nine counties: Tipperary, Laois (pronounced "leash"), Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim, Cavan, and Monaghan.
Tourism authorities have hatched a plot to entice more visitors to the Midlands with the launch by Fáilte Ireland of a new €2 million program called Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. The campaign, which extends through all the Midland counties, is a major drive to help promote the region's natural delights through what marketing gurus describe as "the power of quiet," "slow tourism," and "great escapes." Newly opened cycle routes, scenic walkways, forest paths, and horseback riding on Celtic trails have been put in place to tap into the relaxed rhythm of this oft-neglected area. Center stage is the vital "Broad Majestic Shannon" (as the Pogues had it in their song), whether through cruising, swimming, fishing, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding.