Planning Your Time
The Midlands is a slice of old Ireland. Spend a few days traveling around the unspoiled countryside with its traditional hay meadows and you will come across ancient humped bridges, handsome square tower-houses, and curious-looking castles.
If You Have Three Days
If you come from the Greater Dublin area (the Midlands is easily accessible from the city in less than two hours) or surrounding counties such as Wicklow and Kildare, then a grand kickoff to a tour is at Portarlington to visit the nearby Emo Court and Gardens, a large country house designed by James Gandon, the architect responsible for much of Georgian Dublin. Head on to Tullamore, stopping at the elegantly restored 19th-century bonded warehouse of Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey Distillery (based in the heritage center). Consider an overnight in Tullamore, which has a good selection of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
On Day 2 drive across to Birr for a morning's exploration of its Georgian architecture and a wander around the castle grounds. The formal gardens contain the tallest box hedges in the world; in spring you will see a dazzling display of flowering magnolias, cherries, crab apples, and naturalized narcissi. Guided tours of the Gothic Revival castle, opened to the public in 2013 for the first time in its 400-year history, take place in the summer, pulling back a curtain into a previously unseen world.
A half-hour drive takes you to Clonmacnoise, Ireland's most important monastic settlement, where it's worthwhile to join a guided tour that will give you a sense of the place and its past in less than an hour. The next day head for Athlone on the River Shannon and walk around the quirky Left Bank, full of crafts and antiques shops as well as secondhand-book shops, cafés, and Sean's Bar (which lays claim, sometimes disputed, to be Ireland's oldest). You could easily spend an hour or two touring the exhibits in the wonderfully restored Athlone Castle as well as visiting the nearby Luan Gallery. Make time for a two-hour cruise along the Shannon to get a different perspective on the Midlands.