By my reckoning, Mullingar (An Muileann gCearrr), County Westmeath, is as good a place as any to commence a tour of Central Ireland. The charismatic market town, one of the biggest in the Irish Midlands, is easily accessible from Dublin on the newly resurfaced N4 (Sligo Road). Founded in the 12th century by Dominican monks, Mullingar has boomed in recent years, bringing a wealth of new restaurants, pubs, art galleries and nightclubs to the town. Walled and fortified by Dutch King Billy's drum-beating soldiers during the Williamite Wars (1689 - 1691), Mullingar's rise to its present status as Westmeath's county town began with the arrival of the Royal Canal in the 1740s, providing the Midlands with a direct and navigable route with Dublin City. The Cathedral, Town Hall, Military Museum and Market Museum are all worthy of a visit.
A curious diversion from here would be to follow the Athlone Road (R390) for 8 miles to the Hill of Uisneach (pronounced "Ushna"), a site of great significance during pagan times. On May Day - the first day of summer, otherwise known as Beltane - the great clans of the Midlands would assemble here on this 620 foot high hill to celebrate the coming of summer. I wonder if their hopes of sustained sunshine for more than 3 days in a row were any more successful than our own hopeless prayers today. There are wonderful views from the top, extending over much of the Central Plains, and known today as Goldsmith Country after the 18th century playwright and poet, Oliver Goldsmith, who was born near here. A cat-shaped cairn on the south-west of the summit, known as the Stone of the Divisions, marks the point where the boundaries of the ancient provinces of Ireland met. Eight miles from here, near Glassan (the beautiful "Village of the Roses"), scientists have established another hill to be the geographical centre of Ireland. If that's true, then you've got to hand it to those old pagan heroes. They might not have had satellites and calculators but between building passage graves that correspond to solstices and having a stab at locating Ireland's central pivot, they make us 21st century bright sparks look uncommon dumb.
Taking the zippy N52 south from Mullingar through cattle-rearing pasturelands brings you to the island-studded waters of Lough Ennell. This six mile long expanse encompasses an area of tremendous beauty along its forested shores. Of particular note are the majestic stately homes and demesnes of the Rochfort family - Bloomfield, Tudenham Hall, Middleton Park and Belverdere, the latter complete with its intriguing Jealous Wall. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral and author of "Gulliver's Travels", spent some time here in the 18th century; his association is now recalled in the name of the Lilliput Adventure Centre on the southern tip of the lough.
Staying on the N52, Tyrellspass marks the setting of a celebrated Irish victory when a small posse under Captian Richard Tyrrell pulverised a large English army during the Elizabethan Wars (1592 - 1601). Continue south for Kilbeggan (Cill Bheagáin), home to a popular racecourse and the famous Locke's Distillery, one of the world's oldest licensed whiskey distilleries.
From Kilbeggan one has two choices - you can either head west for Athlone or south through the splendid boglands of County Offaly to the county town of Tullamore (Tulach Mhór). The latter is certainly worth visiting if only to enjoy the story of Tullamore's most unexpected hour when, in 1785, a hot-air balloon exploded over the town destroying every building except the pub. As it happened, the explosion was of benefit to the citizens of Tullamore who were thus able to design an all new and improved town around the Grand Canal which reached the settlement 13 years later. Like Kilbeggan, Tullamore prospered as a brewing and distilling centre, producing connoisseur's favourites like Irish Mist liqueur and Tullamore DEW. Local attractions include the ruins of Durrow Abbey, where the 13th century Anglo-Norman adventurer, Hugh de Lacy, finally met his maker in the form of an unhappy employee with an axe, and Charleviile Castle, possibly the finest Gothic Revival mansion in Ireland. More