Characterised by lakes and pastures grazed by beef cattle, Westmeath has many attractions, ranging from bucolic lakeside vistas and the miraculous Fore Valley, to the country's oldest pub in the confident county town, Athlone. The rivers and lakes attract a steady stream of visitors.
Studded with more than 5000 megalithic tombs, ring forts and mounds, and home to a couple of excellent museums, enigmatic Roscommon is a haven for history buffs and shrouded in myth. Add well-preserved mansions and some wonderful monastic ruins and it's hard to understand why the county sees so few visitors.
Split almost in two by Lough Allen, locals say that land in Leitrim (Liatroim) is sold by the gallon, and they’re only half joking. Leitrim suffered hugely from emigration because of its terrible soil fertility. Even today it has the smallest population (around 25, 800) of all the counties. On the flip side, it has the most pubs per capita in Ireland.
Mullingar & Around
A prosperous regional town, Mullingar hums with the activity of locals going about their daily lives. Nearby there are fish-filled lakes and a fantastical mansion with an odious history. James Joyce visited the town in his youth and it appears in both Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939). Restored sections of the Royal Canal extend in either direction from Mullingar.
Gloriously placed overlooking the River Shannon, Clonmacnoise is one of Ireland's most important ancient monastic cities. The site is enclosed in a walled field and contains several early churches, high crosses, round towers and graves in astonishingly good condition. There is an appealing air of loneliness and mystery here.
Birr is one of the umissable towns in the Midlands. Elegant Georgian buildings with candy-coloured facades are overlooked by a grande dame of a castle. There is excellent accommodation, as well as spirited nightlife. Despite its appeal, Birr remains off the beaten track and you can enjoy its delights without jostling with the crowds.
Little-visited Laois (pronounced leash) is often overlooked as drivers zoom past to the south and west. Away from the main roads, though, is this hidden corner of Ireland, with pretty towns like Abbeyleix, making a perfect daytime stop, and the dramatic Slieve Bloom Mountains, which get you right off the beaten track. There's plenty of local information at www.laoistourism.
A solidly agrarian region, County Longford is a quiet place of low hills and pastoral scenes. It has few tourist sights but is a haven for anglers who come for the superb fishing around Lough Ree and Lanesborough. Longford suffered massive emigration during the Famine and it has never really recovered.
Abbeyleix (abbey-leeks) is a classic heritage town with a Georgian market house, graceful terraced housing and a wide leafy main street. The town grew up around a 12th-century Cistercian monastery, but problems with frequent flooding led to local 18th-century landowner Viscount de Vesci levelling the village and creating a new, planned estate town in the present location.
Tullamore, Offaly's county town, is a bustling place with a pleasant setting on the Grand Canal. The town is the famous namesake for Tullamore Dew whiskey. It was a big deal locally when the distillery opened a new factory on the edge of town, 60 years after it had shifted all production to County Tipperary.