Travel: LOUGH Stock & Barrel; PAUL McDAID ON A WEEKEND OF DISCOVERY DEEP IN THE HEART OF MID-IRELAND
Byline: PAUL McDAID
THERE'S something uninspiring about the words middle or mid. They conjure up images of something not quite the full the measure, of safety and assurance rather than excitement and adventure.
So as we set of for a weekend in Mid-Ireland, or Ely O'Carroll country as it's known, I didn't expect my preconceptions to be challenged - let alone dismantled.
A four-hour drive saw us in the spiritual heart of the region - Birr, Co Offaly.
Famed for its Georgian buildings nestled among elegant streets and squares, Birr is part market town, part heritage site but all charm.
We based ourselves in the County Arms Hotel, a grand 19th century building that has been brought bang up to the 21st century by owner Willie Loughnane.
I've been to many hotels which claim to be family-run, but given Willie has three of his sons in the business, we can safely say The County Arms is the real deal.
It's big enough to host 124 competitors for the All-Ireland Pool Championship, yet it retains a warm atmosphere more usually found in a cosy B&B.
Willie has just built a multi- million euro health and fitness centre complete with pool, gym and everything else you need to convince yourself that a weekend stay here isn't just an exercise in unadulterated decadence.
And after that drive from Belfast, an hour in the hydro pool and jacuzzi revives the weary traveller before a weekend of exploration and discovery.
Although the sign over the door may describe Willie as the proprietor, I think his real talent is creating the friendly, relaxed atmosphere that permeates the entire hotel.
We had dinner of traditional hearty fare of Irish beef, colcannon and fresh veg in the conservatory restaurant which overlooks the ornamental Victorian garden.
And the food, like the service and ambience, was exemplary.
So, on a beautifully early spring morning, we were off to discover what else the area had to offer.
A stroll into the town took us past St Brendan's Church, which has stood majestically above the River Cancor since 1826.
Above its impressive Gothic facade, a latin inscription bears the legend "Pax". And peace and harmony must have been uppermost in the thoughts of the town's planners all those years ago.
Emmet Square, at the heart of Georgian Birr, is surrounded by the handsomely opulent buildings that sprang up as Birr became a thriving market town in the mid-19th century.
It's dominated by Dooley's, one of the oldest hotels in the area, that began refreshing coach travellers way back in 1776.
St John's Mall is another excellent example of the pleasures of Georgian street planning.
But no trip to Birr would be complete without a visit to its castle and the demesne and the remarkable story of the Parsons dynasty.
Driven by scientific discovery and a hunger for knowledge, the earls of played a key role in our understanding of astronomy, photography and mush else besides.
And still sitting proudly in the garden is the great telescope. Built in 1840s, it was the world's biggest telescope until 70 years ago and provided evidence that distant stellar objects were in fact other galaxies. And make sure you save time to wander round the magnificent gardens.
Birr doesn't have the industry of its near neighbours Tullamore, Nenagh or Athlone, and as such the place exudes the pristine cleanliness of your Sunday best clothes. …