Birr: Navel of Ireland

The town of Birr, with its castle and 1950s shopfronts, isn't just pretty on the outside, it's also Ireland's beating heart, says Siobhan Mulholland
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The Independent Travel

There's a little-known dispute going on in Ireland. Well, it's more of a gentle neighbourly debate than a dispute, really. It's about where the geographical centre of the country is - its middle; which town or village is at the heart of the nation. Two places lay claim to the title: Athlone in County Westmeath where they are so confident about it that there's a sign saying "Welcome to the Heart of Ireland"; and 35 miles south, the town of Birr in County Offaly which also believes it's at the centre of things.

In Birr there is a large limestone rock, known as the "Seffin Stone", outside the town's Heritage Centre. It's thought to be the same stone known in ancient times as the Umbilicus Hiberniae - the "Navel of Ireland", and was used to mark Ireland's centre.

I'm siding with Birr on this one. I admit I'm biased in that I've never stepped foot in Athlone, and also somewhat impressionable - this being my first real visit to Ireland (despite my name).

Intuitively Birr feels right to me: in the Irish Midlands, a one-hour drive from Shannon airport on the west coast and about two hours from Dublin on the east. It's a meticulously laid out Georgian town - a tribute to 18th-century urban planning. Birr is a tasteful sort of place, genteel and quiet with elegant houses and an impressive castle and grounds. This is the type of place that, as you wander down the Main Street with three small children, wraps you in a mellow and welcoming embrace.

The centre of the town looks like it's been mocked up for a film shoot circa 1950s: all the shop-fronts are beautifully preserved - even the "Value" supermarket with its bright red signage has been subtly incorporated into the look of a bygone age. In this part of Birr there's no grocery chain screaming out at you with brash branding colours that don't just catch the eye but positively blind it to all else in the vicinity. Everything along these well-planned Georgian streets is contained, appropriate, and beautifully blended in.

The town walk takes 30-45 minutes if you don't stop at one of the many cafés and bars en route. We lunched at Emma's Café Deli on the Main Street; this being a comfortable, child friendly sort of place with sofas, and toys and displays of trendy deli groceries. The menu was cosmopolitan and contemporary: ciabattas and sun-dried tomatoes, lattes and mochas - all with 21st-century organic ingredients, of course. At a Friday lunchtime it was busy but not crowded, people came and went with no one seeming to get in the way of each other. The café, like the town, is not a place where you push, shove or glare at little children.

But the whole point of Birr, the reason it's on the tourist map as a stop-off point for those journeying through Ireland, is because of its castle. Birr Castle Demesne is an impressive place surrounded by huge gardens. That said, you can't actually go inside - standing in the grounds on the other side of a dried-up moat is the extent of it for the visitor. The castle and the grounds belong to the Parsons family, the Earls of Rosse, who have owned this impressive pile since 1620. And it makes you think, as you look at the imposing exterior of this family home, that these Rosses must have done well over the years - they've obviously managed to keep everything ticking over nicely.

There must be something clever about them because they haven't had to shunt all their personal belongings off into some tatty, leaky-roofed wing of the place and open up the rest for the hoi polloi to come and gawp at how the family lived in better days. Oh no, not the Parsons who, as you find out from the castle's "historic centre", are a family with many able ancestors.

The Parsons appear to have bred very clever 19th- and early 20th-century geeks - inventors and scientists who spent their time coming up with state-of -the-art technology. If they were alive today they would have probably designed the iPod or something similar.

The best and most famous example of their geekiness is a stonking great telescope on display in the middle of the castle grounds. When the original was built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in 1845 it was the largest in the world and remained so for three quarters of a century.

With this somewhat impressive piece of home entertainment equipment the 4th earl was able to carry out the first accurate measurement of the surface of the moon. At certain times each day visitors can see the telescope being put through its paces - the enormous tube going up in the air with its galleries coming out. Maintenance work prevented this happening on the day we visited but it is still impressive to see this massive and revolutionary example of 19th-century science in the middle of a field in the heart of rural Ireland.

In the castle gardens there is a large lake created out of a swamp by the 2nd earl who diverted the River Camcor through his back garden. And, as with everything associated with the Rosses, the gardens also have several record breaking features: 300-year-old box hedges which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, are the oldest in the world; the oldest wrought iron suspension bridge in Ireland; and dimensions which qualify the gardens for being the largest in the country.

We spent the night just around the corner from the castle at Walcot Manor: a Georgian townhouse which has also been owned by the same family for several generations. It's now run as a very tasteful and efficient B&B with a lovely old-fashioned feel to it - I'd be tempted to say circa 1950s again (give or take a few details like en-suite bathrooms, televisions in every bedroom and constant hot water).

From Birr you really can go anywhere. Look at the map and you will see that all roads lead from here: to Galway, Dublin, Limerick and Cork. Set in the middle of lush, green countryside, winding country lanes lead to all destinations. There is also a lot to do in the surrounding area; a 12-mile drive away from the town is the Slieve Bloom Mountains, a low-level range popular with walkers.

There are several routes suitable for children including a three-mile walk along the river at Glen Barrow. A mile outside Birr you find a riding centre and an Outdoor Education Centre which runs courses in kayaking, windsurfing and rock climbing. A half-hour drive away is the large and scenically stunning Lough Derg - a large lake well known in the area as a haven for boaties.

After a couple of nights on the shores of Lough Derg, we thought a suitable end to the holiday would be a trip to the west coast to spend a day by the sea. So we headed for Lahinch - a golfing and surfing resort. As a family we do neither, but a night's stop-over was all we were after on our journey back to Shannon Airport.

To get there we drove along many of the aforementioned nausea-inducing lanes. We stopped once to let a farmer herd his cows across the road and once to let our eldest out to be sick.

The route took us through green pastoral countryside and along roads lined with scores of shiny new houses bought and built from the gains of the "Celtic Tiger" - the massive economic boom Ireland has enjoyed in recent years. It seemed as if there was a new bungalow around every corner and a wide-fronted mansion at the top of every hill.

At Lahinch there is an impressive beach pounded by the powerful Atlantic Ocean and packed with surfers. We spent a lazy couple of hours dodging waves and knocking down sandcastles before heading to Mrs O'Brien's Kitchen. Here I was surprised to find my fellow diners were American, that pizza was clearly the best-seller on the menu and that our waitress was Polish. A very different experience to hanging out in the "authentic" heart of the nation - Birr.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Shannon airport is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from most UK airports, Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; www.aerlingus.com) from Heathrow and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Shannon, in economy class, is £1.15. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

VISITING THERE

Birr Castle Demesne (00 353 579 120 336; www.birrcastle.com). Birr Heritage Centre (00 353 579 120 110). Birr Outdoor Education Centre, Roscrea Road (00 353 579 120 029; www.oec.ie/birr).

STAYING THERE

Walcot B&B, Rosse Row, Birr (00 353 579 121 247; email: walcot@hotmail.com). Doubles from €90 (£64), including breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Emma's Café Deli, 31 Main Street, Birr (00 353 579 125 678).

Mrs O'Brien's Kitchen, Main Street, Lahinch (00 353 657 081 020).

MORE INFORMATION

County Offaly Tourism: 0800 783 8359; www.countyoffaly.com. Lahinch Tourism: 00 353 657 082 082; www.lahinchfailte.com

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