Murphy's lore

Jon Winter discovers a load of bull surrounding the wonders of Westmeath in Ireland
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The Independent Travel
On a hill at the geographical centre of Ireland there's a huge rock, the shape of which is said to resemble a pouncing cat. Fairly difficult to miss you might think - and you'd probably be right, if it wasn't for the hill's aggressive residents.

Historically known as the Stone of Divisions, this topographical bulls- eye once marked the meeting point of Ireland's five ancient provinces: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Meath. But as modern Ireland developed and boundaries were redrawn, Meath was demoted, and today the stone (commonly referred to as the Catstone) has become just a monolithic curiosity on the Hill of Uisneach in the little-visited county of Westmeath.

With a reasonable map, the hill itself is easily located on the road between Athlone and Mullingar. Once found, instinct says head straight for the highest point from where the Catstone should be visible, but after traipsing across a patchwork of fields and over fences to the summit, I couldn't see the stone - even though you can see two-thirds of Ireland on a clear day.

Unable to pinpoint the Catstone, your eyes wander across Westmeath's soft, green farmscape and out to the hazy infinity of neighbouring counties: Galway, Laois, Longford, Monaghan. For a moment you ponder the hill's impressive resume, detailed on a board by the roadside. Uisneach: seat of high kings; site of Druidic Fire Cult; Twin of Tara (the hill where ancient high kings of Ireland were crowned); centre of ancient Ireland; site of St Patrick's church; site of the Bealtaine Festival. Few physical traces remain of this illustrious career, although acknowledgement for the hill's significance can be found in Uisneach stories and legends.

Among the more engrossing of these yarns is the tale of Tuirill Picreo, a mythical figure who fell ill as a consequence of his sons killing Cain, the father of a Celtic king. It seemed no one could heal him, until his mother's father suggested a medicine called the deoch scethrig, or "vomiting drink". This appetising cure-all was administered on the Hill of Uisneach inducing three bouts of puking which, it is said, became three lakes in Westmeath: Lough Owel, Lough Ennell and Lough Iron.

The only ailment visitors are likely to endure is a mild state of hilltop delirium brought on by the view and such stories. The remedy, however, can be as equally undignified as poor Tuirill's. I was abruptly brought to my senses by a mob of bulls displaying more than a passing interest in my intrusion. Bullied into a clumsy retreat, I left Uisneach without finding the Catstone.

Westmeath's county town, however, is easy to locate. Head eastwards from the hill along the R390 and for a short length the road becomes Mullingar High Street. It is fair to say that Mullingar isn't a tourist trap - a theory strengthened as I rifled through a rack of ageing, faded postcards outside a newsagent, looking for an image of that elusive rock. Nonetheless, visitors can expect a warm reception from locals keen to tell you about Westmeath's attractions and how easy the Catstone is to find.

This reception will be especially enthusiastic for uninhibited, unattached males visiting during the second week in July when Mullingar hosts its annual International Bachelor Contest. The rules are simple: "Wanted, one fun-loving bachelor, pounds 1,000 reward. Contestants will show off their talents by participating in events at the festival ranging from karaoke to mini-Olympics ..."

The other reason for visiting Mullingar is to pick up the Fore Trail, a motoring/ cycling tour winding north-east. The trail leads you through Westmeath's splendid, vomit-splattered countryside, ducking in and out of charming villages.

The objective of this roundabout route is to reach the Fore Valley, a shallow cleft of saturated green just north of Lough Lene. It's possibly the most picturesque spot along the trail, although rural beauty is just a pleasant consequence of the journey's end. It is to witness the Seven Wonders of Fore that you joined the trail some 30 miles back, a bizarre set of sites that once heard of, prove almost irresistible to visit.

They are: the monastery in the quaking sod, the mill without a race, the water that flows uphill, the tree that won't burn, the water that won't boil, the anchorite in the stone, and the stone raised by St Feichin's prayers. These being ancient Irish wonders, it goes without saying that there is ample room for scepticism. On the day I visited, "the water that flows uphill" could clearly be seen tumbling over a pile of stones under the influence of gravity.

The purpose of a visit to Fore, however, isn't to question the validity of its wonders, more to absorb a little folklore while strolling through quintessentially Irish countryside. You can pick up a booklet with a map of where to find each wonder and a few clues as to where they originated at the Seven Wonders pub in the village.

The guide interprets Fore's Irish name as Fobhar Feichin, meaning Feichin's Spring. It was the prayers of St Feichin that raised the stone in the seventh wonder, a huge lintel above the doorway of a church also named after this fondly remembered saint. In 630 St Feichin defied surveyors by founding a monastery on that unsuitable bogland, although the ruins you see today are of the 15th-century Benedictine priory that replaced it. No prizes for guessing that it's the water in St Feichin's well that won't boil, and it was he who caused the uphill flow to that mill without a race.

Of course, St Feichin has had his doubters over the years, those who have tried to burn the tree or boil the water. And if at the end of a day spent in Westmeath you, too, are finding some of its wonders hard to swallow, make amends by simply finding the nearest pub and soaking up a few jars of Ireland's greatest wonder.

Mullingar International Bachelor Contest is part of the Mullingar Festival which runs from 6-13 July - for more information phone 00 353 44 44044. Mullingar Tourist Office 00 353 44 48650; or check out the Westmeath Tourism web pages at http://www.iol.ie/wmeathtc

TRACKS TO IRELAND

Getting there: by air

Competition between mainland Britain and Ireland is intense, with low fares from UK airports to Dublin and beyond. British Midland (0345 554554) flies from Heathrow to Dublin for pounds 81 (mid-week return). The lead-in price on Ryanair (0541 569569) is pounds 74 for mid-week departures, Luton or Stansted to Dublin. Flights also from Gatwick, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Prestwick. Services from Stansted to Kerry start in two weeks' time.

Aer Lingus (0645 737747) charges pounds 81 from Heathrow to Dublin. It also operates from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted to the Irish capital. Fares from Stansted start at only pounds 74 return, and two people can travel for pounds 109 return (pounds 54.50 each). Aer Lingus has just introduced "added-value" packages, such as two days' car hire for pounds 50.

British Airways Express (0345 222111) flies from Gatwick to Dublin for pounds 81; AB Airlines (0345 464748) charges pounds 80 for a Gatwick-Shannon return. All these fares are inclusive of tax.

Getting there: by sea

Stena Line's High-speed Sea Service (HSS) sails between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire. Foot passengers pay pounds 60 return, a car and two adults pounds 289.

P&O European Ferries (0990 980980) sails between Cairnryan and Larne; a five-day return is pounds 140 for a car and five adults, pounds 30 return for foot passengers.

No prizes for guessing which route Swansea-Cork Ferries (01792 456116) serves. Weekend return for a car and five people costs pounds 139, pounds 297 with cabins.

Irish Ferries (0990 171717) has car ferries from Holyhead to Dublin and from Pembroke to Rosslare. A "48-hour return special" to Dublin in June costs pounds 166 return for a car and up to five adults.

For foot passengers using rail connections, Virgin Trains (0345 222333) has a pounds 59 fare for two people travelling from anywhere between Euston or Milton Keynes to Dublin. From Glasgow, the lowest rail/sea fare to Dublin Connolly is pounds 51; to Birmingham, pounds 31 return.

Getting around

Iarnrod Eireann (00 353 1 836 6222) operates trains within the Republic. The lowest return fares from Dublin cost pounds 30 to Cork and pounds 20 to Galway. The Irish Explorer ticket offers unlimited travel on trains on any five days out of 15 for pounds 60. To include buses as well as trains, you pay pounds 90 for eight days travel in any 15.

More information

Bord Failte/Irish Tourist Board, 150 New Bond Street, London W1Y 0AQ (0171-493 3201).

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