The Irish Midlands, which are in every sense the antithesis of the English Midlands for they are sumptuously rural, with many of the roads lined by tall and splendid beech trees, horse chestnuts and aged oaks. Great flat stretches of the bog are, in summertime, sprinkled with feathery white and yellow flowers; many of the roads crossing the bog have become switchbacks from subsidence caused by the bog-water on which they are laid down. But, apart from their natural beauties, the Midlands abound in well-preserved ruins of abbeys, friaries, forts and castles, which seem from a distance, moored in the bogs and meadows. Here flocks of gregarious sheep and more solitary cows and bullocks mooch and graze on the course green grass spattered with buttercups and daisies beneath the windswept Irish sky.
Offaly presents an excellent opportunity for people of all ages to enjoy an excitingly varied holiday in unspoilt surroundings; the climate is mild with bright spring days and temperate summer weather giving way to a rich colourful autumn.
Comprising only some 50,000 hectares and with a population of some 60,000 people the county is famous for its bogs, meadows and tree lined roads. On the eastern side bordering Kildare the county is largely flat save for the historic Croghan Hill – itself the stump of an extinct volcano of some 250 million years ago. To the south bordering Laois are the Slieve Bloom mountains, where the oldest rocks in Laois and Offaly will be found ranging in age from 300 to 450 million years ago.
Of more recent age are the eskers being the sinuous ridges and hills of sand and gravel which are associated with the ice age and are so much a characteristic of Offaly. Superb examples can be seen at Clonmacnoise, from Banagher to Birr and Birr to Tullamore. Another range can be seen connecting Rahugh in Westmeath to Clonmacnoise. The ancient roads and not surprisingly many of the existing roads run alongside the eskers, the natural causeways of earlier times.
Of the rivers, the Barrow divides the county from neighbouring Laois at Portarlington, the Tullamore river and the Silver river flow into the Clodiagh which joins the Brosna which in turn flows into the great River Shannon. The Shannon river is the boundary on the western side of the county separating Offaly from the counties of Galway and Roscommon. The Camcor river flows through the town of Birr and into the Little Brosna which can be seen at Riverstown and Birr Demesne. The Little Brosna joins the Shannon at Meelick.
Running through the county from Edenderry in the east to Shannon Harbour in the west is the 200 year old Grand Canal with harbours at Edenderry, Tullamore and Shannon Harbour.
Lakes in the county were few until the recent development of the Boora Parklands. In the centre of the county is the man made, Charleville Lake near a bird sanctuary and to the south of it Pallas Lake. Some years ago it was thought that the only evidence of early human activity in Ireland was in the north – east but thanks to archaeological excavations at Boora near Kilcormac we now know that Boora held an encampment for hunters some 6800 – 6000 BC. The hunting site lay on the pre-bog surface on the shore of a lake much larger than the modern Lough Boora. Evidence of settlement in the early part of the Bronze age was also found near Kilcormac as was the impressive gold collection, the Derrinboy hoard and the famous Dowris hoard of the later Bronze age 900 – 600 BC. The latter associated with ritual and possibly a ‘bull cult’.
Of our ancestors the people of Offaly, some 150,000 before the Great Famine (1845 – 49) and near 60,000 today are largely English speaking since the 1800s. The people of the county appear on linguistic evidence to come from Connaght and Leinster with only those south of Birr coming from Munster.
The linguistic evidence is not surprising. The county of Offaly established in 1557 with the lands of the O’Connor Faly, the principal native family, was part of the ancient kingdom of Leinster. The land of the O’Molloys in the Tullamore district was added to the new county as was that of the Mac Coughlan (now west Offaly) in 1570. These districts formed part of the old kingdom of Meath or ‘middle kingdom’. The territory south of Birr, the land of the O’Carroll known as Ely O Carroll, was incorporated in the county in 1605. Ely O’Carroll was part of ancient Munster. The parish of Clonmacnois was incorporated in the King’s County in 1638. Minor changes were made to the county boundaries in the 1830s and the name was changed from King’s County to County Offaly in 1920 as an act of local defiance of British government in Ireland during the course of the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21 and to commemorate the principal local gaelic family, the O’Connor Faly.
Today the County has almost 20,000 at work in a population of 60,000 and has attracted many new high technology industries to supplement the native base.