Landscape of Offaly

The Bogs Croghan Hill Eskers The Grand Canal Lough Boora Parklands Silver River Nature Trail Slieve Bloom Mountains The River Shannon The Shannon Callows

The Bogs

Clara Bog N2530, 460ha, 2kms south of Clara

Clara bog is a natural heritage area of great importance. It is one of the last remaining relatively intact raised bogs in Western Europe and provides a unique feature of landscape and geological interest stretching over an area of 460 ha. It lies 2km south of the town of Clara and is the largest raised bog remaining east of the Shannon. Attempts by Bord na Mona (the Irish Turf Board) to exploit it were halted in the 1980s and the bog is now to be carefully preserved and a visitor’s centre provided. The formation of the bog began around 8,000 years ago. At this time the Ice Age was ending and the area was an extensive lake. The lake became progressively overgrown by reeds and other aquatic vegetation. Eventually so much debris built up that open water was squeezed out and the reedmarsh became a fen, in which peat began to accumulate. Gradually the fen peat became thicker and the roots of the plants growing in the fen were cut off from the mineral rich groundwater. This allowed a new type of vegetation to invade the surface dominated by specialised bog mosses. As the bog mosses grow upwards at the bog surface, their older parts die but do not decay so that a great depth of peat accumulates with the passage of time giving rise to a raised bog such as in Clara which is dome shaped and elevated above the surrounding countryside. Clara bog is unique for its flora and fauna and for its soak system. The soaks are a series of small lakes which are dotted across the bog. They contain mineral rich water which comes from beneath and the area around these lakes supports a different type of vegetation to the rest of the bog. The bog is interesting in that plants that will not be found elsewhere grow here. They are specially adapted to living in mineral-poor, waterlogged, acid habitats and have their own ways of obtaining their nutrients. The sundew, bitterroot and bladderwort are especially interesting – because they eat insects. The leaves of the sundew are covered with tiny red tentacles that are topped with drops of sticky fluids and digest the insect. The bitterroot uses a similar method. The bladderwort traps insects underneath the surface of the water in ingenious bladder-shaped traps. There are a host of other rare plants that make the area a botanist’s heaven. David Bellamy of BBC fame, expressed a wish to be buried here.

A great variety of moths and butterflies can be seen at the bog. The various species of dragonfly and damselfly hover and glide over the bog surface. In the pools can be seen several species of water beetles and other waters bugs. Newts and lizards are also to be seen. Many different kinds of birds are also attracted to the area. The bog’s appeal as a special tourist attraction has been enhanced by the development of guided walks which also incorporate the eskers and other places of interest.

Mongan Bog, Co. Offaly N0330 126ha. 2km E of Clonmacnoise.

Situtated between two esker ridges this bog has well developed pools and hummocks and is a feeding and /or roosting site for Greenland white-fronted geese. Owned by An Taisce, from whom, permission should be sought to visit the site.

Raheenmore bog, Co. Offaly N4432 162ha. 7km SE of Tyrrellspass.

A classic example of raised bog in a deep basin. It has a well developed dome with typical raised bog vegetation. Unfortunately marginal drains are causing the bog to dry out and there are no pools. There is no public access to this bog.

Slieve Bloom Mountains, Counties Laois/Offaly N2510 2230ha.

The summits of the mountains are covered in well developed blanket bog with a luxuriant growth of Sphagna, lichens and heathers. The area contains the headwaters of several major rivers. Access via several roads and tracks crossing the hills.

CROGHAN HILL (north of Daingean)

This extinct volcano which rises to over seven hundred feet above sea level commands extensive views of the surrounding midland counties. The mound at the summit is thought to be a bronze age burial place. It is believed that a Bishop MacCaille had his church there and lived around the time of St Patrick in the fifth century. The area also has strong associations with St. Bridget and modern historians are now of the opinion that the patroness of Ireland was born near Croghan hill.

The O’Connors of Offaly, the old Gaelic rulers before colonisation and plantation in the sixteenth century, had one of their main residences here, and it was also the place of inauguration of their chiefs. Just north of the hill is a holy well dedicated to St. Patrick (sign posted). The late Frank Mitchell, the celebrated geologist, preferred to give the distinction of the “navel of Ireland” not to the hill of Uisneach (26 km north-east of Athlone) but to the isolated hill, Croghan, which he described as a mass of volcanic rock. While accepting that Croghan Hill was not at the geographical centre of Ireland, Mitchell chose Croghan Hill because it lies in the heartland of the great raised bogs of the midlands. The cooling towers of at least four peat-fired generating stations can be seen from the summit.

The Eskers

Offaly offers some of the most spectacular eskers in Europe. Eskers are high ridges made up of ancient river sediments. Sand and gravel are their main constituents, though boulders and thin layers of silt also occur. These sands and gravels were laid down in rivers of meltwater that covered much of Ireland at the end of the Ice Age. They are one of the most distinctive features of the midlands. The esker system on which Clara was built extends from Galway to Dublin. In ancient times the Sli Mhor (Great Way) ran right across the midlands. It was used as a pilgrim route connecting the monasteries of Durrow in the east of Offaly and Clonmacnois in the west. The Esker Riada (chariot way) was also a political division separating the north of Ireland from the south as it was understood in pre- Christian Ireland. Other examples of eskers include the ridge between Birr and Banagher running at right angles to the road.

Grand Canal

The Grand Canal is perhaps one of the most valuable and attractive amenities in Offaly. There are signs now that this is at last being realised and a great deal of money has been spent beautifying the canal banks in the urban areas to very good effect. The history of the canal has a certain magic about it rather like no previous invention of distilling. You have to travel the canal, enjoy its calmness and serenity, observe the wizened face of a lock-keeper whose family may have been in residence for generations, and ultimately reflect in disbelief that all this is man-made, and only two hundred years old.

A canal link between Dublin and the Shannon had been mooted as early as 1715 but no work on the project was carried out until the 1750s. The construction of the Grand Canal commenced in 1756, it reached Tullamore in 1798 and the Shannon in 1804. Tullamore was the terminus for the intervening six years. The delay in proceeding to the Shannon was caused principally by the canal company’s indecision as to the route the canal should take to the Shannon. In 1797 two schemes were suggested, first, that the canal should go via Kilcormac to Banagher and the Shannon, with perhaps an extension to Birr and Roscrea. The other course suggested was by way of the Brosna Valley. In 1801 it was this latter course which was adopted.

The canal was of enormous benefit i
n that it provided a direct link with Dublin and facilitated the transportation of goods and people at a time when roads were bad and railways were still fifty years off. Among the first passengers to travel to Offaly by boat were English soldiers on the way to Connacht to meet a French force which had landed at Killala. Travelling on the canal was expensive. When the canal reached Tullamore in 1798 a new scale of charges was put into operation. On the Dublin-Tullamore run (56 miles), a state cabin cost 10s. 10d. and a common cabin 5s. 11d. Progress on the canal was slow, the Tullamore-Dublin trip took about 14 hours in 1798. When the fly-boats were introduced in 1834 the Tullamore-Dublin run was made in nine hours. Slow perhaps but preferable to walking.

The Grand Canal, ideal for pleasure craft and fishing, makes for an attractive stroll along its scenic route through the County of Offaly. The Offaly section of the Grand Canal comprises some 64 kilometres from Edenderry to Shannon Harbour, passing through the quiet boglands and towns such as Daingan and Tullamore. The Edenderry branch of the canal is some 1.5 kilometres long while near Ballycommon is the disused Kilbeggan branch line; an attractive eight mile walking route. Hedges were planted along the canal boundaries some 200 years ago and now provide a valuable habitat for plant and wildlife.

The most common hedgerows are Hawthorn and Bramble, Elder and Dog-rose. There are some sixteen locks in the stretch of canal from Daingan to Shannon Harbour. In the latter village, can be seen the ruins of an old Canal Council Hotel. It is at Shannon Harbour, a great mooring place, that the River Brosna enters the Shannon. This stretch of the canal covers locks 23 to 36 and involves a fall of some 50 metres confirming the saucer type shape of the centre of Ireland

Tullamore harbour serves as the maintenance yard for the entire canal system in the Republic of Ireland and now operated by the waterways section of Duchas. Near Tullamore at the 24th lock is Celtic Canal Cruisers (0506 – 21861) that provide canal cruisers for hire and have done so for over twenty years. At Killina, Rahan a hire service is provided for pedal or row boats (0506 – 55868).

Lough Boora Parklands

Lough Boora Parklands centrally located in County Offaly and 5 km north of Kilcormac is the exciting story of an emerging landscape involving the development of some 2000 ha (5,500 acres) of cutaway bogland into a vast open parkland. The entire parklands area covers some 80,000 hectares of cutaway bog. The Parkland includes lakes, historic sites and interpretation; walkways and nature trails, grassland and mixed woodland.

The Turraun nature reserve near Pollagh village consists of 130 acres of flooded cutaway bog and 250 acres of birchwood and is now a major sanctuary for wildlife with over 80 different species of birds recorded. It is especially important for winter migrating birds. Upwards of five lakes are now in course of development here. The area itself is the site of the former Lough Boora – now established as an early mesolithic site of some 8,500 years ago.

Slieve Bloom Mountains

Ideal for those who seek the tranquillity of an unspoiled landscape, the Slieve Bloom Mountains provide the perfect setting for a cycle, a drive or a walk. For the most adventurous, the 77 km Slieve Bloom Way passes remarkably deep glens and beautiful waterfalls. A well sign-posted network of minor roads provide access to a whole of forested and wooded glens. A new information centre has been opened in Kinnitty village. Walking information is also available from the Tea Shop at Cadamstown (0509 – 37247).

One vast environment park is how best to describe the Slieve Bloom Mountains, with seventeen major valleys, numerous amenity areas and hundreds of kilometres of accessible forest tracks.

These gentle rolling hills now form the biggest forestry cover in Ireland. And hills they really are rather than mountains as the highest point, Ard Eirinn, rises just a little over 529 metres, some 1700 feet above sea level. However, their importance lies not in their height but in their story, full of tradition and life, and in their accessibility as a place of retreat from the maddening world.

Today’s rounded hills of Slieve Bloom, are a legacy of the Connacht glaciers some 15,000 years ago as they moved southwards over the mountains, smoothing off the peaks. Later ice movements from Connemara created many of the other features which survive today: the moraines, eskers and the big erratics of granite.

The Cut, above Clonaslee, is an impressive mountain-top pass with a car park and viewing point at Glen Bordowin. In Glen Letter the motorist has the choice of many attractive viewing points along Hogans Road. Deep in the heart of the beautiful valley of Glen Delour one may park at the Cottage of Baunreagh. Glendine East and West have roads meeting at the Gap, from where its a short walk up to Ard Eirinn. Glendineoregan, the deep glen of the O’Regan’s chieftains of these parts, has an excellent viewing point. All of these glen walks and viewing points are easy to discover from the large scale Slieve Bloom maps, available at a reasonable cost in most of the mountain villages and at the Kinnity centre.

Most of the coniferous woodlands of Slieve Bloom are dominated by Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine. However, broadleaf cover of birch and willow grows profusely along the valley floors and Oak, Alder, Rowan and Holly are also quite common. As you drive through the glens you may glimpse fallow deer, and there’s no shortage of foxes, squirrels, hares, stoats and even wild goats – not to mention the 65 species of birds that have been counted here. The blanket bog on the rounded tops is an important sanctuary and was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1985. Here, heather and bog mosses dominate. The waving fields of bog cotton – may be as impressive in many places as Wordsworth’s sight of golden daffodils?

Silver River Nature Trail

Starting in Cadamstown, (near Kinnity) the Nature Trail is a geological reserve and an area of great beauty and of geological and botanical interest. Facilities include a car park with an extensive picnic site. Cadamstown is also a starting point for the Offaly Way.

A visit to the Silver River Nature Trail takes you on a journey into the remote past and provides an insight into a landscape formed by seas and rivers over 400 million years ago. There has been little disturbance to the river valley over the many intervening years and the Silver River gorge retains much of its ancient character. It is a special place and one of considerable beauty and interest.

The river takes its name (in Gaelic, Abha Airgid – the Money River) from the particles of silver occurring naturally in the limestone rock upstream and washed down in the river.

Slieve Bloom is a place of rest where one may mend the troubled spirit agitated by the bustling modern world. A few hours, or better still a few days, walking or exploring the healthy moors or shadowy glens will refresh any visitor. For the less energetic there are many viewing points along the high roads. A nature trail for Monicknew Woods is available as are maps and guides to the Slieve Bloom.

The River Shannon

The great River Shannon borders western side of County Offaly dividing it from the province of Connacht and taking in its course the major centre for visitors at Clonmacnoise together with Shannonbridge, Shannon Harbour and Banagher.

Behind Athlone and Portumna the Shannon is wide and sluggish and floods severely in autumn and winter. The familiar eskers dominate the landscape especially at Clonmacnoise while the extensive bogs can be seen at Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge.

The Shannon Callows

Because the meadows of the middle Shannon turn into a vast flood plain in autumn and winter they can support a huge number of waders, swans and wildfowl and other bird life.

The most obvious of all Shannon birds are the mute swans. Also to be seen are the coot and more hen and little grebe or dabchick. The kingfisher is widespread as is the meadow pipit and pied wagtail. Much energy has been spent on saving the corncrake and it can be seen at the bridge of Banagher near the summer. In winter the normal resident population is increased by such residence from north-east Europe, particular the widgeon and Greenland white-fronted goose.