48 hours in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands Tipperary, Clare and Galway

The best place to hide something is often in plain sight.

Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands is full of hidden places ready to uncover, right in the middle of the country, but with major towns and cities just a two-hour drive away.

You can start to explore all that’s on offer in this beautiful place around the southernmost of Shannon’s lakes, Lough Derg. Read on for the perfect 2-day itinerary, suitable for cyclists too, and uncover the quiet pace of life on the lake.

Duration of Itinerary: 2 days      

Highlights: Ballina, Killaloe, Nenagh Castle, McKernan Woollen Mills, Wilde Irish Chocolates. Portumna Castle & Gardens, The Irish Workhouse Centre

Morning

Chat through your itinerary on the shores of Lough Derg before setting off towards Portumna.
Chat through your itinerary on the shores of Lough Derg before setting off towards Portumna.

Begin your trip in Birdhill with a coffee at the Old Barracks Coffee Roastery before continuing to the quaint twin towns of Ballina/Killaloe along the eastern shore of the majestic Lough Derg. These picturesque towns are linked by a beautiful 18th century, 13-arch bridge – one of the most photogenic bridges in the country – and overlooked by rolling hills and grazing cattle.

The lake is at the heart of it all– it’s one of Ireland’s largest lakes and yours to uncover in so many ways whether spotting wildlife, angling, sailing, cruising or simply watching local comings and goings while sipping a cuppa at a lakeside café.

A few kilometres outside the town of Killaloe, near Twomilegate by the lake check out the beautiful forest trails at Ballycuggaran Wood.

In the village of Tuamgraney – just an hour from Ballina/Killaloe if you're cycling or 15-minutes in the car – kick down your bike stand and visit McKernan Woollen Mills where colourful accessories are woven according to age-old techniques. Chat to the charming owners, Eugene and Anke, and hear the story of how they began their handweaving business.

Another gem in the small town of Tuamgraney is Wilde Irish Chocolates whose artisan chocolatiers produce an array of delicious delights. We encourage you to take a free tour and you may even have a free tasting – if you’re lucky!

Less than two kilometres from Tuamgraney you’ll reach the market town of Scariff, a popular base for anglers. Walk down to Scariff Harbour and watch the cruisers pass by as you ease into the rhythm of life on the river.

As you continue towards Portumna you’ll travel throughsome of the most beautiful, rural scenery in the country with its verdant patchwork unfolding over the hills at each bend in the road.

Afternoon

Mountshannon is just a little further along the lake is also worth a stop to further explore Lough Derg. From the pier you can take a boat trip and guided tour to Holy Island with local historian Gerard Madden. It is one of the most famous monastic sites in Ireland with a well-preserved round tower and the ruins of six churches.

Arriving in charming Portumna, you’ll find plenty on offer for curious visitors with its historic castle in Portumna Forest Park along the shores of Lough Derg.

To see how people lived at the other end of the social scale, visit the Irish Workhouse Centre, which records one of the darkest periods in Irish history – the Great Famine. It’s the only heritage centre set in a former workhouse, telling the tragic history of the infamous institutions.

Evening

If you’re looking for a pint and a chat it’s worth travelling the short distance to the pretty lakeside village of Terryglass where you can soak up the atmosphere in an authentic Irish pub. There’s a lot of choice too for a good night’s sleep in Portumna, with B&Bs and guesthouses to choose from.

Morning

Don’t miss a visit to Portumna Castle & Gardens for a great view of Lough Derg and the surrounding heartlands
Don’t miss a visit to Portumna Castle & Gardens for a great view of Lough Derg and the surrounding heartlands

Kick off your morning at the tea rooms in Portumna Castle and Gardens. You might need a caffeine boost to find your way through the mind-bending willow maze.

Dating back to 1618, the mystic castle was the seat of the famous Irish-Norman family known variously as the De Burgos, De Burghs or Burkes. It was here that the National Land League began its epic Land War.

It’s time again to hop back on your saddle or into your car and take to the road back towards Ballina/Killaloe but not before a few memorable stop-offs en-route.

As you head out over Portumna bridge you’ll quickly find yourself surrounded by the rolling fields and deep ditches of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Let the road lead you for 30km (1 hr 40 mins by bike) through the historic village of Lorrha and on via Dromineer and Garrykennedy. where you can unwind in a café for lunch right on the shore of Lough Derg. Continue to Nenagh and visit the epic tower at Nenagh Castle which has overlooked the town since 1200 when it was built by the powerful Butler family before they decamped to Kilkenny.

Recently restored to its past glories, the cylindrical castle keep is now the premier tourist attraction in the town. Clear the cobwebs with a brisk climb to the top of the 101ft tower- but watch out you don’t bump your head at the top! Admission is free, and there are guided tours available (April-Oct).

Afternoon

Canoeing in Killaloe is a great way to round off your day on the waters of Lough Derg.
Sailing around Killaloe is a great way to round off your day on the waters of Lough Derg.

After your time in Nenagh Castle continue on to the sister towns of Ballina and Killaloe. Killaloe River Cruises will whisk you off for a one-hour cruise with views of the breath-taking local scenery (and special family rates available). You could also take to the water on a boat trip but if you prefer to paddle your own canoe, there’s always kayaking or other water sports to try.

And don’t worry if you haven’t done it before, the University of Limerick Sport Adventure Centre, just like its parent college, are renowned experts at showing how things are done!

Another option is to stretch your legs along the beautiful trails of the East Clare Way, if you’re looking to do a bit of exploring on foot. Take your pick of the tracks from the 172km route that starts and ends in Killaloe. Don’t worry, you don’t have to walk the whole way – that would take at least eight days. But there are eight sectional walks and 16 stage lengths that make for a pleasant few hours in nature with a paid-for drop-off and pick-up service available.

The easiest stage is the two-hour Ballykelly to O’Callaghan’s Mills section amidst the scenic surroundings of the Slieve Bernagh Mountains, oak woods and farmland.

Experienced hikers might fancy the tough but rewarding stage 6A on the route – Flagmount to Bohatch which will take six hours. This 15km route ascends 350 metres and has unforgettable views of Lough Graney, Lough Derg and the Slieve Aughty mountains.

Traffic is minimal, but hikers are advised to always take care on all routes.

Evening

In the evening, try ‘dropping your hook’ in one of the many pubs along the narrow streets of Killaloe. There’s live trad that you can tap along to, and visitors are encouraged to join in.

you may also like

Take to the shores of Lough Derg dotted with picturesque villages, the chance to unwind on a spectacular boat trip and soak up all the area has to offer. A ‘subtropical paradise’, captivating stories and vibrant towns; uncover this area of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands today with our 2-day itinerary. Intriguing castles, lakeside trails and endless blueways – the delights around Lough Allen are yours to uncover with this ready-made 48-hour itinerary.
Take to the shores of Lough Derg dotted with picturesque villages, the chance to unwind on a spectacular boat trip and soak up all the area has to offer. A ‘subtropical paradise’, captivating stories and vibrant towns; uncover this area of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands today with our 2-day itinerary. Intriguing castles, lakeside trails and endless blueways – the delights around Lough Allen are yours to uncover with this ready-made 48-hour itinerary.