Europe > Britain and Ireland > Ireland > East Coast and Midlands > County Westmeath
County Westmeath (Contae na hIarmhí) is in the East Coast and Midlands region of Ireland, and historically part of the kingdoms of Meath and of Leinster. It's about 90 min travel northwest of Dublin.
- 1 Mullingar the county town is near Lough Ennell, where Belvedere House has a dark history.
- 2 Athlone is a crossing point on the Shannon, with a castle and twin-spired church.
- 3 Kilbeggan has a whiskey distillery you can tour.
From the 1st to the 12th century AD, the Kingdom of Meath (Mide, meaning "middle") was a broad belt from the Shannon to the east coast of Ireland. Then the Normans arrived and began to subdue the Gaelic kingdoms and parcel the land into shires or counties. Meath was absorbed into the vassal kingdom of Leinster, to re-emerge as County Meath. In 1543 this was subdivided into an eastern part very much under Tudor English control and becoming the modern County Meath, and a western part that had remained more Gaelic. This "Westmeath" contained what is now County Longford, but that became separate in 1586, leaving County Westmeath on its present footprint. Local government reforms in 1898 completed the transition from wopentakes and baronial demesnes into the 20th century governance of county road building, libraries and schools.
Westmeath is lowland and agricultural, with easy transport to Dublin. As if it didn't have enough water courses, early in the 19th century the Royal Canal came through to link Dublin to the Shannon, with the similar Grand Canal further south. Like the rest of Ireland there was major loss of population in the wake of the 19th century famines, and from the slower but inexorable process of farm mechanisation. By 2016 the county population had rebuilt to 88,770, concentrated in the towns, with the countryside thinly populated. Water activities on the rivers and lakes are the main tourist attraction. There are TICs in Mullingar and Athlone, and the county agency is Visit Westmeath, which promotes the area as part of "Ireland's Hidden Heartlands".
To Athlone, Bus Éireann and City Link compete on the route from Dublin Airport and city centre, taking 90 min (some stopping at Kilbeggan and Moate) and continuing west to Galway.
Athlone also has buses once or twice a day from Waterford via Kilkenny, Carlow, Port Laoise and Tullamore, and from Monaghan via Clones, Cavan Town, Longford and Ballymahon.
To Mullingar, quickest is Expressway Bus 22 / 23, taking 90 min from Dublin city and airport, Lucan and Maynooth. These continue to Longford whence Bus 23 runs to Dromod, Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle and Sligo, while Bus 22 heads west to Ballina. There's also a slower Bus Éireann 115 from Dublin via Lucan, Maynooth, Kilcock, Enfield and Kinnegad to Mullingar.
By road follow N4 / M4 to Kinnegad, then take either N4 for Mullingar or M6 for Kilbeggan, Moate and Athlone.
There are two separate transport routes across the county, with poor interconnection: the bus between Mullingar and Athlone only runs twice a day. The two railway lines start from different Dublin stations so you don't even have the option of backtracking. The lakes and rural sites have next-to-no public transport. So you need wheels to get around: the terrain is lowland and a bike would do.
- Castles: Athlone has the stoutest in Westmeath, as it was rebuilt in the Napoleonic era but never again assaulted.
- Churches: the finest are Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, and St Peter & Paul in Athlone.
- Stately mansions: see Belvedere near Mullingar and Tullynally (grounds only) north of Mullingar.
- Gaelic games: Westmeath GAA play football and hurling in Mullingar. There are 45 GAA clubs across the county.
- Greenway is a hiking and cycling trail along the former railway from Mullingar to Athlone. It's 40 km via Castletown and Moate.
- Water sports: Lough Ree above Athlone and Lough Ennell near Mullingar are the main recreation areas.
- Athlone has the best selection, with Thai, Lebanese, Italian, modern Irish and other choices.
- Cheap eats and fast food in many places; beyond the two main towns, pub grub is usually your best choice.
- Sean's Bar in Athlone is the oldest pub in Ireland, and possibly the world, being reliably dated to 900 AD.
- Kilbeggan Distillery makes whiskey and offers tours.
- County Longford further upriver is a quiet rural place, with prehistoric sites at Corlea, Aughnacliffe and elsewhere.
- County Roscommon west of the Shannon is where the country turns wilder. Take in Boyle before heading on to Sligo.
- County Offaly south has the distillery town of Tullamore, Georgian Birr, and the stand-out monastic site of Clonmacnoise.
- County Meath is mostly suburban or industrial, but it has a remarkable cluster of sites: Trim for the castle, Kells and other ruined abbeys, Brú Na Bóinne Archaeological Park, and Loughcrew Cairns near Oldcastle.