Along with Counties Laois and Longford, Counties Westmeath and Offaly make up the Irish Midlands, which are the country's flatlands—horse country, all soft green grass and sprawling fields, veined with long, winding rivers and picturesque, slow-moving streams. (County Galway is also included in this guide section because of its proximity to the area.) While it doesn’t have the glamour of Cork, Kerry, or Galway, there is more to this region than first meets the eye. You can find real gems—like the romantic medieval castles at Charleville and Birr, the atmospheric ancient monastic site at Clonmacnoise, or the surprisingly little-known (and really very old indeed) Corlea Trackway.
Unsurprisingly, the great Shannon River has for centuries tied this region together. The region’s most appealing town of any size—although with a population of just over 20,000, it’s hardly a teeming metropolis—is Athlone (Baile Átha Luain), on the River Shannon. It’s a vibrant place where brightly painted buildings house interesting craft stores and boutiques. It’s also a perfect place to base yourself for exploring the area, with its excellent small hotels, charming restaurants, and nightlife. Heading south from Athlone, the river winds past the early Christian settlement of Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis), with its stone chapels and mysterious round towers; Banagher (Beannchar na Sionna), a sleepy working town with a picturesque river harbor; and eventually Portumna Castle, picturesquely set where the Shannon flows into Lough Derg.
East of the Shannon, the town of Birr (Biorra), known for its magnificent and historic gardens, is south of Banagher, with the Slieve Bloom Mountains rising to its east; the N52 angles northeast from Birr, passing through the county towns of Tullamore (County Offaly) and Mullingar (Westmeath).
The most significant history here dates to the late 17th century, with the fateful battle for supremacy between two English kings: the Protestant William III and the Catholic James II. After William won at the bloody Battle of Aughrim in 1691, he cemented the hold of a Protestant establishment in Ireland for centuries to come. The lavishly high-tech museum at Athlone Castle is the best of several in the region that tell this important story.
For many travelers to Ireland, Galway is the farthest edge of their journey. Part of the reason they draw the line here is because the depths of the county look so forbidding—with its bleak bogs, heather-clad moors, and extraordinary light—they think that it must be the end of all that’s worth seeing in Ireland. It isn’t, of course, but Galway is just far enough west to escape much of the touristy bustle of Kerry or Cork. And that’s a compelling part of its attraction—here you can climb hills, catch fish, explore history, and get away from it all in the Irish countryside. With its misty mountain-fringed lakes, rugged coastline, and extensive wilderness, County Galway is a wild and wooly area.