The south midlands of Ireland, the north-eastern area of the Shannon Region, is visually dominated by the Slieve Bloom mountains, set in the ancient Kingdom known as Ely O’ Carroll Country. The O’Carrolls, once rulers of these mountains and glens, held about forty castles in the area and for many centuries resisted domination by the Anglo-Normans, the English and other powerful neighbours.
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Today these beautiful mountains (by Irish standards mountains, but in reality gentle rolling hills) offer a peaceful retreat from the bustling modern world. And hills they really are, as the highest point, Ard Éirinn, which is Irish for “height of Ireland”, is just over 529 metres high. However, their importance lies not in their height but in their story, the natural and historical legends and tales, and in their accessibility as a place of retreat.
Blanket bog, dark green forests with trails, picnic sites, crystal-clear mountain streams stepped with waterfalls, and long deep valleys edged with peaceful villages make this 155,400ha area a delightful touring destination.
Three main roads cross the mountain top: Glendine Gap, a new drive which links Glendine East with West; the 'Cut' above Clonaslee; and the main road from Kinnitty to Laois and the eastern plain beyond Mountrath. All these and other mountain drives are signposted, and many of the valleys and riversides have picnic areas, well sited among the trees. Particularly recommended are Monicknew, where there is a nature trail and Glenbarrow, the source of one of Ireland's great rivers, the Barrow.
This is a quiet land, not towering with peaks and dramatic scenery, but full of the treasures of unspoiled countryside. Follow a mountain stream along its valley, stroll through the countless miles of forest tracks, or explore the blanket bog on the summit top.
A necklace of villages surround Slieve Bloom. The attractive village of Kinnitty traces its origin to an early Celtic monastery of St Finan. A tenth century high cross, fashioned for the High King of Ireland, now on the terrace of Kinnitty Castle hotel, tells of the importance of the site. Here Colga, one of the Munster poets plied his trade. The pyramidal Bernard mausoleum in the graveyard is of note.
Seir Kieran, the early monastic site of St Ciaran the elder at the village of Clareen, has extensive earthworks, the stump of a Round Tower, early graveslabs (including the burial place of the tenth century King of Ossory), and high cross fragments.
Cadamstown is a pretty village with pleasant riverbank walks along the Silver river. The attractive mill was originally used for corn and then rebuilt around 1831 as a woollen bolting mill. East of the village lies the ruins of Coolacrease House. In the foothills all around there is much evidence to indicate a rich prehistoric past: toghers or bog roads, tumuli and other Bronze Age burial mounds, and standing stones denoting ritual areas.
Clonaslee is an early 19th century village which 'grew' along the new line of road. Brittas House, a castellated ruin with fine trees is to the south-west of the village. The mountain road to the 'Cut' travels from Clonaslee.
Ballaghmore, the Bealach Mór, the great highway, is one of the five ancient roads of Celtic Ireland. Ballaghmore Castle has been restored and welcomes visitors.
Camross and Coolrain, two forest villages on the Laois side of Slieve Bloom, are steeped in Gaelic traditions of hurling, set dancing, and traditional music.
Ballyfin, the former Coote demesne, is now Ballyfin College. Ballyfin House, designed by the Morrisons, remains the best 19th century building in Ireland. The magnificent gardens contain many specimen trees.
Roundwood House, an early Georgian house restored by the Georgian Society, is now a guesthouse and restaurant. The staircase is an unusual example of Chinese Chippendale work.
Flora and Fauna of the region includes the sitka spruce (picea sitchensis) and lodgepole pine (pinus contorta) that dominate most of the coniferous woodlands of Slieve Bloom, the largest cover of forestry in Ireland. Broadleaves like birch and willow grow profusely along the valley floors, and oak, alder, rowan, and holly are also common. Heather dominates the blanket bog, one of the largest continuous areas of mountain blanket peat in the country. The mosses and lichens are interesting here. And look for bilberry, crowberry, devil's bit scabious, and Offaly's county plant, bog rosemary.
As you drive through the glens you may glimpse fallow deer, and there's no shortage of foxes, hares, stoats and even wild goats. There are 65 species of birds that have been counted here, including the hen harrier.
The geology of Slieve Bloom is that of old red sandstone, laid down 370 millions years ago underlying much of the surface of the mountains. The mountains are made of these sandstones, mudrocks, and conglomerates of former river and lake beds, and their flood plains. These are well exposed in Glenbarrow and at the Silver River, 600m upstream from Cadamstown.
Under the sandstone lie the blue-grey rocks of the Silurian period. These were formed about 420 million years ago when the land was under deep seas. The banded layers now incline steeply—they were horizontal when formed. As one reaches the plains, the stone underfoot becomes the younger limestone, laid down over twenty million years, some 325 million years ago.
The Slieve Bloom Way is a 77 kms (48 miles) circular walking trail through these gentle rolling hills and deep valleys. The Slieve Bloom environmental map is a good companion on the walk.
Essential Reading: John Feehan, Landscape of Slieve Bloom, (Dublin, 1979) is a definitive study of the mountains that includes their geology, botany and other areas of natural history, archaeology, and history. Professor C.H. Holland says in the forward to Landscape of Slieve Bloom,
'….places like Slieve Bloom, which we still have in Ireland, filter away the noise and leave the story to unfold.'
Thanks to Shannon Regional Tourism Development for the information.