Winding westwards across Ireland’s central plain is one of the triumphs of a golden age of engineering: the Royal Canal. Opened in 1817 to transport goods and people, this manmade channel cuts through rock, earth and rare bogland on its 146km route from Dublin to the River Shannon. Along the way, it passes through five counties, soars over rivers on great stone aqueducts and flows beneath bridges so finely crafted that they are still standing after 200 years. With the advent of the railways, the canal fell into disuse, eventually closing in 1961. Now it’s a beguiling world ripe for exploration; a place of still, dark waters and grassy banks fluttering with butterflies; of tiny harbours where time seems to have stood still and lively towns with rich histories, such as Mullingar.
There’s a buzzing energy to this market town nestling in a bend in the Royal Canal. You can feel it as you stroll along its busy streets, sit in one of its quirky eateries such as Belly Café, or join the kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders at the Activity Zone in the fine limestone harbour.
A walking tour with local historian Ruth Illingsworth will bring Mullingar’s incredible story to life. You’ll hear tales of Viking settlers and Norman barons, learn about the devastating fires and plagues of the Middle Ages, and find out about the town’s surprising connection to literary great James Joyce. But there’s more to Mullingar than its past. This is a vibrant, modern town with a passion for good food and an impressive music scene, which embraces everything from the showband swagger of Joe Dolan and the glamour of pop prince Niall Horan.
When you’re ready to take it further, Mullingar’s location as a halfway point along the Royal Canal makes it an ideal base for exploring Ireland’s heartlands. The Royal Canal Greenway, a 130km off-road trail from Maynooth to Longford, opens up a world of adventure that is tailor-made for walkers and cyclists. Meanwhile, kayakers and watersports enthusiasts can enjoy the 23km of paddling trails extending east and west from Mullingar along the Royal Canal Blueway.
Whether you’re on water or on land, the experience is magical. Lush countryside teems with life; birds dart across your path, dragonflies flit amongst the reeds and water lilies float on the water’s calm surface. You could almost forget the outside world exists. But then you’ll come upon a pretty lockkeeper’s cottage or the hulk of an old dredger and you’ll be reminded of the canal’s commercial past and the people whose lives were inextricably bound to it.
Beyond the canal, there are more treasures to discover. Climb the Hill of Uisneach and follow in the footsteps of the ancient kings and queens who once gathered here. Visit Belvedere House on the shores of Lough Ennell or Castletown House in County Kildare and experience the formal elegance of Georgian architecture and landscape design. Sample the “water of life” at the Kilbeggan Whiskey Distillery, home of the world’s oldest working pot still or enjoy a quiet pint in a charming old canal-bank pub such as Mary Lynch’s.
Whether you’re looking to get active, escape into nature or delve into culture and history, Mullingar and the Royal Canal will take you on an adventure you’ll never forget.