All that you need to know about Ireland’s County Laois
Most people visit Ireland without every discovering the beauty of County Laois. Formerly known as the Queen’s County, this charming county is not very far from Dublin and is part of the Midlands region. The county is slowly beginning to bring in more tourists as word spreads about the enchantment of County Laois.
Many tourists spend their time visiting other Midland counties because there is not a lot of information covering the events, the hotspots and the pristine natural environment that makes County Laois so special. The county has started getting more visibility during the last few years as tourist numbers have started to climb. A total of 37,000 foreign tourists entered County Laois in 2012 and rose to 52,000 in 2013 and this year the total number is expected to be over 65,000.
In this articel I will tell everything you need to know about how to have a great time in Laois, Ireland: what to do, what to see, where to dine. We also have complete reviews of Laois' best hotels, and a large article about all the castles in Laois (map included).
Sightseeing in Laois
The Rock of Dunamase - a ruined Norman fort with a spectacular view of the country. The Heywood gardens go back to the 1700s. Timahoe Round Tower constructed in the 12th century. Castle Durrow is frequently used as a finishing point for walking tours in the village. The Slieve Bloom Mountains are great to trek and experience nature at its best.
Interesting Places To See
The Rock of Dunamase
The Rock of Dunamase is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the county and is about six kilometres away from Portlaoise and is easily accessed via the N80 Portlaoise to Stradbally Road.
7: Laois. For a county I was sure had nothing in it, this absolutely blew me away. The Rock of Dunamase blows the Rock of Cashel out of the water, it's free, it's class, and I'm so happy I went. #rockofdunamase #portlaoise #laois #32counties #32countychallenge #caisleán #summerinireland @wanderireland
This historic site also provides visitors with a spectacular view of the Irish country side and is a great place for photography.
The Heywood Gardens
The Heywood gardens comprise of two gardens one which was created in the 1900’s and one which goes back to the 1700s. These gardens provide visitors with a tranquil environment that allows them to absorb the beautiful sights and colours of a vibrant Irish garden that has a fantastic landscape to it.
There is also a formal terrace that visitors can access which gives them a fantastic view of the neighbouring countryside. There is a beautiful lake present in these gardens and bird lovers will be able to sit back, relax and watch a variety of birds pay visit. These beautiful gardens are owned and maintained by the office of public works.
Those interested in history and want a glimpse of how the Irish once lived, must visit Emo court which is a country villa that was designed in the 1700’s by architect James Gandon. This spectacular villa was designed to reflect the ancient architecture of Rome and Greece and has a neo-classical style to it.
In 1960, Emo Court went through a full scale refurbishing program and is today opened to the public and maintained by the office of public works. Emo Court and its garden are open to the public during the day.
The Heritage House
Heritage House in Abbeyleix is a small local history museum, they have a permanent exhibition, and also provide walking tours in Abbeyleix. There's a good cafe on site.
This beautiful cottage will help visitors understand what life was like in the 1800’s for people living in rural Ireland. The cottage gets its name from a poet by the name of Patrick Ryan who lived in Camross during 1750 and 1825 and wrote a lot of poetry about the scenic beauty and the local community.
The cottage also has a small but well maintained garden and is a perfect place to forget about the outside world.
Timahoe is a very special Irish village that is known for its 29 m. Round Tower. There is a lot of history in this small Irish village and nothing symbolizes it better than the Round Tower which was constructed in the 12th century. The village was once known for its monastery that was established in the 7th century by Saint Mochua of Timahoe but ended up being burned 20 years before the Anglo-Norman battle. The monastery was rebuilt in the 15th century by the O’Mores and functioned till the 17th century before the Cosby family took over and changed it into a castle.
The village also has a famous sculpture known as St Mochua’s Desk which has a fly, mouse and a rooster, the favorite pets of the saint. The village consists of typical rural Irish cottages which have just two floors and are very simplistic in their construction. The village is well spaced out and has a lot of greenery making it a nice place to visit and get some rest. The tower stands in the center of the village and one can see just about every part of the village from atop of the tower.
This historic house was constructed in the 18th century and the Flower family resided in the house for over 200 years and continued to maintain and expand the mansion in county Laois.
The family ran into financial difficulties towards the end of the 19th century which made it difficult for them to continue to maintain the house. Once Ireland gained independence, the family decided to sell most of their properties and re-locate to Britain. One of the properties that wasn’t sold was Knockatrina House which is situated in Durrow village and was maintained by Flower’s daughter Frances Mary White till 1946. The house was then abandoned (and the roof was eventually sold) but continues to be a tourist attraction.
The mansion was used as a school during the 20th century. Castle Durrow has now been converted into a hotel and is frequently used as a finishing point for walking tours in the Durrow village. After their tour of the village and Castle Durrow grounds, tourists can visit the hotel to have a fine dinner and enjoy a drink.
This historic property was poorly maintained and in ruins before the Irish Georgian Society decided to do something about it in order to preserve its legacy. The society decided to organize a fun raising campaign to save the property but unfortunately raised a very small sum that wasn’t sufficient to fix the Demesne. Fred Krehbiel, a businessman from the United States decided to take over the property and invested a lot of time and money to change the Demesne into a five star hotel. The entire property went through a 9 year period of restoration and was considered to be one of the best five star hotels in Europe.
Some of the other special landmarks in the area include the Ballaghmore Castle which was constructed in the 15th century. This castle like the Demesne has also been converted into a hotel recently. The ruins of the Lea Castle and the Stradbally Hall which the Cosby family still own, are also must see places (read more about castles in Laois).
The Slieve Bloom Mountains
The Slieve Bloom Mountains are great to trek and experience nature at its best. The weather is generally great all throughout the year and those looking for adventure will have a fantastic time trekking up these mountains.
While there are no major peaks or lakes, the woods and foliage on these mountains give it a fairytale like look and the experience is completely memorable. These mountains are very close to Dublin and are easily accessible from all parts of Ireland.
There are a number of routes to go up the mountain and get to the top. One of those routes starts from the Camross village and takes around 45 minutes to get to the top. Trekkers would need to have a map, a compass and a good pair of boots to deal with the terrain.
Barrow Valley is a wonderful place for walking routes which provides excellent views with both natural beauty and splendid rural Ireland – villages, towns, farms, beautiful bridges. The walking routes beside the River Barrow (second largest river in Ireland) typically start in County Offaly, and then continue in county Kildare (Laois will be across the river), then further to County Carlow and you can even walk all the way to the Celtic Sea.
Grantstown Lake is a treat for nature loves as the Grantstown Wood and Lough Nature Reserve is a great way to spend a day and get to be one with nature. It is located very near to Durrow and has gone through an upgrade recently and a lake jetty, car park and new walking paths have been formed to encourage visitors to enjoy the surroundings to the fullest.
The lake draws a number of different birds and is a treat for bird watchers. Those who love to fish will be able to throw a line at the number of different fishing spots located all along the lake and will be able to catch pike, tench and rudd.
Abbeyleix Bog is another great spot for tourists to visit as it is situated close to the Abbeyleix town and covers of five hundred acres of cutaway, lag, bog, meadows and wet carr woodlands. There are a number of paths that let tourists walk around and get a good view of the bog.
Once the tour of the big is completed, visitors can go back to the town for a cup of coffee or a typical Irish meal.
Ballintubbert Gardens was designed by Sir Lutyens and recently went through a makeover and expansion process. The garden is extremely scenic and is often used for weddings as it is a great place to take pictures and also has a surreal feel to it.
The garden tends to be more crowded on weekends and is a great place to spend a couple of hours and relax.
When compared to most of the other gardens in Ireland, this is a relatively new garden which was started in 1986 by Noel Keenan and is spread across four acres. The gardens have grown and blossomed considerably since then and its specialty is the moon house grotto which has a waterfall coming out of a collection of rocks. There are a number of rare plants and flowers, including a special nursery that allows visitors to purchase any plans that they liked growing in the gardens.
Ireland has a rich history of culture, tradition and sculptures. There are a number of museums located in County Laois.
Donaghmore Workhouse & Museum
This museum looks to give visitors a glimpse into the families who lived before and after the great famine. Visitors will be able to take the help of a guide or go through a self guided tour that takes them through many exhibits that helps them recollect the social and economic hardships that the Irish had to face during the great famine.
Visitors will also be able to spend time viewing an agricultural collection that has been donated by local people. Some of the exhibits include hand tools, household items and farm tools. The museum is opened from Monday to Friday between 11 am and 5 pm and on weekends and public holidays between 2 pm and 5 pm. The entrance fee is set at €5.00 for adults, €4.00 for students and €10.00 for families.
Mountmellick Quaker Museum
Mountmellick is located at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains and used to be known as the little Manchester of Ireland as there was a huge industrial base that consisted of cotton and flax mills. This town became famous in the 19th century for the work it rendered to the Victorian White on White embroidery known as the Mountmellick Work.
The museum has looked to preserve many of those exhibits and memories and has a great collection of pillow shams, bed coverlets, nightdress cases and tablecloths that have been extremely well preserved and displayed in the museum. The museum also provides customized and one-on-one workshops that need to be booked in advance so you can get a detailed walkthrough of the process.
The museum also promotes heritage walks that take visitors across the town of Mountmellick and gives visitors a great history lesson on the town and its contributions. There are also a number of videos available at the museum which history lovers would thoroughly enjoy.
Stradbally Steam Museum
This museum is dedicated to steam engines and the role they played in Ireland’s history. The museum has a number of farm, steam and fire engines including a special land rover fire engine that was stationed at the Stradbally fire engine station since 1950.
Fly Fishing & Game Shooting Museum
Those who have a passion for hunting and fishing must make a stop at this museum which is located in Portaloise. The museum was founded by Walter Phelan in 1986 and captures over 300 years of Ireland’s history in fishing and hunting. It is filled with traditional guns, rods, tools, reels and a number of specimens of fantastic fish and birds. The museum is opened on a daily basis between 10 am and 6 pm.
Places To Stay
There are lots of places to stay in County Laois and accommodation can be split into hotels and bed & breakfast places. While there are a number of well maintained hotels that are not very expensive, there are also a few four and five star hotels that offer modern luxury and amenities.
County Laois might be a small county with a population just below 100,000 but there is no lack of variety in the dining out options. The county has a number of different pubs and restaurants that serve a variety of cuisine including Italian, Chinese, Indian and European. These restaurants are spread throughout the county and can be found in places like Emo, Abbeyleix and Durrow. Tourists will never be far from hopping into an Irish pub, having a pint and trying out a nice hot meal. For those who are interested in fine dining, the options are a bit more limited but places like Castle Durrow and Ballyfin will be able to cater to their requirements.
McEvoy’s Steak & Wine Bar
This is one of the most popular bar places to dine out in County Laos for both tourists and locals. The place was opened in 2010 and offers both Asian and European cuisine. All the ingredients are sourced from County Laos and is owned by the Stokes family, who also own Castle Durrow.
McEvoy’s has won a number of awards in the recent past including Best Casual Dining and Best Gastro Pub Awards. There is also place to have an outdoor BBQ in the summer and where visitors can have a couple of cold ones and enjoy well cooked BBQ.
Some of the standout dishes on the menu include a special curry and carrot soup, McEvoys spicy chicken wings, Smithwicks battered cod, slow braised pork belly, Thai style vegetable curry and a free range Glin Valley chicken supreme. There are also a number of wines to choose from including Chateau De L’Orangerie Bordeaux and an Italian Marchesi Di Rubini Pinot Grigio.
The Candied Walnut
This restaurant is located in Portarlington and has only been opened since 2012. Although it’s opened in the historic area of the city it’s designed with a contemporary look and is considered to be one of the best rated dining places in the city. The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but opened on all the other days and also provides outdoor catering on request.Facebook
The menu is great and not complicated and the house serves up specials every day. Some of the popular dishes on the menu include the traditional bangers and mash; lasagna and a chicken fillet burger. There is also a nice wine and dessert menu available.
Bowe's Foodhall & Café in Durrow
This place is generally off the tourist map and is mostly visited by locals. The shop cum café is a small family run business that allows visitors to have a quick meal and also buy some of the local products on offer. This place is great for those with a sweet tooth as the café serves up some delicious scones, pastries and desserts.
They are also known for their breakfast porridge which is served with fresh blueberries, strawberries and honey.
There are a number of other special restaurants spread across county Laois including Ena's At the Mill in Mountmellick, Sol Oriens in Portarlington, Mayur in Portlaoise and the Gallic Kitchen café in Abbeyleix.
If you are looking to take home a souvenir or something that has a distinct Irish touch to it, there are not too many options to choose from in County Laois.
Homemade Sweets & Treats
You can pick up a neatly packed gift of homemade sweets and treats from either Bowe's Foodhall & Café or Gallic Kitchen café in Abbeyleix.
There are a number of breweries producing craft beer in the area especially in the regions of Kilkenny and Carlow. Visitors will be able to visit these breweries and also purchase local brews to take back, sip on and replay their memories once they arrive home.
The Pottery House
Situated in the rural location of Ratheniska, this is a ceramic studio with a contemporary feel to it. The house has a number of special items on sale that will serve as the perfect souvenir.
They are also open to doing custom pieces upon request.
Bumble Bliss specializes in making natural cosmetics and visitors can go through their portfolio of products and take back something that catches their fancy. The bath and soap bombs have received a lot of attention as they are made out of only natural resources. The shop also holds natural cosmetic courses that teach the simple process of using natural ingredients to make different cosmetic items.
Peg Hackett Design
This is a local fashion designer spot that specializes in selling some creative hats. The house offers free tours of its workhouse and often puts up special craft exhibitions where the public can purchase the products on display.
Craft fairs are organized in Laois throughout the year and they move from town to town. A wide variety of good are sold during these fairs and reasonable prices. The Durrow Craft Fair is one of the popular craft fairs in Laois and usually takes place in summer and before Christmas. They have a facebook page that publishes information on their upcoming fairs and locations.
Local Gift Shops
The two best options have to be Nook & Cranny in Portlaoise and Breda's Gift Shop in Mountmellick, both offer various stuff for different gift occasions and also try to offer some local produce like you can find on craft fairs.Instagram
There's also a tiny antique shop called Dunamase Antiques in Portlaoise on the Main Street.
The County has some special events that mostly take place in the month of July. Tourists who would like to get a feel for an Irish celebration and gathering would do well to visit and be a part of any of the following special events.
The Old Fort Quarter Festival
The Old Fort Quarter Festival takes place in Portlaoise in June, this is a family friendly event with lots of activities for kids, such as medieval shield making or interactive armour displays.Instagram
For adults there's usually a food festival with plenty of local produce and live music with great Irish bands involved.
Electric Picnic takes place in September and is held between the 4th – 6th. This is a yearly music and arts festival that has been taking place since 2004. The event is held at the Stradbally Hall in Stradbally and features some of the best in electronic music.
This music festival continues to grow in popularity with every year and has seen the likes of Billy Bragg, Sinead O’ Connor, Mumford & Sons, The Chemical Brothers, Franz Ferdinand, Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx, New Order, Björk, Massive Attack, Damien Rice and Swell Season take center stage.Instagram
The Electric Picnic is often described as the Glastonbury of Ireland and the show generally sells out pretty quick every year.
Scarecrow Festival takes place in Durrow every year and is run by a committee of 12 people. The show also promotes music and draws crowds in excess of 18,000 (here are a couple of nice reviews, from Belfast Telegraph and Irish Examiner). Proceeds from this event are put back into the development of the local community.Instagram
It is a 9 day event that generally kicks off towards the end of July and runs into the first week of August.
BARE in the Woods
BARE in the Woods was recently nominated for the Best Festival at the Irish Hospitality Awards, it's a young arts and music festival, held at Garryhinch Woods in early June.Instagram
The Rednecks and Rhinestones Festival
The Rednecks and Rhinestones Festival takes place between the 24th – 26th of July at the Gate House bar in Emo Village. This is a music festival that features some of the best local bands, a community gathering and some great food and drink.
A number of couples decide to visit Laois and get married as it has a perfect setting for a great wedding and a romantic honeymoon.
The number of beautiful gardens in Laois makes it a perfect setting for a bride in white to walk down an aisle and get married in a picturesque setting. The lawns are a great place for guests to chill out and enjoy an outdoor wedding ceremony.
County Laois is covered in greenery and has some of the best golf courses in Ireland. Golf lovers will be able to visit a number of golf clubs spread across county Laois and see which course they like the best. Some of the venues include Abbeyleix golf club, the Heritage golf and spa resort, Mountrath golf club, Health golf club, Portalington golf club and Rathdowney golf club. These clubs offer special packages for tourists who can sign up for a day or for a longer duration of time based on their travel schedule.
Carolyn John, 2017