The day after Castle Ward, we set off for Offaly to meet Timothy. The weather was still holding: it was about 24°C, with barely a cloud in sight.
The route is pretty straightforward; you just keep on the same road all the way from Dundalk. While you can go via Dublin, it involves a lot of soulless, boring motorway. So we took the route straight through lots of little country towns instead.
The road signs are, to be blunt, mental. All along the way, there isn’t a single minor curve in the road which isn’t preceded by a legion of warning signs. All this superfluous signage must be a sore temptation for scrap metal thieves…
We didn’t leave Belfast until mid-afternoon, due to altercations involving a taxi, a washing machine and a pair of glasses (long story!). So it was quite late by the time we got to Tullamore. It’s a nice enough little town. Local businesses seem to be riding out the storm well, unlike in many towns in the north. There are so many boarded-up shops there that they had to paint fake shop-fronts when the G8 came to the north, just to take the bad look off things.
We hit a kebab place for a good hearty feed, and after dinner took a walk in Charleville demesne. Conveniently, it’s just across the road from Timothy’s house.
The woods around Charleville castle are among the last remnants of ancient broadleaved woodland that once covered the island from coast to coast.
In these woods is the Tullamore King Oak – a majestic, spreading, pendunculate oak, which came third in this year’s “European Tree of the Year” contest. According to myth, every time a limb falls off the tree, one of the Earls of Charleville dies. The last time this was put to the test was midway through the 20th Century. The tree was struck by lightning, and Colonel Charles Hutton-Bury, the last of the line, obligingly handed in his cards.
As we made our way along the woodland paths, there was a sudden scuffle across the track in front of us.
“I think that was a badger!” said Mal, “At least, it was something like a big grey aubergine…”
It was getting twilight under the tree cover, and we were a bit unsure of what we’d just seen. But just as we were talking about it another one shot out in front of us. I don’t think I’ve seen a badger before, and I was surprised by the speed they can move at!
After about twenty minutes, we came to the castle itself.
Charleville Castle is considered one of the finest pieces of Gothic revival architecture in Ireland. And it’s certainly an imposing building. But I have to be honest; for my taste, it seems almost sickeningly ostentatious, and seems slightly fake in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in Disneyworld.
The building was never really a happy family home. The family seem to have lurched from crisis to crisis precipitated by excessive drinking, gambling and living beyond their means. One of the ceilings in the castle was designed by William Morris, and Lord Byron was a regular visitor whenever he came to Ireland.
It’s reputed to be haunted. I don’t know about that, but there’s certainly a very gloomy atmosphere looming over the place.
The adjoining stable block, by contrast, really is impressive, but it’s falling badly into disrepair. You can still walk in an see the old stalls where the horses used to be kept, but there are no windows left, and the ceilings are falling through. In the overgrown courtyard are two large iron cages, now almost engulfed by vegetation, where it’s said that two bears where once kept.
The castle and its grounds are now in the care of two separate charitable trusts, and there seems to be a bit of disagreement about who’s responsible for the stable block. I hope it’s sorted out before the building falls entirely to ruin.
It was close on half past ten by the time
we got there and had a poke around the building, so we didn’t hang about for too long.
We had an early appointment with the Wicklow Hills to keep the next morning.