Near the very centre of Ireland, Tullamore is a town divided by the Grand Canal, which first linked the Midlands with Dublin back in 1798. A decade earlier, this place was the scene of the world’s first aviation disaster, when a hot air balloon crash causing a fire that burnt down up to 130 houses.
Right on the canal towpath is the visitor centre for the whiskey brand Tullamore D.E.W., and you can book quick or in-depth tours of the distillery, and sample its selection of rich, triple distilled whiskeys.
On outings you can traverse peatland like the Bog of Clara and Lough Boora, which have complex ecosystems and have been opened up after commercial peat harvesting ended.
Tullamore also shines for its ruins, like Durrow Abbey, an early-Christian site from the 6th century, and the remnants of Tudor tower houses on the Grand Canal towpath.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tullamore:
1. Tullamore D.E.W. Visitor Centre
People the world over know Tullamore for a brand of whiskey that can be traced back to 1829. The initials D.E.W. stand for Daniel E. Williams, who was the distillery’s general manager in the late-19th century and won the brand international recognition.
Production shut down in Tullamore in 1954 and the company moved to Cork in the 1970s before being taken over by William Grant & Sons and relocated at its rightful home in 2010. The visitor centre opened in 2012: There you can learn more about that balloon crash in 1785 and follow in Daniel E. Williams’ footsteps from stable boy to whiskey master.
You can come for a simple tour and tasting, or really get involved at a “Masterclass” or “Ultimate Experience”, when the distillery rolls out its rarest whiskeys for you to try or lets you make your own blend.
2. Charleville Castle
An enchanting Gothic Revival Castle with a riveting history, Charleville Castle is from the turn of the 19th century.
It was commissioned by Charles Bury, the 1st Earl of Charleville, and designed by Francis Johnston, known for the Neoclassical General Post Office building in Dublin.
In its time the castle has entertained the likes of Romantic poet Lord Byron, who attended a number of parties here.
Thanks to the castle’s authentic Georgian architecture has made it a shooting location for period dramas like Becoming Jane and Northanger Abbey, both from 2007. The King Oak tree in the grounds could be as old as 800 years and was nominated for “European Tree of the Year” in 2013. You can contact the owner for a tour, hearing about the personalities connected with the building, as well as spooky stories of ghosts believed to reside in these walls.
3. Lough Boora Discovery Park
Previously a commercial bog where peat was harvested for fuel, Lough Boora is now a 2,000-hectare outdoor attraction with walking and cycling trails, a sculpture park and a fairy trail for young ones.
There are also four lakes for angling, stocked with trout, carp, bream and tench, all in season from April to October.
If birdwatching is your thing, there are hides across the park and more than 130 species have been recorded at Lough Boora.
You can also hire a solo or tandem bike and pedal along more than 30 kilometres of trails, in wildflower meadows and next to a Mesolithic monument.
4. Church of the Assumption
In 1983 the Church of the Assumption was almost obliterated by fire and was rebuilt during the remainder of the decade.
Outside, the Neo-Gothic design is almost identical to the original from 1906, but the interior was completely reworked and is remarkable for its curving timber frame.
During the rebuild the church received a wealth of donations like stained glass windows by the famous Harry Clarke studios in Dublin, and the Stations of the Cross from St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.
The historic baptismal font is from a former Church of Ireland nearby in Lynally, while the organ was donated by the congregation of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen.
The reredos is carved from travertine marble, while in the day chapel there’s a black cross hewn from the charred timbers of the old church.
5. Old Kilbeggan Distillery
The Old Kilbeggan Distillery is the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland, going back to 1757. One of the two copper pot stills making this whiskey was cast at the beginning of the 19th century.
Old Kilbeggan closed down in 1954 and after falling into disrepair the building was renovated in the 1980s and turned into a whiskey museum.
But since 2010 the company has begun making whiskey once more, and its first batch went on sale in 2014.. The hour-long Apprentice Tour has a guided tasting session of three whiskeys, while 90-minute Distiller’s Tour, has four whiskeys to taste, and organises a meet and greet with the distillers.
For real whiskey aficionados, the all-access Connoisseurs Experience is 3.5 hours long, and is led by the Kilbeggan brand ambassador.
Lunch is provided, as well as a complete tasting session, and at the end you’ll be given a 200ml sample to take home.
6. Clara Bog
One of Ireland’s largest and most unspoiled raised bogs can be found on Tullamore’s northwestern flank.
Protected since the 1980s, the Clara Bog is in a conservation area 836 hectares in size, and in 2011 a multimillion-Euro visitor centre was built at the bog.
This is open on weekdays from May to November and has interactive exhibits sharing facts about the development of peatlands, their biodiversity, as well details about the human history and archaeology of bogs.
You’ll be able to venture out onto the bog via a one-kilometre boardwalk trail equipped with interpretive panels.
In a 20-minute radius of Tullamore you can pick from four different golf courses: Daingean, Castle Barna, Esker Hills and Tullamore Golf Club.
All four come highly recommended, but Castle Barna is one of the highest rated in Ireland’s Midlands.
This 18-hole course is on forgiving terrain, laced with streams and couched in ancient woodland.
Castle Barna is also reasonably priced, with green fees costing as little as €16 during the week and €20 on weekends.
In beech, oak and chestnut forest, Tullamore Golf Club typically ranks in the top 30 parkland courses in Ireland and was founded way back in 1926. The back nine is a lot of fun to play, especially the signature 16th and 18th holes, both dogleg par 4s.
8. Birr Castle
This property on the boundary with County Tipperary belongs to the 7th Earl of Rosse, whose family has been here since the turn of the 17th century.
The house itself is private property, but you can come to roam the grounds.
What makes a visit essential is the reconstruction of the Leviathan of Parsonstown.
Built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in the 1840s, it was the largest telescope in the world for 72 years until America’s Hooker Telescope in 1917. With a whopping lens diameter of 1.8 metres, the telescope was used to observe nebulae and the Messier 51 (Whirlpool Galaxy). The original was dismantled at the turn of the 20th century, but a close replica was constructed in the mid-1990s.
There’s much more besides the Leviathan, including Ireland’s oldest wrought iron bridge, walled gardens with 300-year-old box hedges, and a wildflower meadow with an oak tree more than half a millennium old.
9. Tullamore Town Park
A generous parcel of woodland and grass on the south bank of the Tullamore River, the Town Park is a minute or two on foot from the D.E.W. visitor centre.
If you have an exercise routine to keep up with, then this is the obvious place for a jog, among the well-tended and forest paths.
When the sun’s shining there’s no better spot in town for a picnic, and since the 2000s the park has been updated with an snazzy water feature and a safe playground for children up to 12, including a zip-line.
10. Tullamore Show
Something to mark in the diary if you’re in town during the summer, the Tullamore Show is a one-day livestock and agriculture fair on the second Sunday of August.
The show is many things rolled into one: On top of the 700 trade stands and pedigree livestock competitions, there are live music and dance performances, cookery demonstrations, craft stalls, equestrian displays, workshops, fashion shows, an artisan food fair, dog agility trials and a lot more than we can list here.
The history and future of country life in Ireland is represented at a vintage machinery exhibition and the National Inventions Awards, showcasing creativity in fields from horticulture to homes.
11. Slieve Bloom Mountains
In half an hour you can be in one of Europe’s two oldest mountain ranges.
The rolling sedimentary peaks of the Slieve Bloom mountains were once thousands of metres high but have been weathered down over eons to a manageable maximum height of 527 metres.
Catch a clear day on Stillbrook Hill or Arderin the highest points of the four ancient provinces of Ireland will be visible on the horizon.
You’ll be sure to see a few deer as you walk in these hills, and the same goes for red grouse which are plentiful in Slieve Bloom.
There are six trailheads for circular loops across the range, and these are colour-coded from green to red for the most difficult.
And for a multi–day adventure, the famed Slieve Bloom way weaves through the range for 84 kilometres.
12. Durrow Abbey
One for the history buffs, Durrow Abbey near Tullamore was founded by St Columba back in the mid-6th century.
Now, across a large complex you can marvel at a trove of Medieval monuments.
Defended by a Norman motte earthwork, there’s a holy well, five grave slabs from the first years of Christianity in Ireland and a beguiling Irish High Cross, sculpted in the middle of the 9th century.
Most of the stone monuments, including the grave slabs and high cross, can be seen inside the newer St Columcille’s Church.
The motte meanwhile was constructed by the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy, who was killed at the abbey by an Irishman in 1186. Earlier the 10th-century manuscript, the Book of Durrow was composed here, and in 1054 the abbey was the only place in the western world that observed and recorded the SN 1054 supernova.
13. Srah Castle
In a boggy meadow by the towpath on the Grand Canal stands Srah Castle, an Elizabethan tower house built in 1588. This heavily fortified building has been in ruins since the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland in the mid 17th century, but large chunks of its architecture survive.
You can see machicolations, gun loops, bartizans on the corners and beautiful multi-foil patterns in some of the window frames.
One corner of the tower has been blown out and you can look up to see the remnants of mural corridors and a spiral stairway.
14. Ballycowan Castle
If you stay on the Grand Canal towpath and walk west from Srah Castle you’ll come to another ruined tower house from the same era.
Ballycowan Castle is also Elizabethan, from 1589, and has those telltale elongated Tudor chimney stacks and mullioned windows.
The castle was built on top of a much older fortifications owned by the O’Molloys but razed by fire in the mid-16th century.
After a scramble up a steep bank you can crouch through a hole in the wall and find yourself in the castle’s sunken floor in two barrel-vaulted chambers.
The south end of the castle was obliterated by artillery fire in an attack by Cromwell’s forces.
15. Tullamore Pet Farm
There’s a good family outing a few kilometres west of the town at the Tullamore Pet Farm.
This place remains a working farm, part of which has just been re-configured as an animal attraction.
Here children will be able to interact with miniature horses, pot-bellied pigs, red deer, llamas and emus, and see the multicoloured exotic birds in the farm’s own aviary.
If the weather caves there’s an indoor animal shed, and a play shed with soft obstacles and a ball pit.
Outside the farm has a large inflatable maze to solve, a play-park and a cafe where parents can recharge with a cup of coffee.