At the confluence of the Camcor and Little Brosna rivers, Birr (Web: www.birrnet.com ) is the Midlands' most attractive town, planned around the estate of Birr Castle, the home of the Parsons family, later the Earls of Rosse. Around Emmet Square – formerly Duke's Square, but the unpopular statue of the Duke of Cumberland, victor over the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, is long gone from the central pillar – you'll find several broad Georgian terraces, graced with fanlights and other fine architectural details. Birr is not yet on the country's main tourist trail but supports some appealing places to stay and eat, making it an excellent place from which to explore the Shannon, Clonmacnois and Slieve Bloom. The place comes to life in mid-August during its Vintage Week and Arts Festival (Web: www.birrvintageweek.com ), when shop assistants, bar staff and townspeople deck themselves out in historic regalia, and there's a varied programme of street theatre, music, and art exhibitions.
Forbidding, grey Gothic castle itself is not open to the public, but there's plenty of interest in the Historic Science Centre in the coach houses and the varied demesne (daily: March– Oct 9am–6pm; Nov– Feb 10am–4pm; 9; Heritage Island; Web: www.birrcastle.com ). You could easily spend a couple of hours strolling around the beautiful castle demesne, especially if you buy the booklet on its fifty most significant trees, or in summer you could hire a horse and carriage to save the legwork. Beyond the wild-flower meadows, which are left to grow tall until July every year, lie a nineteenth-century lake, a fernery and fountain, and the oldest wrought-iron suspension bridge in Ireland, dating from 1820. The walled gardens feature the tallest box hedges in the world, which are over three hundred years old, as well as intricate parterres and paths canopied with hornbeams in the formal, seventeenth-century-style Millennium Garden.
O'Connell Street, which becomes Main Street, runs south from Emmet Square, where buses stop, to Market Square. The tourist office is in the civic offices on Wilmer Road, which runs very roughly parallel to and east of Main Street (mid-May to mid-Sept Mon– Sat 9.30am–1 & 2–5.30pm; Tel:057/912 0110); it shares the complex with the public library, which provides Internet access.
Off the west side of Market Square, on Castle Street, is a very good value guesthouse, The Maltings (Tel:057/912 1345, email@example.com; Price: 60-90). Housed in a restored 1810 warehouse that was used to store malt for Guinness and overlooks the leafy river, it offers quiet, large rooms with TVs and en-suite bathrooms. Also central is the welcoming ATownsend House, on busy Townsend Street to the north of Emmet Square (Tel:057/912 1276, firstname.lastname@example.org; Price: 60-90), which provides similar facilities and wonderful breakfasts, in an airy, high-ceilinged nineteenth-century house that's tastefully furnished with antiques. Around the corner on tree-lined Oxmantown Mall, The Stables (Tel:057/912 0263, Web: www.thestablesbirr.com ; Price: 90-120) is a fanlit nineteenth-century townhouse with comfortable, en-suite bedrooms and an open fire in its cosy lounge, as well as a home-furnishings shop and tearooms.
The town's central hotel, Dooly's in Emmet Square (Tel:0509/20032, Web: www.doolyshotel.ie ; Price: 120-150), is a welcoming Georgian coaching inn, with a chequered history; it was here in 1809 that the Galway Hunt partied a little too hard after a day in the field and managed to burn the hotel down, thus gaining a new name, the Galway Blazers. It's still one of the town's main social hubs, thanks partly to its fine restaurant, TheEmmet – a formal, luxurious but not too pricey affair, serving dishes such as honey-roast duck stuffed with chestnuts in an apple, rhubarb and ginger sauce. For a change of continents, Kong Lam (Tel:057/912 1253) on Market Square is a good Chinese option. During the day, your best bet is Emma's, 31 Main St, a mellow café – cool jazz and comfy banquettes – preparing delicious panini and cold deli plates, as well as speciality teas and coffees and a tempting array of cakes.
Craughwell's in Castle Street is a very sociable and cosy pub, with traditional music at weekends. The Chestnut, on The Green between Emmet Square and the castle, is also welcoming; stylishly outfitted with dark wood and leather seats and backed by a large beer garden, it hosts traditional sessions on Thursdays and live bands at weekends. Birr Theatre and Arts Centre on Oxmantown Mall (Tel:057/912 2911, Web: www.birrtheatre.com ) hosts a varied programme of drama, music and artistic events throughout the year.