“Jumpers and sunglasses” I tell the kids as they ask me what they need to bring with them. It’s a cool yet sunny March morning and after a hearty breakfast we’re in holiday mode, getting ready to head off from our accommodation to explore the surrounding area.
It might sound like we’re heading off on a Mediterranean adventure but no, we’re in County Monaghan in Ireland. One of the few counties in our Emerald Isle that we haven’t visited before.
I know (just) where it is on the map and even though it’s only an hour’s drive from Dublin and Belfast, I’ve never had reason to pass through this border county so am looking forward to finding out what Monaghan has to offer families.
Friday evening – Steak and Surprises
Hillgrove Hotel and Spa
We headed off after work and school on a rainy Friday afternoon from Sligo and drove straight to our hotel for the weekend, the Hillgrove Hotel and Spa in the centre of Monaghan. With a string of awards including Top 25 Hotels in Ireland and Best Family Hotel in Ireland, we were looking forward to settling in. We checked in and were surprised to find that our comfortable and modern hotel room had plenty of room for all five of us, which rarely happens. You can read all about what we thought of our visit to Hillgrove Hotel and Spa hotel here.
The Batch Loaf
After freshening up and a quick wander around the hotel, we walked into Monaghan town for dinner in the award-winning restaurant, The Batch Loaf. The town itself was quite quiet, everyone seemed to be in this restaurant. As we were shown to our table and walked past other tables, the food on the plates and the smiles on the diners faces showed us exactly why there were so many people there on a Friday night in March.
With specials like 6oz Fillet Steak with a Slow Stout braised Beef Bon Bon, Onion Ring and Rich Stout Jus, we all thought that our meal was one of the nicest we’d ever had anywhere in Ireland. If you make it to Monaghan, you MUST visit, and book, it’s popular.
Saturday – History, Castles and Racing Cars
Walking Tour with Monaghan Guided Tours
To really appreciate a place, you need to understand more about its history and so first up was a walking tour.
Before we got started, we made a quick stop into Dinkins Bakery, a popular family run, cafe in The Market in the centre of Monaghan as we’d heard about their incredible cakes and coffee. I was wishing I hadn’t indulged in such a hearty breakfast in the Hillgrove earlier.
We took our coffee and met with Laura from Monaghan Guided Tours at the Western Arms Hotel in the main square, also known as ‘The Diamond’. As we wandered through the streets of Monaghan town and past Peter’s Lake, Laura told us all about the chiefs of the McMahons and how the Blayneys and Rossmores were the main ruling classes. My maiden name is McMahon so I felt right at home. I would recommend that anyone visiting Monaghan book themselves onto this free tour, it’s a fascinating insight into the area.
Monaghan County Museum
I’m not normally the biggest fan of history but Laura recommended a visit to Monaghan County Museum so we popped along after our walking tour and I’m glad we did. The award-winning museum covers the history of Monaghan from 10,000 years ago right up to today.
It’s worth checking out their new exhibition on Monaghan’s War of Independence 1919-1921 which was put together in collaboration with Professor Terence Dooley of Maynooth University.
Lunch at Castle Leslie
I think everyone has heard of Castle Leslie. The name is synonymous with luxury and style. I’ve never been before and was excited to visit the new conservatory at ‘The Lodge’ at Castle Leslie for lunch. The interiors were incredibly distracting and I found myself wandering around taking photos for inspiration for when I win the lottery and can build my own Castle Leslie. I nearly missed the delicious homemade soup and sandwiches arriving.
If you have time, go for a wander over to the stables at Castle Leslie.
You would think we’d had enough food but as we drove out of Castle Leslie, we spotted the famous artisan chocolatier Glaslough on the corner so in the interest of always supporting local businesses, we stopped off.
We had a lovely chat with the owner who told us all about the business and gave us some tasty chocolates to try. We bought some caramels and also fudge which is a new addition to their product line. Their products have relatively short shelf live as they use fresh local ingredients and no preservatives. Mind you, I can’t imagine their products ever lasting long anyway they were so delicious.
Rally School Ireland
“Anyone fancy learning to drive?” I asked the three teens sprawled across the back seat of the car. “Very funny” was the response, until we arrived at Rally School Ireland in Scotstown, then they realised why I’d asked the question.
Rally School Ireland is the largest rally school in Ireland and they have a Junior Rally experience that is suitable for children aged 10+. The kids learn the basics from a qualified driver in a Ford Ka before having the opportunity to put into practise what they’re learned on the rally circuit.
Before anyone did any driving, Seamus took us out in a Suburu Impreza to see the track and also to see what’s possible in the car. I think I held my breath the whole way around!
After donning fetching safety suits, balaclavas and helmets, the kids were then taken out one by one in the Ford Ka and James and I went out in the mark 2 Ford Escort. Our laps were timed. I beat James! The staff were so lovely, Aisling helped us with all our gear and Brendan was the kids’ teacher. It was so well organised and we all loved it. I loved that we could watch the kids (and each other) from the covered viewing platform. This is definitely one experience we won’t forget.
They have a range of experiences available from Race and Chase Drifting Experiences to Porsche 911 Carrera S Experiences. The Young Driver Experience costs €130 per child or they offer a child and parent session for €260.
Sunday – Arrows and Lace
Off-road with Irish Country Quads
After checking out of the Hillgrove Hotel and Spa on Sunday morning, we headed just over half an hour away to Inniskeen to visit Irish Country Quads http://irishcountryquads.com/ where we had a chance to try out some adrenaline-fuelled activities.
Their off-road quad biking trails take you along purpose build obstacle courses with a river, underground tunnel and overhead bridges. Everything was provided from the waterproof clothes and helmets to the boots and gloves. We also got a chance to try out indoor Archery which brought out a healthy competitive streak among certain family members!
They also offer Clay Pigeon Shooting and Rifle Shooting but we’ll have to return to try those activities.
Lunch time at Matilda’s Bakery
After a fun few hours at Irish Country Quads, we jumped back in the car and drove just over ten minutes to Carrickmacross where we had a tasty lunch at Matilda’s Artisan Bakery & Deli. A member of the Taste of Monaghan initiative, the staff at Matilda’s pride themselves on producing all their own products, from scratch, in their onsite bakery. There’s a staggering selection of breads to choose from and there was a queue out the door just to buy coffee and bread to take-away.
Right across the road from Matilda’s is Carrickmacross Lace Gallery where Geraldine O’Reilly told us all how popular Carrickmacross Lace is around the world and how this incredibly delicate material is made. Both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton had Carrickmacross lace on their wedding dresses. You can buy a wide range of gifts at the gallery from prints and kits to Christmas decorations.
The Collective at Market Square
Next door to the lace gallery is the Collective at Market Square where the passionate Monaghan local Catherina Donoghy proudly showed us her collection.
This innovative gallery was originally setup to showcase local artists and craft makers and Catherina was able to tell us the story behind each and every one of the artists and craft makers who are lucky to have a spot to show their work. Her enthusiasm for supporting local artists was infectious, I honestly could’ve stayed to chat with her all day.
The last stop in our food/adventure/history tour of Monaghan was the Carrickmacross Workhouse which is one of the few remaining Irish Workhouses to be restored. There we were greeted by Orlagh Meegan-Gallagher who gave us a tour of this fascinating historical Workhouse Famine Museum. Orlagh is the artist in residence and education officer and created the stunning artwork that is displayed around the workhouse. Each piece helps to tell the story of Carrickmacross Workhouse.
We were all touched by this incredible building and feel that it’s a place that every family should book a tour and visit.
If you would like to have your own Monaghan adventure, check out Monaghan Tourism.
Disclosure : We were guests of Monaghan Tourism for the duration of our visit in exchange for this review. All images and opinions are 100% honest and our own.