Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Stories of wine, saints and monks
at Wineport Lodge on Lough Ree

Evening lights by the shores of Lough Ree at Wineport Lodge near Athlone, Co Westmeath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying for a few days at Wineport Lodge 5 km north Athlone, with a room looking out onto the shores of the inner lakes of Lough Ree on the River Shannon.

This hotel by the lakes in a tranquil setting in Co Westmeath began as Wineport Lakeside Restaurant 25 years ago, when it was opened by husband and wife Ray Byrne and Jane English in 1993. The building was substantially upgraded and expanded in 1996 to accommodate daytime trading and business meetings, and the Lodge first opened for residents in March 2002.

Since then, Wineport Lodge has grown in reputation as an award-winning restaurant and hotel. It is a member of Ireland’s Blue Book, is listed in their guides by Georgina Campbell and John and Sally McKenna, and has been the host for many series to The Restaurant Show both on RTÉ and TV3. Wineport Lodge was among the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards 2017 for Ireland’s Top 25 Romantic Hotels.

Each room has a name associated with wine, such as Tuscany and Chianti. The room I am staying in is named ‘St Julien,’ which is known for its red wine in the Bordeaux region. It takes its name from Saint-Julien-Beychevelle and is one of the six communal appellations in Médoc.

Wine is the theme throughout Westport Lordge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But the name Wineport predates the reputation this place has with reviewers and connoisseurs.

The association of this part of the Midlands and the wine trade does back to 542 AD, according to local lore.

When Saint Ciaran had studied for some years in Clonard and on Aran, he returned to his native Midlands to begin a monastic foundation and initially settled in a place later called Iseal Chiaran, 3 km east of Lough Ree. The name of Ballykeeran, a nearby local village, means ‘the home of Ciaran.’

Later, Saint Ciaran founded another monastery on Hare Island, and from there he moved south to Clonmacnoise, where he founded his most famous monastery and seat of learning.

From the earliest times, there was always a demand for wine in Ireland, which was never a wine-producing country. The wine trade was usually with France, but also with Spain. Early writings mention wine being imported from Gaul or France to Limerick, and then being brought up the River Shannon to Clonmacnoise.

The townland of Wineport is said to take its name, Port an Fhiona in Irish, from a sheltered place on the lakeshore at Lough Ree at which the wine imported from France was brought ashore.

Wine continues to arrive at Wineport today, but its of a very different quality, I am sure, and from a wider variety of sources.

Moments of tranquillity on the shores of Lough Ree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A few days by the lakes and
in the ‘Village of the Roses’

Sunset on Lough Ree seen from the Wineport Lodge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Thanks to a gift I received last year when I retired from the academic staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, I am staying at Wineport Lodge, a 4-star hotel in Co Westmeath in the heart of Irish Midlands, 5 km north of Athlone and on the shores of the inner lakes of Lough Ree on the River Shannon.

The hotel is in a beautiful, peaceful location, with stunning lake views over Lough Ree and on the edge of the peaceful Inland Waterways, with small islands that have names such as Friar’s Island and Temple Island, and surrounded by native woodland.

Each of the 29 rooms and suites has been designed with individual flourishes and is named after a wine. I am in the St Julien Room, and like all the other rooms here it is a spacious, light-filled room with views over the water and a west-facing balcony that offers opportunities to sit and enjoy the sunset. Each of the 29 rooms.

There is a wealth of attractions and activities locally. Athlone is a vibrant, bustling town but also with an old town in the shadow of the castle, with an enchanting mix of quaint streets, old-style pubs, antique shops, and some award-winning local restaurants.

In the afternoon, I walked to the village of Glassan, just a 1.5 km stroll from the hotel along a narrow country road. This is a small village of 166 people, and the River Tullaghan flows through the north end of the village and then flows south to Killinure Lough, a part of Lough Ree.

The village is overlooked by Caraun Hill and the core of the village consists of a late 18th and early 19th century terrace of two-storey houses, many of them covered with roses. There are two pubs, Grogan’s and the Villager, both with restaurants.

Glassan calls itself the ‘Village of the Roses’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Glassan or Glasson, which calls itself the ‘Village of the Roses,’ village was planned and laid out to serve Waterstown House, the home of the Harris-Temple family.

Waterstown House was built in the 1740s and stood on a hill south-east of the village. But all that remains of the house is a corner of two of the original façades, part of the basement, the farmyard, the walled garden, the pigeon loft and some minor structures. The rest of the house has been lost, with its decorative terraced gardens, the castle on an island on the lake, the canals, woods and shipyards.

Glassan is laid out as a straight street without a central square or common. At the south end, the school was built to educate the children of estate workers. Isabella Harris believed that education could prevent the repetition of the distress experienced during the famine in the 1840s.

Wineport Lodge is in an area that was originally the deer park of the Waterstown demesne. The surrounding townland was named Wineport because wine was brought from France and Spain by boat and landed here and brought to the cellars under the house by cart.

But more about that wine and Wineport later in the day.

The jetty at Wineport Lodge on the shores of Lough Ree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)