PUCKANE - Nestled in the corner of counties Galway, Clare, and Tipperary lies Lough Derg, a 50-square-mile lake that's the second largest in the country. Dubbed "Ireland's pleasure lake," Lough Derg is the Lake Winnipesaukee of central Ireland, an outdoor haven that draws bird-watchers, anglers, and boaters of all kinds.
The villages ringing its shores are home to a mix of new and old, where artists create modern-day sculptures from 4,000-year-old bog wood, and new thatched homes sit next to centuries-old ruins. Here, people still weave scarves by hand, and cows graze on land that has never been artificially fertilized.
Lough Derg's location just 50 to 100 miles from either coast gives travelers easy access to other areas of the country: eastward to Dublin, the capital, on the River Liffey and Dublin Bay; southwestward to the Cliffs of Moher, rising nearly 700 feet above the Atlantic; and farther south to the Iveragh Peninsula with its stunning oceanside drive, the Ring of Kerry, can each be reached on a day trip.
For families and budget-conscious travelers, the area offers plenty of homes for rent. You can spend a week in a thatched cottage with a peat-burning fireplace, several bedrooms, and a full-size kitchen for a reasonable price. Base yourself in a village on the shores of Lough Derg, and you'll soon know the locals from trips to the area's colorful shops, markets, and pubs.
The twin towns of Killaloe and Ballina on the lake's southernmost tip are linked by a bridge with 13 arches and serve as a gateway to the Shannon region. The Lough Derg Cycleway, an 82-mile, relatively easy route circumnavigating the lake, begins and ends at Killaloe. And the Lough Derg Way walking trail passes through town on its way to Dromineer, about 20 miles away and home to one of the oldest yacht clubs in the world.
Stop at the Brian Boru Heritage Centre in the old lockkeeper's house by the bridge and pick up information on the driving loop around Lough Derg. This 78-mile route - along often narrow, twisting roads - takes you past the ruins of old stone churches, castles, and monasteries; to bustling harbors and quiet villages; and up to lookouts for sweeping views of the lake and green, rolling hills (don't miss the hilltop view from Portroe on Route 494).
Along the way, you can meet hand-weavers, glassblowers, and local artists such as Tony Downey, who creates sculptures of birds and other wildlife out of age-blackened timber. In his studio at Garrykennedy a sheltered fishing and boating hamlet on the lake's eastern shore, Downey uses a band saw and a sander to create elegant wistful shapes out of oak that has been preserved by the area's bogs for millennia.
"This wood has been buried in the Irish soil through the Bronze and Iron ages, and while the Egyptian pyramids were being built," says Downey. "It's at least 4,000 years old."
The bogs of central Ireland consist of acidic water and compressed vegetation, like heather and sphagnum moss. Over the years, fallen trees have been swallowed by the bogs, which now serve as treasure chests of the past.
"The wood in the bogs is a nuisance to farmers," says Downey, "but as far as I'm concerned, it's black gold."
You'll spot Downey's bog oak sculptures in shops around the region. More "contemporary" treasures can be found at the Antique Centre in Ballinderry, where a sign on the door reads, "Please ring the bell for assistance. The owners of the shop are fairly antique themselves, so please give them time to respond, or go to the house at the back of the shop and shout 'cos we are deaf too!" Here, Denise Shaw sells an eclectic mix of antique mirrors, Georgian furniture, and "the usual bric-a-brac," she says, "but they're fine-quality pieces, not rubbish."
A few steps down the road at Kilgarvan Quay, rumor has it that the local anglers club runs a competition for the biggest fish caught by an overseas visitor. Word is, the trout start biting in May. You'll probably want to rent a boat, or you can try snagging a pike or perch from shore.
Heading north on Route 493, you pass through the village of Ballinderry, known for its dry stone walls, and Terryglass, which twice won the national Tidy Town award, a distinction given to a town each year for its exceptional landscaping, overall tidiness, and nature-based amenities, among other criteria. While here, stop for a pub lunch in the Derg Inn, famous for its homemade soup and farm-fresh ingredients, then explore the town's ruins: a 13th-century Norman castle with cylindrical towers, and the remains of a 6th-century monastery.
Portumna Forest Park on the northern tip of Lough Derg, near where the River Shannon empties into the lake, has miles of trails for walkers. Wander over to the recently restored 17th-century castle, stroll along the lake, or hike through beech groves and forests of juniper and yew, stopping to climb the lookout tower for a bird's-eye view of the area.
One of Lough Derg's main highlights is Inis Cealtra or Holy Island, on the southwestern end of the lake, which has stone ruins from a 6th-century monastic settlement and what is considered the lushest and most fertile land in County Clare.
This 50-acre, grassy hump has been home to monastic and Christian communities, and a renowned university that once drew students from around Europe. It was repeatedly plundered by Vikings and later became a place of refuge for people practicing ancient, forbidden religions. Religious gatherings were banned in the 1800s and Holy Island was then leased to farmers like James O'Brien, who eventually purchased the island.
O'Brien spends his days here tending his cattle and taking care of the national monuments: an ancient graveyard, a hermit's cell, four stone churches, and a 75-foot-high round tower. Because of its rainy weather and remote location, Holy Island has escaped modern farming methods. The land has never been tilled so it contains organic herbs, grasses, and flowers found in few other places in Ireland, a perfect feeding ground for O'Brien's cattle come summertime.
"Once they go there, like, you know straight away," says O'Brien. "After three or four weeks, they have healthier complexions and the quality of the meat has drastically improved."
In summer months, boats regularly take visitors from the town of Mountshannon to Holy Island, a little over a mile away. Look for the blue-and-white caravan on the Mountshannon pier. Off-season, ask around town and a local fisherman may take you over to the island for a look-see (just keep an eye out for the "Live Bull on Island," as a sign by the dock warns).
Before completing your driving loop, visit the East Clare Heritage Centre in Tuamgraney, just south of Scariff. The center is located in the oldest church still in continuous use in Ireland, the 10th-century St. Cronán's Church, and has tourism information and a seasonal museum that highlights local architecture and historical finds.
Then wander over to McKernan Handweavers, where Eugene and Anke McKernan use hand and power looms to make scarves out of merino wool, silk, and mohair. They also offer weaving demonstrations and tours of their workshop, where they have all sorts of homemade contraptions.
The McKernans first started weaving more than 20 years ago, using an old farmer's loom from Germany. Now, they have three slick power looms dating to the mid-1860s.
"This is our own industrial revolution," Eugene says. "We're just 200 hundred years late."
Like much of Irish life, the McKernans are simply blending the old and the new, using antique equipment to create modern treasures.
Kari J. Bodnarchuk, a freelance travel writer and photographer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.