Located in the heart of Ireland's midlands, Westmeath is known as “The Lake County” due to its abundance of waterways.
Indeed, County Westmeath features six large lakes, along with access to the River Shannon and the Grand Canal. Taken together, they provide rich opportunity for outdoor pursuits in support of the local tourist economy.
Agriculture is County Westmeath’s other economic pillar -- another nickname for the region is "the goat capital". Commerce and shipping have historically been successful here, due to its river access and variety of locally available farm goods.
County Westmeath Highlights
County Westmeath has much to offer in the way of water sports and angling on its lakes, rivers and streams. It is also rich in ancient religious and historical sites, with perhaps none so ancient as the Hill of Uisneach -- which pre-dates and long-rivalled the Hill of Tara in its importance, yet remains little-known, even among Irish people.
For those so inclined, the Seven Wonders of Fore comprise a group of interesting attractions scattered around the village of the same name, including a monastery founded by Saint Fechin during the seventh century. Some of the other sites are purported to display miraculous properties.
A 1200 year old high cross stands at Twyford, and church sites at Inishbofin and Multyfarnham are fine examples of ancient and relatively recent (15th century) monastic settlements which were once numerous across the country.
County Westmeath is also home to two castles that once housed prestigious members of Irish society. Athlone Castle had its beginnings in 1210 and displays items of interest collected over its long history in a modern visitors’ centre. Tullynally Castle and Gardens are located in a more pastoral setting, the castle dating back to the 17th century and filled with art exhibits on the inside, while framed by lush gardens and forest on the outside.
The towns of County Westmeath contain many sites offering exhibits on the local lifestyle and culture of the past. An Dun Transport and Heritage Museum houses a range of well preserved antique vehicles and implements. Belvedere House and Gardens gives visitors a realistic view of aristocratic country life in 1740, with its stunning architecture and relaxing grounds.
Locke’s Distillery and Museum affords a look at the art of Irish whiskey making through a functioning distillery begun in 1757, and Mullingar Bronze and Pewter Centre is dedicated to pewter craft, which has been part of the Irish culture for more than 800 years.
The towns of County Westmeath began as market centres and particularly in the case of Athlone, have evolved into modern commercial centres for business, industry and tourism. Athlone also features an expansive harbour on the River Shannon. Mullingar, the largest town of County Westmeath, offers charming 19th century buildings as well as a cathedral of architectural and artistic note.
County Westmeath History
The name of County Westmeath is derived from the Gaelic An Lar Mhi, meaning simply ‘west of Meath’. The lands here were once a part of County Meath, but were given their own designation in 1542.
Before the arrival of St. Patrick, Athlone was the gathering place for the High Kings of Ireland. It was also the strategic protection point of the area, located at the site of what has served as a major River Shannon crossing for as long as history has been recorded and perhaps longer.
Normans arrived in Westmeath around 1170, building many forts and castles, which still stand guard in the region. The years of the Great Famine decimated the local population, as many of those who did not die emigrated to other parts of the world.
Popular Westmeath Surnames
Popular surnames in County Westmeath include
Athlone, County Westmeath by Simon Daly