Opinion: We underestimate how lovely Ireland is – there are gems on our doorsteps


A host of wildflowers, including cowslips, bluebells and goldilocks, cluster at the base of a lime tree on the avenue of St. Michael & All Angels' Church, Abbeyleix, Co. Laois.
A host of wildflowers, including cowslips, bluebells and goldilocks, cluster at the base of a lime tree on the avenue of St. Michael & All Angels’ Church, Abbeyleix, Co. Laois.
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I recently spent a morning in paradise.

Having parked up in the sunshine in the town’s small square, my nostrils fill with the delicious smell of baking bread.

I follow my nose to an old-style bakery, with the backroom staff visibly busy kneading their trademark thick-crusted sourdough breads and rustic yeast baguettes.

They also do hot drinks and a selection of pastries, to take away or eat at a long, communal table.

I bump into a friend having breakfast with her stunning, alabaster-skinned daughter.

I’m not staying today so, granary loaf under my arm, I stroll down the shady side of the street past tall, tastefully-coloured buildings to a vintage shop.

There, my eyes are drawn to a daring pair of sandals bearing the label ‘London College of Fashion’ but they are too big.

I then cross the lime-tree-lined street to the cobbled square, feeling lucky to be in such an enchanting place.

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So where is this nirvana? The south of France? The north of Italy? No, it’s in the midlands of Ireland – my own local town, Abbeyleix.

There has been a settlement here since at least the 12th century, and Abbeyleix as it currently exists was founded as one of the country’s first planned market towns in 1770.

By co-incidence, 1,770 was the population of the town in the last census.

The above bakery was opened last autumn and is run by Adrian Muller from Switzerland and Richard O’Connell, a member of the well-known culinary family from nearby Cullohill.

The ‘vintage’ shop is actually a charity shop, of which there are two in the town, and such is the quality of the wares that people travel from miles away.

If you are wondering why I chose the circuitous introduction to Abbeyleix, it’s because we Irish, including myself, can be slow to recognise how lovely our country really is.

The town square is home to the library, formerly the Market House, which was magnificently restored a few years ago.

It somehow manages to be both a haven of tranquillity and a hive of activity, with regular art exhibitions and children’s workshops, while the staff are among the most helpful that I have ever come across. There is a weekly Saturday market in the Square (9am-1pm) which is fairly small but offers a range of quality food.

Locals Noel and Ida Thompson have been selling their homegrown veg here since long before it was a fashionable thing to do, and their fresh fare is complemented by preserves of same, including beetroot and cucumber (our jar of the latter only lasted days).

In contrast, Edmundburry Greens has only been on the go since April but is already generating a buzz in these parts.

Based in Durrow, they are growing chemical-free salads, containing an average of 30 species of plants and flowers.

The square is permanent home to several family businesses.

These include Andrew Fyffes, a clothing shop and haberdashery set up in 1892 which offers an amazing range of stock.

Want a thermal vest? Check. Crocs? Check. Ladies’ Lebek dress? Check. Irish dancing pumps? Magee jumpers? Check. Three different widths of red ribbon? Check, check, check.

They have recently moved into selling schoolbooks.

A few doors away is Papa Noni’s, which makes the best pizza this side of Italy. It is owned by Tony Mezzapelle, originally from Sicily, and his Irish wife Joan, who have lived in Abbeyleix for years and raised their family here.

Tony once cooked for Luciano Pavarotti.

Businesses like this are the lifeblood of small towns. Long may they prosper.

All this is just one side of the traffic lights. There are many more gems beyond.

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