“I feel like I am riding through a coffee table book of Ireland,” said Steve Metzger, one of my companions on a bicycling trip along the West Coast of Ireland in May, 2006. Indeed, that is what it felt like -- green rolling hills, free roaming sheep, blooming flowers and ocean views. We were on a five day trip with Cycle Holidays Ireland and seeing Ireland as few folks do, by bicycle.
As we peddled through the countryside of western Ireland, an area less visited than other parts of Ireland, I did indeed feel like I was in a photo of Ireland. In fact, I kept shouting to my husband, Paul, “Look honey, it’s Ireland.”
Flying into Shannon Airport from the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport had been surprisingly easy for us. We left Thursday afternoon, had a brief stop in Atlanta, and then flew non-stop into Shannon. The only downside was that when we arrived in Ireland Friday morning, we had had little sleep.
Despite the exhaustion or maybe because of it, as soon as we pull into our hotel, a mere 10 minute drive from the airport, Paul and I burst out laughing. On the plane, I had read “McCarthy’s Bar” a novel about Ireland where the first thing the author instructs is that one must always stop in a bar with his or her name on it. “Kathleen’s Irish Pub” is adjacent to our hotel. “I know where I can find you all week,” joked John Heagney, owner of Cycle Holidays Ireland.
But there was no time to waste as we hustled to our rooms, ate breakfast and were soon on the roads of Ireland, biking along the countryside that we had only seen in photos.
The route began at Bunratty Castle, a medieval castle where we would later have dinner. For a couple of hours, we rode past meadows, small houses and farms and more modern looking homes as well. Green arrows strategically spray-painted on roads marked our paths as we traveled along.
Soon, we spot the little town and small tavern where we will have our lunch. Across the way is a castle older than our country, the United States.
Of course, we can’t resist temptation and have our first real Guinness. And our second. Wisely (or maybe not so wisely), we stopped after two but my, my they sure tasted good after traveling and biking. I don’t know if it was the atmosphere, the exertion or the exhaustion but Guinness was much, much better in Ireland.
The afternoon had us traveling back along a different route, but back to our take-off point, the only time that we would do so in the trip. After a quick shower, we headed for a medieval dinner at Bunratty. To add to the festivities, Paul and I were chosen out of the couple of hundred or so to be the Lord and Lady of the evening. Paul quickly took to the role, approving the meal, the entertainment and punishment for one poor soul caught “pilfering with the women of the castle.” I had to remind him that this Lordship thing was only for the evening. It was great fun as we ate with our fingers, downing a locally made wine.
The next day was the kind of stuff that dreams are made of. We biked 18 miles down the west coast of Ireland with the ocean our constant companion on a perfectly clear spring day. Fortunately for us, while the roads are narrow, the traffic was minimal and the folks in Ireland seem fairly used to bikers.
Cycle Ireland is owned by John Heagney, a dairy farmer all year and cycle tour leader in the summer months. A former competitive cyclist, Heagney started the company nine years ago when his wife sold her beauty salons. Encouraged by his former high school history teacher, John Joe Conwell (who now works with Heagney when school lets out), Heagney purchased several bikes, a couple of vans and set-up his business. The result is a successful business where 95% of his customers are Americans, many of them repeat customers.
There are several cycling companies in Ireland, varying in locations toured, duration and difficulty. Heagney is one of the few local companies owned and run by an Irishman. The way I see it, he has the advantage of really knowing the countryside, access to equipment and local resources, understanding local culture and his fellow country men and best of all, all the local folklore and stories. Couple that with John Joe’s historical knowledge and you have a team that can’t be beat.
Each biker is equipped with a cell phone, a laminated map (with written instructions on the back) and a well-tuned bike proportioned for her or him. The beauty of the deal is that each rider can go as far or as little, as fast or as slow as they want. John or one of his helpers will pick folks up in the van if they have had enough for the day.
But back to Day Two. . .The views kept getting better and better. This stretch took us through the Burren, decidedly not what most people think of when they think of the Emerald Isle. The Burren is miles and miles of grey stone, limestone to be exact, that is stark and hauntingly beautiful. The formations and lack of vegetation amazed us.
We rode into the harbor village of Ballyvaughen and stopped in at Monk’s Pub, a well-known local spot and enjoyed the excellent seafood chowder, homemade bread and you guessed it, more Guinness. We opt for outside dining so we can enjoy the seaside view and relish the warm spring weather.
The afternoon route which took us inland proved more difficult as the winds picked up. “You know you are in trouble when you have to peddle to go downhill,” I shout to Paul over the wind. After a couple of hours, Heagney rescued us and drove us to Poulnabrone domen, a cemetery dating to 3000 BC. Again, the stark landscape, stone structure and wind make us pause. But even though it is grey and windy, a variety of pretty wild flowers flourish in the gaps between the stones because, oddly enough, the ground never freezes here.
Next, he drove us to the Cliffs of Moher, cliffs that extend five miles down the coast and are over 700 feet high. Guidebooks had cautioned us against getting too close to the edge as sudden ocean gusts have blown unwitting folks off cliffs to their death. Afraid of heights, I didn’t let go of Paul, a 6’4”, 220 pound guy. I figured the more weight, the better. He joked that he had more surface area for the wind to hit, thus making it more dangerous. It was breathtaking but scary.
That night we stay in an Aran view House Hotel where we have an awesome view of sheep pastures backed by the Atlantic Ocean. We head for the tiny town of Doolin famous for their traditional Irish music but the bars are too crowded, reminding us of our college days.
The third day, we took a ferry to the Aran Islands, famous for the Aran wool sweaters. Thanks to a rocky boat ride, we were a bit queasy as we hopped on our bikes on Inis Mor, the largest of the three islands and road to Fort Dun Aenghus, a prehistoric stone fort and once thought to be the most western point of the world. The island itself is even more barren that the Burren.
Here, we learned a sad but interesting fact about the sweaters. Women would make the wool garments to keep their fishermen husbands warm and dry. Each woman would have her own family pattern so if her husband drowned, a common occurrence with fisherman, the body could easily be identified when it eventually washed ashore. The tradition still continues today and the beautiful sweaters are still sold on the islands.
Back at the mainland, in the town of Spiddle that night, we visited Tigh Huges, a small pub where once again I quipped, “Look honey, it’s Ireland” as we drank our Guinness and watched a small band perform with generations of Irishmen chatting around small tables.
Perhaps my favorite part of the trip was the next day when we visited the tiny village of Leenaun. We rode into town for lunch and I had one of the best meals of my life at the Blackberry Restaurant & Cafe. Fresh mussels from the bay across the street, fresh baked bread and Guinness were a feast.
The town is famous as it was the setting for the movie “The Field” featuring Richard Harris. We saw Gaynor’s Bar where it was filmed and also the actual field from the movie. (As a side note, we were compelled to rent the movie when we returned to the states and found it horribly depressing.)
After a brief stop at Kylemore Abbey, we boarded our bikes again and found ourselves peddling in the countryside that precipitated Steve’s remark. On and on we rode past fields and the stunning Twelve Bens, mountains of the Connemara. It was almost surreal when we peddled into Lough Inagh Lodge, a scenic and rustic lodge nestled between mountains and a lake, perfect for a rest stop.
A striking feature of the Irish landscape as we peddled all week was the stone walls. Miles and miles of man-made stone walls line the countryside. John even points out several ancient stone walls way up on a mountainside whose origin and purpose remain a mystery. Out loud we asked, “Who made all of these walls? And why?”
John also points out “Famine Ridges,” rows of blighted potato crops left from the great potato famine that formed apparently permanent ridges in the hillsides. It makes one pause yet again. John indicated that above a certain elevation the potatoes were not affected causing tensions between farmers at higher and lower elevations.
Day five was bittersweet as we knew it was our last day of peddling in the Irish countryside. It was fun watching the spray-painted sheep as they at first stared at us then broke out in a run down the road in front of us. (The free roaming sheep are spray painted with various colors to identify who owns which sheep.) We pass fields where they harvest peat in neat, long rows. Little costal villages make us smile as Paul takes photos of the multi-colored fishing boats and picturesque homesteads. When I see a small house for sale, I want to stay.
Our last night, we dine in Galway, the most populated village of our tour. We spend about an hour in the small shops and head to our hotel for the last night on the Emerald Isle. The next morning, we leave bright and early for our return trip to Pittsburgh. On the plane, we relive various parts of the trip. The friendly people, the good food, the incredible scenery and of course, the Guinness � it was hard to leave our postcard trip behind.
For more information on western Ireland, visit www.irelandwest.ie. For more information on Cycle Holidays Ireland visit www.cycleholidaysireland.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Riders of varying levels can easily make the trip and John provides all riders with a training program that he suggests prior to the trip.
By Kathleen Ganster