HAMISH and I have both agreed that our Irish end to end cycle trip, from Mizen Head in the south to Malin Head in the north, was probably the best of the three end to ends we’ve done in the past three years.
Land’s End to John O’Groats was a bit of a learning curve, the first long bike trip we had attempted at just short of a thousand miles and the ride between La Manche and the Med through France was, in some ways, too easy. I don’t think either of us would want to spend days biking along canal towpaths again – too similar, too flat, too boring.
The ride through Ireland was very different to the other two. For a start the quality of landscape was sustained all the way with perhaps only a slight dip on the day between Sligo and Donegal, but there were other attractions on that day, like visiting the grave of WB Yeats beneath ‘Ben Bulbin’s bare head.’
And the landscapes were fabulous – everything from great coastal scenery – Mizen Head, Cliffs of Moher, Aran Islands, Malin Head, to some lovely mountainous country – Caha Mountains, Moll’s Gap and Killarney National Park, the Reeks, James Joyce Country – to that green, rolling, agricultural land where the fields are still separated by hedgerows vibrant with wild flowers, particularly my own favourite, the blood red fuchsia (‘where the red fuchsia weeps’ – John Spillane) which seems to grow alongside every minor road, intermingled with thorn bushes.
I really enjoyed cycling through this kind of landscape, so much more pleasant on the eye than the prairie fields we see so much in Scotland and England, the industrial agriculture that decimates wildlife.
But while the landscapes were varied and generally superb it was the people who will leave the lasting impression. What is it about the Irish that makes them so friendly, and inquisitive, and such wonderful conversationists? I lost count, on our first couple of days, of the number of people who simply approached us, asked what we were up to, then entertained us with tales and stories and anecdotes. I have to confess I’m not the most sociable of people but I simply loved this aspect of Ireland. More than anything else it was… welcoming and warm!
Something else that we noticed and remarked on was a sense of affluence. Now, I know there is poverty in Ireland as there is anywhere; I’m fully aware that the Celtic Tiger left many Irish folk unable to compete; and I know that Irish had to be bailed out when the international banking world decided to collectively shit on us all, but Ireland seems to have come out of it all better than us. (As has Iceland).
We found it interesting that no matter where we went we rarely had less than four bars on our mobile phones. At every B/B and hostel we stayed at, no matter how remote (the Aran Islands, west coast of Clare, north Donegal etc) we had Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. Here at home in Newtonmore I can’t use my mobile phone – no signal!!!
In total we cycled just over 600 miles, but 192 miles of that was getting to Mizen Head from Cork (a wonderful two days of cycling along the south coast – highly recommended) and reaching Larne from Malin Head (via Co Antrim’s Causeway Coast, another wonderful bike ride, particularly the stretch from Ballycastle to Cushendal)
We took two weeks for the entire trip so we weren’t exactly pushing it, but you wouldn’t want to push it in Ireland. It’s a place for slowing down, enjoying the scenery, blethering to people, listening to the music and soaking in the Celtic atmosphere of a land that will always be, for me at least, cloaked in romance and legend.
And the highlights? I’m no great lover of climbing hills but I loved to ride over Moll’s Gap in County Kerry where we had our first view of Carrauntoohill, Irland’s highest mountain which I’ve previously climbed a couple of times, and our visit to the Aran Islands, one of the most curious landscapes I’ve walked through; simple yet complex, wild yet lived-in, romantic yet rough. Craggy Island it may be, but it certainly doesn’t feel desolate or dour.
One of the problems with cycling through a land is that now and again you want to stop for a while and explore a bit. I’ve made note of a number of places I want to go back to and I’ll do that later in the summer. My wife Gina and I have dropped the plans we had and I’m taking her back to Ireland to show her some of the places Hamish and I passed through, and hopefully spend a bit more time in them to get to know them better. I can’t offer a bigger compliment to Ireland than that. Go and see it for yourself, and take your bike. It’s a fine way to see the country.