Touring in Ireland

For a much longer and more detailed account of my trip, with more pictures, see my Ireland Diary.

I rolled off the ferry into Belfast bright and early on Friday, Oct 13. It was the beginning of a two week tour around the northern part of Ireland. Touring Ireland in October? Yeah, what can I say. It wasn't the best time of year to do it, but that's just how it turned out. I was in Wales during the peak of summer (most of July), and it was October before the travel bug bit hard enough to compel me to load my bike up and set out again.

bike at Lower Lough Erne

My goal that first day was the little vilage of Benburb in County Armagh, or rather a tiny hamlet called Artasooley, where the Mc Cool family live. Joe Mc Cool had, way back in January, invited me to come and visit his family. It took me until October to take him up on the offer, but I was still most welcome.

I hoped I'd arrive by early afternoon. After all, Joe had said that it was only 40 miles from Belfast to his place, and I was getting a good early start. But several things were against me. First, there seemed to be far fewer road signs in N. Ireland than in England or Wales so I kept taking the wrong turns. Second, I wasn't taking the most direct route, but took a detour to ride along the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the UK. Third, and worst, I was getting a slew of punctures in my rear tire. My rim tape had slipped, exposing the sharp edges of the spoke holes. Finally, a visit to a bike shop in Lurgan resulted in new rim tape, and from there I proceeded steadily on to Artasooley.

I was welcomed warmly by the family and quickly learned all their names. Joe the dad, Joan the mom, and Fergal, Margaret, Brendan, Kevin, Alice, and May the kids. I arrived on a Friday. I suppose I was planning on leaving on Sunday or Monday, but I found enough to do in the area, and felt sufficiently at home with the Mc Cools that it was Tuesday by the time I finally packed up and headed off.

Bulgarian group

I spent Saturday checking out Armagh and its churches. There was an open-air music event in the town center, and so I got to sit in the sunshine and listen to a pipes & drums (bagpipes, that is) band and a Bulgarian folk group, although thankfully not at the same time! I also made friends with the organist in the Catholic church, who gave me a CD of him playing the church organ as we parted.

On Sunday I went for a ride with Joe and his friend Kearon. This was great, as I got a guided tour of Joe's favorite roads. He was born and raised in this area and has been cycling ever since he was a teenager, so he's had plenty of time to grow enthusiastic about them. And I certainly saw what he likes. There were far fewer cars than there would be on similar roads in England, and there were far more hills and trees than in Cambridge. How I miss hills and trees! Sunday evening Joe took me to a local pub to hear a "session", where people bring their instruments (fiddle, guitar, tin whistle, accordion, percussion, etc) to jam on traditional Irish tunes. The music was excellent, as was the Guinness.

On Monday I went to see the Navan Fort. The most interesting thing about the Fort itself was a nicely symmetrical lump of earth, but there's a visitors' center with lots of interactive touchy feely stuff to let you know about the history and legends associated with the place. This was a nice way to spend a rather rainy day.

Afterwards I stopped by Kearon's place to see his bike workshop, an immaculately kept garage. His most interesting possession, bike-wise, is a collection of little silver-colored bits that people used to attach to their bikes before braze-ons. There were cable stops and guides, pump pegs, water bottle cage clips, all sorts of things, all gracefully curving and shiny. On Monday night I went with Joan to her set dancing class. Set dancing, it seems, it a variation on traditional Irish folk dancing. The dance we started to learn was difficult. I didn't do markedly worse than most of the other dancers in getting the sequence of events down, but I couldn't do any of the individual steps properly because I've never learned them.

rath: Irish aristocracy lived here 1000 years ago

On Tuesday, Oct 17th, I hauled myself away from the warmth of the Mc Cools and promptly got cold and wet. OK, I exaggerate. It took a while for it to start raining, and then a few hours for me to get thoroughly drenched and cold, but when it settled in it stayed. I retreated to a cafe in Clogher to thaw out. I must have drunk 5 pots of tea in my efforts to rejuvenate myself. Finally, I headed on to Omagh, managing to keep warm by riding hard.

I stayed Wednesday in Omagh and saw two open-air museums: The Ulster History Park and the Ulster American Folk Park. I really liked the history park. It had buildings illustrating the sorts of dwellings you would see in Ireland from the stone age to about the mid 1600s. There were also a couple of tombs and a sample field. At each feature there were boards explaining what I was seeing. This brought the history of the place alive for me.

The folk park wasn't so great. Basically, it consisted of houses famous Ulstermen stayed in before the left for the States, a replica of a "coffin ship" which is how most emigrees got to the US, and then houses from the areas where they would have settled. Alot of the stuff seemed very similar, and I didn't learn nearly as much as I did at the hostory park. Although it didn't help that I was running out of time and so was going a bit faster through the second half than I would have liked.

Before heading back to the hostel I stopped in downtown Omagh to see the bomb site, which unfortunately is what Omagh is most famous for. The bomb site itself was just a nondescript building site. At the memorial garden across the river there was very little, no info at all, just a small stone that says "to remember and to honour".

stone on Boa Island

On Thursday I had one of the best rides of the trip. The weather was mostly sunny, with only a short interval of rain, and the temperature was cool but not cold. I went from Omagh to Donegal Town, in Donegal County in the Republic of Ireland. On the way I stopped at Castle Archdale Country Park, then took the scenic route to Kesh, giving great views of Lower Lough Erne. Then onto Boa Island, where I found the famous two-faced stones living in an early Christian cemetery. Then over a big hill to Donegal, with scenery that reminded me alot of Wales in its rocky desolation.

Friday, Oct 20th, started out dry, but with wicked-looking dark overhanging clouds, and a strong wind. The wind stayed the entire day, but the clouds dispensed some rain and then drifted off, at least for awhile. I meant to go from Donegal Town to Glencolumbkille by the west coast of Donegal, but I failed for several reasons. First, I got going too late, dissuaded by the rain & wind. Second, the headwind really slowed me down. Third, detours! I took one detour onto a road that went right next to Donegal Bay and saw some very bits of coast, but got splashed with sea spray just before the road turned away from the water. And then I saw a sign pointing to some tombs, so I went to check them out. Finally, I took another detour on a road close to the coast to get away from the main road. I pulled into Killybegs at 5:30pm and decided to call it a day. I found a cheap B&B (14 Irish punts per night, about 10 British pounds!) and slept well.

On Saturday I rode from Killybegs to Ballybofey. This day was a real mix of sun, clouds, and rain, and I saw lots of rainbows. I stayed in a B&B that night.

On Sunday I quickly rode to Derry, having heard that it was a nice town, and got thoroughly drenched in the process. I warmed up and dried up a bit in the Church of Ireland, where I listened to the choir practice. They were really good! Then I looked around the town, eventually finding the town walls and the youth hostel. Unfortunately when I checked into the youth hostel I got a brochure that informed me that everything was closed on Sundays. Even most of the churches were closed! At least the walk around the city walls was open.

While cooking dinner I met an Australian fellow named Steven, and that evening he and I and a couple of other hostel residents went to a nearby pub to listen to some Irish music. The music was much less traditional than I had hoped for, being highly amplified. Still it could have been a very nice evening, except that there was one guy there who insisted on harassing us. He kept coming up to us, making random small talk, but then trying to get us to tell him whether we were Catholic or Protestant, and telling us of the evils of the English. Eventually a barman got him to leave us alone, so we were able to drink and talk in peace.

Giant's Causeway

On Monday I rode from Derry to the Youth Hostel near the Giant's Causeway. I met Steven there as I was cooking dinner: he'd taken the bus while I'd ridden. We traded food (mushrooms for carrots) and afterwards chatted while we wrote in our journals.

On Tuesday I headed to the Giant's Causeway and spent quite a bit of time walking around. The Giant's Causeway is basically a bunch of basalt columns that have formed more or less hexagonal shapes as they cooled off after being exuded from the ground as lava. The columns are quite a bit smaller than you expect from the pictures: they're only about 1.5 feet across.

Portcoon Cave

So having been underwhelmed by the columns I went in search of Portcoon Cave, which is mentioned in the National Trust pamphlet on the Giant's Causeway area. There was a little map of where I would expect to find it, and indeed there it was. I came into it by a side entrance on the land: the main cave goes from the sea pretty far into the rock of the shore. Now this was really cool: the waves would roll into the cave and splash spectacularly against the walls of the cave, gradually dying out into froth at the round rocks towards the back of the cave where I stood.

Then I headed on to my stop for the night, the next youth hostel down the coast. I expected it to be a fast pleasant trip, as it looked to be only about 20 miles away, I'd have a tailwind, and it wasn't raining. Well, as luck would have it, the wind had reversed while I'd been exploring the causeway area, it started to rain, and the youth hostel was 29 miles away. It wasn't a pleasant trip by any means. I got thoroughly soaked and only kept warm by pedalling vigorously. It was well past 7, and a long time past nightfall when I got to the youth hostel. At least I had lights: my reliable hub dynamo showed me where to go. When I arrived, I was extremely hungry, and I was surprised that I hadn't depleted all my blood sugar while cycling. After cooking and eating dinner, I fell straight asleep.

On Wednesday, Oct 25th, I rode to Belfast. It was my last day of cycling. At first my legs ached, a result of the hard pedalling I'd done the previous day. The trip was uneventful, although it involved the requisite dose of uphill, rain, and headwind, in addition to downhill, sunshine, and tailwind.

On Thursday I took the ferry back to Liverpool, unfortunately arriving too late to catch a train back home to Cambridge, so I holed up in the Liverpool youth hostel for the night and caught the morning train back home.

Total distance for the trip: about 510 miles.

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