Exactly ten years ago I had a motorbike stolen from outside a friend’s house on Halloween night, 2001. It had been my first motorbike, a Suzuki GN125 commuter model. Not very powerful but perfect for getting me the 8-10 miles across Dublin from my home in Tallaght to work in Ringsend.
I had started working in Ringsend just one month beforehand, a few days after the 9/11 attacks, and a little over a week after being made redundant from my previous job. It was an uncertain time for me. I have been an insomniac since my early teens and making it to work on time has always and ever been a cause of anxiety. I had often managed to work around that by finding work close to where I lived, so that in the event that I woke up late I wouldn’t have too far to travel. I do sleep, I should add, but it tends to be either very late or very early, depending on your point of view, when I finally nod off.
My new job was on the opposite side of the city but the motorbike was the perfect vehicle for getting me through the morning traffic and down obscure side streets. I could get to work about 15 minutes after leaving my flat. And then Halloween came and the motorbike went. Disaster! But I was philosophical about the situation right from the moment I left my friend’s house to find the bike missing. Ok, I thought. Fine. I’ll dust off my bicycle and start cycling. Problem solved.
My bicycle, my beautiful, cheap Townsend Colorado had been in storage at my mother’s house for about six years. I had bought it back in ’93 for the sole purpose of cycling around Europe with a friend. That had been a spectacular trip. It had seen me cross the Alps and make my way through France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Germany. Surely I could make it to Ringsend.
Well, of course I could. It was mostly downhill on the way to work, and I could make it there in about 40 minutes. Not so great on those mornings when I woke up late, but it was manageable, and would improve the fitter I became. Coming home was often tough work, especially as we went deeper into winter. A wet and windy Dublin day can sap the life out of the hardiest pedaller.
Very early on, possibly as I was cleaning my bicycle after it’s long storage and doing some maintenance on it, I began to reminisce about my European adventure. I began also to mourn the lack of adventure in my life at that time. And slowly the idea of a long cycle began to take shape in my mind. I knew that before the winter was out I would have found my rhythm on the bike and that I would be well on the way to being cycling fit. But what to do with that fitness?
I toyed at first with the idea of the famous Malin Head to Mizen Head route, which takes you from the furthest point north to the furthest point south of the country. It’s a journey of around 350 miles, and one that people often walk. I would cycle it. So out came the map and I began to trace a route for myself, but all too soon I realised that it wouldn’t take very long to cycle. It could possibly be done in about 5 or 6 days. I was looking for something a bit longer than that, and a bit more challenging. It was then that I remembered a book I had read many years before called Rambles in Eireann, by William Bulfin.
Bulfin had left Ireland in the 1880’s for the pampas of Argentina. When he returned for a visit in 1902 he got hold of a Wexford Wheel bicycle and spent seven months travelling more than 3000 miles around the country. He wrote a series of articles about his travels for his fellow Irish ex-patriots in Argentina, and they were printed in The Southern Cross newspaper in Buenos Aires. A newspaper that he owned. These articles were collected and printed in book form in 1907. This book was a document of his native country as it appeared to a returning son. It is full of insights into Irish life in the final days of English rule. He is very scathing of the Anglicisation of the nation, and fills his book with the stories of the brave men of previous generations who had fought against English rule. There was plenty of nationalist fervour in it’s pages and the book no doubt stirred the passions of a generation that would all too soon begin the final fight for independence.
But it was what had stirred that passion that came back to me as I searched for an adventure of my own. The thing that had stirred my passion when I had read Bulfin’s book was his description of the land he had ridden through. I had never before, and I don’t think I have ever since read about Ireland as he described it:
The more you see of Ireland the more cautious you become about making any definite statement as to which part of it is the more beautiful. You may think Northern Connacht excels until you have been in Donegal. You may think Donegal supremely beautiful until you have seen the twilight fading out of some of the valleys in the Midlands. You may think the hush of a moonlit night in Westmeath the acme of romantic loveliness until you have seen the sunrise gilding the Munster side of the Shannon. You may look down upon the Golden Vale and think that here at last is the gem of gems of rural beauty, until you have stood on the Dublin mountains and watched the morning mists rolling seaward out of the Vale of Shanganagh. Here, indeed, you may feel disposed to award the palm until you have crept into the heart of the Wicklow ranges.
And as I read again through passages like that, I felt myself swept up in the romantic Ireland that I had lost touch with. Like Bulfin, I had lived abroad for a time. Since my return, only two years earlier, I don’t think I had been outside of Dublin. So I read Bulfin’s Rambles again, and I knew that nothing would satisfy me but to make my own journey around the country. I couldn’t afford seven months of travelling, of course. I would have at most two weeks in which to do my own trip. But like Bulfin, I would travel to every county, north and south of the island.
It took me quite a while to settle on a route that would take me into every county, and by the time I had settled on it I knew every road and village I would travel through and along. There were some counties that my wheels would barely cross, but that was my compromise and my plan: Get my wheels into every single county. To do that I would find myself on roads and in towns and villages that I might never encounter otherwise. I would see parts of my country that were entirely new to me. It would be exactly 100 years since Bulfin had made his cycle. Like him, I was recently returned from overseas to a changed country. I had returned to a country in the grip of an economic boom. The Celtic Tiger was prowling the land. What would I find? Had we sold out our traditional, laid back pace of life in favour of prosperity? Would Bulfin’s romantic vision of the land of Ireland still be able to enthral me, or had a hundred years of development stripped away even that? My route was functional. It didn’t take me to the famed beauty spots that Bulfin made a point of seeking out. But what hidden beauties would I find of my own?
Bulfin was a journalist. I was a printer. I had no plans to write for publication, just for my own pleasure and memory. So I kept a diary of the trip. Some nights I was too tired to start writing, but I always caught up to myself. Writing in a tent using a head torch is not the easiest thing to do, so I tended not to try and emulate the beautiful romantic language that Bulfin used. Ah, that torch thing is an excuse. I didn’t emulate it because I wasn’t up to the job! But I didn’t see what he saw, and I’m sure I saw some things that he never did. Either way, romance isn’t what it used to be.
5:11am, Monday morning, September 2nd, 2002
Just to get the ball rolling, I’ll tell you that I’m sitting in my flat in Tallaght looking at a heap of camping gear and trying to figure out how to get it all onto my bike. After I do that I need to clean the flat, cut my hair, cook some food, have a bath etc, all before the sun comes up, because I’m starting a round Ireland cycle in a few hours time. All 32 counties in one long, snaking, continuous route. Can’t wait!
10:37pm, Monday night, September 2nd, 2002
(Average: 12.4 mph / Time: 5.29.22 / Distance: 68.17 miles / Odometer: 68.1 miles)
I’m impressed with myself. And considering that I started out a bit fed up, that’s high praise. I wasn’t ready to go at sunrise, like I had hoped. I didn’t actually get on the road until 12:25pm! But despite that I’ve done really well to get to Bagnelstown.
The first hour was probably the hardest. I don’t know if it was because I was daunted by what lay ahead of me, or if the hills really were fierce steep. That initial flush of exhilaration you get at the moment you set off, knowing that the real adventure has just started soon wears off. It takes three hills.
The first is tackled with gusto. The second seems wearily familiar and you lapse into a complacent resignation. But the third one in a row makes you want to stop. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re going out on a night you’ve planned but which slowly starts to unravel before you leave the house. First someone cancels and you’re disappointed, but shrug your shoulders. Then the remaining people decide to go to a different venue. One you hate. Then your taxi is an hour late. At that point the night looses all interest for you and you decide to skip it and get a video instead.
That third hill felt something like that. I just wanted to stop there and then. That’s almost entirely down to the difference between riding a laden and an unladen bicycle. The bike weighs about the same as I do, maybe a little more. That really slows me down on even a slight hill, and when I slow down the weight on either side of the front wheel makes it a bit unstable. So I have to redirect some of my energy just to keep myself pointing straight ahead.
But I can’t stop. Apart from the charity side of it, I’ve been banging on about crossing the Alps to anyone who bothered to listen for the last few months. But the truth is the Alps nearly fecking killed me. I broke down crying near the top of the Col de Forclaz because I’d never been more exhausted. Immediately before it, myself and Garv had spent three full days in a waterlogged tent during a storm with feck all to eat, and I’d had the shits for the last two of them. What a fuckin’ day that was.
So I couldn’t let a wee hill in Wicklow beat me, now could I? Up I went, pushing the bike ahead of me, wondering how long until I did give up. Kerry? Donegal? I trudged on up, wallowing in the agony of it. So much so that I totally forgot about Newton’s apple. Before I knew it I was looking at a long straight road that seemed to go downhill forever. I rested for a few minutes, looking at it. I’d been excited setting off, and those three hills in a row had put a real damper on that. But here I was with the bike leaning into a small hedge, and me leaning back on the bike with one elbow on the saddle to support myself. My right hand was multi-tasking. It pressed play on my Walkman, then it got the coke bottle from the handlebar bag to my mouth and back again, and finally it lit my cigarette as the slow synth sounds of Depeche Mode’s New Life came on. And when Dave Gahan started singing I broke out into the widest grin ever, looking down at that road. I knew I was having a moment.
There’s nothing like the naked pleasure of coasting along on a bicycle on a beautiful sunny day. I coasted down for what felt like five minutes, but was probably less. By the time the ground started to rise again my mood had been lifted and it wasn’t so hard to face. There was a smashing sight just after Blessington, not far past the lake, where at the crest of a hill, off to your left is a stunning view of several peaks in the Wicklow mountains laid out in a neat row. The hill was my moment, and that one was definitely a Bulfin moment.
By the time I stopped in Baltinglass at 4pm I knew that I was finding the going easier than expected. Considering that the gears aren’t set up properly I’ve been lucky that the few that work are just the ones I need on this terrain. Leaving Baltinglass, a desolate spot if you ask me, I took my first pedal off the beaten track (Freud, c’mere!). I went onto a small regional road, and of course it was instantly more enjoyable, and not totally pot-holed. There were people along it. There was industry and agriculture. It’s harvest time, which is a fab sight at sunset. And there was plenty of wildlife too. Mostly rats. All along the hedgerows. Big feckers too.
That wee road eventually took me into Carlow. I called my friend Brian, thinking I might be able to call round and bunk down for the night, but he was up in Dublin today. Typical!
Carlow then, the not inoffensive distant Suburb of Dublin that it is, managed to thwart all attempts at escape. I’d been looking forward to it because it’s on the border with Laois, so all I needed to do was cycle a little way up a street and take a snap of the Welcome to County Laois sign and then retrace my steps. The sign, when I eventually found it (35 min) was ten foot off the ground, tiny and looked like a National Monument signpost. But I got my snap. I’m trying to get a photo of every welcome sign with the bike in the shot.
Getting onto the road to Bagnelstown took me another hour. Directions from locals were as confusing as the signs. By the time I go onto the right road it was after 7pm. As I began scouting for camping sites all I could see were field after field of wheat and corn, newly harvested and no good for camping. I don’t mind saying it, I was getting a bit concerned: I didn’t fancy bivvying out there with the rats. Luckily I got directions to a field sometimes used by the local scouts. Now I’m about half-a-mile down an overgrown canal towpath, over a footbridge and down into some farmer’s field. I don’t know if it’s the right one, but it’ll do for tonight.
I barely had time to get the tent pitched before the light was gone for good. It’s amazing what an appetite will do, all the same. I had the tent up and dinner cooked in about 25 minutes. All my gear is ready for the off tomorrow, too. Hope I wake up!!
Yes, a very hard start. But my sister will be happy to hear that her Tarot thingy last night was accurate, ‘The sun will shine on all you do.’ The weather really worked for me today. The bike also worked well, and I did too. I’m going to pack you away now, roll a joint and smoke it out here in the dark, listening to the sounds of the countryside: a dog barking, traffic, the odd train. All off in the distance. It’s so dark here. No moon tonight. It feels spooky. Ah, but such splendiferous spookiness…
12:21am, Tuesday morning
8:10pm, Tuesday evening, September 3rd, 2002
(Average: 10.9 mph / Time: 5.22.00 / Distance: 63.26 / Odometer: 131.5 miles)
That was a really tough day, and I’m ready to cheat. I’m prepared to cheat. Actually, I’m just about to cheat. More on that in a while.
This morning’s route looked ok on the map. There didn’t seem to be anything too daunting on it. I was even prepared psychologically for the third hill. The next three were killers, though, and the three after that I don’t want to talk about. (I’m gonna pause to take a picture of this scene before my water boils for tea)
I had to walk up quite a few hills, I have to say. (Hold that thought, I just realised something important. Get back to you later.)
11:01pm, Thursday night, September 5th, 2002
(Average: 13.3 mph / Time: 4.41.24 / Distance: 62.96 miles / Odometer: 273.2 miles)
Right, I need to recap. On Tuesday I hit some very hilly country. I had to walk up a few, as I’ve said, and the sun was baking down on me all day. Maybe that sapped my energy, but I kept running out of va-va-voom. And there never seemed to be enough downhills to balance the scales. With the notable exception of the one just before the Wexford border that had me going 36 miles an hour! That was such a great feeling. All the work of getting up the hill is washed from you. The wind defuses the sun. There’s a lot of mass on the bike for those speeds, you pick up momentum quickly. It wouldn’t be advised to try and stop too quickly. No, that wouldn’t do. You are always aware, but much more so at speed, that you are only connected to the earth at two narrow points. At a certain point down the hill you kind of step back and run a check-list to make sure you have everything under control. Once that’s out of the way you are free to simply take in as much as you can. Wringing every second of pleasure out of the sight of stone walls and fields and trees flying past you. Everything close to you feels like it’s moving at light speed. The further away you look the more subtle the sense of movement, but everywhere is moving. The whole country is whizzing by you and you’re just sitting still watching it. Gasping for breath.
It was the outreaches of the Blackstairs Mts. that did me in, and I was glad to get to New Ross reasonably early, about 1pm. It borders with Kilkenny down at the docks. So I got myself down there and stopped beside the Dunbrody famine ship, an incredible replica which is used as a floating museum, and stopped for some tea and biscuits. Some old drunk started to make a nuisance of himself but soon left me to enjoy my smoke and a cuppa. Relaxing in the sun, listening to the sounds of the dockside.
I got so relaxed that I went in for a pint of Guinness while I sent a few text messages out to update people. Bloody phone is always going off. Huffing your way up a hill while it goes off in the handlebar bag is the worst. You can’t spare a hand to dig it out and turn it off, so you resort to screaming at it, which doesn’t work but does knock the edge off the irritation.
What I should have done then, had I known, was carry on down the main road to Waterford and across to Tipperary. But I followed my planned route and crossed some more mountains to Mullinivat. They turned out to be rotten roads but had begun to turn downwards by the time I reached Mullinivat and got a puncture. And in the rear wheel too, which made it worse. That held me up for about an hour because I hadn’t brought a spare tube. While trying to fix the puncture I found that my new pump was letting more air out than in. When the puncture was fixed I had to pump it up at the garage, and hope it would last me, because there was nowhere there to buy a new one.
Thankfully it held and I made it as far as Carrick-on-Suir by 6pm. I was ready to call it a day there and then, but managed to carry on to Kilsheelan by 7pm. I had been trying to make it to Ballyporeen in Tipperary where some friends were expecting me, but I called again and cancelled because I was about two hours away from them still.
And that’s where I cheated. I committed the unspeakable (but luckily writeable) act of allowing Udo drive out and collect me. It’s the kind of thing that goes against my ethics of touring, but I also thought that I’d suffered enough for one day, and since I wasn’t being driven over any borders I decided that I’d take the feckin’ lift while it was going! The sad part is that from Clonmel on it was almost entirely downhill on excellent smooth roads. I looked out the car window and felt like I had missed a treat.
Anyway, it was nice to be somewhere familiar, and the feed Hilary gave me was huge! Big side of beef, tons of veg and potatoes, and lashings and lashings of gravy. I went through two pots of tea too. Not having enough of that on this road. I was up till the wee hours smoking with Udo. He’s a fine man to spend time with. I always hear really cool music I’ve never heard before when I’m with him, but he never knows the names of any of the tracks or artists. He’s only out to satisfy his ears. He really wants to do something a bit mad himself. I might rope him in for the birdman competition.
The something important that I realised at the roadside as I wrote my diary entry on Tuesday was that I hadn’t managed to get a photo of the Welcome to Waterford sign, and Ballyporeen is well away from the border. Luckily for me Jim, Hillary’s dad, was there that night. Having worked his life on the buses he was able to tell me that on the other side of the Knockmealdown mts. was the town of Araglin, which stradles three borders: Waterford, Tipperary and Cork.
The next morning, Wednesday, Udo drove me to the top of the Knockmealdown mts. and left me to it. This gave me a great start to the day, rolling down to Araglin. Then I had to go a mile up a steep-ass mountain into Waterford. I didn’t find a sign so I stuck the bike on the border (a bridge) and used that. There was a Tipperary one just inside that side of the border. I’d hate to think I was just missing them, but I did look. I can’k keep wasting time searching them out.
All of that had totally changed my route so I was kind of winging it for half a day. That gave those few hours a real sense of exploration. I stopped in Killworth at 11 for some noodles, ham and cheese, and a cup of tea with some shortcake biscuits. I could have been anywhere, but I couldn’t have felt freer. That must have given me a powerful edge because I made great time for the rest of the day. At a place called Glanworth you cross a single lane bridge while looking up at the side of a huge castle, with an enormous water wheel attached to it. I’ve seen them on mills and factories, but never a castle before. It is a very impressive sight, all the more so for it’s unexpectedness. One minute you are watching a farmer steer a battered tractor in his field and around the next corner you find yourself back in the middle ages. Strange that I’ve never heard of Glanworth before.
I made it to Mallow about 2pm and had to wait for the bicycle shop to open so that I could get a spare tube, let’s just hope the pump is up to it when the time comes. Got to Kanturk about 4pm. The quality of the roads had been on the rise from Mallow and there was some nice views but the best was yet to come. Incidentally, when I talk of the quality of a road I’m actually talking about the quality of the view. Rough, smooth, pot-holed or not doesn’t matter, you get used to changes in those things, but the view can sometimes make you gasp, and sometimes it couldn’t even raise a shrug. If beauty was universal it wouldn’t be so precious, the landscape seems to know that and save up it’s splendour for those big ta-da moments.
In Kanturk I stopped for about an hour just sitting in the park watching the ducks and drinking tea. It was after 5 when I set off, hoping to reach Rockchurch at the top of the mountain. Now here was what I was expecting to be hard cycling hills but my progress was way better than I hoped. There were even two 180 degree turns, it got that steep, which gave me deja vu for Forclaz.
Rockchapel turned out to be on the downward side but there wasn’t much to it. It was nearly 8pm but I’d decided to push on and get a B&B, so I needen’t worry about available light to find and set up camp. In the end I had to go as far as Abbeyfeale and in the process crossed from Cork to Kerry and into Limerick without passing a welcome sign for any of them. I spent the night in the Santa Maria ‘Select Accommodation’ where Theresa the owner, with no upper teeth (in for service, back Friday) and using a zimmer frame (bad knee, down for replacement next month) made me a big pot of tea and fairy cakes then left me to relax in her warm living room.
I woke up this morning, at 11.30 with Theresa trying to come into the room. I was close to oversleeping and she was gonna give me a wee shove to get me out of bed! Only in Ireland. She left me to my own devices and I packed up while watching the rain belting down outside. I rolled into Abbeyfeale town and on out the Kerry road in search of a sign. I’d still missed the Cork and Limerick ones, but I’m certain there weren’t any. I was travelling on some very small, less travelled roads. As I was already late, I decided to get myself an big fry up breakfast. As I was locking my bicycle up outside the café an old guy called Pat roped me into conversation about my trip, but he wasted no time in bring Jesus into the conversation. He seemed nice enough, so I let him put his hand on my shoulder and say a quick prayer. He gave me a little prayer card, which was nice. And €20, which was nicer! I’ve raised over 2k with this trip so any more cash I might get, like I did from Pat today, can go towards paying for the road. I’m tight on cash as it is, that’s why I’m trying to camp wild as much as I can.
There were some tough hills out of Abbeyfeale but at the other side the road became much easier and mostly downhill all the way to Adare. Just what I needed to make up lost time. Enought time to get me to Limerick by 5pm in fact, much sooner than I thought I would, and that caught me up to me previous expectations. I’m getting good at judging my performance. It becomes a way to focus as you’re pedalling along, watching the miles go by and timing them. I was able to push on as far as Killaloe, but again missed a sign for Clare, and/or Limerick. Some of the smaller roads just don’t seem to have them. Some of the roads I’m following just pop into and out of neighbouring counties. No signs mark this, however. I have a completion issue, and I wanted to get those 32 photos. I’ve lost out on four so far now.
By the by, I made it 5 miles beyond Killaloe to this campsite on Lough Derg. I had a few pints earlier in the Lough Derg Leisure Centre, and now I’m sitting in the door of my tent with a cuppa, a smoke and you, dear diary. If I point my head skyward the light from my head-torch climbs up the thick bare trunks of the trees around me. The wind off the lake only 20 feet away is rustling everything around me including this damn page. So I’m putting you away to leave room for tomorrow. And I’m going to lie on my back for a while with my torch lit, watching the treetops swaying and imagine that I’m on a forest moon in a galaxy far, far away.
11:29pm, Friday night, September 6th, 2002
(Average: 12.9 mph / Time: 4.06.40 / Distance: 53.49 miles / Odometer: 326.7 miles)
I set off from the campsite at about 11:30. I could have left earlier, but I kept waking up and hearing rain, so I had a lie-on. It’s strangely disorientating waking up in a tent. You have to establish what time it is, what the weather is like, if you’re in sight of anything. Your camp never looks the same in the daytime as it did when you set it up the night before.
When I finally left, I had not gone far at all before I had to stop, in Ogonneloe, and brew up a cup of soup. Half an hour and I was already bunched. The sky was very heavily clouded and I’d had one bad shower already. It did look brighter further on, so I was hopeful.
I had been especially looking forward to today, ever since I first mapped out the route. The road follows the side of Lough Derg and I’d reckoned it to be one of the more scenic days riding. But I couldn’t even see the lake for all the trees along it. They should trim a few hedges. I didn’t sem to have the energy to deal with the hills either. Even though I’ve been over much worse already. I think I’ve lost my taste for hills on a bicycle, you always feel cheated on the downside if it isn’t long enough.
So at 1pm I stopped in Mountshannon and spent an hour in a pub, being served by a very beautiful looking young woman, eating fish & chips washed down with a pint of porter. She put the best shamrock I’ve ever seen onto that pint. It was perfect, and I told her so. I also took the time to read a few pages of Stephen King’s new book ‘On Writing’, which seems pretty good, but I doubt I’ll get many chances to read it. Any free time I get is normally about doing as little as possible!
With that mighty feed under my belt I set off again and crossed into Galway soon after. My 13th county. It’s a beautiful area, but it could do with some attention. Even if we manage to get tourists here post 9/11, we’d want to have something to offer them. There are so few facilities here, why aren’t we investing in that?
I had a puncture in Portumna. That’s a good line. But I did, and thanks to the spare tube I bought on Wednesday, I had it fixed in about 10 minutes. I’ll fix the other one tonight, and then I’ll have a spare. There was lots of activity on the main street. School had finished and there were kids everywhere. And with kids come parents. It looked like a place that liked to be quiet but had to put up with occasional bursts of activity. I repacked the bike in the midst of this mayhem, then strolled the length of the main street. I had to do a lot of shrugging as people were forced to move around myself and my bike. After so long alone on the bike, I took great pleasure in being in the middle of the stampede home. And a perverse little guilty pleasure at being a nuisance, truth be told.
There was one shop that carried the banner above it’s name: Music CD’s, Videos, Confectionery, Wreaths. There were lots of familiar shops, including a Frawley’s discount shop. I suppose it’s the march of progress, and rural areas are finally getting the benefits of urban developments like convenience shopping. Some of the old world quaintness may be gone, but it definitely makes it easier to get by than it would have been not so long ago. Most towns have at least one mini-market that stays open late. Take my pitch for tonight. I’m in a town called Cloghan, in Offaly (14). I crossed that border not long after Portumna. I stopped for the night here eight years ago when I walked to Galway with Garvan. Back then it was nowhere. It was a crossroad literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the middle of a bog. It had one shop, one pub and fuck all houses. Now it’s got a roundabout. And there are two pubs and at least two shops. One of which is staffed by my new mate Anne-Marie from a small town outside Portumna. She keeps the shop open until ten. There are many many houses here now. And streetlights! I remember how dark it was here last time.
I met Anne-Marie while trying to find the owner of this field that I’m in now. It’s on one of the main roads, right beside Anne-Marie’s shop. It’s a quite spot, Cloghan, for all it’s fancy modernity. I don’t mind camping somewhere sort of exposed like this. I just didn’t want to be woken up by a herd of cows at dawn, or something like that. So I tried to find the owner. The shop was my first stop. She didn’t know who owned it but was able to point me in the right direction and I soon found out that the owner was the (currently absent) local priest Fr. Scanlon. A priest’s field. No cows here then! Thanks be to God. Sort of.
Anne-Marie made me a cuppa in the shop while I set up camp. There isn’t all that much traffic through the shop and she took advantage of the company. She entertained me with stories of badly behaved hurley players and the ‘vicious meanness’ of her headmaster. I’m not far off half-way around by now. Not too long before I hit that point. When I was talking to Anne-Marie about the trip, when I got to Portumna earlier today she gasped: “Oh my God, I loove Portumna! I’d love to live there, it’s amazing!” Cloghan is still in the middle of nowhere, and it’s bigger than her own village, but can that explain such a reaction to Portumna? Well, I hope she makes it.
And so now I’ve caught up to myself lying here in this holy field listening to the rain misbehave outside. It seems to be coming and going in flurries. I think tomorrow I’ll get beyond Athlone by afternoon and at a good push, with good roads and fine weather, I’ll make Roscommon. Yeah, right! I need to recharge my phone somewhere, somehow tomorrow. I might drop into a police station. Have to trust whoever I leave it with. Tell you all about it in a line or two.
4:14pm, Saturday afternoon, September 7th, 2002
Well, the rain was beating down on the tent this morning so I had another lie on. Not too late, I was on the road by about 11. My new phone’s alarm just isn’t waking me up, either. I might have solved that problem today. I bought a packet of Denny’s sliced ham and there was a free travel alarm clock with it. What a bizarre combination, but perfect for me. Jaysus, am I part of a demographic?
Anne-marie let me use the shop’s facilities to freshen up, fill up my water bottle etc. What a little gem she was. Warm, kind, helpful and welcoming. Now that’s what I’ve been hoping to find that we haven’t lost in this consumer, property, dot-com world. The people I’ve met so far couldn’t have been more helpful or friendly.
It had cleared up by the time I set off, but I didn’t have to wait long for a fresh shower. And there’s been plenty of them along the way today. They’ve all been pretty heavy and driving, but short-lived. At one point I saw ahead of me a heavy downpour drive out of a field to my left and go across the road. I just had time to think ‘wow that’s amazing’ before I had to ride through it and all beauty fled the scene. That’s been the style though, short bursts moving west to east, and the forecast is for more persistent rains. All centred exactly where I’m heading.
I stopped in Athlone for an hour and did indeed manage to get the local Garda station to charge up my phone for me. Fair play to them. While it was charging I strolled around the old port of Athlone. The castle is very impressive up close. A solid, squat mound of granite. right beside the Shannon river.
I went into what looked like an interesting little bookshop by the banks of the Shannon, behind the castle. I was looking to see if I could find a copy of Rambles in Eireann, but no dice. It would have been nice to have a copy I bought on the trip. It turned out to be a right little find of a shop. There were some 1st editions of Dominick Behan books I’d not heard of before. I prefer him to Brendan in a some ways. The shop’s owner, John, took my email and will contact me if any copies come in. Turns out that he grew up not far from me and we went to the same school. We had a good auld chat there while my phone was charging and he gave me some pointers for the road ahead. Mostly, it has to be said, which pubs I should drop into. Grogan’s in Glassan is one, and something like Morrisey’s in Maghera. That second one sounds like somewhere I’d like to see. An authentic shebeen with a corrugated metal roof and no till, just a shoebox under the counter. A dying breed of country pub. A local ballroom of romance, by all accounts. I’m sure ball-shed of romance would be a better description. The old dear who runs it is into her 80’s. She surprised everyone by giving up the drink after last New Year’s Eve, because she couldn’t remember going to bed, and worse: she woke up naked!
‘There’s an incline to Ballymahon’, John had said. Now there’s an understatement. There’s a glacial esker than runs from Dublin to Galway and Ballymahon is on the wrong side of it. Well, it was, but not any more, because I’m in Ballymahon right now. I’m sitting in Jill’s restaurant with a feed of burger and chips in me. Hopefully from here it’ll be a good roll into Roscommon. (Ha!). I crossed the Longford border about an hour ago. That’s my 16th county and the half-way point, I’m sort of hoping that the northern road network will speed me on my way for the second half of this cycle. For the next two days or so in the republic will be tough. I’m back into mountains in the north-west.
My map is disintegrating in the rain, I hope it makes the journey. I’ll go now, have a smoke and make tracks. Hopefully the next entry will be in Roscommon, in the sunshine!
10:31pm, Saturday night, September 7th, 2002
(Average: 10.4 mph / Time: 5.12.59 / Distance: 54.49 / Odometer: 381 miles)
Sunshine my arse! The rain is beating down on the tent. Firstly, Ballymahon and the rest of Longford I’ll not miss. Not for any specific reason, simply because I can’t think of anything to say about it. The weather didn’t help, but I’m not about to blame a county for it’s weather. It didn’t distinguish itself, let’s put it that way. Oh, and the hills. Up, up, up, all fucking day! It’s not fucking Tibet I’m cycling through (or over). ‘When is this all going to end?‘, I kept asking the cows and trees and hedges I passed. ‘There’s an incline to Ballymahon’, John had said. There’s an incline to everywhere around here.
The best bit of Longford was at it’s border with Roscommon. The town of Lanesborough, another Shannon town with a beautifully maintained waterside. Lots of nicely landscaped terraces with tall trees, and a wide walkway with broad green areas either side. The border runs down the river and divides the town in two halves at the bridge. Unfortunately for Longford, the Roscommon side is nicer.
From there it was up, up, up and f-ing up again to Strokestown. Along the way was some beautiful wild Irish postcard country. There’s something magical about the knurled hillsides and twisted trees, the dry stone walls and weedy-reedy overgrown little fields. Something in the peculiar way the cows had of looking up and watching me pass by. Some even stopped chewing and gazed after me slack jawed, as though completely flummoxed by me. I imagined one watch me disappear from sight and turn to it’s neighbour and ask with puzzled astonishment, ‘Did you see that?!’
Yes, Roscommon is a wild county. And I’m seeing it on some roads I never would have used for any other purpose. They’re not even short cuts from anywhere I’ve ever been before. It’s taking a lot of careful observation to follow the route I came up with. There are so many roads that look alike and branch off from one another that it’d be easy to get myself lost. At one spot that was named as Curraghroe on the map, I think, I found only two rows of houses facing each other across the road. Nicely kept, with a neat trim verge on the left, lined with trees. Two young girls called out ‘Hi’ to me as I passed by, running along beside me.
‘Hi girls’, I said.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Ohh, come back, stop for a minute, you’re cool!’
They were so plaintive! How must it be to be 12 in rural, rural Ireland. I know I mentioned the spread of convenience shops and the like, but there are still hamlets like that one that don’t even have an old style shop. The kind with yellowing boxes in the window, behind net curtains. A limited selection inside and open no later than 6pm. Some people still have to travel just to reach one of those. Did they consider me cool because of the bike, coming from Dublin or because I was wearing shades? I’ll never know, because as much as I’d have liked to stop for a chat, and perhaps a cup of tea and a sandwich from mam & dad, I had to keep going. The weather, the hills and the condition of the roads today made for some slow progress.
I’ve also gone and lost my map for the next two days. It may be here yet, I’ll have a proper look when it’s light tomorrow. I’ll be doing well to finish next Saturday at this pace.
9:07am, Monday morning, September 9th, 2002
Yesterday was the worst day so far from a weather point of view, and in terms of my own performance. The roads were very hilly all day long and the rain was heavy and endless. A rotten day, all day.
I woke up in Strokestown where I’d stopped the night before. I had cycled a little beyond town in search of a wild pitch but could find nothing, and it was already growing dark. So I made my way back to Strokestown and found a row of houses in various stages of construction, beside a disused factory on the border of town. I reckoned (correctly), that they wouldn’t see any activity for the rest of the weekend, so I pulled my bike down a passageway along the last house in the row and into the back garden. There was a chance that ‘kids with cans’ might have the same idea as me, but it was a chance I had to take. As it turned out it was literally as safe as houses!
I woke up to rain and hills, and I don’t think I had any energy because I had a very hard time making any time. During one very heavy downpour near Ballinagare I pulled in to shelter under some trees beside a house on a lonely, windswept stretch of road. There wasn’t much shelter and I was about to carry on when the lady of the house came out and invited me in out of the rain. I spent the next three hours in the Brady house, where Ethel made me tea and mountains of toasted ham & cheese sandwiches while my rain gear dried on the range.
We had a grand rambling chat over many a cuppa. Her husband is a truck driver and was one of the few people she knew apart from myself who could boast of visiting every county in Ireland. ‘I’m not finished yet’ I said, ‘And with weather like this I might have to swap the bike for a canoe!’. I repaid her kindness by fixing the family’s computer, that had become little more than an ornament in recent months. This was great news to her kids who arrived home one by one to meet the stranger on the bike. Ah, I don’t mind telling ya, but it was with a heavy heart that I left that hearth, but the pedals don’t turn themselves.
Even with the rest and the full stomach I had a hard time getting further down the road. Three hours of idleness had sapped my enthusiasm for it, and even with a break in the rain I couldn’t lift my spirits. Not far beyond Ballaghadereen the rain started up again with a vengeance and I had to stop and pull out my freshly dried rain gear. All Ethel’s efforts thus wasted, I pushed on. I hadn’t gone more than 50 yards when I got a puncture. I let out a roar that would have scared a banshee out of it’s wits, and pushed the bike down the road to the shelter of some trees to make the repair. I tried in vain to roll a cigarette but it was futile in that torrential downpour. So I sheltered there for a while in the hopes that it might lighten off a bit.
When it hadn’t eased off one drop in 15 minutes I resigned myself to carry on and made it here, to Charlestown / Bellaghy, on the Sligo / Mayo border. It was after 8pm and there was no possibility of pitching a tent, so I booked into the Riverside restaurant. The owner, Anthony Kelly, is a chef, so I think they’ve downplayed the accommodation side of the business. I passed it twice trying to find a B&B with a vacancy before I realised they had rooms upstairs! It’s a fine looking old building, nearly 150 years old according to their blurb. I’m running low on cash now and this place is going to cost me €34. I’m a gobshite for not taking any of the sponsorship money with me. I bought the one man tent, the Trianga stove and some other bits and bobs only about two weeks ago. And lots of other little things too, as well as paying my rent. So that lot nearly cleaned me out. I’ll have to call home and arrange for some money to be wired to me or something, because I’m about to check out of here shortly and I’ll be down to about 50 quid. Ah well, I’ll leave that for now and go get my breakfast, catch up with you later.
11:14pm, Monday night, September 9th, 2002
(Average: 12.4 mph / Time: 5.37.15 / Distance: 69.75 miles / Odometer: 484.5 miles)
I was able to get Anthony to reduce the bill to €15. Not bad, but he said that if I’d mentioned that I was doing the cycle for charity last night he’d have given me free board. I didn’t quite get his reasoning. I was too tired, wet and miserable to talk to anyone last night, and he was cooking in the restaurant. Anyway, I was happy with the reduction, every little helps. I really don’t want this trip to take anything away from whatever we raise from it. That’s as much to do with my own wee pleasure at seeing what I’m capable of putting up and coping with, as it has to do with maximising fundraising.
With the really bad time I made yesterday I was anxious about today. It looked to be really tough terrain and a meandering route as I went over the map last night. Also, with money becoming critical I need to get as much mileage done each day as I can. (I’m giggling here. I just had a ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ moment!)
I ate tons today. A bowl of muesli and a big fry-up for breakfast. Lots of fruit too: Pears, bananas, apples and oranges. Lots of water, as well. No coke for a few days now. That’s great when the sun is out and hot – there’s nothing better, but when the temperature dips it’s just about hydration not quenching my thirst and boosting my energy.
I barely paused in Tubercurry, the first town I hit, just had a smoke while I sent some texts and then hit the road again. It was very windy at times today, and that remains my biggest enemy. The roads themselves come a close second. I came off into the ditch twice but managed to keep myself upright somehow. I thank my magic reflexes for that. They just seem to be there when I need them. Hyper-analysing and reacting for me like a really tasty auto-pilot.
There’s another thing I’ve been meaning to talk about: Zen and the art of long distance cycling. There are extended moments when you attain a peak of performance. A time when it feels that you’re either cheating, bypassing or overcoming the forces of gravity, inertia and even momentum. It can seem like you’re getting along the road far faster and easier than you should for the effort you’re putting in. I try to get this effect on purpose and I fail every time. Not only do I fail, I end up expending more energy than I need to. I think therefore that this effect is definitely mental in origin, but the proof of my cycle computer tells me that there is also a verifiable physical effect.
As far as I can gather (because it’s difficult to backtrack my train of thought), it comes on when I’ve been woolgathering. When I’ve been thinking of something and have stopped concentrating on the road, and gotten lost in that thought, wherever it leads. It’s while in this state that my entire body moves as one. My legs, arms, back and head all move together with a fine tempo that seems very low and laid back, but the bike moves along steadily and fluidly. I’ll change gears perfectly to accommodate the roll of the road ahead. The pace may not be blistering, but a steady and decent 13-15mph, up and down.
I think also that it’s ‘concious’ recognition of a steep hill ahead, and the frantic messages this sends out to all corners of my body to prepare to climb!!, that makes this zen state evaporate and I’m back to relying on my body alone to do the work. It’s all a matter of co-ordination, and the subconscious just seems to be better at the job. I can’t even recall what goes through my mind at such times. It’s like taking a nap and waking to find yourself further down the road. It’d be great if you could just slip into this state between stops. You wouldn’t see much of the country, but there are times when you don’t want to see much of the country. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it all just seems to be green and uphill.
There was lots of that undulating uppy-downyness as far as Collooney in Sligo. Another blip on the map for me where a couple of roads meet and there’s a few mini-markets, some pubs and a church. Along with a credit union and a hardware shop. Probably a restaurant or two, a trouser shop and whatnot. I don’t know what I’m expecting, to be honest. But when you’re cycling and you are counting the miles down to the next town you sort of hope to find something more than the last town you encountered. I had gone farther into Mayo than my route had called for, hoping to find a sign that never appeared, and it was only at Collooney that I rejoined it. So for that reason I was happy. I ate some fruit and split. I was storming along and making good time, and then I promptly split from the route again and headed for Manorhamilton in Leitrim, which I reached in a few painless hours. The worst I met along the way were some hills that I was happy to get off and walk up. A change is as good as a rest, and sometimes walking is a pleasant respite, even up a nasty assed hill.
The weather was well behaved today, plenty of clouds about but with lots of sun coming through at times. I stalled in Manorhamilton for a while and had a steak & kidney pie with some sausage rolls, and some fruit for dessert. Then I sat on a bridge that leads out of town and had a lovely cup of tea and a spliff, just watching the world go by. While sitting there I had a call from my cousin looking to get some printing done! So I just passed him on to the office and got back to enjoying being away from all that and instead being here in my own little world. Because I was in Manorhamilton, surrounded by those people, but I wan’t even a part of their world. My world is the road, and as far as I’m concerned I’m the only one on it. Can’t tell you how free that makes you feel! Just short of the border with Cavan I went though Glenfarne, the site of the original Ballroom of Romance. I stopped for a look at the legendary place that had been the start of many a family and the end of others in this part of the country. It looked more like a cattle market than a dance hall.
So that was county Leitrim, and the last of it was a slowly descending road that took me into Cavan. I was only in Cavan for about 6 or 7 miles as I was heading towards Fermanagh, my entry into Northern Ireland. As I skirted around Lough McNean I found some cool roadside sculptures installed by the Cavan Sculpture Trust. There’s a great tradition of sculpture and stonework in Cavan. Two stood out for me, both obviously influenced by the proximity to the North. One was called Forum, by Seamus Dunbar. It was a round stone table with lots of little stones sitting in depressions around it that you could spin and twist. These stone delegates had been discussing something for so long that they had worn holes in the rock. Funky art beside a lake, great stuff altogether!
A little farther on was a sculpture from Louise Walsh called Imagine an Island. There were three broad thin standing stones about 6 feet high, one in front of another with a large hole in each. Looking through the holes you can see a small crannóg (an artificial island) about 50 metres offshore. The inscription on the sculpture reads – Imagine – an island where we could all live in peace – make it real. I sat on a small jetty nearby with a cuppa and a smoke. There was a single white swan standing at the end of this jetty like a sentry. I sat there for about 15 minutes, smoking and thinking. Looking out across the flat water at the wee island and the swan and the stones, listening to the rain-like swish of the reeds. It was an eerie, spooky, mystical, lonely and beautiful spot.
Riding along the Fermanagh side of the lake things were almost immediately different. The roads were better. The roadside tidier, less wild, to my imagination. It was a pleasant cycle but I was starting to flag. I made it as far as Garrison, which had been my dream destination at breakfast but I had doubted that I would make it. It’s a tiny wee town on the shores of Lough Melvin, and I called into the Lough Melvin Holiday Centre to pitch my tent in their camp-site only to find that it was over-run with children on a school holiday. Thankfully the receptionist recognised this and suggested that I could use their land down by the lake. And so I’ve ended up here as the only tent on a lovely patch of grass beside the lake. I was just setting up as the sun was dropping below the peaks that range around this beautiful little lake. The mountains aren’t very high but they are peaked and pointy and it reminds me of the sight of the Alps across Lake Geneva from Lausanne.
I had the tent up and a cuppa brewed just in time to watch the sunset. This is another great pitch, it’s just a pity that I had to pay for it. It’s pitch dark now and the activity in the lake side car park has finally died off. It’s obviously a popular place for walking the dog of an evening. Not that all is peaceful here now. No, the soft lap of the lake below me is all too often drowned out by the delightful nighttime sounds of an army chopper doing a grid search overhead. Yep, I’m in the North. With fuck all money. Nice.
10:51pm, Tuesday night, September 10th, 2002
(Average: 11.7 mph / Time: 6.27.22 / Distance: 75.68 miles / Odometer: 560.2 miles)
Today was a very good bad day. Good because I managed to keep going for over six hours in the saddle, and bad because my personal Torquemada, my own private nemesis – The Wind, showed up with vengeance today. Not with ‘a’ vengeance, with vengeance!
I had, as usual, plans of leaving my pitch around 7am at the latest, but I didn’t get out of the sack until after 9. Breakfast was a can of beans followed by a pear, a banana and an orange. Oh, and some ham too. All the food groups really, meat and fruit. The view across the lake was stunning this morning. I’m really taken with that Lough Melvin, it’s definitely one of the most picturesque places I’ve encountered so far. There’s one peak at the right-hand end of a butress across from Garrison that looks like a mirror image of Yosemite’s El Capitan. In extreme miniature, of course. The cliff must have about 200ft of vertical face. I must check it out when I get home. There must be some climbing routes on it.
It was a tough old hilly start to the day, going up to Beleek. But the sun was out and warm, the scenery enjoyable and I was still impressed with yesterday’s performance. I was also holding onto the notion that I had become touring fit over the course of my ramblings. I was aiming for Beleek because Donegal just pokes it’s nose into the town on the bridge that takes you into it. Again, there was no sign to be seen but I wasn’t going to commit to a pointless detour to find one. I know I’ll probably end up regretting these lost photo opportunities but on the day the the decision to just carry on is the only viable one.
Beleek turned out not to be the prosperous, pretty little border town I had imagined or presumed it might be. To me (sorry Beleekians) it was little more than a large building beside a bridge next to a steep hill with a church on top of it. The large building was the Beleek pottery factory and is actually very pretty in a stark, bold kind of way. It sits at a kind of jaunty angle to the road as you cross over the bridge to meet it. It seemed like an obscure location for a world renowned pottery factory, but also nice to think that such an unassuming town had managed to place itself on the map.
The money situation is a bit ridiculous now. It’s about a week and a half until the next pay check. Until then there’s only about 60 quid in the bank! Well, there was 60 quid. I’ve €33 in my pocket right now, but that’s no use to me here in the North, so I had to take out 30 quid sterling in Beleek. I don’t know what the exchange rate is at the moment, or if there’s any charges for withdrawing Sterling from my account. I’ll leave that headache until I get home, which is now going to be as bloody fast as I can, which is why I stuck at it longer today than I have so far, wind or no wind.
Money worries out of the way I set off for Omagh, 20 odd miles away. Straight away the wind set in. It was only annoying at that stage as I made my way over Boa Island, a narrow strip of land on Lough Erne. In planning the route I had fancied this road to be like the causeways of south Florida, connecting the keys together with water visible on either side of you all the way along. Well it wasn’t quite like that, but occasionally it came close. Coming down from it’s highest point I passed a lone female cycle tourist. I should have stopped for a chat and to compare notes but I was sort of rolling and didn’t want to loose the momentum because it’s hard work to get it back. A quick lift of the head and a smile had to do. Ah, the loneliness of the long distance cyclist!
I stopped for a little while in Kesh for an energy snack and a smoke. Cuppa too, of course, that should be a given at this stage. I didn’t dawdle long: I was a man on a mission. The wind was blowing hard and it certainly slowed me down, that’s why the low average. The roads weren’t the best either. Kept seeing those same steel cat’s-eyes side reflectors that were the bane of my life down south. Pushing the bike up any kind of hill requires the highest granny gears I’ve got, and hitting one of those is like running into a kerb. Any wrinkles in the road can do the same. It’s what makes for the hardest cycling. If the roadside is of a decent quality and free from lumps or dips then the riding is easy. That’s rarely the case though, and that zen thing seldom works on rough ground. Load of rubbish really, don’t know what I was thinking.
I had just crossed the Tyrone border and was huffing and puffing my way up a hill when an old guy driving by pulled over and stopped in front of me. “I’m a cyclist myself”, he said, “Can I give you a lift up the road? It’s a right windy day.” Well, my moral metronome hadn’t even swung back to neutral before I accepted. He was pulling a trailer the perfect size for the bike. Noel sped me the next 10 miles to the outskirts of Omagh, giving me a brief tour of the town first. He pointed out where the bomb had gone off, just across the road from us as we sat at a set of lights. “There where that blue van is, is where the car with the bomb in it was placed.” As I looked at where he was pointing I saw two old ladies walk past the spot without pause. “All those buildings there are built new, and all the windows for thirty yards up those streets are new too.” It looked like any of the non-descript towns I had ridden through so far, and the scene today was so terribly ordinary. To imagine what had happened there that day in ’98 was maddening. And for it to have been done in my name, as an Irishman, made me intensely angry.
He was a very interesting and charming man, Noel. He had cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats two years ago. He’d ridden an average of 70 miles a day, staying in B&B’s, and it had taken him 14 days to complete. Definitely a trip I’d like to consider one day. He told me a lovely story about some friends he and his wife had met while cycling in the UK. They were from Dromahair, Co Leitrim, which I had passed through yesterday. I had stopped to take a piss and catch my breath at the crustiest, most run down filling station I’ve ever seen. It also looked from that vantage point to be the sum total of Dromahair. Nothing more than a speck on the map. “We went down to visit them one weekend”, said Noel, “and Steve took us into the village and said ‘This is the main street. And the further you go the mainer it gets!’ ”
I’m glad that I decided to capitalise on the lift and not stop in Omagh. Noel dropped me on the far side, on the Cookstown road before heading back himself. He had only been on his way home when he picked me up not far from his house. So off I set, a little rested, and faced into two excruciating hours. It felt like punishment for taking the lift. I was all fired up to blaze a trail and get lots of miles behind me but the bastard wind had other ideas. The road had a few long hills on it, but was otherwise decent. The wind roared incessantly in my ears like some form of aural torture. It seemed to be hitting me from two directions at once. From the side it kept wanting to push me into the ditch. From the front it felt like an invisible hand pressing into my chest so that I could only move forward at the last extent of my energy. It was so strong that it even robbed me of my downhills, which should have been great but ended up needing a little help from me. The frustration of this built up in me like a thunderous rage. Every now and then I’d break down and scream at the wind to just fuck off and leave me alone, even for five minutes!
The road into Cookstown crosses broad open peat plains where the wind just slew me. As I faced a long hill up towards the outskirts of Cookstown I had to stop and walk. No sooner had I done so than a car pulled in ahead of me. There was a bicycle slung on the back of it. A man dressed in cycling garb got out and waited for me to reach him. He had a big shock of white hair and a large bushy moustache, also white. His pendulous gut was big enough for me to think that before me stood Santa Claus on his holidays. He had thought that I had perhaps suffered a puncture, but I just had to say ‘wind’ and he nodded in sympathy. I couldn’t accept a second lift. Not for moral or ethical, but purely practical reasons. My bike was too heavy for his rack and his car too small for me and my gear. Besides, I was only a mile away from Cookstown. I never did get his name, but he had a northern English accent. He did manage to give me some good info about a route to my prime destination, just has Garrison had been yesterday.
Cookstown’s main street is framed by arches at either end with orange emblems and the slogan ‘Welcome here, brethren’. After a half hour break to gather my reserves I set out for Stewartstown and a short-cut to Maghery that Santy had given me. It’s a wee Armagh holiday town beside Derryvaragh Island on the southern shore of Lough Neagh where I’ll be able camp. I was low on reserves and it was getting very chilly. It was a very long ten miles but there was some sheltered parts that took the edge off the wind for the first time all day. The last two miles, however, were like running a gauntlet. It was on a rough as hell road through a peat bog. There were tens of thousands of those bastard little flies that hang above the road in little swarms. All along the road individual flies go into your mouth as you gasp for air, or up your nose and into your eyes. When you hit a cluster of them you can almost hear the smatter of impacts as you become coated in the little fuckers. So the picture is of me bumping along the road, fighting to keep the bike upright in the wind while spitting and rubbing dead flies from my face and head.
When I reached Maghery I found a footbridge leading to the campground and as Santa had said, I could pitch my tent anywhere. I’m set up in a caravan bay that feels a little too exposed for my liking. I look to be the only occupant and there’s no office so at least there’s no charge. The toilets are locked, ditto the showers. Season over. I finished dinner quick as a flash and ducked into the tent. There’s a pub close by me here called the Ferryman’s Inn which Santa had suggested I visit, but I’m in no mood for a drink, I just want to be left in peace tonight. A couple of drunks from the pub wandered over earlier on and wanted to talk to the fella in the tent. I’ll be honest, I’m a little uneasy about being in the north. I lived in Belfast for a while and I know that no matter how cool it might be for a southerner here, it only takes the wrong time & place for things to turn nasty. As I don’t know this area, and don’t know the ‘script’ as they say here, I’m going to rely on discretion to be the better part of valour. At least at night time. “We can s-eee youoo” the drunks said. “Whay wont you talk to us?” Figure it out, buddy.
It’s all quiet now and I’m knackered. Once again I’m fantasising about tomorrow. A quick detour past Lurgan will get me into both Antrim and Down, and as I’m in Armagh right now that’ll be all the northern counties under my wheels and I can head south. I should get that done in the first two hours tomorrow. If I get them done nice and early I could make a brave dash for Dublin. It’s a little over 80 miles I’d say. At my pace over the last two days a few extra hours would do it. It’d mean a fair distance on quite major roads, but I don’t care so long as I get home. I’m down to 7 counties now. Antrim, Down, Monaghan, Louth, Meath and Dublin. Ah, me darlin’ Dublin, here I come..
10:51pm, Wednesday night, September 11th, 2002
(Average: 10.7 mph / Time: 5.37.34 / Distance: 60.8 miles / Odometer: 621.0 miles)
Well, the first September 11th since September 11th. The whole world might have been paying attention to the box, but I was fighting the bastard wind again. From the moment I pushed off it was at me hard. I was also feeling less than superman fit this morning, I didn’t seem to have any oomph at all. I think yesterday took it all out of me.
After a difficult hour of uppy-downy, meandering, windswept, fly-ridden roads I found myself totally lost. I think I’ve made up my mind about northern roads and there’s nothing to boast about, except maybe that there are lots of them. There are more roads here than people, but they have as many potholes, bad sides and miscellaneous bumps as anywhere south of the border.
Just at the point at which I felt most lost I came to an overpass above the M1 motorway. I could then place myself on the map and take a gander at what lay before me. I needed to get to Portadown to gain access to Craigavon and on out to Down and Antrim. It looked like a trip of about 15-20 miles on those meandering minor roads. I was wary of my reserves for the trip as I looked down at the nice broad hard shoulder that ran up the M1. It was going directly where I needed to go but of course I wasn’t allowed use it. Fuck it, I thought, I’d risk it for a biscuit. Decision made, I sped down the access ramp and began trudging up the motorway. It was the easiest and softest ride I’d have in the north. A clear, wind sheltered road with all the traffic safely five feet to my right, not whizzing past within two feet of me like it did on the A roads. Sometimes even closer. It can scare the living shit out of you if you’re concentrating hard on avoiding a ditch and a truck zips past right beside you and you’re suddenly fighting the blast of wind this creates, threatening to topple you onto the road. So the motorway was ironically the safest road I’ve been on in a long while.
About a mile away from the turn-off I needed to take a car pulled into the hard shoulder about 50 feet in front of me. Just as I was thinking ‘shit, I’m going to have to go around this idiot’, blue lights started to flash in it’s rear window and I realised I’d been rumbled by an unmarked cop car. As I approached I decided to play the ignorant tourist bit. No officer, I didn’t realise that bicycles weren’t allowed on the motorway, there was nothing to that effect on the signs. “Most people use their common sense” the cop said. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with a snarky copper. Or Peeler, as I now remembered they were called up here. Not to their faces, obviously. But in my head I had the better of him! ‘The signs down in Ireland say no bicycles. When I didn’t see one here I though it might be OK.’ It was a cheeky shot, but his attitude bothered me. And of course, mine was bothering him. ‘We’ll take you to the next off-ramp, keep up.’ he said and got back into his car. Then they took off up the hard shoulder, lights flashing, with me puffing away trying to keep up with them. I have to admit, the extra pressure and company saw the next 2 miles go up in dust.
The off-ramp led up over the M1 and onto another stretch of motorway that was in the process of being resurfaced. This work had caused the motorway to be reduced to one lane of traffic. Actually it was just the hard shoulder that was open while the lanes beside it were being worked on. The peelers stopped and waved me on ahead of them, and then gave a blast of their sirens to stop the oncoming traffic. At which point I then found myself leading a convoy up the M12 to Craigavon. There was me in front, trying to keep up a decent pace, my lungs burning with the effort, the squad car behind with it’s lights flashing and at least a mile of cars behind them. Mad, Ted!
At the top of the next off-ramp, a mile or so down the road, there was a roundabout and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go. Then I heard a little blip of the siren behind me and I thankfully pulled the bike onto the verge. I was gasping for air and the sweat was running down my red face. As the cop car pulled up alongside me the guy at the passenger side was leaning his elbow out the window and smoking a fag. I must have been a nice diversion for them, and I wondered for a moment if I would turn up on one of those Police, Camera, Action! TV shows sometime. They gave me some directions to get me to Lurgan, wished me well and took off.
Soon after that I managed to find myself at the Rushmore shopping centre in Craigavon, where I treated myself to a McDonald’s. Thanks to my motorway detour and police escort I had probably saved myself a few hours cycling, so when I set off again I was looking forward to knocking another two counties out in short order, but was lost again in less than 5 minutes and found myself in some anonymous industrial estate beside the motorway that was like a demented post-modern labyrinth. To cut a long story short I wasted over an hour trying to get to the far side of Lurgan. It was frustrating because I knew I was close to pointing my wheels southward, and to be heading home. I was inside Antrim at this stage and I was desperately looking for something to indicate that. I turned around and crossed back into county Down and not finding any signs there either I stopped on yet another M1 overpass that would just have to represent both. It’s incredibly built up and busy around that area as all roads point towards Belfast. It’s no place for a bicycle. There were a few cycle lanes in the area but they weren’t any use to me for my purposes.
At least I was finally heading south and it was still reasonably early. The time saved with my shortcut had been balanced out by the aimless wanderings and I was no better off, but no worse off either. There was still hope for the day to turn out well. And true to form I managed to get as far as Banbridge by 4pm. It was hilly terrain along the way and I had to walk a few.
The way got a bit lighter as I approached Newry, the road was taking a definite downward bent, with a particularly nice roll down into Newry itself, which I reached just before 6pm. I was making good time, but I was pretty worn out and getting a bit chilly so I stopped to rethink my route for the last push of the day. My original route to take in Monaghan went via Crossmaglen, a place I particularly wanted to see, so often had I heard it mentioned on the news down the years, but with the terrain around here the way looked a little long and unnecessary. So I decided to head for a place called Forkhill, just inside the border, deep in the bandit country of south Armagh. From there I’d get to Monaghan on the south side of the border.
I had to push the bike for about half an hour to get out of Newry. Jesus, that hill went on forever and if it wasn’t for the promise of the downhills on the back of it I wouldn’t have been able to carry on. And on that downhill section the sight of Slieve Gullion was like a mighty beacon drawing me southward, so tall and steep did it look. There are lots of military installations on top of the peaks in the area. So many that it was only very occasionally that I found myself out of sight of one of them. This is the one area of the north that that military presence has been so obvious. And not a little intimidating.
When I reached Forkhill I went into the Slieve Gullion Inn which is a lovely cosy wee country inn, with a low roof, lots of wood panelling and nice brass do-da’s everywhere. I stayed there for two pints, gabbing with an old geezer who used to be a road sweeper in Dublin, and the even older geezer who ran the pub with his wife. The two old lads were a hoot, constantly slagging each other. “Was that jumper a Christmas present, Billy, or did you loose a bet?”. I was enjoying the chat and the cosy atmosphere in the pub when through the window I could suddenly see a squad of soldiers moving up the hill beside the pub. They weren’t marching in file, but sneaking up along the stone walls with weapons drawn. It was such an inappropriate sight to my eyes that I didn’t know what to say. “They’ll be taking down the registration number of your bicycle there” Billy said as he came around from behind the bar, walked over to the window and closed the blinds on them. “Take photo’s of anything you want around here,” he said, “but don’t point your camera at the barracks. Not if you want to keep your camera.” The barracks he was talking about was on top of a hill about a mile away. They could see me, the guys said, and make no mistakes, they were watching and had probably been watching me all the way through the area. It was a difficult thing to consider, but Forkhill had seen it’s fair share of the Troubles, from murders and bombings to sniper attacks and ambushes.
When I left the pub they guided me to a patch of ground beside a football pitch where I put up my tent just as it was getting dark. There’s a picnic table beside me so I was able to sit and cook my dinner there and eat it without crouching down at the door of my tent. As I ate it there in the dark by the light of my headlamp there were what sounded like two or three military choppers circling the area. Flying dark and low. As I was cleaning up and getting ready to climb into the tent with a cuppa, three figures appeared out of the dark and nearly scared the shit out of me. I think two of them were paratroopers, because they wore red berets. The other one was an enourmous red headed RUC man. He said nothing, just looked at me like he wanted to tear me a new arsehole. Just one of the troopers spoke, and he was very polite. Politely insistent. He asked me my business and for some ID. As it happens, I never thought to bring any ID with me, and all I have is my bank card and the sponsorship card, which were in the tent. I went in to get them, rustling around in my handlebar bag for a while, and as I crawled back out of the tent, the door of which was facing away from the troopers, I only then noticed that I was actually surrounded. There were three or four more para’s hiding behind trees at that side of the tent and as I crept out the door I looked into the eyes of one who had a rifle pointed right at me. That was a bit of a shock, but obviously he had no idea what I was going to come out of the tent with. It’s a different world up here.
Once they had determined that I didn’t pose a threat I could sense the tension leave the situation. After the official business was out of the way they then stayed chatting to me for a few minutes. They were curious about the cycle and handed each other the sponsorship card and asked me about how I was doing. They were nice lads, really. Very curious to know what I ate, how long I rode every day etc. All the right questions. They thought my time was impressive. “That’s some going for 11 days. Fair play t’yeh” said the first guy, the one who’d questioned me. That made me smile. “Fuck off”, I said “I’ve seen the training you lads have to go through on telly. If I’ve impressed you lads then you’ve just made my day.” And with that they left me to myself and disappeared back into the night. I can still hear choppers circling around above, but I think I’ll still sleep no matter what. It’s really weird to think that I’m camping wild but I’m far from being at one with nature. Who knows how many eyes are on my tent.
I should have asked them for directions. I want to get over into the Republic as quick as possible tomorrow. Once I get my detour to Monaghan out of the way I’m making like a rocket for Dublin. Home! Bed! Bath! Ya-hoo!!!