Bicycle tours Ireland guides John, Paddy and Joe

 

 

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Below you will find some of the testimonials we have received from past customers. Hopefully you will get a feeling of what to expect on the tour, and what to expect from Ireland.

 

There is no substitute for experience in conducting a successful tour, and it quickly becomes evident that John and his assistants have that experience. The custom bike fitting, knowing subtle details of the bike routes, timing the group that everyone can comfortably bike at the own pace and not feel rushed, assuring that the hotels are prepared at every stop, making recommendations for the evening and tolerating idiosyncrasies from people like me can only come from individuals who have the knowledge and are committed to the satisfaction of their clients. This was reflected on the day we were to visit the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs can be obscured for days by sea fog due to their elevation. John knew when to collect the group, load the bikes, and travel to the destination at just the right time to allow for an unobstructed view before the fog arrived. Even the most seasoned air traffic controller would be impressed!

This was my first cycling tour and I was pleased that everyone was not limited to just following the group. Bike at your own pace be it vigorous or leisurely. Bike as far as you want completing the days route or only a portion. Take a detour along the way and explore what's just around the bend or take the day off and visit the sites along the way. It can be demanding or relaxing as you want it to be. But I recommend taking a step back from a hurried world and take in nature at a pace only riding a bicycle can afford. I think you will find it both revitalizing and inspiring.

When the cycling portion of the day is complete I think you will find the evening equally enjoyable. The group dinner has an excellent selection of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. An added bonus is that this is not just any meal but a meal well earned from the day's efforts made better with others that shared the experience. Coming from someone who can be adverse to anything resembling group "bonding" I can say that I enjoyed getting to know everyone during the cycling, meals, and obligatory (voluntary) trip to the pub. The shared experience has lasted through e-mails long after the tour ended. And if you enjoy Irish music as much as I do you will enjoy Doolin, where I was given the opportunity to try my hand at playing the fiddle at a local pub.

After writing about Cycle Holidays, cycling in general, food, and the group experience I left out one significant mention - Ireland itself! Whether your of Irish heritage or not I think you will find the spirit of the Emerald Isle welcoming to all who visit its shores. I can personally testify after being invited in by a resident to have tea. The combination of new and ancient, provincial and contemporary, common and unique - all of which can become lost in the majestic landscape - will always leave a lasting memory with me.


Darryl Sewell
Jacksonville, FL
USA

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We have travelled the globe on bicycling and multi-sport vacations with some of the best companies in the world – those companies have nothing over Cycling Holidays Ireland except higher prices.

John Heagney and John Joe Conwell treat their guests better than family and give the tour both great Irish hospitality and local historical expertise. We hope we retained 10% of the information they shared throughout the week. The tour offers a more extensive itinerary than any other Irish bicycling tour we found, yet the week still had a leisurely vacation pace. The ability to go at your own pace and cycle the number of miles you are comfortable with cannot be understated.

The equipment and hotels are first rate and the food (somewhat surprisingly) was excellent. The scenery and wildlife you’ll see is varied, dramatic and up close and personal. The Irish people have well earned their friendly reputation and John and John Joe are great ambassadors for their country. We thoroughly enjoyed learning about hurling, invasions, kings, castles, the burren, the Aran Islands, Connemara, cow milking, a touch of Gaelic and much more. We look forward to a return visit.”

Jeff, Karin, Rebecca & Eric Bigman. Florida, USA

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Our Cycle Holidays Ireland tour was one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Never having ridden as part of a tour or done any competitive cycling, I was a bit tenuous committing to a week's worth of riding. John's tour, however, is designed to cater to all types of folks with any level of cycling experience.

Each day we were given the option of several routes of varying difficulty, usually stopping for lunch at a local pub or restaurant. Most evenings were free for exploration. However, we did manage to visit landmarks such the Cliffs of Moher, Portumna Castle and the Aran Islands as a group.

The nicest thing about John's tour is having the freedom to ride at your own pace, on your own or with others, taking in as much of the scenery as you desire, and knowing that John is always only a phone call away.

Some memorable events from the trip: visiting a local pub in Doolin and being treated to some live Irish music, telling dirty jokes and sharing a fifth of cheap Irish whiskey in the back of the bus on the way back from the Aran Islands.

At the onset of the tour we were seventeen strangers. By the end, everyone had become close friends because of the experiences we shared along the way. You can't put a price on that. So go take the tour! You won't regret it.

Joe Riess, Ohio, USA

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I have been on almost 10 bicycle trips around the world and this was one of the best. Ireland has wonderful landscapes and an incredible history and culture that was shown to me by Cycle Holidays.

The biking was as challenging as I could have wanted (I did all the long options) and the specialized tours and lectures made me appreciate the people of Ireland and their hospitality.

The value of this trip is equal to and even greater than other more expensive bicycle tours offer. If Cycle Holidays ran other tours in other parts of the world I would go with them over and over again.

Cliff Beck, Colorado

 

 

 

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“The four of us came to the tour with different levels of experience and expectation but the freedom, flexibility and back up you provided meant that we all were able to really make the most of every day. With your intricate knowledge of the areas were we cycled we really feel as if we saw the” real Ireland” – a truly beautiful part of the world and when we return (as we surely will) we will definitely join your tour again. Thank you for making our 2008 summer holiday one to remember .”

Sara, Len, Matthew and Jenny – Hertfordshire

 

 

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Over the years, a number of travel journalists have take the tour.

Their travelogues give you a flavor of Ireland and the tour.

 

 

Kathleen and Paul on thier way into Fanore Peddling through the Emerald Isle
By Kathleen Ganster

“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. 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, kept shouting to my partner, 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 country side 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. Clew Bay Day 5

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.

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 travel 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. The beauty of the deal is that each rider can go as far or as little, as fast or as slow as she wants. 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 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 amaze 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 Twelve Bens ConnemaraThe 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 dolmen, a cemetery dating to 3000 BC. Again, the stark landscape, stone structure and wind make us pause. But even though it is gray 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 dangerous. It was breathtaking but scary.

That night we stay in 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 rest stop.

A striking feature of the Irish landscape as we peddled all week was the stone walls. Miles and miles of manmade stone walls line the countryside. John even Roundstone at dawnpoints 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 what 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 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.

 

 

Cycling Through Western IrelandSteve beside the Ogham stone at Tully Cross

by

Steve Metzger


It’s a Monday afternoon in late May in western Ireland. A gentle breeze drifts through the Lough Inagh valley and teases to tiny whitecaps the cold cobalt surface of the narrow lake. I brake to a stop beside the road, straddle my bicycle, and take a long pull from my water bottle. Brilliant green fields—dotted with shaggy sheep--roll away from the shore, rise up out of the valley, lift to hillsides of shifting light, then disappear in the shadowy forests of the Twelve Bens (mountains) of Connemara, a century ago one of Oscar Wilde’s favorite parts of his native country.
A century ago. It seems that long since a car has passed me, in either direction, although in fact it’s only been a half hour or so. But right now, time seems somehow irrelevant—the pre-Celtic ruins, the endless, centuries-old stone walls, the abandoned Famine-era cottages all linked into a timeless continuum by the people who have passed through this rugged, unspoiled part of the world--“a savage beauty,” according to Wilde.
As a guest of Tourism Ireland, I am four days into a five-day bicycle tour of counties Clare and Galway, including the stark Aran Islands. I have wanted to visit Ireland for as long as I can remember and it is all I had hoped it would be and more. Already I feel an odd, nearly palpable connection to the land and the people—perhaps a result of family bloodlines: my father’s Irish Catholic mother, Alice Rooney, and other family, such as the Hughes and McConnells, who left Ireland for America in the 19th century
I arrived at Shannon Airport in Limerick on Friday morning at 8 a.m., exhausted, having left Sacramento some twenty hours earlier and having slept little more than a couple of hours in flight. At Shannon, I was met by John Heagney, owner/operator of Cycle Holidays Ireland, who whisked me by van to my hotel with instructions to meet back in the lobby at 11:00 ready to ride. A power nap later, I was back downstairs, where I met the other seven with whom I would be traveling. All seemed both as exhausted, but excited, as I was.
Heagney, an affable 30-something dairy farmer and former competitive cyclist and rugby player, has been offering cycling tours of western Ireland since 1998. We would learn later in the week that long before he met us at our hotels some mornings, he had raced home on his motorcycle to milk his cows, along with his wife, who holds down the family fort during the summer.
Our introduction to western Ireland was a visit (Heagney delivered us by van) to the 26-acre Bunratty Folk Park, alongside the well-preserved Bunratty Castle, which dates from the 12th century but was built on the site of a much older Viking settlement. The park is a reconstructed pre-Famine village (though some of the buildings are original and were moved to the site), where visitors can watch women in period costume making bread and pies over peat-fires and squeeze into tiny, one-room thatched-roof homes where families of up to 20 once lived—and often starved.
Then it was time to meet the bicycles, which Heagney had set up for us based on inseam measurements we had sent him. He gave us all laminated maps—map on one side, intersection-by-intersection directions on the other—which we attached to our handlebars, and we were off.
By now something between a heavy mist and a soft rain had begun to settle on the little backroads, but I barely noticed. In fact, if anything, it seemed somehow appropriate, lending a sort of mystical feeling to the empty roadways, lined to their shoulders with blackberry vines, and the simple cottages we passed from time to time, many of which had been converted to bed and breakfasts.
Later that afternoon, after having been awake for some thirty hours and ridden as many miles, my first Irish pub called. Actually, did more than call. It reached out for my trusty steed, grabbed it by the top bar, and yanked it to the roadside. I could do nothing but ride along. That was the best Guinness this Guinness fan has ever tasted.
Dinner that night was a “medieval feast” in Bunratty Castle, where we drank mead, ate with our fingers, and were entertained by a lively group of actors and musicians. I ran into the young fiddler at a nearby pub later and complimented him on his work. “Well, I did study at one of your schools,” he said. “The Julliard. Perhaps you know it…”

Day Two, after a hearty Irish breakfast of eggs and bacon and tomatoes, we were off again, this time for the little town of Doolin, the unofficial traditional-music capital of western Ireland. Along the way we passed through the hauntingly beautiful Burren, 160 square miles of gray, mostly treeless limestone that drops down to cliffs, pounded ceaselessly by breaking Atlantic swells. The most stunning are the world-famous Cliffs of Moher,, five miles long and nearly 700 feet high. We also passed through tiny Lisdoonvarna, long famous for its matchmakers and today for the annual Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival each September. High on a rocky windswept ridge, we saw the Poulnobrone dolmen, the ruins of a 5,000-year-old tomb whose capstone weighs five tons. That night we dined on fresh Atlantic salmon before a brief visit to a pub for some live reels and jigs.

Day Three we loaded our bikes onto a ferry for Inishmor, the largest of the Aran Islands and home of Dun Aengus, the remains of a huge, cliffside stone fort at least 2,000 years old--about a half-hour ride from the ferry landing. The Aran Islands are also famous for their wool fisherman’s sweaters, whose individual weaves were originally family-specific—in order to identify the decomposed bodies of drowned fishermen. You can buy sweaters today from weavers themselves or at the Aran Islands Sweater Market. Electricity was not brought to the islands until 1974.
Later, in Spiddle, County Galway, I listened long into the night to a crooked, balding little chap playing guitar and singing traditional Irish folk songs, including the haunting “Grace,” about Grace Gifford, who wed Joseph Plunkett, one of the rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising two hours before he was executed by English soldiers.
A highlight Day Four was lunch in the tiny seaside town of Leenaun—fresh oysters, mussels, salmon—where even in this remote village, cranes and concrete trucks signal Ireland’s economic boom. (The European Union, identifying Ireland as a developing country, is pumping millions into the economy. Unemployment is almost zero. Many locals told me that those who long for the “good old days” are crazy.)
That afternoon, we stopped at Kylemore Abbey, near Letterfrack, a daunting lakeside neo-Gothic mansion built in the 19th century that today serves as a convent for Benedictine nuns, who run the visitors center and the restaurant, where they serve fresh local salmon and their homemade jams and scones. Later, we passed through the “savage beauty” of Lough Inagh Valley, where, exhausted after some 40 miles, we stopped for drinks (Guinness is good for you, so it is!), before piling the bikes onto the top of Heagney’s van, for a short ride to Clifden.

Day Five was a potpourri of scenery, tiny seaside villages, green pastures rolling down to the water, stone walls sprawling in every direction as far as you could see, sheep in the narrow roadways, tiny cemeteries beside the ruins of centuries-old stone churches, and peat bogs, where men, their cattle dogs resting nearby, dug peat bricks by hand and stacked it to dry by the roadside. On distant hillsides, we saw “Famine ridges,” where blighted potato crops were left un harvested and a century and a half later still crease the land.
Soon, we met up again with Heagney, who transferred us to Galway City, a lively university town, where music and youthful energy seems to pore from every doorway. I could have easily spent a week here, exploring the narrow little streets and historical sites, including the Spanish Arch, through which Portuguese and Spanish ships entered the city in the 16th century carrying wine and spices, and the family home of Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce.

It’s a Wednesday morning in late May in Western Ireland. Heagney’s van pulls to a stop at Shannon Airport under a sign that says “Departures.” Unexplainably, or maybe not, I’m completely choked up and have to look away from Heagney and my mates. Could that have really been five days?
Heagney gives me a hearty, rugby-player’s handshake, and I head into the terminal to double check my flight time: 11:15. Correct. Damn!
Five days?
Five short days when time did indeed seem irrelevant.
In a land to which I’ll someday, somehow cycle back.

 

 

The West of Ireland: Stories in Stone

By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor

The first thing you notice about the West of Ireland is the predominance of stone in the landscape. There are no trees to speak of, and even the outbuildings are built of stone, yet the countryside is lush and green with a unique mix of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean vegetation.

From the Stone Age tombs on the Burren, to the Iron Age hill forts of Inis Mor, to the battered castles and monasteries of the Middle Ages, to the ubiquitous stone walls enclosing tiny patches of land, these stones tell the story of Ireland. And a grand, uplifting story it is, though surely not a cheery one.

But it has a happy ending, or at least as happy as one could hope for in an imperfect world. Ireland is free and at peace, jobs are plentiful, the crime rate is low, everyone has health care and the government is committed to protecting the environment. To many Americans that starts to sound like the Land of Oz.



As everyone knows, Ireland is a great vacation destination, especially if you like horses, or fishing, or hiking, or golf, or sailing, or gardens, or music, theater, poetry and dance, or SCUBA diving, or surfing, or spelunking. But one of the main reasons people come to Ireland is to learn more about its history.

A Great Diaspora

With more Irish people outside the country than in it, Ireland is the center of a great diaspora, and people all over the world turn to their "mother country" for their heroes and their values and their sense of what is decent and right.

I was born in the thirty-third county of Ireland -- that would be Boston, Massachusetts -- where to be more Irish means to be a better person. In fact I found the Irish accents in Ireland are less pronounced than they are in Boston, because in Ireland they don't have to work so hard at being Irish. It just comes to them naturally.


There are lots of Red Sox fans in Ireland.
I think it's important to remember that unlike many other peoples who came to America, the Irish didn't emigrate because they wanted to. They had no choice. They were not received as well as they ought to have been, and times were hard for a good long while.

Is it any wonder, then, that they would pass on to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren their fond, even passionate memories of this exquisitely beautiful country with its 45 shades of green?

The West of Ireland is an especially good place to explore Irish history because it is the center of the "Gaeltacht" -- the part of Ireland where Irish, also called Gaelic, is the predominant language, and because here the history -- not just of Ireland, but of the human race -- is written in stone for all to see.

The great thing about archaeology is that we're learning more and more all the time, and the research that goes on at the historic sites in Ireland is shedding new light on life in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, the Middle Ages right up to the 19th century. The sites are very well managed -- some by the European Union -- with helpful informational displays.


We biked mainly on country roads like this one.
My Next Trip to Ireland

I can sketch the bits of history I learned on my five-day cycle holiday, but the ones you will find most enjoyable will certainly be the ones you learn from the stones themselves.

On a cycling tour you get up close and personal with the countryside, smelling the manure and the burning peat and taking in some of the finest scenery in the world. It's exhilarating, but you're on the road most of the day, so you don't have as much time for sightseeing and socializing. I decided I was only reconnoitering for my next trip.

Our group, conducted by Cycle Holidays Ireland, flew into Shannon Airport and mustered at the Bunratty Castle Hotel. We dropped off our luggage and got right onto our bikes and cycled through the farm country of Southern Clare County.

We stayed on rural roads lined with dense hedges that sheltered us from the wind. It's best to stay out of high-traffic areas because you will probably be making the adjustment to riding on the lefthand side of the road.


Our guide, John Heagney, loads the bikes onto the van.
It sounds simple, of course, but I found that later in the day when I was beginning to get tired, I would stop for a rest and then out of habit I would start up again on the righthand side. When the occasional car or truck came along I would have to veer back over to the left. Thankfully the motorists of County Clare were very courteous. Not one of them leaned on the horn.

Once you learn to stay to the left, all you have to worry about is running into a crazy Yank driving on the right.

We were issued laminated maps which we attached to our handlebars showing routes of varying mileage. Our group spread out considerably, with the stronger riders in the lead, while our guide John Heagney moved up and down the line on a motorcycle, making sure none of his sheep went astray. His associate John Joe Conwell brought up the rear in the support van.

The Abbey at Quin

We all met for lunch at the pub in Quin, where they'll have to put up a historic marker because it was there that I had my first Guinness in Ireland. It's true what everybody says about it being smoother and fuller than the export product we get in the States. Or maybe it just tastes better in Ireland, like everything else.


The abbey at Quin
After lunch a few of us took a walk around the tumbled-down remains of Quin Abbey. It was in monasteries like this one that the great works of the classical world were assiduously copied by the monks. If it weren't for their efforts these works would be lost to us today because all the other copies were destroyed by waves of barbarian invaders. You can read all about it in How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.

Bunratty Castle

After cycling nearly thirty miles we returned to Bunratty, the site of Bunratty Castle, which, because of its strategic location, was knocked down and rebuilt eight times during the Middle Ages. It is also the home of the Bunratty Folk Park, a recreation of a 19th-century Irish village.

The folk park began in the early '60s when a farmhouse had to be demolished to make way for a new runway at Shannon International Airport. The house was taken to Bunratty and reconstructed brick by brick. Over time more and more structures were added illustrating the dwelling places of poor laborers, wealthier farmers, tradespeople and lords and ladies. A schoolhouse, a church, a post office, shops and a pub were added to complete the village.


A cottage at Bunratty Folk Park
At Bunratty you hear more American accents than Irish because the folk park is primarily designed for visitors, but what separates a living museum or "interpretive center" from a tourist attraction is, in a word, scholarship.

The scholars and preservationists who have created Bunratty Folk Park and other interpretive centers in Ireland are passionate about the story they have to tell, and recreations and reenactments bring history to life and stimulate the imagination in a way that books and pictures cannot.

The same goes for the castle banquet at Bunratty. It's primarily a show for visitors, but what a show! Who could pass up a chance to dine in a beautifully furnished banquet hall, mellowed by mead and serenaded by exquisitely costumed harpers, fiddlers and singers? The food is excellent, you get to eat with your knife, and the music is superb.


The entertainers of Bunratty Castle - photo courtesy
of Shannon Heritage
On my next trip, I'm going to the banquets at Knappogue Castle and Dunguaire Castle and the music night at the Bunratty Corn Barn. I'd also like to visit the Lough Gur Stone Age Cente, the Craggaunowen Bronze Age Project, and the Brian Boru Heritage Centre in Killaloe. Brian Boru was the great king of Ireland who drove out the Danes.

I'm also going to go to the Galway Races and the Connemara Pony Show, and do a little fishing in Lough Inagh, and go to a hurling match. And I'm going to do a heck of a lot more pubbing.

A Carboniferous Limestone Landscape

On our second day we biked along the Atlantic coast through the area known as the Burren, a carboniferous limestone landscape with thousands of varieties of rare flowers, including acres and acres of wild orchids. Botanists come here from all over the world to study the unique combination of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean plants.

Back in 1651, General Edmund Ludlow wrote to his boss, English dictator Oliver Cromwell, that the geography of the Burren was interfering with his favorite pastimes:


A megalithic tomb on the Burren


"It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him," he said, "and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing."

The Burren is also a mecca for archaeologists who study the many Stone Age burial sites, including megalithic tombs built around 3,500 BCE, two thousand years before the sack of Troy. These tombs give us many clues to the lives of these early farmers, who farmed with stone tools and made implements and jewelry from animal bones.

You can also visit caves formed back in the Ice Age, with magnificent stalagmites and stalactites and the bones of antediluvian bears.

After a delicious seafood lunch at Monk's Pub in the harbor village of Ballyvaughen, we visited the Poulnabrone dolmen, a megalithic tomb where 26 people are buried, cycled some more and then visited the magnificent Cliffs of Moher in Doolin, the tallest vertical cliffs in Europe.


The fortifications at Dun Aenghus
The Hill Forts of Inis Mor

The following day we took our bikes on the ferry from Doolin to the Aran Islands, where everybody goes to buy the famous hand-knit Aran sweaters. These islands were first settled in large numbers during the brutal invasion of Oliver Cromwell, who offered Irish Catholics the choice of going "to Connacht or to hell." Connacht is a name for the western province of Ireland.

The new settlers eked out a rugged existence by fertilizing their tiny plots with seaweed, fishing in their canvas "currachs" and raising sheep and cattle. This way of life has been the subject of many books and movies including The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge and Robert J. Flaherty's 1934 classic documentary "Man of Aran."

On the largest of the three islands, Inis Mor, we visited the Iron Age (~600 BCE) hill fort known as Dun Aenghus.

Here is a place where you can really commune with the stones and get a sense of the people who built this massive series of concentric stone fortifications enclosing eleven acres, built atop 300-foot cliffs. Outside one of the inner rings of stones there is a "chevaux de frise," a bunch of vertical stones, kind of like New England milestones, placed together in front of the walls to slow down invaders.


The chevaux de frise
I can just imagine how hard it would be to scramble over this barrier in full armor while dodging arrows and slingstones. There are three other equally interesting forts on the island, Dun Duchathair, Dun Eochla and Dun Eoghanachta and many other historic sites.

We biked from the landing to Dun Aenghus, about six miles each way, with a half-mile climb to the fort. On my next trip I'm going to take a pony cart to save energy for exploring all the other great historic places on the island.

At the end of the day we took the ferry (a much larger one) to Rossaveal harbor in Galway and during our trip we got to watch a hurling match on television. It's a combination of lacrosse and baseball where the players carry a kind of wooden scoop to pick up the ball, and then toss it up and smack it like a baseball.

We stayed and dined at a family hotel, An Cruscien Lawn, in the village of Spiddle and took in some Irish music at Tigh Huges Pub.


Lough Fee with Devil's Mother in the background



Another Lesson in Geology

The following day we cycled down the beautiful Maaum Valley in Connemara and I got yet another dramatic lesson in geology. The limestone of the Burren is permeable so the water sinks down and there aren't even any puddles after a rainstorm.

The granite of Connemara is not permeable, so there are beautiful lakes and streams full of salmon, trout and pike. It was here that my rear shifter got caught in the spokes and since the back wheel wouldn't turn, I couldn't even walk the bike.

I tried to use my cellphone, but apparently I was in a dead spot. I tried to call again, but I am not a cellphone kind of guy and I must have pushed the wrong button because the instrument began to vibrate and asked me if I wanted to see my credit balance.

Fortunately my fellow traveler Jen came along. Her cellphone didn't get through, either, but she went over the hill and called again.


The Ogham Stone bears the earliest known writing in
Ireland.
I had to wait nearly fifteen minutes in a beautiful Irish meadow beside a babbling brook, exchanging curious glances with the sheep, before John pulled up in the van, climbed on top and hoisted my bike up onto the rack.

"Let's have some lunch, shall we?" he said as we drove off. And we did, another wonderful seafood lunch at the Blackberry Café in the village of Leenaun (don't miss the the chowder or the mussels!) served in beautiful locally-made crockery.

By the time we finished lunch, John had replaced my shifter and trued up the spokes and I was back on the road. We didn't even have to use the extra bike he keeps in reserve. For a solo biker, a mishap like that would have been a catastrophe.

The Inagh Valley

We motored up to a village called Tully Cross, where we saw the famous Ogham Stone, which bears the earliest known writing in Ireland.

From there we biked along the coastal cliffs for a bit and then sailed down the Inagh Valley. That's where Oscar Wilde went on his vacations, and it's easy to see why. The scenery really is breathtaking.


View from the cliffs in Tully
We stopped for a beer at the gorgeous Lough Inagh Lodge, and then we were off to The Station House in Clifden. Here, as at all the hotels we stayed at, the people were as friendly and helpful as can be, and the accomodations were positively sumptuous, though I have to say that after thirty miles of cycling, I would have been happy with a straw mat and a ewer of cold water.

But I certainly appreciated the breakfasts. There's none of this "ham OR bacon OR sausage" that you see in the States. It's ham AND bacon AND sausage AND anything else you might want -- fruit, yogurt, cereal, you name it.

The So-Called Famine

Everywhere you go in Ireland you see stone walls enclosing tiny plots of land. These enclosures tell the story that more than any other defines Irish and Irish-American history -- the story of the great famine of 1847 when the potato crop failed for the second year in a row.

As any Boston boy knows, it wasn't a famine. There was no shortage of food. There are countless proofs of this, but one is enough: when relief ships arrived from Canada they had to wait three days while other ships were loaded with grain for export. It wasn't a famine, it was an atrocity.


These enclosures tell the story of the Penal Laws and
the famine.
It was the culmination of the Penal Laws imposed in 1651 after Cromwell's conquest that had reduced landholdings to such tiny plots that the only way for farmers to feed their families was to grow potatoes.

Of a population of eight million, one and a half million people starved to death and another three million emigrated, so more than half the population was dead or gone. Those who stayed held wakes for those who left because they knew they would never see them again in this world.

I thought about this terrible crime while I biked around this idyllic countryside, imagining a million and a half men, women and children starving to death while those with plenty stood by unmoved.

It was not so much a matter of nationality. It's well known that Ireland and England have always had what one might call a love-hate relationship without the love, but Irish scholars point to English landlords like John D'Arcy, the founder of Clifden, who spent his fortune on food for his tenants and finally wound up giving his land to them.


A strong economy with full employment has fueled a
building boom all over Ireland.
This atrocity was committed out of arrogance and greed by a ruling class that had lost all sense of decency and humanity, and it should be studied and taught and remembered as an example of man's inhumanity to man.

We saw the monument to John D'Arcy on a cliff overlooking the town of Clifden before beginning our last day of cycling. We started out in Clifden, and cycled through beautiful little fishing villages and peat bogs with a mountain range called The Twelve Pins in the background.

Our Last Evening

Our trip ended in Galway City where we stayed at the Fairgreen Hotel. Our final dinner was a one of the finest restaurants in Galway, Kirwin's Lane, where we had a chance to talk over the high points of our trip.


John Heagney of Cycle Holidays Ireland - photo by
Jennifer Sotham
While demolishing an exquisitely prepared plate of duck and a memorable chocolate mud cake, I expressed my admiration for the indomitable spirit of the Irish people, for after centuries of conquest, sacking, looting, famine and oppression, they have always been preeminent among all other countries in literature, music, dance, and theater -- in short everything that is ennobling to the human spirit.

Things are better in Ireland now. They're free and at peace and they have full employment. They even have 160,000 Polish immigrants to fill all the jobs that have been created by an economic mini-boom.

I asked John, whose family has been farming in Ireland for many generations, whether all this prosperity might mean that Ireland will have to relinquish its preeminence in the arts. He laughed and said it's a chance they're willing to take.

"Besides," he said, "maybe it's time for some other countries to have their turn."

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Stephen Hartshorne is the Associate Editor of GoNOMAD. He writes a blog called Armchair Travel about books he finds at flea markets and tag sales.

 



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