Sometimes everything goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. We knew going into it that the weather in Ireland in May can be unsettled. It can be a fabulously beautiful time with the most spring colors across the Emerald Isle or it can be cold, wet and miserable. After our amazing good fortune for weather in Scotland, we were hesitant to believe that our luck could hold out. Fortunately for us, we were blessed with extremely good weather for the entirety of our biking trip through Ireland. It must be the luck of the Irish which smiled down upon us.
We left Glasgow on a picture perfect day – sunny but with big puffy clouds, throngs of walkers (about 40,000 of them) mostly dressed in kilts for the Kiltwalk, a charity walk to Loch Lomond, gathered on the green in front of our flat as we started our ride and a sense that spring had finally come in to full swing. The energy and pageantry of the walkers set us off on a good note. The day was not too long – about 65km (40 miles) with only one significant hill – and almost fully on bike paths. Along the way, we passed through some folks on an organized bike race, met up with other cyclists enjoying the beautiful weather, and basically sailed to our destination feeling like we could do anything. We stopped for ice cream in the early afternoon, found our way to our AirBnB without difficulty, and had an amazing and very funny dinner in town that evening. It is the kind of feeling that is hard to describe because everything simply clicked in to place as if the world was telling us that this is what we should be doing. It was an energizing and auspicious beginning.
The next few days, however, were a bit more complicated – Mac slept awkwardly the first night and woke up the next morning with a very crookneck, so much so he couldn’t move his head at all much less bike the second 60 km. This necessitated a change in plans as we had a ferry scheduled for the following day so we hopped a train to the closest town to the port which cut down our mileage considerably. We then took a ferry to Belfast and another train to get to Dublin.
Moving bikes on and off the ferries and trains is always stressful because, much like land border crossings in Africa, each one is slightly different and everyone expects that you will know how things operate on this specific train/ferry. Unfortunately for visitors like us, each one is unique and likely not at all the same as the previous ones you have done. For example, on some trains you simply roll your bike on, panniers still attached, and strap them to the side of the train car in the wheelchair or luggage sections. This is by far the easiest yet least frequent method we have found – but oh do we love it when it happens! On other trains, you have to take the bags off and put them by your seat but hang up the bikes in specifically designated areas. Sometimes there is only one bike per area, sometimes two, sometimes four and sometimes 20, but the thing is that no one can tell you ahead of time, so you have to figure it out while jostling for space with everyone else who is boarding the train…and we have four bikes and 12 bags to negotiate. Once inside, how you place the bikes is different – sometimes you hang them up with the back wheel up, sometimes with the front wheel up, sometimes they are on an angle, sometimes they are in little individual stalls. It is a lesson in going with the flow of how things are done where you are, not how you think they should be or how you’ve done them in the past.
Similarly, with the ferries, sometimes they simply roll them on the deck of the boat and carry your bags to your seat or cabin as luggage. Other times, especially on larger ferries, you roll on with the cars and trucks. There may be a bike rack to park in if you are lucky. If not, you wait around until someone shows you where to go. We’ve had the bikes stored in the wheelhouse of a small ferry in the Aran Islands, in an engineering room of a larger ferry to Belfast, and on a formal bike rack alongside the cars going to France. Flexibility is key as is being patient, and humble. When I was fully scolded by the Swiss train conductor for putting two bikes where there was only supposed to be one and thus somewhat blocking the path, I had to apologize profusely as he wagged his finger disapprovingly at me eventually helping me solve the problem by showing me where I could put the second bike. The thing is that arguing with or getting upset by his castigation would only have made the situation more tense. With this kind of travel, it is better to be kind and gentle even if you are boiling inside for you are a guest in their country and not just representing yourself, but your entire country. In the end, everything will be fine – the bikes get loaded and we reach our destination.
With the majority of our transportation hassles behind us, we enjoyed a couple days in Dublin listening to pub music, enjoying the big city vibe, and doing our last-minute planning. Ireland is a big island with varied and diverse terrain. One could easily spend an entire summer biking across the countryside, but realistically we could only spend about two or three weeks if we were going to also do the European areas we wanted to see as well. This meant we had to choose just one area for our bike ride. Friends we met hiking in Scotland last year, Lee and Lisa from Lee and Lisa Explore followed their West Highland Way walk with a bike tour of the Connemara area as part of their adult gap year, so we knew that it was a reasonable place to bike. Staying in the area would also allow us to visit the Aran Islands with stone age forts, the Burren – a magical landscape of high, folded limestone plateaus, and bike along much of the dramatic County Galway and County Mayo coastline along the Wild Atlantic Way.
We were very happy with our decision as the biking was truly dramatic, perhaps some of the most beautiful bike rides we have ever ridden. The Burren’s stark hillsides, eerily quiet road, and endless undulating terrain made us feel as if we were on a totally different continent, if not the planet. This is the area is also known for the dramatic Cliffs of Moher (Cliffs of Insanity if you are a Princess Bride fan or cliff which held the cave and lake with the locket horcrux in the 6th Harry Potter movie). We visited the Cliffs late in the evening to catch the sunset – and oh what a sunset it was!
On the Aran Islands, our favorite place was the rarely visited Dún Dúchatair (the Black Fort). Perched on a rocky but crumbling coastal cliff, initially built more than 3,000 years ago then re-fortified just 1,000 years ago, no one is sure of what the purpose of the structures was, only that eons of storms, tsunamis and erosion have obscured the true purpose. Most tourists who visit the Aran Islands only come for a day trip, so tend to head straight to Dún Aonghasa, the larger and more developed site on the other side of the island. Because we were staying the night on the island and that Colburn and I chose to visit Dún Dúchatair late in the afternoon, there was not another soul anywhere in the area. We passed a farmer planting vegetables in the thin and rocky soil about 4 or 5 km from the entrance to the site, but no one else at all. In fact, there were barely even any paths from foot traffic anywhere in the site.
Being there late in the afternoon as the sun was low on the western horizon, waves crashing against the steep cliffs and the salty dampness of ocean air clinging to our skin, it was easy to imagine this place as a home or an outpost 3,000 years ago. The remnants of the buildings have openings to the southeast to let in the early morning light and the stout backs designed to protect from the prevailing winds. The terraced walls of defense are 13 feet thick in some areas and are built to the very edge of a 300-foot cliff, making the area easy to defend from invaders. As with the Burren, we felt that we had been transported back in time or far, far away. It was magical.
The third place we fell in love with was Doolough Valley. The scenery is stunning but the history here is heart-breaking. During the famine of 1849, many of the locals relied on relief aid from the government but the officials required that the hundreds of starving people walk 12 miles to see them at the hunting lodge where they were staying in order to reauthorize their famine aid. More than 17 people are known to have died because of the energy expenditure needed to accomplish this arduous walk – 24 miles round trip. There are memorials on the pass and also in the surrounding towns. It was very sobering to contrast our life of abundance with this level of starvation less than 200 years ago.
The other thing that made our ride through the Doolough Valley interesting was that heading in the opposite direction were thousands of bicyclists either racing or on a charity ride (we’re not sure which). When the pace car passed us with the lead pack of probably 30 to 50 riders, all fully in aero gear and riding very expensive carbon fiber race bikes. We thought, “Wow, those guys are serious!” but didn’t think too much of it because it looked like a training ride. Then, just a few minutes later, another big pack of maybe 100 passed us, smiling and giving us the thumbs up for slogging with our extremely slow and heavily laden bikes while they are all totally fit and aerodynamic like the first pack but not quite as focused on performance. This process then continued for the next 3-4 hours in a progression from the extremely fast racers through the fit weekend warriors then finally on to the somewhat out of shape recreational riders out for a 100km fun ride as a personal challenge. Seeing and interacting with them as we lumbered up the hill that they were sailing down was wonderful. Although we didn’t know it at the time, they had also climbed a long hill to get to the Valley, so they were excited with their downhill. One man gave a gleeful, “WEEEEEEEEE!” that made us all laugh as he crested the final summit and began his downhill. The camaraderie we felt and the encouragement received was very uplifting and added to the joy of our ride.
Although we truly loved some of the biking in Ireland, there was a part of it which tempered our overall perspective to that of a cautious “we enjoyed parts of it”. The drivers in Ireland are oblivious to the laws about safe passing distances and show active aggression towards bicyclists. I, personally, have been bike touring in New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium without ever feeling truly at risk. Sure, there have been varying levels of awareness of and respect for bicyclists, but overall people were reasonable. Ireland was different – very different. Biking here is a bit of a blood-sport with the cars completely unconcerned for your safety or right of way. When I spoke to a few locals about it, they concurred saying that “the drivers here are a**holes – you really shouldn’t bike on any of the main roads”. One farmer we talked to was so concerned that he cautioned us to go so far as avoiding the roads at all costs, suggesting instead that we walk our loaded bikes through the field off to the side of the shoulder to avoid any interactions with drivers.
We had far too many close calls where drivers would pass us at full speed without allowing for a safe passing distance (1.5 meters in Ireland) even on the crest of a hill, blind corners and when another car was coming the other way. They simply continued in the lane as if we were not there, running one or more of us off the road more than once. After hearing of our travails, our brother-in-law sent us an idea which I think is brilliant – put a brightly colored pool noodle across the back of your bike so that it sticks out the required 1.5 meters. This gives drivers an indication of what a “safe passing distance” looks like in real life. I had a similar idea while riding but was much more passive aggressive about it – I would attach a sharp object (like broken glass) on the end so that if someone did come too close, it would scratch their car’s paint. I would consider the damage from this a natural consequence for them not respecting the required safe distance. In the end, we truly enjoyed parts of biking Ireland but would probably not do it again until there are either proper bike paths, a change of heart from drivers, or another way of assuring our safety.
Ending off our time in Ireland was a true treat where we were able to meet up with our friend and third child, Zara, and meet her parents for the first time. We met Zara diving in Mozambique almost two years ago and have stayed in contact with her ever since. Seeing her again in a totally different environment and meeting her parents reminded us of why we travel – in the end, it is the people you meet and the experiences you have that make traveling worthwhile. We were thoroughly spoiled by their hospitality and fell in love with Northern Ireland.