Sometime in late 1994 or early 1995 in New York City, I bought a touring bike, a Trek 525, with the intention of touring parts of Western Ireland that I knew to be Yeat’s country. A novice at touring, I did know I would be facing wind, rain, and hills, so I began training in earnest around New York, riding mostly in the hills of Northern New Jersey. By degrees, I loaded my panniers with more and more weight, and picked rainy days and hills to accustom myself to the rigors I would encounter in Ireland. When the time came, I disassembled my bike and packed it in cardboard. Aer Lingus was good about checking my bike and gear, and the Shannon Airport authorities had no problem letting me assemble my bike in a quiet corner and even stored my packing materials until I returned. What follows are the notes I made in my travel journal of that adventure. Fortunately, I took photos with my Nikon SLR, and I’ve used some to illustrate my notes.
It was my first bicycle tour, and I was alone. In the course of my journey I created myself as the Solitary Cyclist with the following behaviors and attributes. The Solitary Cyclist
… talks to the cows and the sheep,
… speaks to nature,
… speaks his thoughts without anyone overhearing him,
… stops and listens – only natural sounds are audible; sheep, cows, sometimes donkeys, many different kinds of birds, and, of course, the wind and running water.
The Solitary Cyclist rides the up country and then: a special feeling of isolation, a good feeling.
The S.C. enjoys the fact that he can stop a bicycle where he can’t stop a car. Nor is his view of the surroundings obstructed by the roof line of a car.
There are smells: fresh cut fields, scents of flowers.
So much is happening in what is commonly thought of as empty countryside.There’s so much life. So much to look at.
New York City
Clammy weather. Trip started on a down note. At the moment the car service was to arrive, someone called to say the car wouldn’t be coming. I scurried out to find a Yellow Cab. We put my bike box in the rear seat while I sat up front. Slow trip to Kennedy, but once there, things went smoothly.
Shannon Airport to Galway by Bus
Cool – rainy. Arrived at Shannon Airport as the sun was shinning, but by the time I was half done assembling my bike, the rain had started. Bike assembly went slowly due to several false steps. I had the company of a young American couple from NJ who were doing the same. He assembled both their bikes while I was still working on mine. Much of the day I suffered from sleep deprivation. Had to take 2 buses to get to Galway and arrived in the pouring rain. Abandoned my plan to call the B&B and sought the quickest shelter. It’s true that the Irish are extremely friendly.
The reputation for Irish weather’s fickleness is true also. Late in day it turned nice. Took a ride and bought a towel. Took a walk and had dinner at Conlon & Sons’ Seafood Restaurant in Englington Street.
Galway to Coole Park to Thoor Ballylee to Galway
Sun, clouds, wind. Decided to visit Coole Park (20 miles away) and Yeats’ medieval tower home. Took bicycle along N6 & N18 – no small roads to take. Wind almost defeated me. Stopped in Clarinbridge where I write this among some old trees. Lovely spot. In the center there is a monument in the shape of an Irish cross to the memory of one Thomas Redington, KGB who died in 1802. Wind, wind, wind and then rain mixed with wind; it’s a trial. Coole Park is worth it, though. Great interpretive center, videos and slide films. The park is splendid. Learned what a Turloch is. Nice food in the café – Irish scones are better than the US variety.
At Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ tower house, I ate rhubarb pie with cream and talked with the chef. Both sites are terrific – wonderful background material. The ride home with the wind at my back was much easier. But, as I write this after a shower and fish & chips dinner, I feel the fatigue. It’s a good feeling, though, to have done the first ride.
Galway to Inishmore in the Aran Islands
Sun, wind, rain. Irish food is on the bland side. No surprise, really. What does surprise is the quality of the baking. Scones, tarts, Jonathans, pies, cakes – all delicious. Staying in the West End Hostel, a kind of flop house for the young, but located near the Claddagh Quay and Spanish Arch and the mouth of the River Corrib. Water everywhere, weirs, sluices, dramatic views, fast water, flowers, lowering skies.
After breakfast I loaded up, left the West End Hostel, and traveled through Salt Hill towards Rossaveel. The wind was terrific, and I realized that I didn’t want to fight it for 20 miles. Back in Galway I caught a bus to the ferry at Rossaveel. I was glad I’d made the decision as the road had no shoulder and too much traffic (R100). In Inishmore I first visited the interpretive center then rode to Cregmount House where I stayed with Margaret and Michael Connelly.
Visited Dun Aengus in late afternoon. Took pictures of the fabulous prehistoric fort. The wind and intermittent rain drove me back downhill before long. Memories of Belle-Ile in Brittany.
I was glad to get back to the Connelly’s. Took time to sort my things and look ahead to future adventures. Mrs. C. made me dinner of salmon steak, boiled green beans & carrots, and boiled potatoes. Loads of food! Finished with rhubarb pie. Talked all evening with Mr. Connelly about life on the island. He gave me a glass of poteen. I slept in a bed with heavy blankets; it was very satisfying.
The geology of the Aran Islands is fascinating. I learned about limestone; that it’s made of the carcasses and shells of ancient sea creatures. It is porous; water seeps into it and erodes it from within. These islands are made of layers of limestone separated by layers of shale. Water can flow underground through limestone channels then well up when it meets shale. It forms ____ like Coole Loch, lakes that dry up almost entirely in the dry seasons but flood when the rains come.
Inishmore to Inishmaan to Inishmore
Clouds, rain, sun. After a light breakfast, I rode back to Kilrornan and took the small boat to the island of Inishmaan. Before leaving I visited the Seven Churches, ancient ruins dating from the 8th century.
Talked to a character on the boat who collected postal cancellation stamps. Deep voice and a non-stop talker. Inishmaan has few people.
There are stone walls everywhere. It’s a study in half tones. Grey on grey, especially when the weather is cloudy. Walls are more intricate than on Inishmore. Ate a light meal of scones and tea. Walked a lot. Photographed Synge’s cottage and his Seat, a circular arrangement of stones he made on the cliffs overlooking Inishmore and the sea. In this windy spot he’d sit and brood. Am staying at the Hostel Mainistir in Inishmore this night. It’s a beauty and the food is reported to be good. It is good, run by a black man who programs his own eclectic choice of music and cooks vegetarian food. (I remember listening to the voice of Pearl Bailey singing.)
Inishmore to Rossaveel to Maam Cross
Showers, but mostly fair and windy. On the ferry from Inishmore to Rossaveel the morning sun has turned to dark clouds, cold. Ashore on Connemara
the limestone is replaced by granite. I have difficulty making those I ask for directions understand that I want to take a “bog road.” Frustrating false starts – rain, then no rain. Have to keep changing clothes. Finally, on a bog road, but not the right one. I’m met a native with bad teeth on a bicycle. Five miles or so over a bog, very pleasant.
Saw a couple of men cutting peat. Took pics. Then on the main road, then on another small road that had some very steep climbs. Finally got near Pearse’s Cottage and stopped for lunch at a fancy country inn, The Screebe House. 2 p.m. The meal was a cold buffet, something the Stoners would appreciate. This will be a memorable trip. Rode to Pearse’s Cottage. Closed. 11K out of my way. Rode final 8K to Maam Cross. Feeling very tired but am going through beautiful country – lakes and streams. At M.C there is a gift shop, gas station, and bar/restaurant called Peacockes. There is also a hostel. Had to go to the bar to find someone to set me up. The hostel building itself is unoccupied. I’ll be the only tenant. It’s cold and damp inside. Am spending the evening at Peacockes drinking Guinness, writing post cards, planning my trip, etc. There’s a wonderful peat fire so the room is warm and cozy. It’s only 7:15 p.m. and I’m tired. I miss the camaraderie of last night in the hostel. My roommates: the disaffected priest who lives in California and helps the homeless, the young Italian from Sardinia, the German boy studying in England to be a documentary filmmaker.
Peacockes at Maam Cross: Good restaurant and bar ably run by young Irish woman. They close it at night and open it in the morning. Seems that it’s the Irish women that hold things together.
Maam Cross to Cong
Cloudy. Slept well in the hostel at M.C. Even though cold and damp, I covered myself with two eiderdowns and I was warm. Slept about 9 hours. Peacockes for breakfast then up the road toward Cong. Stopping to write at a crossroads. Standing on the north branch of the Bealanabrack River that runs into Lake Corrib. Looking at the vista presented by the Maumturk Mountains through which I just rode. The water in the streams and rivers is crystal clear. Although the overall color of the landscape is muted green and grey, when I look closely there are many wildflowers: tiny violets, lavender brambles, little bright yellow blossoms on evergreen shrubs. Also there are lots of rhododendrons, magenta. I even saw a rose bush and also lots of daisies.
Made it to Cong by early afternoon. The ride along the top of Lake Corrib is beautiful. The hostel at Cong is extraordinarily well run, like a business. Clean, comfortable dorm, lovely bathroom and shower with real hot water (unlike the morning), spacious kitchen. Everything bright. The people who run the place are even doing my laundry. I’ve already decided to stay for two nights. Lots to read about around here. Also, this may be the first day without rain. I’m sitting in the dining room writing post cards while others are having snacks, reading, etc. There is even a bearded fellow in the corner working on a power book (Not a common sight in those days.)
Last night’s dinner of baked trout and vegetables was excellent, but I feel I’m eating too much. I had a light lunch today, and I will eat a light dinner also.
Ate heavier than I should have. Back at the hostel some of us watched John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) in the TV room. Many of the movie’s locations are in the vicinity of Cong. I recognized some bits – the cross in the roundabout and the protestant church.
Slept in a dormitory with several other fellows. A young Korean sleeping on the top bunk opposite me fell out of bed in the night with a crash.
Cong and Around
Sun and clouds, warm. Sitting on limestone at the foot of Loch Mask reading Dostoevsky. This is our nicest day yet. Slept well in Cong hostel. Short ride along lanes this morning then through private road to this secluded spot. Only a few anglers are about in the distance. I hear only the gull-like birds wheeling about the lake. Also the sound of water rushing over the nearby weir into a canal.
Visited the ancient Inishmaine Abbey, 13th century, in ruins, of course. (St Corbmac founded the first church here in the 7th century.) Some lovely carving remains. This is off the beaten path. No one but myself is about. Just cows.
Back at the hostel, the only one left in my dorm is the young Korean hitchhiker, Seok-Woong Park. He attached himself to me. He’s a student, of tourism I think, who’s spending 4 or 5 months traveling in Europe and the UK. He has very little money and eats a dish of rice and a piece of fruit for dinner. He adds some hot sauce he brought from home. We rode into town and I bought him a Guinness. The others at the hostel are all geology students and their instructor. They go off each day with their hammers and maps to do field work.
Cong to Westport
Heavy, gray sky. This is my day to cycle up the western shore of Loch Mask. I know I have a climb ahead of me up to 400 feet, I believe. I don’t know how far I’ll get. I could stay in Toormakeady. Otherwise I’ll have to ride to Westport and I’m not sure I can make it. I’m writing this at the Ferry Bridge at the foot of Loch Mask. The air is still and there are bird sounds everywhere. Truly peaceful! Loch Mask was somewhat disappointing. Because of the weather it was not beautiful. I ate lunch in Toormakeady, and it started to rain. I made good time, but the last fifteen miles into Westport was very wet. I found the Atlantic Club Hostel without difficulty and settled in to dry out. I cut one side of my large plastic contractor’s bag to protect my bike. Later, when the rain eased I walked into Westport Center, nice town. Ate dinner in a family-style restaurant and spent rest of evening at a pub, Mac Malloy’s on Bridge Street. Sat at bar with an American couple from Kansas City. He’s treasurer of a cement company. Place got terribly crowded. (This pub was owned by one of the Chieftains, who often played and sang there.)
Cloudy, showers. Westport – By morning, the rain has stopped, although still grey. Today my project is to figure out my next move. Because I’m facing a bank holiday weekend, I’ve decided to take a 4 p.m. bus to Ballin_____. This will get me within a day’s cycling of Carrick-on-Shannon. Walked a lot around Westport. Watched the Prince-of-Wales go by in a convoy. (He had a holiday near here.) Bought a very nice small rucksack to tie onto the back of the bike to replace my contractor’s bag, which I’ll keep for protection. Walked to the harbor and then to Westport House. Although it’s attractive and friendly, Westport doesn’t capture my imagination the way Galway did. Sheppard’s pie for lunch in a Westport café. Grouse is the shrub with yellow flowers that I see so much of along the road. Decision is made. Sligo tomorrow by bus. Rode back to Westport House for ____. Loved it.
Bought Yeats’ autobiography. Dinner where I had lunch — Circe at the top of Bridge Street. Met pleasant Irish couple from Dublin. We talked all evening.
Westport to Louisburg to Sligo
Cloudy – sun in afternoon. Up early. Packed to leave. Rode to Louisburg — 22 K, farther than I thought. Not enough time to stay long. Had to return to Westport for 3:15 bus. Much of ride along Clew Bay, very pretty. Stopped at Croagh Patrick and watched the pilgrims climbing the steep path to the summit. Took the bus from Westport to Sligo. I’m writing this in Knock at midday where I change buses.
Here there is an enormous Catholic basilica consecrated to Our Lady. This is the site of a late 19th century visitation. I’ve arrived just at the moment of the Sunday evening service. In addition, it is Pentecost Sunday, and there is a huge outdoor service. I’ve photographed the procession set to music from great outdoor speakers. Very impressive with hundreds of people!
First impression of Sligo is that it’s a tough town with none of the charm of Westport. I found a B&B after some difficulty and am eating dinner at the Hotel Silver Swan. Classy! There was a race meeting nearby today and the place is full of high-spirited folks. Also, the music, a gathering of Irish musicians called a céilí. Three groups are performing impromptu in the hotel bar and lounge. I even witnessed some dancing. My timing has been excellent today.
I feel like riding. Tomorrow I’ll do the ride to Ballyshannon. I’m enjoying Yeats’ Autobiographies.
Budweiser is a popular imported beer here.
More than any other ethnic group, I’m encountering Germans.
Sligo to Ballyshannon
Low clouds, sun later. Yeats country. Drumcliff Church where he is buried is very picturesque.
Ben Bulben is swathed in mist and the grey crows are crying in the trees. The impression is dramatic. There’s a lovely tea shop where I’m writing. Soon I’ll take the road to Ballyshannon. I wish I had time to read all the interesting books I’ve come across.
Arrived Ballyshannon about 4:30 p.m. Great riding today. People burn coal for heat here in Ireland. Spent a couple of pleasant hours at Sean Og’s pub. Met Patricia and Jim and their family. Eating at Maggie’s Bar. Sirloin steak not so hot. Went to sleep early at my B&B. Ireland’s the only place I’ve ever been where someone will stop you on the street and start a conversation.
Ballyshannon to Derry to Buncrana
Rain, rain, rain! Woke up to rain and very thick overcast. Not beautiful. Weather helped me make decision to bus to Derry and explore the Inishowen Peninsula.
It’s about as far up in Donegal as I can get. In the meantime, I had my laundry done and mailed a package to U.S. with my second pair of bike shoes along with other odds & ends. (Unbeknownst to me, I mistakenly sent back my return plane ticket in this package. This would cause me problems later.) Spent time reading Yeats in a coffee shop till the bus left. Bus driver drove too fast for comfort. Sky cleared in the mountains and in the rolling hills into Derry. Rode from Derry to Buncrana, only 15 K, but with rain and against the wind. Also, on main road with too much traffic. Another B&B, Swilly Home.
Walked in the town, very nice and prosperous. Fruit-of-the-Loom factories here. Eating at Lake of Shadows Hotel.
Buncrana to Ballyliffn
Clouds, sun, showers. Buncrana. Wakened by the Sun. Surprise. Didn’t last long. Went out early for a long walk before breakfast. Met an old man with two dogs. We talked. I wished him a nice day to which he replied that it’s rained every day for three months so there wasn’t much chance of that. Buncrana’s a wealthy looking little town. In the 14th century, the clan chief O’Dochertaigh built a castle on the shore. Today, there are some walls remaining across a beautiful old stone, six-arched bridge.
Ballyliffn. 1 p.m. stopped for lunch at a hotel. I rode hard this morning, through the hills and finally had to climb through the Gap of Mamore, maybe 1000 feet. Had to push the bike at least kilometer up hill. Wonderful spot though. Will take it easier this afternoon. Some of the views here are terrific. Weather is cooperating.
The Irish are not naturally great cooks. Frequently a dish represents a good idea but tastes bland. They need to learn to season their food and use marinades, etc.
Reading Yeats’ autobiographical writing. He struggled to get away from generalizations and abstraction. He was frequently frustrated with his inability to find enough dramatic images.
Red fox. Jackdaw. Buttery. Daisy.
Carndonagh to Derry
Cold, Cloudy, Mist. Carndonagh. Left after breakfast. Slept well, but I still felt tired. Also, wasn’t looking forward to the ride through the mountains. As it turned out, it wasn’t bad. Gradual climbs. Then, finally, a very exhilarating 5 mile run down the mountain on a smooth road with the wind behind me. To Quigley’s Point in record time, 16 K in less than one hour. When I arrived at the bottom of the long run, I found a tiny shop and post office where two elderly ladies gave me a cup of tea.
What a day! Rode to Derry just in time for a bus to Donegal Town. Stayed out long enough for a bowl of soup, after which I rode to Ballyshannon and back to Jennifer Brown’s B&B. Half way to Ballyshannon over the hills on lanes, through the Pullens. In Ballyshannon I walked about 4 miles with my camera. Saw the abbey and the mills. Had long talk with the ___ of the mills. Ate dinner at the Imperial Hotel in an empty dining room listening to a medley of pop classical music.
Ballyshannon to Kinlough to Dromahair
Dark, cloudy. Ballyshannon to Kinlough over the River Drowes where there is a monument to the “4 Masters” who compiled a history of Ireland up to 1616. Tough ride over the hills to start. From Kinlough I took a classified road almost to Manorhamilton but cut off on a lane and had to face some terrific climbing. Went this far, in fact, and when I rejoined the main road I had to travel back for a mile to get the classified road to Dromahair. More climbing and I felt at the end of my strength when I reached a signpost and hesitated studying the map. The sign pointed to Dromahair along a narrow, pot-holed road that from experience told me more climbing. I continued a short distance on the Sligo road thinking that I might hit a better road, but then turned back and took the first. It was in terrible shape but all downhill to Dromahair for several kilometers. Dromahair is a lovely village where I ate a big lunch: carbonnade of beef with peas, carrots and mashed potatoes. Decided to stay here. Unloaded my bike and cycled out to Loch Gill and Innisfree. After a cold, cloudy start, the weather improved greatly. Now, there came sun and clouds.
Departures by Brian Leyden, Brandon (publisher), 1992, Lyons Bookstore.
Dromahair to Sligo
The ride out to Innisfree past the old, ruined abbey was wonderful. Beautiful weather and lonely lanes with a view east across a green valley. Loch Gill looks unspoiled, a minimum of development. Innisfree stands just offshore, a tiny island overgrown with shrubs. I was alone but for a friendly sheep dog belonging to a nearby cottage. Back at the Stanford Inn for Guinness and conversation with the owner, of course, and his daughter who worked the bar, then with a succession of patrons. I met a young short story writer and his wife and later an American expatriate from Indiana who is a publishing consultant. He lives in Dromahair. The writer, Brian Leyden, changed my itinerary, suggesting I ride into Sligo (only 10 miles) stopping at Parke’s Castle and visiting Glencar Falls and Rosses Point all Yeats sites. I can easily get a bus from Sligo to Galway and then to the airport.
Later in Sligo – As it turned out Parke’s Castle was wonderful, a great and thorough job of reconstruction. I learned a lot about the insecurities of a 17th century English lord who faced a hostile indigenous population that he had dispossessed. In Sligo I checked bus schedules with the Transit Bureau and returned to my former B&B (Doris Horan’s). I spent a good hour visiting the ruined Dominican Abbey in Sligo Town — More complete than most with a unique carved altar and the remains of a rood screen. Riding around Sligo Town on this or an earlier occasion, I came upon a street filled with tinkers who shouted threatening insults at me.
After a rest I cycled out to Carrowmore to look at the Megalithic tombs. It was very windy and cloudy and the tip of Knockarea with its cairn was hidden from view. Got lost coming back and ended up cycling on the main road. Not pleasant. Ate dinner at the Silver Swan Hotel, then went to the cinema and saw Rob Roy. Story and script were mediocre. The actors provided what interest there was.
Sligo to Rosses Point to Limerick
Cloudy, sun later on, but still too cold. Did my last ride of the holiday. Turned left out of the driveway of my B&B and rode out to Rosses Point, but I’m not sure Yeats would recognize it. Lots of development.
Took the bus to Galway in the afternoon with Dov Leary. Nice to chat with him. Took another bus to Limerick under a blue, almost cloudless sky – a miracle. Arrived 8:05 p.m. Found a B&B across from the station. Took my bike and toured Limerick – 13th century castle, old church, a cathedral, alms houses, beautiful Shannon River.
Back at the B&B I entered the pub and had a roaring time with some locals, singing American songs of the West. Stayed up too late.
Limerick to Shannon Airport
Beautiful, sunny. Took a 7 a.m. bus to Shannon Airport after a cold shower. Discovered I had lost my airline ticket. Retrieved my box and disassembled my bike outdoors in the sun. Paid to have my ticket reissued. Lunch in the airport restaurant. (At first I couldn’t comprehend that I had lost my plane ticket. I searched through everything three times. Finally, I went to the counter and coughed up 30 pounds or so for a reissued ticket.)
Shared the flight home with a lovely woman from Cleveland, Mary McGuiness. Promised to send her literature about the Forum.
Landed at Kennedy in the rain. Taxi to Manhattan.
In a melancholy mood. The trip is over.
I’ve almost finished reading Yeats’ Autobiographies.