My very own tour of Ireland
Brian McIntyrespent a month touring Ireland’s coastline by bike, and found poor roads, a B&B industry in crisis and almost no Irish cyclists . . . but apart from that, it was great
I LEFT Howth at 4pm on July 26th and headed north. My loose plan was to cycle around the coast of Ireland in 30 days. By 6pm on that first day I had been drenched in a downpour, found a beautiful flock of swans on the shore beyond Malahide, and lost 20 minutes on a byroad leading nowhere in a quest to avoid traffic.
As a self-employed marketing consultant, I often block book my annual leave and take a month free. I got the idea that 2009 would be my year of the bike. I hadn’t taken a holiday at home for 10 years, and I had heard about an excellent long-range forecast.
THE WEATHER: IT RAINED 29 OUT OF 30 DAYS
If you want to cycle in Ireland, you can’t be afraid of rain: it rained 29 out of 30 days. I stopped checking the forecast. Being wet is actually okay in the summer; you dry out fast. Being soaked through feels pretty miserable, but this happens much less frequently.
There were a few miserable days when I wondered if I should take a look at a train timetable, or bunk off to Greece. However, these mostly happened at the start: by the time I hit Connemara, there was a sense of momentum and a belief that I actually would get the whole way around, even if a peninsula or two would be left out.
THE ROADS: MANY DRIVERS SEE CYCLISTS AS OBSTACLES
In oncoming traffic, drivers are full of waves and smiles, particularly in Donegal, where every second driver raised an index finger from the steering wheel to greet me. However, when they come up behind you, many drivers see cyclists as obstacles to get past with urgency. I had many narrow escapes, speeding cars and vehicles with trailers being the worst offenders.
When I sit into the car, my objective is to get from A to B. On the bike, the objective is simpler: to stay alive. Cycling on a busy road is akin to driving a Fiat 500 amid a convoy of weaving articulated trucks. You feel permanently vulnerable. Cyclists experience the road differently from motorists: manoeuvring around drains, bumps and potholes is often the only way to stay upright. Drivers don’t seem to understand this.
ACCOMMODATION: B&BS ARE HEADING FOR A CRISIS
From my 14 nights in BBs, I’d say many of them are having a God-awful year, and the sector is heading for a major crisis. Outside of tourist havens, Saturday seems the only consistently busy night; many places I stayed in had less than 50 per cent occupancy.
Unlike hotels, which have decreased their prices and are open for negotiation, BBs seem to be caught in the recession headlights, with many empty rooms and unsure what to do. I encountered many that did not deserve my business. Steep pricing is common, yet I did not feel comfortable in “negotiating” with an owner on their doorstep.
My worst BB experience was also the most expensive: a dark room in a house run by a man who seemed to resent my single occupancy. It cost me €65, a price he claimed was incredibly cheap, given it was Saturday. I found myself opting for hotels instead of feeling ripped off.
Some BBs are trying to emulate hotels, with dining rooms like public spaces, minimal interaction, and a growing sense of formality. This seems to miss the point of what a BB should be. Many others have simply not changed since the 1980s, as evidenced by their loud proclaiming of “en suite” – a feature shared by the majority, so hardly differentiating. I would much rather the promise of home-baking, or a warm welcome, over an assurance on toilet facilities.
The BB industry will have to figure out, or perhaps remember, what it offers consumers. An authentic, domestic, Irish welcome might be a good starting place, and something almost no hotel can match.
There are some great operators out there, although I found them more by chance than design. I really liked the tenacity of Genevieve McElwee of Fern House BB in Kilmacrenan, Co Donegal, who has the right attitude in declaring “open for deals” across her BB signage. We struck one. The woman running Aran Lodge in Ballylickey, Co Cork asked for my specific needs as a cyclist – breakfast, gear, washing, bike, and so on – and delivered on every single request.
However, it was an experience in Bunmahon, Co Waterford that reminded me why a good Irish BB beats all. I arrived close to 7pm at Copperfield House BB in the middle of a massive downpour, soaked and mucky. When she answered the door, the look on Margaret Curran’s face said “Come in out of the rain” and not “Oh dear God, my carpets”. Within 10 minutes my bike was in the garage, she had offered to dry all my sports gear, and she and her husband chatted pleasantly with me about my day and the area.
All of this was followed by a knockout breakfast the following morning. And Copperfield House BB was also the cheapest BB I encountered at €35.
As for hostels, I stayed in only two. A clean, social and well-run hostel could be a great find when you’re on the road on your own. What I encountered was dirty, mean accommodation that was depressing to behold.
THE PEOPLE: A COMMUNITY OF CYCLISTS
There is a community of cyclists touring the roads of Ireland, and most of them are not Irish. Those I met were often either British or from the Continent. It’s fun trading stories.
I especially enjoyed Markus, a 30-year-old Austrian student who was cycling around Ireland for seven weeks on a budget of €10 a day. He was camping, and his daily fare never changed: muesli and water for breakfast, pasta and pesto for dinner, and a packet of Rich Tea for in-between. We discussed this over a few pints, which I pointed out was blowing his budget, big time. “Ah yes,” he said, “but beer is beer.”
Somewhere between Belmullet and Westport I got my first puncture. It being Sunday and me without a repair kit (I’m weak on DIY), I was facing a 25km walk. A car stopped, and a woman whose name I don’t know, and her granddaughter Saoirse, brought me and the bike 5km down the road to their neighbour Michael, who fixed the puncture as I took the role of observer.
Within an hour and a half, I was on the road again, and deeply grateful for the kindness of those Mayo strangers.
IRISH CYCLISTS: THERE ARE REASONS WE’RE NOT TOURING IN DROVES
There is a dearth of Irish people touring the country on bike. I’d say there are four main reasons we’re not touring in droves: in the Irish psyche, unpredictable weather and bikes do not go hand in hand; the whole thing feels like hard work; the cost of accommodation can be steep and deals are less easy to come by when you’re moving on every day; and, unlike surfing, there’s little glamour or focus on cycle touring as a leisure choice.
The most compelling deterrent – our paucity of cycle tracks and therefore the risks from speeding traffic – is perhaps less apparent until you’re actually on the road.
THE NORTH: SURPRISING AND REWARDING
The prospect of holidaying in Northern Ireland had me slightly on alert. For all of Northern Ireland’s geographical closeness, I felt that I was “going foreign” and that I needed to figure out how things work. It turned out to be surprising and rewarding.
This part of the country takes its cycling seriously, and cycle routes have obviously attracted some investment (Sligo and Donegal seem to be part of this initiative). Belfast, unlike Dublin or Cork, is a city that I could exit using a safe and enjoyable cycle track.
Outside of evenings with good friends, Cushendall, Co Antrim is the place that sticks most in my mind from the North. The sing-song at Joe’s pub, with its snugs and hearty drinkers, felt like the Ireland I knew in the 1970s. Perhaps that is the point.
The next morning, I struggled up the leg-cramping hills of Antrim and caught sight of the Mull of Kintyre. Seeing Scotland from Ireland was very moving, for some reason.
THE TERRAIN: I PUSHED THE BIKE UP THE STEEP HILLS
Hills and mountains make cycling interesting and are always worth the effort. I pushed the bike up the steep ones. The mountains are the real stars of the trip. The beautiful, ever-changing, vibrant scenery and nature I saw was inspiring: the walled fields of Inisheer, the deep green hulk of Ben Bulben, the damp beauty of Beara, the panorama at Conor Pass, the endless kilometres of hedges laden with fuschia, the show-off, captivating dolphins at Doolin. All of this while trying to change gears, knock back the water and bananas, and having an ear to the ground for the next boy racer.
I ARRIVED back on Monday, and pushed myself through Dublin’s rush-hour traffic and around the Howth peninsula, until I reached the village. I have a tan on my knees, a pile of battered maps in my panniers, am now able to fix my own punctures and feel healthier after 2,400km of road. I had started off slowly, but become stronger and faster as I went.
I’m also a happy man, with a feeling of having lived a powerful experience. What started as a low-hassle, activity holiday became something more along the way. It was a grand adventure. By staying at home, I have come to value home more.
Approximate kilometres: 2,400
Midge bites: 30+ (in one go)
Number of days on the road: 29
Number of counties crossed: 17
Nights in B&Bs: 14
Typical B&B charge: €40-50, single occupancy
Nights in hotels: 10
Typical charge: €55-70, single occupancy with breakfast
Nights with friends: 3
Nights in hostels: 2
Average charge: €21, single occupancy, no breakfast
Bee stings: 1