An Irishwoman’s Diary on freedom and the bicycle

Moving in all the best circles

A bicycle is like the key to a new kingdom and that kingdom is called Freedom. I have finally acquired one. It sits, brand new, pearlescent cream, with a broad saddle and a basket, ready to bear me on trips around the locality. One of those strong but retro High Nellies I’ve seen in Holland and Germany, it is the kind of machine built to carry people who do not want to race, a machine to sail out on, inviting serenity and one’s own pace. It will take me the shortcut to my local village, or up the long hill towards a further village; it will ferry me over the butterfly-inducing humps of Co Kildare’s canal bridges, or out to the winter quiet of the Donaghadea forest, to the kind of country places I used to explore as a girl in Monaghan, after I got my first bike.

The arrival of the Raleigh bronze beauty on my 11th birthday ushered in the era of weekend adventures and symbolised license to travel the roads, and wander where I wanted, unquestioned.

For a few years, everything that mattered happened thanks to the bike and it opened the way to a remapping of my knowledge of the locality. As children reared in and around the county town, we regarded ourselves as superior to those who lived in outlying places, and would whizz onto the quiet street of a village five miles away, en route to the lake, bellowing our arrival, ringing our bells, letting them know that we were going to show them a thing or two.

At the lakeside, bikes flung down, we would swim, or watch the boys who had made their way out from the town; the girls would shiver in their swimsuits, trade secrets and gossip, the boys would sometimes bicker and compete in stone-throwing until someone would grow hungry and announce that they had to be home before six o’clock, and then we would turn back. Since townie triumphalism didn’t have quite the same appeal on the way home, we would head more humbly up the street of the village we had hollered our way into only a few hours before.


We cycled everywhere. We explored the lost demesnes of our county, big houses and derelict castles that had been razed to the ground during the post-Independence surge that was meant to mark a turning away from the symbols of oppression, but which further debased us as a people, because it proved nothing except that we were a hurt people.

We picnicked in Rossmore Park, wandered like characters in a fairytale, in fairytale forests, or beneath the deep canopies of laurel that surrounded the lakes, our voices echoing across the water. The haunting beauty of the remains of neo-gothic Rossmore Castle still dominated the skyline. Once, discovering a wine cellar at the rear of the rampart, we proceeded to smash empty bottles against the cavernous limestone walls, then inscribed as many arcane signs as we could think of in chalk.

Bicycles brought us across the Border too, to what we regarded as another country, and one afternoon we cycled 17 miles to Armagh, for chips and Coca Cola in the Rainbow Café, before plundering Woolworths to stock up on Mars bars and Maltesers, and then cycling the seventeen miles back home again.

So what borders shall I cross on my new bicycle? Is there anything so sweet and unobtainable that I would actual pedal 17 miles or more for my booty – even with seven gears – and then cycle the same distance again?

Probably not. I have not thought in terms of miles. Nevertheless, I have seen the women of Amsterdam on their ticking, purring bicycles, and I am reminded that I too appreciate the efficiency of a self-propelled machine that travels five times faster than walking, and which is cardio-vascular healthy.

The moment I sat into the high saddle for my first outing and felt the breeze on my forehead, was exquisite, and I thought of John Masefield's poem Tewkesbury Road:

“It is good to be out on the road, going one knows not where,

Going through meadow and village, one knows not whither or why;

Through the grey light drift of the dust, in the keen cool rush of the air,

Under the flying white clouds, and the broad blue lift of the sky.”

Released from gravity, released from the capsule existence of the car, I felt the catch in my mind slide open, as fields, hedges, clouds and sky beckoned me back again to the Kingdom of Freedom.