‘Ireland has given me my true identity and transformed how I see the world’

New to the Parish: Charul Singh has been able to embrace cycling as she couldn’t in India

As a child, Charul Singh loved cycling around the sheltered roads and parks of her small Delhi community. She often sneaked into the local Hindu temple to try out the bigger bikes they kept in storage. “I couldn’t even reach the saddle, I’d just stand and cycle,” she says. “I was so enthusiastic about it. But I never left my small community on a bike. The traffic in Delhi is terrible; it can be really risky.”

She also discovered, as a teenager, that very few women used bikes. “I never saw women cycling in Delhi. It felt like it was prohibited. In that paternalistic society, men looked at you in a weird way when you were on a bike. That can be very uncomfortable for some women. When you’re in your late teens you’re expected to stop cycling. Indian society doesn’t promote cycling for women. It’s not part of the culture.

“The same thing happened to me – you’re expected to study and get a job and get married. That vicious cycle repeats and women end their hobbies and their passions. Things are changing, but not when it comes to cycling.”

Singh recalls the 2½-hour bus journey to Limerick as one of the most 'beautiful moments' of her life. 'It just felt like my dreams had come true. It was my first time out of India, and Ireland looked so green and beautiful'

Singh, an only child, was born and brought up in Delhi under the watchful eye of loving but protective parents. Her father ran his own business as a mechanical engineer. Her mother ran a number of charities, including working with disadvantaged children in the city and in animal welfare. Singh grew up acutely aware of how different her own privileged life was from the desperate poverty many millions in India suffer each day.

“From an early age I had that consciousness of the challenges that existed in our society. It also shocked me realising that so few privileged families were working towards improving society.”

After finishing school, Singh did an undergraduate degree in information technology. When she was 25 she decided it was time to move abroad to further her studies. She researched master's degrees in the United States, but they were too expensive. Then she discovered a course in international management and global business at the University of Limerick and found she was also eligible for a scholarship to help pay her fees.

Singh arrived in Dublin in August 2015. She recalls the 2½-hour bus journey to Limerick as one of the most "beautiful moments" of her life. "It just felt like my dreams had come true. It was my first time out of India, and Ireland looked so green and beautiful."

Upon arrival she noticed lots of women on bikes and immediately bought a second-hand one. “It was such a happy moment seeing all those women cycling. I hardly took the bus after that. I cycled everywhere. In Limerick you have to handle the rain, the wind and the cold on a bike, but it made me mentally stronger, and I loved that.”

If you're stressed, or just not feeling great, you take your bike and go into nature, and it does wonders, mentally and physically

After completing her master's she stayed in Limerick, securing a short-term contract with Three, the mobile-phone company. She regularly volunteered in the city, dedicating her Saturdays to helping out at the local animal-welfare shelter. She looked for paid work in the third-level sector but could not find a position with the salary she needed to secure a critical-skills visa. Eventually she changed her CV to focus on her IT skills and found work with Accenture in Dublin.

“I was so stubborn about wanting to work with a charity, but my friend advised me that it was important to get a secure job. So, along with the IT work, I kept volunteering.”

She missed Limerick when she first moved to Dublin and struggled to find a place to live. Eventually she built up a network of friends in the city and went on cycles with colleagues, initially from Accenture and then, after changing jobs, with Workday. She had begun investigating cycle clubs when the pandemic hit. She continued cycling through the lockdowns but was keen to get involved with a local club.

“I found my bike helped me a lot during Covid. I could get out and immerse myself in nature, explore different roads and hills, get lost and then find my way back home. It made me stronger and helped me handle situations on my own.”

She continued emailing local clubs, and in June 2021 heard back from the Dublin Wheelers, who were restarting operations.

Five months on, Singh says she has a totally new appreciation for the sport. “I’ve met people who have been cycling for decades. I’ve learned about all the achievements of Irish cycling, and it’s phenomenal. I’m also reading Sean Kelly’s autobiography and met him last month.

“I’ve started racing, and I’m loving it. I’m proud of myself, and it’s so therapeutic. If you’re stressed, or just not feeling great, you take your bike and go into nature, and it does wonders, mentally and physically. And, being part of a club, everyone is so supportive and kind.”

I feel there are a lot of women who want to get out and go for longer cycles. They want to explore but might not know where to start. I wanted to set up a group they could identify with and provide them with a channel to get started

She has noticed, however, that she appears to be the only woman of colour in the club; she has also seen very few female immigrants cycling. Determined to get more women involved, she set up the Cycling-Women of Color Ireland Facebook and Instagram pages to spread the word.

“I feel there are a lot of women out there who want to get out there and go for longer cycles. They want to explore but might not know where to start, or feel hesitant about reaching out to cycling clubs. I wanted to set up a group they could identify with and provide them with a channel to get started.”

She now leads women on cycles around Dublin and the surrounding counties, and recently introduced a pair of female cyclists from India and Mongolia to Howth and Wicklow. "It was their first time in Enniskerry, and they were flabbergasted by the beauty of the mountains. I'm looking forward to promoting the groups more and bridging that gap in the cycling community."

Singh, who recently began a new job with the National Transport Authority, says Ireland is her second home. "Ireland has given me my true identity and transformed my overall perspective of how I see the world. In a city like Delhi women can face a lot of challenges. I think that's why my parents tried to keep me safe. But in Ireland I've realised my real identity, my individuality and who I am as a woman."

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com