Summers Past: Nuala O’Faolain cycles from Dublin to Lahinch, 1989

‘We are drenched to the skin. And our bums are killing us.’ In this article from the Irish Times archive, the late Nuala O’Faolain cycles across Ireland with two nieces


Our Summers Past series mines the Irish Times archive to find the best articles from previous summers. In August 1989, Nuala O’Faolain cycled from Dublin to Lahinch over four days, with her two 18-year-old nieces. The series is reproduced here in an edited form.

Day One

There’s an old house in a grassy yard in County Clare, about a mile south of Lahinch, and for a fortnight every year it becomes the summer capital of our family. When the printing firm my brother-in-law works for announces the dates of its annual break, the wheels start turning.

My sister in London contacts her son in America. Her daughter starts looking for weekend jobs to earn holiday money. The sister in Mayo packs her little girl’s togs, and enters into negotiations with her teenager. The sister in Dublin has seven children: the older ones will come and go, but the small ones are stuffed into a car already bulging with duvets and frying pans and black plastic bags full of clothes. And that’s just the hard core: there is a floating cast of thousands.

All this takes organisation. Who is to be met off which bus, who is coming by air, who is passing through Dublin on what day, who will leave what key where? Since half the sisters have no phone, I am rung up by all of them. The London sister rang to say that her eighteen-year-old, Marian, could manage to come over.

“She’s thinking of bringing her bike,” my sister said. With that it came to me - why not cycle to Lahinch with my niece? In fact, why not cycle with two nieces, so that they’d have each other’s company? There’s another eighteen-year-old in Artane.

I’ve only been on a bike once since childhood, when I went cycling in Holland which is not only flat but has cycle tracks everywhere. And both the girls have bockety old bikes, but they’ve never cycled any distance. In fact, their bikes wouldn’t last any distance.

So I went to see Rent-a-Bike in Gardiner Street where a most helpful fellow called Paul said no problem, bikes £22 a week, panniers and locks included, leave them back to the youth hostel in Limerick.

So, how were we going to get out of Dublin? I rang the trains: were there any trains to the outskirts of Dublin in the afternoon? No. Dublin Bus? Don’t take bicycles. Bus Eireann? Very co-operative they were, but they wanted to know where exactly I wanted to go.

Good question. We certainly weren’t going on the main road, with all those lorries. A friend pointed out that the canal – the Grand Canal that roughly speaking, heads for Clare – must provide the flattest route. So I rang Bus Eireann back. Celbridge, we decided on. But only type-M buses go to Celbridge: the ones with a boot at the back instead of the side.

By now I’m nearly giving up. But the girls arrive at Rent-a-Bike with enough clothes and shoes for an ocean voyage. They even have some chic little numbers for the luxury hotels I promised them we’d be staying in. Around we go to Busarus, where the supervisor miraculously fits three bikes on a type-M bus.

And at 2.30pm precisely, on Tuesday, the girls fortified by crisps and Coke, we got on the bikes in Celbridge and set out for Lahinch.

I had thought that we might be able to cycle along the tow-path itself, which would be satisfyingly direct, as well as interesting. But it was just a bumpy track. So, back to Celbridge. Clane. Prosperous. Delay while Marian goes into a house to ask can she use the toilet. She believes that householders have a legal obligation to let passers-by use their toilet. I don’t think this is so.

Slog, slog towards the beautiful cooling-tower at Allenwood. At last, you can cycle beside the canal itself, but things begin to deteriorate. Cailin skids on the gravel. A man we meet mildly asks us what we’re doing “because this path doesn’t go anywhere.”

Back to the last bridge, back up to the main road, it begins to rain, and the signpost says “Edenderry, 14 miles.” Oh no. The girls are good, cheerful kids, but when they look at me imploringly, saying they’re starving, they suddenly seem about six years old.

I promised them a high-class time. No B&B for us, I’d said. Everyone else seems to find B&Bs with damsons and muesli for breakfast, but I always get the ones where women with a tragic story put you into nylon sheets, still hot from her children.

I’d told the girls that at night, they could explore the youth scene, while I read my book over a glass or two of chilled Chablis. In actual fact, we are drenched to the skin, we don’t know where we’ll be eating or sleeping, and we’re still only at the mushroom factory in Carbury. And our bums are killing us.

They begin to sing, the game little things, but I’m thinking to myself – I got them into this. And it isn’t much fun, is it?

Day Two

Edenderry is not at its best on a rainy Tuesday night. They hadn’t cleaned up after the market, and great drifts of sodden litter were the only things that moved. Tiffany’s restaurant was closed. The Chinese takeaway was closed.

“There’s the Eden Inn,” a girl in a shop said. She looked at us doubtfully, “But it’s expensive.” I didn’t care how expensive it was, given that the nieces now looked like half-drowned waifs, who had lost all hope. But I didn’t want to eat before we had anywhere to stay.

The woman in the Eden Inn rang a B&B for us, and we changed into dry clothes in the ladies. Cailin had quiche, followed by two hamburgers in buns with a fried egg, coleslaw, beans, tomatoes and a million chips, followed by apple and blackberry tart and cream, the whole accompanied by two glasses of red wine. This cost about £10.

The B&B was not the quietest. On the other hand, the lady of the house does not approve of food-additives, so the orange juice was freshly squeezed.

We set off the following day very, very slowly, because we were very, very sore. The girls stocked up on Marathon bars, Lucozade, crisps, and a furtive packet of 10 cigarettes. We were in turf country now, cycling past mysterious pine-woods and sedgy ditches full of flowers. Distant horizons of brown. You think the midlands are flat till you cycle them, and that they’re empty, until you cope with their lorries and tractors.

We separated out. Cycling is not sociable. The sun came out, and the girls stripped to little skimpy tops. Coming into Tullamore was like coming into Manhattan. Such sophistication! Hotels. Banks. Crowds of summer people. The only problem with Tullamore is that it is very far away from anywhere else you might be going.

I went into the tourist office to ask whether there were any hotels in Banagher. The girl there was charm itself, but she didn’t know. I went away and got the numbers of two. I went back to the tourist office to ring them. No phone.

Blue Ball, miles of bog, sit in the ditch and drink our Lucozade. Miles of bog, Ferbane. Cloghan, sit on the pavement, crisps, Marathon bars, red lemonade. A woman appeared in Cloghan to say that Banagher was packed out and we’d be better off in her lovely B&B.

We’ve booked, we said. I set off ahead of the girls. They were much faster than me, for one thing, and for another, if they were having a smoke I didn’t really want, formally, to know. A few miles out of Cloghan they caught up with me. The woman had come back, apparently, to say she had a pot of tea waiting and that she’d rung the hotel in Banagher and there was no problem. Strange.

You would think it would be - that it must be - downhill to the Shannon. But no. Somehow there are hills between the bog and the river. Still, at eight o’clock on Wednesday evening we were freewheeling down Banagher’s main street, only a day and a half on the road and already within sight of Galway. I congratulated myself with lamb chops in the gloomy dining-room of the hotel. I went to bed, carrying each leg in my hands, if you know what I mean, to get from stair to stair.

I love the morning in small towns. I love going up the street to look for a newspaper. I let the girls sleep, but when I went to get them up I couldn’t budge them. I’d shout at their door: “Okay, okay,” they’d say. “We’re coming.’ Ten minutes later I’d be back at the door again.

I thought that this was because they were exhausted after a night on the town. I was to learn, however, that you can never get them up.

And as for the night on the town. They’d asked a policeman where to go, and he’d directed them to a great pub full of people and babies and music, but the man wouldn’t serve Marian. He said she was underage. She couldn’t prove otherwise, so she said alright, she’d drink lemonade. He told her she could only drink lemonade in his pub if accompanied by her parents.

At one stage in this argument she told him that she was going to get her aunt - me - out of bed to back her up. If she had, I pointed out to her, I’d have murdered both her and him.

But what hurts me is that she believes that the barman took a dislike to her because she has an English accent. We crossed the tranquil Shannon, and left this question behind.

Day Three

The girls handle the bikes so differently from me. It is not just the years that stretch between us, and that most of them were misspent. It is a matter of style. I run along beside the bike with little hopping steps, and with one final hop, I mount. They wheel off in languid circles. I brake till the bike comes to a standstill, then I lower myself off. They stick out one golden leg to stop.

This morning we are going through lovely country, uphill to Eyrecourt. I get off and push. They wait for me, chewing away at another load of junk. “We need it for our energy levels,” they say. “We’ve got to keep our blood sugar level up.”

Eyrecourt is full of interesting bits and pieces, but we press on for Portumna. There’s a fine long hill down to Portumna, I’ll have you know, and that’s the kind of thing that prejudices you in favour of a town. Rain again. We sit in a pub where people are watching the racing on telly and running in and out with bets. It is the only pub I’ve ever been in that sells banana sandwiches.

Across the road, a German or Dutch woman had a little stall selling second-hand clothes. We bought a pair of striped pants, £2.50. She advised us to stay that night at the campsite in Mountshannon. “It’s so lovely down there, down by the lake,” she said. “It’s wonderful to wake up in the morning to the sound of the water and the wind in the trees.” This made me feel terribly guilty. Why wasn’t I introducing the nieces to nature? Why weren’t we camping?

And what about the glories of Ireland? Ring-forts, abbeys, holy wells, that kind of thing. Somehow, we’d never passed any of those, or if we had, I didn’t know about them. In fact, the most exciting thing we pass happens now. An old lady, cycling along beside us, says: “Do you see that little house? Well, that’s the house where the millionaires live – the lady that won a million on the lottery.” We go past in awestruck silence.

We’ve got a rhythm now. We cycle for maybe three-quarters of an hour, then we sit on the ditch and have a rest. Every two hours or so, it’s blood sugar time again. How can they be so thin, and have such perfect skin? The only unscheduled stops are for small animals - foals, pullets, calves, goats. We put calendula cream on our bites. Occasionally, I try to get a little read of my paper. “You’re always reading,” they say. “We have no one to talk to us.”

The front of my thighs hurts like hell. I really want to stop in Mountshannon. The campsite is out, no one around to ask about a chalet, and lots of athletic tourists. The village itself smells of money. The street is lined with Mercedes cars, white, some of them. In the bar of the hotel, golden German boys are having a beer. Marian, quite rightly, senses the likelihood of pleasant intercultural relations. “Please, please can we stay here,” she says, “They’ve got a pool table.”

But Cailin is wilting, like a flower out of water. She misses her sisters and brothers and her parents. She’s dying to get to them. I decide for Cailin, because she has to get back to work soonest, whereas Marian has a few weeks’ holidays. And I lurch back on the bike, for the last five miles to Scarriff.

“No, you can’t be,” I said firmly, when the girl in the Lakelands Hotel said she thought they were full up. “We can’t go another foot,” I said, and I meant it. She found us rooms, and we headed for the bath. Cold water, but we didn’t care. We ate our chicken and five million chips and had our favourite conversation. “Do you think that they’ll be in when we get there?” “Wait till you see my brother’s face.” “I bet they’re not expecting us for days.” “Do you think they’ll have a party ready?” Etc, etc.

“But we won’t get there tomorrow,” I said. “How could we get there tomorrow? It’s 40 or 50 miles.” I put it to them that we would just amble as far as Dromoland Castle and that we’d wash out our clothes there, in unparalleled luxury, and put on our dresses, and have a rest. But I don’t know whether this bribe is going to work. What’s keeping them going is the thought of the sensation they’re going to make when they arrive. What’s keeping me going is astonishment that I’m doing this at all.

Day Four

You can get The Irish Times in Scarriff, Co Clare, at eight o’clock in the morning, I’m delighted to say. I read the whole thing at double speed before going to wake the girls. They’re serious about getting to Lahinch today, I realise, when it only takes them about an hour to get up. Scarriff is a great town to start cycling from, because it’s on a hill.

Whee, whee, all the way to Tuamgraney.

“Now listen,” I say, “it’s about time that we did something cultural, and it says on this map that the church in Tuamgraney is the oldest in continuous use in Ireland.” So we went in to the church. “Doesn’t look very old,” we said. Sure enough, when I went over our route later, in the Shell Guide, we’d been in the wrong church.

Bodyke. Small lecture from me on the Land League. Yawns. Tulla. Small lecture about ceili bands from me, and brief rendition of “The Ballad of Tommy Daly.” Yawns. The problem, apparently, was the blood sugar levels. We cycled a good 12 miles before we found a shop, and the girls weren’t really awake until we’d sat on the concrete, beside litterbins full of wasps, and had our mid-morning snack.

Spancil Hill. They didn’t know it existed outside the song. At last the outskirts of Ennis. Huge, expensive, bleak bungalows. Dwarf conifers. The blank backs of dressing-tables in all the upstairs windows.

We revelled in the urbanity of Ennis. We priced straw hats and went to the bookshop and washed in the Ladies of the Queen’s Hotel and changed sterling to punts. And then it was off on the last lap. ‘”Ere we go, ‘ere we go,” we whooped. “Lahinch 17 miles,” it said. Add one or two miles to get to our own house. Sure we’d be there in no time.

It took us four hours. Uphill all the way to Inagh, it was, and my legs had no push left in them. We fell into the pub in Inagh. “We’ve cycled all the way from Dublin,” I said to the man, looking for congratulations, of course. “Oh, did you?” he said. “I walked from here to Dublin last year.”

Not only had he walked - with Donncha O Dulaing - all the way from Inagh to Clontarf, but he’d walked for 13 days, the last few of them with an infected foot, and they’d raised £34,000 for worthy causes. And they’d gone to all the interesting places, like Clonmacnoise and Tara. All we’d done was spend money, and not go anywhere interesting. Still, we thought, the family will think we’re marvellous anyway.

There’s a short-cut across to Moy where the house we rent actually is. If you can find it, it bypasses Ennistymon and Lahinch. We did find it, on our third attempt. But we hadn’t realised that it meant climbing a fair-sized mountain.

“Can you see the house?” “Is Daddy’s “car there?” “No-one is to be in front when we get there - we’re all to arrive together.” Swoop, swoop down the last hills. The little children spotted us, and when we swept up to the house they were all out on the road, mammies, cousins, babies, sisters. Cheers and applause. Then into the kitchen for tea and scones and an absolutely blow-by-blow account of the Great-Across-Ireland-in-Three-and-a-half-Days-Cycle-Ride.

Eventually, I went into John Galvin’s pub in Lahinch to squander all the health I’d built up. And I thought about what we’d seen. Essentially, we had seen unfashionable Ireland, an Ireland hardly touched by tourism. Ireland pre-cheeseboard, so to speak. On the other hand, every single person, apart from the barman in Banagher, had been lovely to us. Helpful and natural and wonderfully good-humoured.

My sister came to get me for a swim. “Did the girls drive you mad?” she inquired, playing both sides of the fence, of course, because if I really criticised her daughter she’d be dreadfully hurt. But the truth is that the girls certainly did not drive me mad: they are candid, funny girls, and their company is a pleasure. They are, however, 18, and at 18 you haven’t learned to disguise self obsession. Their hair, their love life, what they should study, the meaning of the universe. I never realised how hard parents work, just at listening.

But at least I got to know the nieces a little bit , in between their being children and their being women. “You’re doing fine, Nuala,” the girls used to say. “You’re really keeping up well today.” All unconsciously, they never allowed me the illusion of being as young as they are, though sometimes, flying down hills in the sunshine, I felt as if I were.

This is an edited version of the series that originally appeared in August 1989. To read the full articles as they originally appeared visit: Day One , Day Two , Day Four.