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Pedaling & Pacing Across Irish Borders

Journey From One End of Ireland to the Other

by Wendy O'dea

It used to be that visitors to Ireland would stay in the south or northwest of the island and leave Northern Ireland for more hearty adventurers. Seldom in decades past did travelers choose to traverse both regions in one visit, apprehensive of how things might appear to soldiers manning the checkpoints.

Those concerns are a thing of the past (there are no more checkpoints) since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and I discovered recently how easy it is now to journey from one to the other. I joined three other women to cycle and hike along Northern Ireland's Antrim coast and County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland and found the biggest challenge was not the political environment but the weather, natch.

Mountains of Mourne

While hiking on day one we discovered that the Mountains of Mourne do indeed sweep down to the sea (as noted in the popular Irish ballad). Hiking up the Bloody Bridge trail with guide Marty McGuigan, we trekked through brush, photographed streams flowing over silver glassy rocks, and shimmied over gates during sporadic rain showers. From our perch above, we snacked on homemade soda bread (compliments of McGuigan's wife) while admiring the Irish Sea to the east.

"What you see is what you get," said McGuigan, guide and owner of Walk on the Wild Side. I wasn't sure if he was referring to himself or the spectacular beauty of the Irish landscape but I suspect it was the view. The beauty of the Mournes is inspiring. Enough so that the area, which includes 12 summits (the highest reaching above 2,000 feet), is currently being considered for status as the first national park in Northern Ireland.

The rains that day were foreboding and by the time we'd driven further north to the town of Balleycastle we could barely make it through the door of Colliers Hold (our very simple B&B) without being blown sideways by the winds.

It was September and hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne were taking their final bows along Ireland's northern coastline after ravishing Florida. Balleycastle is at the northeast tip of the island and was getting a good whooping from Mother Nature. Given Ireland's climate and reputation I suppose it's not surprising that the locals didn't seem all that concerned. Of course they probably weren't planning to cycle through it the following morning either.

For four American women, however, we knew we were in for a challenge when we joined Irish Cycle Tours and Walks to spend a day pedaling along the National Cycle Network Route 93, which runs from Ballycastle west to Portballintrae. The weather was tenuous, at best, with occasional showers and heavy winds. Unless gaining speed from a downhill coast, it was nearly impossible to cycle up hills due to wind resistance.

Irish Sheep

During a relatively calm moment, I cycled off on my own and saw in my peripheral vision a flock of sheep squeezing under a fence on a tiny side street. Unable to resist the photo opportunity, I slowly rode toward them and started shooting a series of photos. One by one they bent their plump, fluffy bodies under the wire and darted across the path to a sprawling field. My presence threw them out of their comfort zone, however, and a group of rebel sheep shot off toward the main road, stopping traffic and prompting a couple of Irish farmers to start yelling while shooing them back. For a moment I thought I'd be reprimanded for aiding and abetting the prison break but the men just laughed it off, got in their cars and drove away.

Our goal was to cycle as far as Portballintrae, near Northern Ireland's Great Giant's Causeway. Two women made it only a few miles from the B&B before jumping in a support vehicle and the remaining two (myself included) made it to the midway meeting point at Carrick-A-Rede.

Carrick-A-Rede (meaning "rock in the road" - the Irish Sea representing the road during salmon migration) is a tiny island connected to the mainland by a famous rope bridge, located here for over 350 years (although the rope has obviously been replaced since then). We were excited to see, photograph and test the famous bridge but winds were clocked at 60 mph and it was closed due to safety concerns. Given our attempts to cycle into the wind, we weren't surprised, and it was at this point that our guide suggested we give in to nature's wrath and call it a day.

Disappointed yet relieved, we moved on to a tasty pub lunch and I rode with our driver to nearby Port Stewart. Along the way, winds blew sea foam onto the main road from the sea about 50 feet below giving the appearance of an eerie September snow flurry.

We traveled part of day three by van to meet up with curly-haired, bespectacled Sean Mullen, owner of Walking and Talking in Ireland. Mullen leads walking tours in both Northern Ireland and the Republic and we drove with him through Derry (Londonderry) along the western border of Northern Ireland and into Donegal, the most beautiful county in Ireland in my opinion.

Mullen grew up in Derry and has a unique perspective on the area and its history. "Out of the troubles seems to come great creative energy, y' know," he said (he often ended his comments with a lilting y'know). He is proof of that. Speaking English, Gaelic, German and French, Mullen also organizes one-week walking tours from Antrim to Donegal contrasting Scottish Ireland and Gaelic Ireland and incorporating history and music, from the native to the wild.

Glenveagh National Park

Our first Donegal outing with Mullen was to Glenveagh National Park, an area steeped in history and geology and encompassing some 16,500 hectares of mountains, lakes, glens and woods. We wandered through the gardens of the 19th century castle (original home of the infamous landlord John George Adair who cast out hundreds of tenants during Ireland's disastrous famine) and hiked above it in yet another misty-cum-rainy afternoon.

The weather finally cooperated fully on day four. We ventured with Mullen to the western edge of Donegal to hike the summit of Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The craggy rocks stand stoic against the pounding Atlantic and as offspring of Irish immigrants, I couldn't help but ponder the ships that once passed by taking the young and old on to what they hoped would be a better life in North America.

Nearby in Glencolmcille, a remote town with an ancient history, we wandered through a small church cemetery where I saw the grave of Madge O'Byrne, one such immigrant who died in the U.S. in 1886. Her tombstone poetically expressed that which I imagine many of the Irish in America felt.

She wished not death in stranger lands
Nor grave 'neath foreign skies
But home she came that kindred hands
Might place her where she lies

She loved the land that gave her birth
As but the pure can love
Her prayer: A grave in Irish earth,
My soul to God above.

Sean left us and we spent our last day with Johnny Daly, a tall, tousle-haired blonde with a quick wit and a big dimple in his left cheek (seen often as a result of his jovial spirit). Daly, a seasoned traveler himself, organizes cycling tours with Irish Cycling Safaris, a Dublin-based company that coordinates full-service cycling tours throughout Ireland and parts of Europe.

Irish Cycling Safaris

It became quickly clear that Irish Cycling Safaris was a larger and more professional operation than some of the others when we mounted slick Trek 720 bikes and received a full safety and route briefing. That route veered away from the coastal areas we'd seen on previous days and took us into the highlands of Donegal along quiet back roads peppered with sheep and white cottages. The weather was ideal as we ventured along winding pavement, up and down vibrant rolling hillsides, alongside dramatic waterfalls and stopping at a remote unspoiled beach with expanses of sand patterned from the rippling tides.

Later that evening we dined with Johnny and our gregarious driver Barry Hogan who'd taught us all about Irish craic (pronounced crack), slang for an entertaining social outing. We listened to their stories of "the troubles" (clashes between the Protestants and Catholics in the North in the three previous decades), the history of their country and tales of fairies and leprechauns. Then we laughed into the wee hours while sipping Guinness. The thought briefly crossed my mind to stay. I figured I could steal and slightly alter yet another Irish lyric to send home:

"Oh mother dear, I'm over here
I never will go back
What keeps me here, the price of beer
The fellows and the craic"

(From McAlpine's Fusilier, "the women and the craic.")

IF YOU GO

Irish Cycle Tours and Walks:
County Antrim;
phone +44 28 9064 2222
www.irishcycletours.com

Irish Cycling Safaris:
Dublin;
phone +353 1 260 0749
www.cyclingsafaris.com

For more information contact Tourism Ireland at (800) 223-6470 or www.tourismireland.com

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