Rothar Routes

Cycle routes & pilgrim journeys in Ireland and Europe …..

Archive for ‘July 22nd, 2020’

Turas Columbanus Stage 11 – Final Stage!

After crossing the Mourne Mountains I thought was finished with hills but this is drumlin country and it was constantly up and down, though while none of them very high, it was draining.

There is lots of coastal scenery – stunning on a good dry day, sunny in the early stages.

The Mournes from 12 Arches Bridge

Most of this 110 kms stage was on local roads where I availed of the signposted Cycle routes 99, 20 and 93. The route follows the coast around through Dundrum to Ballykinler – where Down GAA are due to locate their Centre of Excellence on the site of the British Army base. Lots of gunfire could be heard from the base, presumably from the firing range. The Isle of Man was clearly visible out in the Irish Sea.

Near Ballykinler
Lots of Biblical messages along the roads of Down!

The route winds its way around the coast and up and down the many drumlins but it’s easy pick up the right turns as this route is well signposted as Route 99. It’s well selected as the roads are extremely quiet and the views are outrageous! Ballynoe Stone Circle was an interesting stopping off point and you can sense the magic of the place. Continue on for about 5kms to arrive into Downpatrick, resting place of our national saint, Saint Patrick.

Burial site of Saint Patrick
Ballynoe Stone Circle
Near Ballykinler
Strangford Lough

When you get to Downpatrick it is important not to follow this route out of Downpatrick and instead pick up Route 20 – I missed that and ended up on main road for 7 kms where I then rejoined route 20. This is a great route over to Mahee Island and on into into Comber. Mahee Island was stunning and worth the diversion even if it added 15kms to the journey with Nendrum Monastic site so beautifully located with stunning views of the Lough. This was a very important monastic site and would have been associated with Bangor Abbey and possibly our main man Columbanus. Definitely one of my favourite sections of the entire route.

Nendrum Monastic Site
Nendrum Round Tower Ruin
These videos will give you a good idea of what the route is like in Down.
Nendrum Monastic Site is at the end of Mahee Island – a really impressive site

Return back to the turn off for Mahee and take a right which brings you into Comber where you pick up Route 99 again but make sure you head towards Newtownards! Its a quiet road but with a good pull to Scrabo Hill which is adorned by the Scrabo Tower, a landmark you will have seen from Mahee Island. It is a nice downhill into Newtownards, with is a major urban centre and easy to get lost in. Change to Route 93 here and head up Mountain Road towards Crawfordsburn. Saw a herd of deer up on top! The route crosses the main Belfast – Bangor dual carriage way and winds its way along the coast. However time was slipping away on me and I took the most direct route into Bangor.

Finally I had arrived in Bangor where Columbanus spent many years as a monk before heading for Europe in his 50th year or later!

Turas Columbanus, also known as the Columban Way, traces the journey of Columbanus, in the late 6th and early 7th century through Ireland but also France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy from his birth place in the shadow of Mount Leinster in Carlow to his resting place in Bobbio, south of Milan in northern Italy.

The Turas Columbanus is the Irish section of this pilgrim walk / cycle through countryside, pathways, villages and towns from Ireland’s Ancient East through the monastic and medieval foundations from Myshall, Carlow, through the midlands, to Cleenish on Lough Erne, Armagh and Bangor.

For me it is important to keep the memory of this great Irish “Man of Letters” and “First European” alive in the 21st century and aspects of his life which are of significant interest to those who work towards an integrated Europe open to all.

France is next!

Turas Columbanus Stage 10

Newry to Newcastle

Real mountains at last! This is a stunningly beautiful stage – The Mountains of Mourne rise from sea level to dominate the landscape of South Down. There is no easy way to traverse this part of the County. These were the first mountains since I set off from the One Stones on Mount Leinster so I looked forward to more hardship on this 48 kms long stage!

The options are to take the coastal road all the way around but that is unnecessarily long; take the road to Mayobridge and Hilltown but this road is narrow and busy or try find a route through the hills with little traffic.

Warrenpoint

The best option was to take the coast road out through Warrenpoint as far as Rostrevor and head straight up Church Road onto Kilbroney Road and after just less than 1km take a right onto another local road for another 11 kms. Take a right at the t-junction on the Hilltown to Spelga Dam road. There is a fair pull for the next 5 kms to Spelga but at least you avoid the busy main road – and you get the most spectacular views. Take the next left and this road continues for about 7 kms where it joins the main Hilltown to Newcastle road. Bonus is most of this is downhill!

I made a mistake on the day I was doing this section – weather was miserable and I just kept pedalling so didn’t quite follow the description above!

The Mournes are always spectacular! Even in the rain.

Our old friend from Ballyjamesduff, Percy French penned the immortal words to the song ‘The Mountains of Mourne’.
A quiet day on the promenade in Newcastle!

Turas Columbanus Stage 9

Monaghan to Newry

The most difficult stage so far! 

The Diamond, Monaghan

The route brought me out to Ireland’s 2019 Tidy Towns winner, Glaslough village and around Castle Leslie, through Tynan village with its lovely cross. Stunning amount of native woodland in this area with picturesque villages that lulled me into a false sense of how good the route today would be.

Tynan Cross

This was surprisingly challenging with lots of hills on poor surfaces of National Cycle Route 91 – a brilliant route but tough. Many of the bóithríns were potholed surfaces and thankfully only suited to cycling or walking.

Monaghan nearly broke me – again!

I followed winding rustic roads across to the village of Killylea and onwards towards Navan Fort, the site of legendary Eamhain Mhaca and the story of famed Cú Chulainn, one of the most famous heroes from the Ulster Cycle of folklore.

As luck would have it, I was fortunate to bump into a young Irish Road Bowling Champion, Ciarán Corrigan, his brother, and his father as they practised road bowls along the road. There is a rich heritage of road bowling in Armagh and Cork and its not a sport that we see down in the south east

Road Bowling is massively popular in South Armagh and Cork

The skyline of Armagh city is dominated by the beautiful and imposing St Patricks Cathedral. The late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich wrote one of the important histories of Columbanus, which was the first source I came across of the connection between Columbanus and Carlow

Whenever I hear Armagh mentioned I think of my great friend and mentor, the late John. Morrison who lived alongside in Cathedral Terrace, where there was always an open door and a big beaming smile to welcome visitors to John’s house.

I slipped away out of Armagh continuing National Cycle Route 91, cum the Ulster Way, which involved a surprising amount of climbing. The road skirts Gosford Forest Park as it winds its way east towards Scarva and the flat cycle path along the Newry Canal. A welcome relief after some serious hilly terrain. The last 20kms into Newry were a doddle and it was surprising how underused the cycle route was. 

Easy cycling along Newry Canal Bike Path

Turas Columbanus Stage 8

Cleenish Island to Monaghan

Well rested after a night in Corrigan’s B&B (highly recommended), the weather took a turn for the worst with heavy morning downpours as I retraced my path back to Bellanaleck and 5kms back along the road towards Derrylin taking a left turn towards Carrybridge, crossing over the River Erne. From there I kept up my habit of sticking to traffic free local roads that ran close by the side of the Lough as I headed into Lisnaskea, a busy little market town.

Cross at Lisnaskea
Lisnaskea

The rain began to dry up and I deviated from my plan to head for Newtownbutler, instead opting to travel cross country to Magheraveely where I picked up the Kingfisher Trail once again.

It was stunning with all the beautiful autumn colours on display along the hedgerows of rural Fermanagh, helping to distract me from the ever more bumpy drumlin terrain as I made my way to the Ulster GAA mecca of Clones and onwards towards Monaghan Town. This border country was very isolated, with little traffic or people about – the route crisscrossed back and forth, and it was impossible to know where the invisible line actually lay. Not many around here take much note of it anyhow. The stretch between Killevan and Three Mile House was tough going after a long day in the saddle and I was glad when I eventually rolled into Monaghan Town.

Cavan Lakelands

Turas Columbanus Stage 7

Virginia to Cleenish Island

The town of Virginia was founded during the Plantation of Ulster and was named after Queen Elizabeth I of England, the ‘Virgin Queen’.  It’s a busy spot with a lot of through traffic towards Cavan and the road to Ballyjamesduff is very narrow with heavy traffic.

Virginia Forest Park
Virginia Forest Park

I found a lovely way to avoid that by cycling through Deerpark Forest Park – 160 hectares full of fantastic trails along the shores of Lough Ramor. After 6kms I exited out onto the Oldcastle road where I took a left and continued for 2kms taking a right then just before a sharp bend. This brought me on another isolated bóithrín, perfect for the bike which took me almost all the way into Ballyjamesduff, made famous by the poet and song writer Percy French, whose statue adorns the main street.

Percy French, Ballyjamesduff

The network of minor roads is just brilliant for cycle touring in this country and I was able to head on to Cavan town again on stunningly beautiful quiet bóithríns by taking the road towards Crosserlough and taking a right after 3kms onto another even smaller road!

Love these local roads for cycling!

A few small hills added to the variety of the route which I welcomed after so long on the level ground of the central plains of the Leinster.

Mention Cavan and the O Reilly clan name is closely associated with the county – so many great footballers down the decades! Kingspan Breffni Park is one of the great GAA venues. It’s a natural amphitheatre that draws thousands in support of their teams during the Ulster SFC.

The town itself was founded by the O Reilly’s and is unique as it is thought to be the only medieval Gaelic town. It’s a good stopping off point with plenty of accommodation and hostelries before travelling onwards.

I again took liberties to devise my own route that kept off the main roads and weaved a magical path through the Cavan lake lands and drumlins. Its an area planted with lots of native beech and oak and is terrific cycling country.

Unspoilt countryside and off the beaten track

It’s approximately 30kms to Ballyconnell along these quiet roads with only the village of Milltown for resupplies. I loved this section of the route, so quiet, peaceful, and scenic. I picked up the (sometimes well signposted) Kingfisher cycling route into Ballyconnell.

Ballyconnell and Derrylin are at the epicentre of the former mighty Quinn industrial empire and the road between the two is busy with heavy goods vehicles entering and leaving quarries and factories. Thankfully, the road is wide and straight for the 9kms to Derrylin in County Fermanagh.

Border Post, Ballyconnell - coming back into use?
Old Customs Post on the Derrylin Road – are they on the way back?

I took the main Enniskillen road all the way to Bellanaleck, 13kms away. It is possible to exit off it and go via Kinawley, but I reckoned on that road also being busy. Accommodation is thin on the ground in the village, so I headed out to Cleenish Island on Upper Lough Erne and found the perfect place to stay in Corrigan’s Loughshore B&B, on the shores of the lake. It was a Godsend!

Cleenish

Cleenish Island is one of the important sites associated with Saint Columbanus for he spent some time here at the monastery of Saint Sinell. Sinell was a significant monk famous for his holiness and learning and it appears to have been here that Columbanus opted to receive some further studies before he entered the monastic life. Sinell was a student of our old friend St Finnian of Clonard, who we met previously in Myshall and in Clonard County Meath. Perhaps the Myshall connection was significant.

There are some ruins in a small wooded graveyard on the lakeshore but nothing else to identify the monastery. Upper and Lower Lough Erne are some of the most beautiful places to visit and it is easy imagine the attractiveness of Cleenish as a monastic site.

The island has some other interesting history too and recently there have been some stories of ghostly sightings among the abandoned houses that dot the island!

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