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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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!
Finally continuing my journey along Turas Columbanus
Trim to Navanto Slane
Everyone is familiar with the four provinces of Ireland – Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster but in ancient times, Ireland had five provinces! The Kingdom of Meath was the fifth Province and the county became known as the Royal County due to the Hill of Tara being the seat of the High King of Ireland.
The county is central to much of Ireland’s ancient history, from its world-famous Neolithic sites at Brú na Bóinne consisting of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. And many more besides which do not have the same footfall are equally mythical and mesmerising such as Loughcrew and Fourknocks Passage Tomb well worth a visit at some stage.
The road out from Trim is the Dublin road and a left turn after 3kms is on to a nice rural road, ideal for cycling and the first stop today after 10kms was at the ruins of Bective Abbey, situated close to the River Boyne. Ireland’s second Cistercian Abbey. The ruins are on the left at the crossroads. It is more famous today for being used in the 1995 movie Braveheart for the scene between the Princess and her maid. The cloisters are very well preserved, and the Abbey is a nice stopping off point.
Return to the crossroads and continue straight heading for Kilmessan village, one of the strongholds of Meath hurling.
Wheel left in the village and continue past the GAA club heading towards the first hill since we left Carlow – the most famous hill in Irish history, the Hill of Tara!
Tara is magical. It reaches right back into our pagan past.
In Irish mythology The Hill of Teamhair was the sacred place of the Gods and the entrance to the other world. It was important long before it became the seat of power of the Irish High Kings – 142 Kings are said to have reigned from here.
One of the great legends of Tara tells the story of Conn of the Hundred Battles. Conn and his druids mounted the ramparts of Tara to protect it from the people of the other world. He stood on the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, which was said to cry out when a true King entered Tara. The Lia Fáil stands at the top of the Hill in the centre of the mound.
A sacred place and it still has the feel and energy today.
St Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the pagan religion at its most powerful site.
The view from the top of the hill is incredible for such a low hill – it must be possible to see half the counties in Ireland. On the day I visited I reckon I could see as far as our starting point on Mount Leinster in Carlow, to Galway in the west and to the Mourne Mountains in Ulster.
Another fascinating story of Tara is of recent origin. A group of Israelites came to Tara in the beginning of the 20th Century believing the Arc of the Covenant was buried there! The conducted some digs but alas returned empty handed!
There is so much to see here and maybe more importantly to feel here that an hour on top may only scratch the surface. I have to say I was overwhelmed here, I found Tara incredibly moving and it was easy to be transported back into Irish mythology as I wandered around the Mound of the Hostages, the outer mounds, the multitude of holy wells and as I took in the breath taking views in all directions and contemplated the five ancient roads that linked Tara with the rest of Ireland. An ancient place still resonating today.
I left Tara in a flash, the first downhill I’ve had since Carlow and quickly passed the HQ of the Columban Fathers at Dealgan Park just outside Navan.
I mentioned earlier that St Patrick had confronted the old pagan ways at Tara. My next destination was Slane and it was a real treat and a surprise to cycle along the banks of the Boyne on the old path of the Boyne Canal walkway. It’s a narrow path, slightly overgrown on the sides but with lovely river views which are overlooked by Dunmoe Castle and Ardmulchan Castle and Church.
The path ends after 7kms at Broadboyne bridge and its back on nice country roads to all the way into Slane.
The Hill of Slane, like Tara, stretches back into the mists of time, to the time of the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha Dé Danann. It was where Patrick chose to light the first paschal fire in 433 AD in defiance of the pagan King Laoighre, who at that time was lighting the Bealtaine fire on the distant Hill of Tara.
Slane Castle, home to Lord Henry Mountcharles, has hosted some of the greatest open air rock concerts in the world – a virtual who’s who from the rock hall of fame U2, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Queen, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Neill Young, Guns N’ Roses, Thin Lizzy….
It’s a pretty little village with a lot of heritage packed in.
The return route took me past Slane Castle entrance on the Navan Road, continuing to Wiggers Cross and back down to Broadboyne Bridge and the Boyne Canal walkway.
Navan to Kells
I avoided the main road to Kells, far too busy, and went via Bohermeen along the Cortown road.
This was a pleasant cycle along well surfaced roads with little traffic through the rich pasture lands of Meath. It wasn’t long until I reached Kells or Ceannanas, another famed Meath Heritage town, steeped in ancient history.
The town is associated with Saint Colmcille who established a monastery here before a dispute over copyright saw him go into exile to the island of Iona. After his death the monks returned to Kells bringing their monastic treasures with them including the Book of Kells which it is thought was completed in Kells.
There are four High Crosses in the grounds of St Columba’s Church and another at the far end of the town, a Round Tower and Columcille’s House all of which are really worth spending a little time to view.
Kells to Virginia
I took the Moynalty road out of Kells and shortly after passing over the River Blackwater I wheeled left onto a minor road which took me all the way to Mullagh, County Cavan and the province of Ulster!
The terrain begins to change from here with small hills or drumlins now a feature. Mullagh Lake is a lovely stopping off point for a short break.
In deciding what route to take, safety has been one of my main concerns and I tried to weave a route along minor roads linking places of interest. The Mullagh – Virginia road was too busy and narrow for my liking and so I took a left along a beautiful road on the northern side of the lake, named as ‘The Golden Mile’. After 1.5kms I continued straight at a t-junction until Fartagh Cross roads a further 1.5kms distant.
This is a lovely bóithrín and a great way to approach Virginia as the main roads are far too busy and I had to use the N3 for the last kilometre into the town.
Lough Ramor is on your left as you approach Virginia.
I never in my wildest dreams imagined spending two nights of my holidays in Banagher! If there is a positive to Covid-19 it is that we are looking afresh at how we spend our time and where we spend it.
#Staycation is the new buzzword and holiday at home is the only recommended option. Avoiding Covid hotspots and crowded venues should be the norm if we are to restrict the spread of Covid.
On the plus side we are looking at our own country in a different way; we are seeing the beauty in the ordinary and loving it. We spent the last week exploring Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and its Ancient East – never quite sure where the demarcation line is between the two!
One thing for sure is that the welcome is genuine, there is nothing ‘fake’ about the friendliness of people that you meet, which sometimes I question when I visit tourist hotspots along our coasts.
It was our first time to hire a boat and my only regret is we didn’t do it years ago! It was the perfect way to social distance and to see places along the Shannon from a different perspective. Time stands still as the boat moves so slowly! Great to see groups of young people thinking likewise and hiring small boats and barges for a holiday with a difference – they don’t deserve the blame they are getting for the increase in the spread of Covid – they are no more responsible than every age group..
Stopping off in tiny villages such as Dromineer and Terryglass was just perfect; some great local pubs with great food, great walking and cycling routes too.
The Shannon region is steeped in history and there are some amazing sites to visit. Is there a more scenic setting for a monastic site than famed Clonmacnoise? The English and the Vikings have a lot to answer for in relation to our heritage sites. They reduced so many of them to ruins and destroyed such important parts of our history.
Not far away along the byroads of Offaly is Lough Boora Discovery Park and The Offaly Way where we got to take in some lovely cycling routes across a corner of Offaly I’ve seldom visited.
West of the Shannon, Portumna Forest Park covers an impressive 1600 acres and has some incredible single trail cycle tracks. Home to a herd of fallow deer and its possible to spot the White Tailed Sea Eagle from the bird hide on the Lakeshore.
One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the stunningly beautiful and simple Meelick Church – the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland, Built in 1414 AD it is still in daily use.
Seven days exploring a region that we would normally pass through proves yet again that every county has so much to offer, if we only take the time to visit and explore. Look with new eyes, try something different, use your two feet and explore the great outdoors! We give out about the weather but in reality there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing! Stay home this year, spend a few bob in our own country and help small businesses stay afloat and hopefully thrive!