The strangest of years in living memory saw us rediscover our own country in 2020. Fear, worry, stress, anxiety were all our bedfellows as we wondered where the invisible enemy would strike next. Travel was restricted, social contacts likewise and to get away from it all we sought out the quiet places.
We escaped into nature. It’s amazing how much the most popular trails have deteriorated during lockdown as people took to the outdoors for exercise, fresh air and their sanity. Luckily we have lots of green spaces on this beautiful island of ours.
As soon as lockdown was lifted I found myself heading away almost every evening to somewhere new.
I’ve covered over 1500 kilometres since March on my bike. All of it on quiet country roads or off road along the Barrow Way, the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal and a myriad of cycle trails. Counties cycled in this year were Carlow, Laois, Kildare, Wexford, Kilkenny, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Meath, Galway, Roscommon, Clare, Tipperary, Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Armagh and Down, 18 counties in total! All beautiful and all equipped with that network of rural roads that are safe and a joy to cycle on. I’ve donned hiking boots to visit Máméan in Connemara, the Devils Bit, Slievenamon, the Blackstairs, Ballycumber and Askamore to name but a few.
I’ve made a short video above of some of the sights we saw in our travels. Many thanks for following my blog during 2020 and I hope it brought you some enjoyment.
With a raging pandemic in full flow, the thoughts of Christmas shopping fill me with dread. I seem to have missed the warnings today of imminent food shortages and empty shelves judging by the full car parks in Town this morning.
The entire country seems to have finally discovered all the great walking trails and loops dotted across the country, judging by the worn paths at this time of year and so are often a little too populated for my liking at this time. The great thing about the bike is it increases your range and your options. Today was a day made for the bike; a blue sky, little wind and the air was crystal clear. Cool but an incredible Sunday in December. An Escape from the madness.
Kilkea is almost directly north of Carlow Town and there’s a spiders web of tiny quiet roads that are just perfect for cycling – I can count on one hand the number of cars met over 32kms cycling. I take the road out through Oak Park, behind the Golf Club and turn left at Ballaghmoon Cross. Thats the first 5kms done! It’s a straight road for the next couple of kms followed by two right turns. Take the second right and continue over the Maganey – Castledermot road at Castleroe Crossroads. The surfaces are great, the roads are quiet and there are great expansive views across the lowlands of south Kildare. After another kilometre, take the left fork in the road and enjoy the freewheeling down the hill before turning right onto a beautiful tree lined stretch that finishes with a stunning view of Kilkea Castle at the T-junction. Take a left into pretty Kilkea village and tuen into the grounds of Kilkea Castle.
It’s a stunning twelfth-century castle, home of the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare. The castle is again a top-class hotel and golf resort for many years, having fallen victim to the economic downturn post-Celtic Tiger but is now open. It has an enchanting history – associated with ‘The Wizard Earl’ who practised alchemy and was reputed to have magic powers. They say the castle is haunted and that he returns every seven years on a white horse!
Another claim to fame for Kilkea is that it is the birthplace of the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and there’s a really great statue in nearby Athy in his honour and also a fine Shackleton museum in the Athy Heritage Centre.
After a few photos it was time to head back home and I took the back road out of the Castle and crossed over at Sills Cross, up the hill returning as far as the fork in the road where I had taken the left fork on the way out.
Back at Castleroe Cross I swung left in the direction of Castledermot and took the right at the top of the hill. It’s another great road, well surfaced and quite wide. I took a right after 2kms approx onto a minor road which brought me back to Ballaghmoon Bridge from where I returned along the route I took out of town.
Total distance: 33kms. Time (including stops) 1hr 54mins. Moving time 1hr 38 mins. Highly recommend this route!
The Hunger – Over 1,000,000 dead of starvation and disease, 1,250,000 emigrated…
Over the course of the summer, I had the good fortune to be able to spend some time cycling along the banks of The Royal Canal.
The path doubles as the National Famine Walk – a walking route that commemorates ‘the poignant ill-fated story of assisted emigration in Ireland during the Famine in 1847 when 1,490 poor and hungry were forced to walk the 165km from the Strokestown Park Estate, County Roscommon to Custom House Quay in Dublin. They travelled onward to Liverpool and almost a third of them perished crossing the Atlantic in “coffin ships” bound for Canada’.
I had been on the Canal before and had spotted a most unusual way marker:
A pair of children shoes. It shook me to my core. As I progressed northwards I saw more of these markers and my journey morphed from a cycle along the Canal to a pilgrimage to Strokestown to visit the National Famine Museum. It is well worth a visit and all the better if you complete the Way.
The two episodes of the documentary ‘The Hunger’ have brought the incredible affect of the Famine into the living rooms of the country and set out in no uncertain terms the scale of death, destruction and devastation inflicted on a peasant people.
The wonder is how we as a nation have rebounded so well from such deep trauma to our psyche. The Irish people have shown their resilience and their abilities – abilities that were denied by our rulers and we should be proud of the nation we have built.
But we should not forget the cruelty inflicted on a suffering people. And I don’t mean remember it in terms of rabid nationalism, I mean in terms of our humanity to other peoples who, incredibly in this day and age are suffering the same fate; arriving on our shores only to often be met with indifference and sadly sometimes worse – downright hostility by people who have forgotten our past and are exploiting our present difficulties.
A picture paints a thousand words. Here are a few images from my cycle along the National Famine Way, a mural in Strokestown of a school project about the Famine and from the exhibits in the National Famine Museum.