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Coast to Coast Day 6

The final day and the longest cycle, 112 kms. Cavan town to Carlingford.

The hills were relentless this morning as I left Cavan town all the way to Carrickmacross but marvellous roads for cycling. I have nearly crossed the country but I have honestly only met a handful of cars over the 6 days, apart from in the main towns. It’s been brilliant, I always felt safe and relaxed. No one was in hurry, everyone had time for a few words; most people I spoke with were bewildered at what I was doing and how I wandered down their neck of the woods!

Shercock was my first destination for the day, a bit of a landmark, 45kms distant which meant I was definitely going to get this completed today. But it was again up and down all the way! I could easily have knocked kilometres off my route, and hills too, by taking regional roads but I wouldn’t dream of sharing those roads with heavy traffic and lorries. No, my way was hard but perfect for the bike. I was whacked when I got into Shercock and was glad the little cafe was open for a receiving milkshake and scone! Carrickmacross was the next milestone, alway a bustling thriving market town, bypassed now so not a place I get to pass through very often. This is border country, some would say bandit country too! I was surprised and glad that it was flat to Forkhill in south Armagh.

Market day, Carrickmacross

I was delighted the route passed through Inishkeen, birthplace of the poet Patrick Kavanagh – a man we all were familiar with from our Leaving Cert English. I loved his poetry, so evocative and descriptive of rural Ireland but also a harsh mirror to Irish society.

Inishkeen GAA Club, one of the finest club grounds in the country.
Inishkeen Round Tower

Traffic picked up from Hackballs Cross to Jonesborough. Whatever it is about these border counties – but they drive like lunatics! Coming over Flagstaff was tough but it was followed by a great downhill into Omeath and on to the Greenway, a nice way to end this Coast to Coast – that is apart from the bramble cuttings littering the path. I’m mystified by these greenways and how they are maintained. Why encourage bike travel and leave thorn branches on the gourd to puncture wheels? Carlingford is manic. It’s a real Mecca for tourists and getting a bed proved very difficult and expensive. Tip. Don’t stay here! Get a place down the road.

The Mountains of Mourne in the background from Flagstaff.
The end. Carlingford County Louth.

The rough plan was to cycle home from Carlingford, or at least to Dublin, but in truth I was jacked and next morning I cycled into Dundalk nice and early, caught a train to Dublin. I then had to cycle over to Heuston and caught a train back home. I had considered cycling out of Dublin on the Grand Canal but mentally the trip was done when I had completed the Coast to Coast. Full marks to Irish Rail – I found bringing the bike on the trains a really positive experience and I’ll be doing it again.

Total kms cycled 517.

Home in one piece!

Coast to Coast Day 5

I passed the half way point yesterday somewhere near Lough Talt, so I was feeling good this morning knowing that today would eat another big chunk off the second half of the challenge.

Boyle is a great base to explore a region that is very underrated. There’s loads to see and do around here; the only problem is there’s not much accommodation in the town.

Boyle or bust…

Getting our of Boyle was great – my route took me through Lough Key Forest Park, a place I have fond memories of from a training camp with Mary, Patricia & a bunch of their international team training group. Lough Key is on the edge of the Town and its a gem. Full of beautiful woodland and lakeside walks and activities. A really nice place. Lovely route through for me that took me onto the back roads of lovely Leitrim.

Passed this lovely and unusual octagonal house just after Lough Key Forest Park. Took a left here.

I’m going back to Leitrim at some stage. I like this county. Small. Understated. Beautiful. Quiet. Rural. Not flat – lots of small hills, I was moving into drumlin country. Some wise man described drumlins as akin to half buried eggs and he was right! Up and down, up and down and though not very high, the gradients could be challenging! The early part around the Shannon was nice and flat and beautiful surfaces for biking. Shortly after crossing the Shannon at Battle Bridge I rolled into Leitrim village the gateway to the Shannon Erne Waterway and is a popular stopping off point for cruisers.

The county is very sparsely populated and while I was travelling the back roads, it was even more isolated than expected. I had one 57kms stretch before I came to a shop!

Would the real Fenagh please stand up! We have our own lovely Fenagh village in the centre of Carlow and Leitrim has one too. Even smaller than our one! Its located close to the River Shannon and it wasn’t long before I reached a jetty near Keshcarrigan where I had a great chat with a guy cruising up to Enniskillen who was also a keen cyclist.

Between every drumlin there must be a lake! The route I took brought past so many pristine lakes, too many to have names! It really is beautiful biking country. But the hills are relentless, especially with full panniers. I broke at Carrigallen and had a well earned sambo.

If the hills in Leitrim were a challenge Cavan literally topped them! My elevation graph is like a printout of an ECG… and I thought I might need one of those when I got into Cavan! A bustling town, another place I have good memories of games in Breiffni Park. I though I would have no difficulty in getting a room in town but it bursting at the seams and I was lucky to get one in the Kilmore Hotel. It was my earliest finish yet to a days cycling which I was glad of.

Hands off Creature!
Back roads video clip

Coast to Coast Day 4

I finally got to leave Mayo – a huge county. I could spend a fortnight cycling around it to truly take it all in! Heading into the legendary Ox Mountains, a place I’ve been intrigued with since primary school. The name conjured up some kind of magic and I recall reading fables set in the Mountains. So I was looking forward to cycling across the range today.

Love the traffic free local roads and lanes!
End of the road?

The hills were shrouded in cloud cover as I made my way out of Ballina along the winding back roads of Mayo and now Sligo. Soon the roads turned to lanes that brought me right up into the cloud and the mist where giant wind turbines suddenly appeared

Up with the wind turbines. Where did the sun go?

It was a case of putting on and taking off layers for the early part of today’s route. Rain jacket on, sweating, rain jacket off… Eventually I got off the mountain and had a brilliant road descent down by Lough Talt. With rain falling I decided to divert off my planned route and went directly into Tubbercurry along boring straight regional roads. Not my style at all.

One of the places I want to visit was one that I have passed by on a few occasions going to club matches in Sligo. The Caves of Kesh. I was delighted I took this circuitous route to take them in. They are a dramatic site, a row of 13 cave openings perched on the western edge of Kesh Mountain, part of the Bricklieve Mountains. They have long been part of the rich folklore and myth of the area and are associated with Fionn MacCumhaill, leader of the Fianna. and the Tuatha De Danann. They can be accessed by a steep winding path and care is needed along the cliff edge. The effort is worth it as there is a certain mysticism in walking through the caves and the views are amazing from the cave openings. If ever in the area, be sure to make the Caves a stopping point!

Caves of Keash
Caves of Keash
Panting heavily after the climb up to the Caves of Keash!

The plan was to then go up into the Curlew Mountains to ancient Carrowkeel but it was raining and cloudy and the effort it would take wouldn’t justify today! Instead I crossed over the edge of the Curlews and flow down into Boyle, County Roscommon where the local arts festival was in full swing. Accommodation was scare but I eventually got a B&B out the road. Had some great craic in the Crescent Bar owned by Dennis Dodd. What a character! It was so enjoyable listening to the banter between Dennis and his loyal customers. Great entertainment altogether.

81 kms today.

Coast to Coast Day 3

Lag Fliuch le Uinsionn Mac Graith
Carraig na Faoileoga
Teach Dhónaill Uí Chléirigh
Strapa Chaora Pheigí
An Bád Bréige
Na Stacaí
Toinn a'Ghiorráin Bháin
An Charraig Mhór.

The place names, or logainmneacha, of the coastline around Dún Chaocháin roll off his tongue as Gaeilge. There is something enthralling listening to native Irish speakers. Uinsionn Mac Graith played in goal, and was captain, of the first Rathvilly team to win the Carlow SFC in 1983. He is a native of Portacloy in the Mayo Gaeltacht and we had a noon rendezvous on today’s leg of the Coast to Coast.

The names are so descriptive – they had to be as they were landmarks for the fishermen and farmers and the names give an insight into the natural and manmade landscape. They tell a story of the various customs and history of past times and of the people of the area. Uinsionn is an expert on the area. He knows every rock by name, he knows the geological history reaching back to 600 million years ago! The depth of his knowledge is staggering, from Pre-Cambrian times to the early Celts, through the Norman conquests, to famine times and the War of Independence. A love of place. Encapsulated beautifully in his joint publications with his good wife Treasa Ní Ghearraigh – Logainmneacha agus Oidhreacht Dhún Chaocháin, Teampaill Chill Ghallagáin and various walking guides of the area. We spent a lovely four hours walking and chatting along the cliff walks above Portacloy – is this beach the safest in Ireland? It is an unspoilt haven. On our way up to Teachain a’Watch we met a group of workers on their way down from some restoration work on the old watch tower. Listening to them chatting as Gaeilge was like listening to poetry. The melodious lilt of the Irish language transported me to another Ireland.

Portacloy Beach

To meet Uinsionn I first had to cycle the beautiful Pullathomas cycle loop with its lovely coastal views. Uinsionn lives in Glenamoy and he was at the gate keeping a close watch in case I would miss the house. The weather was up and we took a spin out to Portacloy and had a quick recon of the Children of Lir Loop. The poor children of Lir of course spent 300 years as swans on Lake Derravarragh in Westmeath, 300 years on the Mull of Kintyre and the final 300 years on Erris. Magical walking in every sense. Our next walk took us up as far as Teachain a’Watch at the furthest end of Barr na Rinne, one of 83 look out posts constructed around the coast in 1941 to monitor warships during the Second World War. Nearby, a sign Éire 63 is outlined on the ground in quartz stones to indicate neutral Ireland for aircraft flying overhead.

Teachain a’Watch under reconstruction as part of the development of local Loop Walks
A cement basin outside the watchtower was used by the occupants for washing and shaving! Visitors seemed to have found a new use for it with coins being left as some kind of wishing well!

We finished up our tour of the area with refreshments back at the MacGraith home in Glenamoy. I am forever grateful for the hospitality of Uinsíonn and Treasa who were so kind and helpful to me as they proudly showed me around their locality. Community in action.

It was getting on now in the afternoon and I just made it to the Céide Fields as it was closing, so I only managed a very quick run around this world famous neolithic site which features the oldest known field system in the world. Perched on the edge of the wild Atlantic, it is wonderfully located along this remote cost line. Well worth more than a fleeting visit like mine.

Cliffs near Céide Fields

The climbing was over now and thankfully a grand descent to Ballycastle the nearest village to the iconic Downpatrick Head. I didn’t visit it on this occasion as the clock was against me and instead I headed for Killala and Ballina. Over my right shoulder was looming presence of mighty Nephin, the tallest stand alone mountain in Ireland. It really dominates the flat landscape around it. Mayo’s Mount Fuji! There was a notable change of scenery as I got further east; the vast blanket bog had morphed into a more agricultural landscape with plenty of hedges and trees defining this more productive farmland. 90 kms cycled and a few hours spent walking along the Ceathrú Thaidhg Walks best described by Lonely Planet as “The finest sustained coastal walk in western Ireland, with. profusion of precipitous cliffs, crags, caves, chasms and islands along the remote North Mayo coast”. I Couldn’t have said it better myself!

My Say on The Barrow Way..

We leave tracks wherever we walk. For thousands of years man has followed rivers inland, forging new paths, seeking shelter, food, searching for places never visited before.

In whose footsteps do we wander when we thread The Barrow Way?

We have few wild places remaining which is why The Barrow Way is so special in today’s fast paced world.

Columbanus travelled this way on his journey to Cleenish Island in Fermanagh where he began his education before his onward journey to Bangor in County Down. It’s ironic that now the we are trying to create Turas Columbanus or the Columban Way, (which will follow the Barrow Way to Monasterevin), we are again talking about developing the Blueway Cycle Path. We need clarity about what we intend to do with the Barrow Track. It cannot be a long distance walking trail and a cycling path. Surely it’s one or the other?

Countless people working on the barge traffic that serviced industry and agriculture were very familiar with this route once the canal network was created. It was a lot busier in the 19th Century than it is today!

Today it is designated a Special Area of Conservation. Or at least it was.

Tracks and Trails..
The longest continuous off-road walking route in Ireland is again under threat….

Proposals are due to come before the Local Authority to revisit the Barrow Blueway decision. The Blueway, specifically the replacement of the grass surface with a hardcore surface to facilitate cycling, put forward by Waterways Ireland a few short years ago was refused by An Bórd Pleanála following an unprecedented level of local objections to the proposal. I sincerely hope the proposal will not reverse the decision to remove the grassy path.

The grassy towpath, soft underfoot, a pleasure to walk on.

Unfortunately it appears that the views of the hundreds of people opposed to the Blueway is not being reflected in the debate and I want to put my thoughts out there before a vote is taken as I fear we face a fait accompli, without due consideration of the reasons the proposal was rejected.

The plan for a cycling path is linked to very laudable plans for a network of linked Greenways. Most of these Greenways utilise disused railway lines where they once existed- The Western Greenway, The Waterford Greenway, The Old Rail Trail, The Limerick Greenway, while there is also one on the Royal Canal and another on the River Suir. I have made it my business to cycle all of them over the past few years with the Limerick one being completed on a cold 31st December last.

There literally isn’t enough room for a shared path, as this short video shows! Imagine multiple cyclists (WWI forecast 50,000 Germans!) approaching from the front or behind anybody walking on this path..

I make the following observations based on my knowledge of our beautiful county, and my experience of cycling and walking:

  • We have a disused railway line running almost parallel to the River Barrow that should be converted as was done in Waterford, Mayo, Limerick, Westmeath and now in Kerry. Why is Carlow the exception? Why are we not not pursuing this option? 
  • There are challenges in sharing walking and cycling paths and I experienced this on the River Suir, which is narrow for long stretches and in my opinion dangerous as a result. I have observed arguments between pedestrians and cyclists over the shared use and I would hazard a guess that it is now used mostly by walkers and not cyclists. My experience on the Barrow Track, where I am probably the cyclist who most uses the Track, is that it is entirely unsuitable for use as a paved cycling route for a few reasons. The main reason is safety. Hard surfaces encourage high speeds on bikes and road bikes will be used on this path as they are on the Waterford Greenway. It currently facilitates thousands of walkers – are you aware it is a National Long Distance Walking Trail? Are you aware that it is the longest continuous off road section of walking trail in the country? Are you aware that in Ireland we have very limited access to off road walking and this proposal is to remove the grass surface and replace it with a hard surface thus removing the longest continuous off road walking route in Ireland?
  • Not all Greenways are equal. There is a myth that by installing a cycle path we are going to have a tourism boom. Will we? How do the promoters know? It isn’t a given. The Old Trail in Westmeath is not near as popular as the Waterford or Western Greenways. In fact it may reduce the usage of the towpath by others – there are already thousands of walkers who use the Barrow, there are thousands of Carlovians who also swim and fish along the river bank. If it is considered dangerous, people will not use it. I too am all for developing the River as a way to attract visitors and support the local economy but I do not see this being the panacea promoters envisage.
  • Imagine this though. A cycle path from Bagenalstown to Glynn running between the beautiful Blackstairs and the River Barrow taking in the tranquil village of Borris. (The Barrow Blueway will by-pass Borris). If we create that path, we will still have the Barrow towpath and now we have a very very strong tourism product in the south of the county.
  • WWI has shown complete contempt for the riverbank and their maintenance practices are completely counterproductive. 
  • This is not a sustainable development. The River Barrow floods extensively and with climate change this is going to be more frequent and of longer duration. The hard surfaces that currently exist are always damaged after flooding and render the track unsuitable for any activity and impassable.
  • A hard cycle path will impact on current users – the River is extremely important to swimmers in the summer time and it will be completely unsafe to have large groups of cyclists sharing it alongside them. It’s impossible in fact. The Barrow is a very popular coarse fishing river and the river bank is very important to fishermen who will not be able to safely use the river if there is a bike path. 
  • It isn’t necessary to install a hard surface to attract visitors. Look at the experience in other countries – Such as Spain and the Camino route. 350,000 people walk the Camino every year and they do not need hard surfaces. 93% of users are walkers and only 6% are cyclists. The ratio is probably similar on the River Barrow. We should value wild places for walking. We are currently restoring old pilgrimage routes in this country – St Declans Ways in Waterford and Tipperary is an example and the most popular sections are the off road sections. Here in Carlow we are developing the Columbanus Way – which will utilise the Barrow Track. Much of this will be on road and so the off road sections must be protected and not destroyed. Why would we destroy the tow path when people want to walk on grass? 
  • What about ‘access for all’?  This is our only wilderness area – it is quite remote between villages and it could be dangerous. We cannot fundamentally destroy that which we intent to promote! It should not be torn up. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion surely we should have a stairlift to the top of Croagh Patrick or Carraountohill! Certainly close to our villages improvements can be made to enable improved access. Even on the Waterford Greenway, most of the activity is centred on the hubs.
  • This is an area of special conservation full of wonderful biodiversity. We are facing a worldwide biodiversity disaster and we are required to protect the area not damaging it. 
  • The Towpath is adequate as it is for anyone who does want to cycle while preserving the grass path for other uses.
  • I am a very active touring cyclist and I have written a book ’Cycling South Leinster’ which contains 30 beautiful routes along the back roads of the region. The Barrow Towpath as it is currently constituted is just perfect and the most popular route in the book.
What value do we as a society put on the quiet places – to visit, to sit and rest, to reflect, to stimulate the senses, to appreciate nature?
Is there anything evokes thoughts of summer more than spreading your towel across the grassy towpath on a fine day and getting in for a refreshing dip in the deep still waters of the River Barrow, then stretching out to catch a few rays on your towel spread on the soft grassy path? That will be a lovely memory in the future because it won’t be possible if a cycle path is created!
Heaven on the Barrow.

What should our Council do?

In my opinion, we should insist of improving the grass surface and require WWI to introduce appropriate maintenance practices that do not damage the track and ensure the surface is safe for users.

We should instead only consider works to improve boating and water based activities and enhancements to our riverside villages.

Instead of developing a hard surface for the entire stretch of the river bank from the River Lerr on the Kildare border to St Mullins in the south, we should be looking to enhance the riverside villages and towns – St Mullins, Tinnahinch, Graiguenamanagh, Goresbridge, Bagenalstown, Leighlinbridge and Carlow Town. Look at the great work that the Council did in Carlow town alongside the River. That should be the standard in all the other towns and villages. There should be promotion of the villages as hubs connected to the great walking route that we currently have. Economic gain can be provided by proper investment in the towns and villages and the promotion of the towpath as it was intended – a national way marked walking trail. There are far more walkers than cyclists in this country!

Ellie and Carl, of Tough Soles, are a beautiful young couple who have walked all the long distance walking trails and they have a wonderful blog detailing every walk they have completed. They have walked over 4,000kms of trails crisscrossing the country!

Here is what they had to say about the Barrow Way:

In our list of National Trails, there are 3 major waterways we walk; the Royal Canal Way, the Grand Canal Way, and the Barrow Way. Having done the first two and found them to be nice, but definitely not what we would call hiking trails, our hopes for the Barrow Way weren’t high. However – I am more than delighted to say that there was nothing for us to worry about. At a little over 120km in length, the Barrow Way featured almost entirely grass banks and perfectly spaced towns. It’s amazing how having purely grass banks to walk along it felt like we were actually walking along a river bank. On the first two canals it felt like we were walking on roads with water beside them, which meant we spent more time focused on how uncomfortable the road walking was than on the canal itself. When walking the Barrow Way on grass, the landscape was vibrant and alive. We saw and heard so much wildlife, enjoyed the powerful, thunderous weirs and the silent sun dappled bends. 

Ellie and Carl
Enjoy this video of The Barrow Way before it changes forevermore…
Did you know the Barrow is prone to flooding – even in the summer months? Hard surfaces are washed away every time we have a flood...

Yesterday’s Irish Independent carried this prediction of destruction, warning about the Biodiversity Loss we are heading for if we do not change course. It could not be more stark. I hope that our decision makers weigh up all these factors when they meet to decide the fate of the Barrow Way. I wish them all the wisdom to choose wisely.

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