Rothar Routes

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

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Malin Head to Mizen Head Day 4

Ballymahon to Terryglass 107kms

Clonmacnoise , County Offaly

It is by riding. a bike that you learn the contours of a country best, since you sweat up the hills and coast down them

Ernest Hemmingway

We hadn’t made any arrangements about breakfast the night before and when we woke we discovered we were locked in to the pub! With miles to go before we slept again we had to let ourselves out and arrange to pay later – which we did! Bikes were packed and we were on our way by 8.20am. We were neither north nor south now. If there is such thing as the centre of this island it has to be around Ballymahon, Moate and Clonmacnoise and being the midlands we looked forward to speeding along the flat open roads of Longford, Westmeath and Offaly. But Ernest was right, what appears flat while driving in a car is often an illusion and it wasn’t long until we were cresting waves of tarmacadam, small bump in the road followed by more bumps. Old mariners tales claim waves come in groups of seven with the seventh being the biggest of the bunch and the pattern was similar this morning as we sailed merrily onwards between the stone walls of the back roads, there was always one little hill that caused us to frantically slip through the gears trying to find a gear we could turn the pedals in.

It wasn’t long until we were cycling into Moate past the beautiful Dún na Sí Amenity Park, which recently featured on RTE’s Tracks and Trails. Moate brought back great memories from my distant youth, of one of my first epic cycles with my great friend Tommy Wogan. We had got a lift to Moate with Tommy’s brother Michael and cycled west to Cong in Mayo, then down through Galway and Clare to Ventry in Kerry. We did it in three days – we were fit in those days!

The 42kms Old Rail Trail links Athlone and Mullingar

The Old Rail Trail facilitated our exit from Moate and we had an easy four kilometres before reaching our turn off. It is straight as an arrow. Personally I find the Greenways to be boring and prefer the local roads for character and colour. We were happy to get off the Trail and head to one of the places I most wanted to visit on this trip, Clonmacnoise.

St Ciarán founded his monastery on the banks of the River Shannon in the 6thCentury.  The monastery flourished and became a great seat of learning, a University of its time with students from all over Europe.

The ruins include a Cathedral, two round Towers, three high crosses, nine Churches and over 700 Early Christian grave slabs – the largest single collection anywhere in Europe. It’s a stunning location for a monastery, perched just above the meandering River Shannon, would have dominated the area and was strategically located alongside the great Slí Mhór that traversed Ireland from East to West, running along the Esker Riada.

An inspiring place, it fills me with wonder how well educated these monks were, proficient in many languages. It’s incredible to think of the impact these Peregrini had on European civilisation as they departed these shores with their books and learning. You could say they were first Consultants to royal courts of Europe as their advice was greatly valued!

We were now following the River Shannon south as far as Lough Derg. Roads were good and we made rapid progress to the next village of Shannonbridge. As the name suggests the Bridge is the focal point and its a beauty. Constructed in 1757 the massive bridge is an impressive sight. Between boating on the Shannon and its proximity to Clonmacnoise, Shannonbridge has a good footfall of tourists during the summer season. The ESB and Bord na Móna though have been the mainstay of the local economy for over 50 years. That’s all changed with the recent closure of the peat powered ESB Station that towers over the landscape for miles around. Locals are taking it in hand to reinvent Shannonbridge; it has great tourism potential and we wish them every success.

Grey clouds were gathering at this stage, a change of weather was imminent – well says I to Mary ‘that beats Banagher’. Our lovely sun was disappearing on us and we were a little concerned we might not make our destination of Terryglass today. At least we would make Banagher, another busy boating centre on the Shannon. Wasn’t long until we were flying through Banagher and heading into north Tipp.

We made great progress but had to take the busy Birr – Portumna road for 7kms, which we dreaded; it’s twisty, has no margin and is not a good cycling road. Add to that the rain was coming down, heavy. On the plus side we were edging closer and closer to Terryglass and I would finally get to drop in on the tiny village of Lorrha. I don’t know why but I was aways curious about Lorrha. I think it had to do with John McIntyre, the Tipp hurler and former Galway hurling manager! Lorrha is a parish steeped in history that flourished in the peaceful days of the saints and scholars from the 6th to the 9th century, was raided and pillaged by marauding Vikings, recovered to become a major monastic settlement only to be overrun by the bete noir of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell. It’s great to see the storyboards popping up in our villages that give some information about the area and its history. They are really helpful in promoting these small villages and giving an insight to the locality. We saw our first signs for the Beara – Breifne Trail here but more about that later in the journey.

Sheltering from the rain in Lorrha

We were in touching distance of Terryglass, just another 7kms away and we were relieved to finally make it into Terryglass around 7pm. With the rain bucketing down we were praying to find a B&B for two wet cyclists; our luck was in, the first door we knocked proved successful and we had a lovely host in Patricia in Woodview B&B. Just 100 metres from the local bar and restaurant. Just perfect.

Malin Head to Mizen Head Day 3

Enniskillen to Ballymahon 114 kms

Cuilcagh Mountain on a sunny Sunday morning

People often comment that going for a long cycle is some feat of human endurance. Nothing is further from the truth! There’s no denying that cycling 100kms day after day brings a little pain, especially when the weather takes a turn for the worst, or the road continues to rise in front of you and you feel exhausted. Ironically these obstacles are easier manage if considered a part of the deal! Understand that and the sense of achievement is heightened greatly. And we were greatly looking forward to today’s cycle as it involved some cycling in hilly isolated parts of Cavan and down through Leitrim, parts of the country that we wouldn’t get to visit very often.

It was a cracking morning, blue sky, and even at 9am, it was warm for cycling. The route from Enniskillen took us towards Swanlinbar; if we had more time we would have turned off and taken in the Marble Arch Caves in the Cuilcagh Mountains but that’s for another day..

Another great benefit of cycle touring is the freedom of the open road. You can truly experience the places you visit and get to meet people and have a quick chat and gain the benefit from local knowledge. There’s no queueing, no traffic and no delays! As we turned onto Church road and headed for the hills, we had a great chat with a local family and the offer to fill our water bottles. It’s the little things..

Heading into hill country out of Swanlinbar on a tiny traffic free road.

We’d lots of climbing across heavily forested lands in Cavan and Leitrim. It’s easy see why many people in lovely Leitrim are so put out by the concentration of forestry in this sparsely populated county. 19% of Leitrim is covered in Sitka Spruce plantations. Isolated houses are completely surrounded by massive stands of gigantic trees that prevent day light falling in their gardens. There’s an eery silence in sitka plantations; the air is still, frost doesn’t lift easily in winter and there can be a great sense of isolation. The flip side of the coin is that for many small farmers, it’s the only way to make their enterprise viable. Perhaps a greater diversity of planting might satisfy both sides of the argument.

Leitrim actor, writer and playwright Seamus O Rourke captures the essence of Lovely Leitrim and the border counties in his priceless series of video clips. Here he muses on lockdown in Leitrim and forestry gets a mention too!

Whatever about the impact of Leitrim there’s nothing nicer than cycling in the shade of those big trees as we pushed on uphill on our lonely road for the next eight kilometres and then the thrilling descent into Ballinamore.

In this decade of centenaries there are many plaques in the most unlikely of places across the country. Ballinamore pays tribute to Leitrim natives, Seán MacDiarmada and Thomas Clarke, two of the leaders of the 1916 Rising and both signatories of the Proclamation of The Irish Republic. Thats one of the nice things about the bike, you get to see these small details and gain an appreciation of place, people and our history.

With 60kms to go, a quick ice cream was in order and we headed on to Cloone and Mohill and passed through the grounds of Lough Rynn Castle. Definitely the nicest place we didn’t stay!

Two crossings of the Shannon, one at Rooskey brought us into Roscommon and a lovely road all the way to Termonbarry, where we again crossed back over Ireland’s largest river before wheeling towards the start of the Royal Canal at Cloondara.

Cloondara is a lovely place to stay over with its pretty harbour and picnic tables and is the start of the Royal Canal Greenway and the continuation of the National Famine Way. The National Famine Way is a Trail detailing the ill-fated journey of 1,490 famine emigrants who walked from Strokestown Park to ships in Dublin in 1847, at the height of the Irish Famine. It’s an horrific episode in our history and the Famine Museum in nearby Strokestown is a must see to understand the impact the Famine had on Ireland in the 19th Century.

Very evocative markers on the National Famine Way depict a childrens pair of shoes representing children who died on the march..

The Royal Canal Greenway is the most recent of the dedicated Greenways in the country and links Cloondara with Dublin. It’s easy cycling and we quickly covered the kilometres to our day’s destination in Ballymahon and our welcome bed for the night in Skellys on the Main Street. Another satisfying day and 278 kms nearer to Mizen Head!

Malin Head to Mizen Head Day 2

Iskaheen to Enniskillen 110 kms

Tús maith leath na hoibre. An early start makes all the difference. Getting the gear sorted and the bikes properly loaded made for much more efficient cycling today on this longer stage. Yesterday I found the weight distribution was all wrong with too much weight in the front panniers. Lesson learned.

One thing that struck a chord yesterday was the issue of Mica in Donegal houses. It was truly shocking to see the number of homes affected by this mineral in building blocks causing walls to crack and crumble. In some cases homes have been abandoned. It is a major problem and some realistic form of redress is needed for those affected.

We looked forward to visiting Derry and we weren’t disappointed. It’s so improved from when I visited in 1986 while on a family holiday in Bunbeg, County Donegal. Phil Coulter captures the essence of Derry so well in his favourite composition ‘The Town That I Loved So Well’:

We’d need to spend a few days in Derry to do it justice; one of the oldest and most historic cities on the island, its beginnings reach back to the 6th century when one of Ireland’s greatest saints, Colmcille, founded a monastery at Doire. Worth noting the Carlow connection here – he was educated by St Finnian of Clonard – who was born in Myshall and became teacher to the stars of Irish monasticism!

The walled city of Derry has many attractions; it is the only fully intact walled town in Ireland and guided tours of the murals of the troubles is among the attractions. The beautiful Peace Bridge, a walking and cycling bridge, opened in 2011 links the Unionist Waterside with the Nationalist Cityside on the opposite sides of the River Foyle and is a must to traverse.

Our time in the City was too brief and we had to keep moving south. That proved very easy with a terrific underused bike path along the west bank of the River Foyle and we quickly sped onwards.

Great way out of the City!

I was very impressed with the beautiful flower displays in the villages back over the border in Donegal of Carrigans and Saint Johnston as we roughly followed the Sustrans Cycle Route 92 (which links Derry, Omagh and Lifford). These are great routes to plan a journey around as they avail of the quiet country roads. It wasn’t long until we reached Lifford, on the Donegal side of the border and Strabane on the Tyrone side.

Replica Ogham Stone in the Diamond, Lifford.

To mark the new millennium a cross border initiative saw the commissioning of a unique art installation on the border between Lifford and Strabane entitled ‘Let the Dance Begin’. It consists of 5 semi-abstract figures each approximately 18 foot in height representing dancers and musicians, great unifying and popular art forms throughout the locality. The site was hugely symbolic as it was here the old border checkpoint was located. When we visited the five musicians were adorned with massive hooped jerseys of the Noah’s Army Foundation, set up in memory of 14 year old school boy Noah Donohoe who sadly lost his life in Belfast.

We left Strabane and head out via Sion Mills into the hill country surrounding Castlederg. A lot of huffing and puffing in the scorching heat up those climbs but the route turned out to be fantastic – virtually traffic free and great surfaces. I prefer to rely on paper maps than using Google on the phone – Google is a disaster for cycling on country roads and has a mind of its own!

Anyone want to buy a map?

But there was a gap in my map coverage and we were winging it along the ‘sunlit uplands’ of Tyrone and Fermanagh! The views were incredible and at one stage we could clearly see as far as Ben Bulben in Sligo.

Incidentally all the supermarkets we were in were fully stocked and none seemed affected by the dreaded ‘NI Protocol’!

Our target for the day was Enniskillen and we were glad to finally reach our destination after a long day in the sweltering heat. Stayed in a lovely B&B, Drumcoo House, on the outskirts of Town. Day 2 done and dusted.

Sun setting in Enniskillen

Malin Head to Mizen Head: Day 1

Malin to Iskaheen 53kms

Malin Head 23rd July 2021. Mary, Hannah, myself and Ronan. Thanks to Ronan and Hannah for dropping us off!

Ireland’s most northerly point is Malin Head on the Inishowen Peninsula of Donegal. Ironically the most northerly point is in the south and not in the north, kinda proves this is one island with a silly boundary. Inishowen is virtually the same size as County Carlow but only a small part of County Donegal! On its own it’s a fantastic place to visit with stunning coastal views, beaches to compare with anywhere else on the planet, headlands, walking and cycling routes. And it’s steeped in history, with lots of heritage sites to visit too.

Our plan was to cycle the 700kms from Malin Head to Mizen Head using the network of quiet local roads (‘L’ roads) and bóithríns as much as possible and try avoid busy Regional and National Roads. The road less travelled and a journey to the remoter, quieter parts of this beautiful island. That meant packing 15 ordnance survey maps and still getting lost occasionally! Sticking to the local roads would help us avoid the car mad drivers that seem to exist north of a County Louth – County Sligo axis, where many seem to speed between car washes as they attempt to show off their gleaming set of wheels! There’s a definite difference in driving habits above that Louth Sligo axis! The safety campaign promoting 1.5 metres distance when overtaking cyclists is making an impact down south but we found many drivers up north ignoring this vital ‘shared road safe practice’.

It’s a five hour car journey from Carlow to Malin Head and of course we ran a bit behind schedule, meaning a very late start on our first day. It was close to 5pm on a sweltering hot summers evening when we pointed our front wheels south of the start line and rolled down the hill in the direction of pretty Malin village and our first ice cream stop!

Ice cream time Malin Village

Our senses were being overwhelmed by the idyllic views unfolding around every turn in the road and led us into a false sense of achievement – this was going to be a picnic in the park or so we thought for a while!

Sea horses at Malin…
You can lead a horse to water…

Why go on a 700km cycle? For me it is about stepping out of the banal, the brutal boring reality of 365 day living on a journey that is full of inspiration in the scenery surrounding us, in the magic of nature, in the delving into our past and not least in the sense of accomplishment when completed. You can’t do that so well in a car but on a bike every point of interest is a stopping off occasion. It might be a spectacular view, it might be a heritage site and Inishowen has plenty to whet the appetite.

There are so many unheralded heritage sites dotted on our landscape and there is a real danger of them disappearing through neglect. I love to visit as many of the less known ones when I am out and about on the rothar. These crosses are at Carrowmore, not far from Culdaff. I had planned to visit the Cloncha High Cross but we took the wrong road out of Malin and missed that one so it was nice to take a small diversion to Carrowmore instead. Our Christian past speaking to us today…

We headed south on our local road to Gleneely, and in keeping with our desire to stay off regional roads we had of course the delight of a serious climb (gradient 14%) up to a fantastic viewing point at Cnoc and Uininn. On November 30th 1941, a RAF Spitfire was just 3 minutes flying time away from his base at Eglinton Airport when 23 year old Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe (he was from a unit made of completely American personnel) had to bail out of his aircraft before it crashed into the bog half a mile away. Seventy years later that Spitfire was located by a team led by avation historian, Jonny McNamee. Marking the location today is a memorial plaque with a panoramic view.

At least we had now crested the climb and it was downhill all the way to Redcastle; tough work but we prefer that to facing busy roads. The road from Redcastle along the shore of Lough Foyle was busier but tolerable and we had the benefit of a good level surface until the turnoff for our first accommodation in the download of Iskaheen.

Along the shore of Lough Foyle

In this time of pandemic most of our hospitality sector is struggling and a bike tour is one way to support local businesses. Its hard to book ahead when cycling – you never know what way a day will unfold but we did get the first three nights booked and we brought a tent just in case we got stuck. Many b&bs away from tourist areas have not reopened as it would cost too much. Luckily we booked a small little apartment in Iskaheen from Catrina Kyle. What perfect hosts, they went out of their way to be helpful which rounded off the perfect start to our cycle to Mizen.

A River Runs Through It

Just so good to be able to get back down south along the Barrow Track and surrounding area. With the stretch in the evenings it’s important to take advantage of any opportunity after being locked up for so long.

Not wanting to reopen the whole Blueway Debate but look at how pretty the natural path is on the Barrow.. hope to see the old railway line developed as a greenway and an imaginative use of current infrastructure to bridge the gap to Carlow.

Massrock at Clashganny Woods in the golden evening sunlight..
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