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.
While approaching the end of my 680 kms cycling pilgrimage along the proposed Turas Columbanus I took time to make a mini pilgrimage to Goward Dolmen in the Parish of Clonduff, County Down.
The reason being my aunt Madge is married to Pete Kearney and they have lived in Mittagong New South Wales for many years. The Kearneys originally hailed from Goward, but there are no Kearneys living in the old parish now.
While cycling out of Hilltown in the rain recently I asked an elderly lady if she knew of Pat Kearney’s Stone and she gave me good directions. But she wasn’t aware of any Kearneys from the area. As I turned onto the laneway I could see that the furze bushes had been cut and the lane was littered with thorn branches. Between the rain and the thorns I decided not to venture the mile or so off route and planned to visit on my next leg of the journey.
On Tuesday I completed Turas Columbanus to Bangor and on my return via Hilltown, I drove to Pat Kearney’s Big Stone.
Pete’s father, also Peter, carried out detailed research some years ago, along with his wife and established where their ancestors were from and he came across a photo of his great grandfather sitting on a ledge beside the big stone.
The first member of the family to visit the Stone was Pete’s son, and our first cousin, Jason, who was sent on a mission by his Grandad to visit the Stone and take photos. Pete and members of his family subsequently visited the area some years back and completed walks from Kilbroney to the Stone thus honouring their ancestors and their home place. Pete just provided me with the following detail about the Kearney family of Goward and Pat Kearney’s Big Stone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.