My Irish Bike Tour

The author and Aisling French afoot

We were faced with a problem at 3:30 a.m. as we left the after-hours bar in the small town of Killorglin. I and my cycling companion, John Drury, were (as the Irish say) “falling-down drunk.” When it had come to be our turn, we had led the bar patrons in a lively rendition of the Beachboy’s “Barbara Ann,” then segued into a bit of Gregorian chant, and finally ended with “Red River Valley.” Our audacity had been applauded. Drinks had been bought. Now we were faced with a problem: how to get from the bar to our B&B some two miles away and down pitch-black country roads. “Thank God I have a disposable camera with a flash,” John shouted to no one in particular.

With the flash, we expected we could illuminate the road some 50 yards at a time. Kindness prevents my remembering who actually said it, but one of us observed: “No sense in wasting the film.” So, with arms around each other’s shoulders, John held the camera out in front of us. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise but, in that coal-black darkness and given our addled state, the flash blinded us. Somewhere on the asphalt, scrambling on our knees, we howled in private pain. When we could finally see again, we had no idea which way we were facing. Moreover, in just a few hours time we needed to be back on our bikes, completing the last day of our week long bike trip around the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula.

My riding companions were a motley crew. Two Norwegian couples, middle-aged and gregarious. Two German couples of similar description. A Vermont legislator and her sixteen-year-old son and his friend. Two young American couples in their twenties who befriended a similarly aged Belgian couple. Two women from Buffalo who identified themselves as roommates. A chain-smoking Dane in her 60’s. An interesting woman from Boston, now working as a lawyer in Israel. My drinking companion John Drury, an Irish business consultant living in Britain. My longtime friend Aisling French, an Irish citizen now living in Costa Rica. Then there was “me-self,” a (mostly) fourth-generation Irish American visiting the home country for the first time.

On the first day, we had not been on the road for even an hour when the group took its first break. We were pedaling on a trail around Muckross Lake just outside Killarney when everyone came to a halt at Dinis Cottage, a remote place far from electricity but where hot tea and cakes could be purchased. The Dane pulled out her bottle of Schnapps. The Europeans lit their cigarettes, shamelessly, as Europeans are wont to do.

An hour or two later, we cycled out of Killarney in a drenching downpour and on a road with no shoulder and with tour busses patiently queuing up behind us. After several hours of this sodden and uphill slog, we found ourselves in sunshine and the almost alpine beauty of Moll’s Gap. It was time for lunch and I expected the little store there to offer something like what might be found in similar circumstances in the U.S. — say, hot dogs, hot chocolate, and plastic wrapped sandwiches. Instead, the fare included salads, smoked salmon, freshly baked bread and apple cobbler, homemade soups, cheeses, wines, etc.

I was fortunate in my cycling chums, Aisling and John. Irish citizens and products of a patriotic educational system, they knew their national literature by heart. And so, for example, as we cycled past the river in Glencar, they remembered Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” and sung out:

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout

Patriotic songs followed, traditional laments, and lessons in history until we came to the Gap of Ballaghbeama, the most beautiful landscape of the entire trip. There on that western edge of the European continent, on its tree-stripped and rocky slopes, where now only sheep wandered where families once had lived, the “perfidy” of the English was made poignant by the land’s stark, denuded beauty.

On narrow country roads and byways, we hurried along past rivers, Licken Woods, and Lough Caragh on our way to Glenbeigh. That night Paddy, our guide, had arranged something special. In his hometown of Killorglin, not far away, this was the last night of the Puck Fair and we had all gone together to rent a bus to take us there. After dinner, we found ourselves in streets thronged with merrymakers, in a plaza where high above us was a platform with the crowned he-goat (the Puck), where a band sponsored by Guinness belted out rock-and-roll and carnival rides spun in the sky.

In retrospect, our late hours might not have been a good idea. The coming day we were to make our assault on Conor Pass, the highest roadway point in all of Ireland. That morning, after a short bus trip, we decamped in Camp. Knowing what lay ahead, half the group opted to continue on in the van, sans bicycle. Others cycled on to Stradbally for lunch at a pub. But John, Aisling, and I had a plan. Loading our handlebar bags with sandwiches, juices, and candy bars, we figured to get half way up and then take a very long picnic.

John told me that in Gaelic there are certain kinds of roads that are called “crock-a-gee” (as he pronounced it). These are roads that are winding not only in a horizontal manner but in a vertical way as well. The long, steep road to the summit at Conor Pass was such a road. Halfway up, with sore bums, we stopped for a two-hour lunch and spectacular views. Afterwards, reluctantly, we saddled up and in another torturous hour or so made it to the top and congratulated ourselves.

From there, it was a long and wonderful downhill into the seaside town of Dingle. Congratulations still seemed in order, so we traveled on to thick coffee and sweet cakes and a fit of book-buying at An Café Liteártha, the famous Irish bookstore. The congratulations continued on to Droichead Beag (the Little Bridge), a famous pub where that night I would hear the best session of traditional and contemporary Irish music I had ever heard.

Several nationally famous musicians were in town and word had got out. Soon the narrow and smoky pub was packed with people, cheek to jowl. With guitars, fiddles, bodhrán, and uileann pipes, the musicians began and played for hours in a growing crescendo of excitement. It was, everyone there agreed, a “mighty session.”

Breakfast at a B&B

As if anticipating such wild cultural explorations and such late hours spent in the company of General Guinness, the touring firm had thoughtfully designed the fifth day as a day of rest in Dingle. Some did their laundry. Some took their bikes out to nearby beaches. I and my chums took the ferry out to Great Blasket Island and walked around. But by 10:00 that night we were all assembled outside Flaherty’s bar, engaged in contests of wit and banter with local folks, bright-eyed and oblivious to the falling rain.

Free spirts themselves, even the Norwegians had fallen under an Irish spell. On our mid-morning break the next day, I noted that Heineken had replaced coffee. The rest of the day was smooth sailing. Level roads and a quick swim at Inch Beach eventually brought us into Killorglin, Paddy’s hometown.

The Pope should canonize Patrick Maher, our guide. In all my years of cycling, I have never encountered a person in his position who was so unfailingly patient and helpful and downright funny and kind. From 6:00 a.m. until midnight, he hauled luggage from hotel room to hotel room, drove the van, repaired bikes, encouraged the crestfallen, transported the discouraged, returned rental cars, found ATM machines, made phone calls, coordinated roommates, looked for lost cyclists, told us about the best bars, and at midnight helped folks through bedroom windows when they had forgotten to take their door key. One might imagine, consequently, that he was taking a great risk when he arranged to have the tour stop a night in his hometown, when he offered to introduce us to his regular bar and to his neighbors.

Fortunately, John Drury had undergone a transformation. A few days earlier, he had been a Irish business consultant living in England and now on a bike tour. Perhaps in one of the bars in Dingle, he had suddenly discovered a new persona and the mysterious fact that he was actually a young man who had decided not to become a priest and had recently left the seminary. Surrounded by five sympathetic females, he wowed Paddy’s neighbors with his gift of gab or fib.

Nonetheless, because this is a Catholic country, all the bars close at 11:30. But because this is an Irish Catholic country, there is also an escape clause and every town has an “after-hours” bar that the locals know and that is whispered about. In this regard, Paddy’s wife was a godsend. Recognizing that we, too, were good Irish Catholics, she managed an introduction for John and myself. It was there at 3:00 a.m. that we wowed them with the Beachboys and Gregorian chant. And it was from there that we finally managed to crawl home by means of the flash on a disposable camera.

Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula, in the southwest corner of Ireland

I confess to still being wobbly when I mounted my bike a few hours later to begin our last day. Our first stop was Paddy’s house where we were made to feel at home, where coffee was served and we played with his kids, and where we admired the work of his wife, a professional photojournalist. From there it was an uphill slog to the Gap of Dunloe, made all the more difficult by the fact we were leaving the byways behind and returning to the tourist-saturated zones of County Kerry.

Down the other side of the Gap, our attention was caught by a sign that read “Freshly Cut Sandwiches.” So, John and Aisling and I stopped on the lawn and ate and rested. Then someone noticed a handwritten sign: “Shortcut to Killarney. Boat ferry. Will transport bikes.”

This presented us with a dilemma. A) We could continue on the route marked out for us by the tour company, do a great deal of climbing over another summit, and have bragging rights among those who feel fitness is important. Or B) we could take the easy way, have a bit of adventure and do the unexpected, if the true purpose of this cycling trip was not fitness but fun.

“Will you be wanting the ferry boat?” a gentle voice asked an hour later, waking the three of us where we had fallen asleep in a grassy meadow alongside a river. So, we traveled across the lake with this old, old boatman whose unusual features told us he must be related to the Little People. It was a quiet and dreamy passage, though every once in awhile the standing boatman would put his left foot forward, hook his thumb in his sweater vest, and do his recitation about this or that special place within our ken. Even so, everywhere we looked was some place special.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times (May 10, 1998). It records the first of many, many cycling trips in Ireland.

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Jerry Griswold

Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.