Heritage is important to Irish people. They’re always proud to say which county they’re from whether it’s Wicklow, Cork, Kerry, Galway.
I don’t have any Irish heritage but I like it that my name is spelt the same way as County Clare, without the ‘i’.
Whilst cycling in Clare we came across another way that the Irish celebrate their heritage. The final of the Rose of Tralee competition was broadcast live on RTE1 (the main TV channel) for two consecutive nights, attracting the biggest TV audience of the year.
It’s a competition to crown a young lady who embodies the qualities set out in the famous Victorian poem and becomes an ambassador for Ireland.
She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.
Definitely not a beauty pageant, it’s open to all young women of Irish heritage from home and abroad. They might be a nurse, teacher or lawyer but to the girls lining the streets of Tralee for the annual parade, they’re rock stars!
Defeated by the Dingle and with wet camping gear happily packed away, we left the Southern Peninsulas, parked our car in the medieval town of Ennis and set off with our panniers for a week. It felt good to be back on our bikes.
Andy wanted to see the Shannon, Ireland’s longest and widest river, which meant pedalling an additional 50kms away from the Wild Atlantic Way.
It wasn’t worth it!
The views of the muddy estuary were unremarkable and long stretches of undulating country roads were unrelenting. I’m sure other parts of the 360km long Shannon are far more beautiful.
Re-joining the Wild Atlantic Way at Kilrush, the scenery became more interesting again but strong headwinds were now the challenge.
This part of Clare is notorious for wind as it faces the open Atlantic and there are no trees to break it up. We quickly learnt that the local rule is ‘whichever way you go, the wind will always be ahead of you!’
As we cycled towards Loop Head Lighthouse the gusts increased to over 40mph. When I stopped pedalling, I was quickly forced to a standstill or even sent backwards!
Built in 1845 the lighthouse was the first of many interesting sights along the Clare coastline. In World War II a big ‘EIRE’ sign was laid out in stones on the headland, to warn Allied and German pilots that this was a neutral country.
Thankfully we left the lighthouse with the wind behind us so enjoyed the luxurious feeling of being pushed along. For those of you familiar with sailing, it was like being on a broad reach.
The Bridges of Ross were originally a trio of natural sea arches until two of them fell in to the sea, leaving just one remaining arch today. As we peered over the cliff ledge we saw a very amusing sight – over 20 photographers huddled together, all pointing huge lenses out to sea.
Perched on stools, clothed in waterproofs with flasks at their sides they seemed to be waiting for something special to happen. Whales, dolphins, seals? No, they were a group of birdwatchers trying to capture the ultimate photo of a puffin, guillemot or kittiwake!
Continuing northwards we were suddenly surrounded by a flurry of coaches all heading to the Cliffs of Moher, a major tourist attraction.
The climb up Moher Hill was both steep and again into a headwind. As we fought our way up we were drenched by a sudden downpour which meant we arrived at the Visitor Centre looking like drowned rats.
We were rewarded with some early evening sunshine and free entry (8 Euro’s each), offered to all cyclists for the making the effort to climb up the hill.
By contrast to the crowds at Moher, the major attraction on the Aran Islands was understated but seemed to us to be even more dramatic.
Dun Aonghasa is a spectacular pre-historic stone fort on Inishmore, the largest of the 3 Aran Islands. It stands in a semi-circle on the highest point of the cliffs facing directly out to the Atlantic beyond.
No-one is quite sure why it is there.
There was no guard rail to protect you from the sheer drop 100m down to the waves crashing below. I felt terrified, staying well away from the edge, not looking as Andy leant over the side to take photos!
After listening to lots of accordions, Andy was desperate to find an Irish band with a good fiddle player. In Jack’s Bar that evening his wish came true.
We were listening to a dreary male singer when a young mum and her small daughter suddenly got up from their dinner and pulled out their fiddles. She was fabulous and got the whole bar clapping along to her traditional jigs and reels.
Leaving the island the following morning we had an amusing incident as we patiently joined the queue for our ferry. This is the boat we thought we were getting.
But our ticket was the wrong colour. Green, not pink. That meant we had to get this ferry instead!
Despite being called the ‘Happy Hooker’ (a hooker is a traditional West Ireland fishing boat), the passage back wasn’t a happy one as she rolled heavily from side to side in the huge swell.
There are highs and lows with every cycling trip.
From a female perspective cycling in Ireland is lots of fun. Distances are manageable, there are lots of comfortable places to stay and the food is great.
The fish and seafood are particularly good, served in generous portions. Seafood Chowder is on every menu, taken so seriously that an All-Ireland Seafood Chowder competition is held every year.
The delicious cakes at every coffee stop haven’t helped reduce our waistlines but then cakes are one of the great pleasures of cycling touring. And pedalling into a headwind doubles the amount of energy you use, so why hold back?
The biggest challenge in Ireland is the weather although we have probably had just as much sunshine as rain and wind.
It changes so often, we now call it ‘on-again-off-again-weather’.
No sooner do I stop to take a top off, I needed to put it on again. My rain jacket is continually kept at the ready and my glasses are always being swapped for sunglasses … and back again.
So if you do come to Ireland, my advice is to leave your hairdryer at home and bring an umbrella … and some sunscreen!
By bike: 237km, 2316m climbed
By car: 95km
Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 877km, 11194m climbed
By car: 382km