While we had enjoyed a glorious week hiking in Scotland, Lee and I were excited to use a different set of muscles for a while, and flew across the Irish Sea to Shannon where we picked up our rental bikes for a week of cycling in Ireland. When we were planning our year, I had been eager to explore the Irish countryside on bikes, but was (appropriately!) nervous about biking on the small and windy roads. Luckily, on the advice of friends I met in the Grand Canyon (thank you Mary Louise & Bill!), we connected with a terrific Ireland-based company, Iron Donkey, who helped us plan a route on a series of less-traveled roads, and largely along the famed Wild Atlantic Way, traveling through small towns in the beautiful Counties Galway and Mayo in western Ireland.
We found Ireland to be beautiful, friendly, historically fascinating, and consistently charming. Again blessed with amazingly good weather (we’re starting to think all those warnings about rain in Scotland & Ireland are over-stated!), we were struck from the outset by the region’s incredible light and rapidly changing cloudscapes dancing in and out of the sunlight – a sight we saw repeated numerous times over the week.
We started from the town of Oughterard, and after getting out our maps and heading onto the smaller local roads, we enjoyed some beautiful riding through landscapes that varied from the inland rolling hills, endless numbers of streams and bogs…
…to seaweed-strewn coastal inlets and fishing villages…
… to sweeping coastlines, dramatic cliffs, and stretching white sandy beaches.
As we rode through a series of small towns (Clifden, Leenane, Westport), we were intrigued with many aspects of Irish life and culture, starting with miles and miles of stone walls, built by hard-working Irish farmers over the past many centuries both to clear the stony land, and to mark their fields and enclose their herds.
The sheep, of course, were everywhere. While we actively dodging them on the roads…
… we noticed that each flock was marked with distinctive patterns of colored paint to identify their owner. We had seen sheep painted with markings in other countries such as New Zealand, where we had been told the markings were used to indicate different “housekeeping” issues like which sheep had been immunized, dipped in pesticide, etc; but here in Ireland, the sheep in each flock were painted with distinctive colors and markings, much like the distinctive markings of the lobster buoys on the Maine coast.
And speaking of Maine… we had a striking number of “small world” events in Ireland, from learning that the first couple we met (Jim & Tiger) in our first B&B in the small town of Oughterard were from the nearby town of Saco…
…to the next day when we met a friendly stranger in a bar in the tiny town of Cashel who immediately asked where we were from, and when learning it was Portland, ME, eagerly asked if we knew Michael Connelly – a friend and neighbor of ours on Munjoy Hill! A few days later, while watching a parade in the town of Clifden, we struck up a conversation with another couple (Paul & Judy) who live part-time in Ireland, and part-time in South Bristol, ME. Clearly there are many Maine-Ireland connections, and we were pleased to run across several of them!
We were interested to see signs of local Irish industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit, including the age-old practice of harvesting peat in the marshy bogs to create peat “bricks” that are used for heating homes – a process still done by hand in the small western towns where we were riding. The work includes the back-breaking task of cutting the peat into small bricks using a spade, stacking them into small “stools”, then larger piles to dry, then bagging them for later pick-up and delivery.
We also saw signs of a thriving aquaculture, particularly in the beautiful Killary Ford, with long lines strung for mussel farming, and pens for salmon and trout farming, as well as workers harvesting seaweed along the shores.
We were fascinated with the number of old stone buildings, most of which, we learned, were originally built as small homes for farmers and families as far back as the 1700-1800’s, and some clearly built to include pens for animals as well.
While some of these old stone structures have been converted into animal sheds and shelters, and some preserved as homes, many more dot the Irish countryside as ruins, reminders again to the long and often hard history of the place.
And we were sobered by the tributes to the Great Famine, the devastating period in the mid-1800’s when millions of Irish people starved and/or immigrated to the US, resulting in a loss of nearly half the population. We read about the tragic fate of hundreds of starving families from Louisburgh, who were turned down for aid and told they needed to walk to Dephi, 12 miles away, to talk with British officials (who ultimately denied them aid as well). This memorial marks their walk to Delphi through the Doo Lough pass, where many died along the way.
We also saw the haunting “Coffin Ship” memorial in Murrisk, a tribute to the thousands of Irish who attempted to escape the famine by emigrating across the Atlantic, but many of whom sadly perished from disease and starvation on board the ships.
We noticed frequent signs for cemeteries, many of which were centuries-old, and, interestingly, frequently perched on the edge of the shore.
We enjoyed exploring the small towns along the way, and took in our share of surprisingly-good Irish pub food, as well as the daily mid-morning snacks (all that riding, and all…!).
Through some luck of timing, we were fortunate to catch the Clifden Arts Festival during our stay in that town, an annual week-long event featuring not only a range of Irish music, but dramatic street acrobatics, a colorful evening parade, and even a “Johnny Cash” concert (to which the whole audience seemed to know all the words – another sign of what seemed to be a remarkable fascination with American music!).
Along the roads, we enjoyed the range of flowers that were still in bloom in late September thanks to the region’s moderate climate, including miles of wild fuschia shrubs, montebretia, late-blooming rhododendrons, roses, and hydrangeas.
From the climbs and the flats, around the curves and through the straightaways, we soaked in the views and the vistas and thoroughly enjoyed our time in this charming country. And most of all, we enjoyed the ride!