Journey From One End of Ireland to the Other
used to be that visitors to Ireland would stay in the south
or northwest of the island and leave Northern Ireland for
more hearty adventurers. Seldom in decades past did travelers
choose to traverse both regions in one visit, apprehensive
of how things might appear to soldiers manning the checkpoints.
concerns are a thing of the past (there are no more checkpoints)
since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and I discovered recently
how easy it is now to journey from one to the other. I joined
three other women to cycle and hike along Northern Ireland's
Antrim coast and County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland and
found the biggest challenge was not the political environment
but the weather, natch.
hiking on day one we discovered that the Mountains of Mourne
do indeed sweep down to the sea (as noted in the popular Irish
ballad). Hiking up the Bloody Bridge trail with guide Marty
McGuigan, we trekked through brush, photographed
streams flowing over silver glassy rocks, and shimmied over
gates during sporadic rain showers. From our perch above, we
snacked on homemade soda bread (compliments of McGuigan's wife)
while admiring the Irish Sea to the east.
you see is what you get," said McGuigan, guide and owner
of Walk on the Wild Side. I wasn't sure if he was referring
to himself or the spectacular beauty of the Irish landscape
but I suspect it was the view. The beauty of the Mournes is
inspiring. Enough so that the area, which includes 12 summits
(the highest reaching above 2,000 feet), is currently being
considered for status as the first national park in Northern
rains that day were foreboding and by the time we'd driven further
north to the town of Balleycastle we could barely make it through
the door of Colliers Hold (our very simple B&B) without
being blown sideways by the winds.
was September and hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne were taking their
final bows along Ireland's northern coastline after ravishing
Florida. Balleycastle is at the northeast tip of the island
and was getting a good whooping from Mother Nature. Given Ireland's
climate and reputation I suppose it's not surprising that the
locals didn't seem all that concerned. Of course they probably
weren't planning to cycle through it the following morning either.
four American women, however, we knew we were in for a challenge
when we joined Irish Cycle Tours and Walks to spend a day pedaling
along the National Cycle Network Route 93, which runs from Ballycastle
west to Portballintrae. The weather was tenuous, at best, with
occasional showers and heavy winds. Unless gaining speed from
a downhill coast, it was nearly impossible to cycle up hills
due to wind resistance.
a relatively calm moment, I cycled off on my own and saw in
my peripheral vision a flock of sheep squeezing under a fence
on a tiny side street. Unable to resist the photo opportunity,
I slowly rode toward them and started shooting a series of photos.
One by one they bent their plump, fluffy bodies under the wire
and darted across the path to a sprawling field. My presence
threw them out of their comfort zone, however, and a group of
rebel sheep shot off toward the main road, stopping traffic
and prompting a couple of Irish farmers to start yelling while
shooing them back. For a moment I thought I'd be reprimanded
for aiding and abetting the prison break but the men just laughed
it off, got in their cars and drove away.
goal was to cycle as far as Portballintrae, near Northern Ireland's
Great Giant's Causeway. Two women made it only a few miles from
the B&B before jumping in a support vehicle and the remaining
two (myself included) made it to the midway meeting point at
(meaning "rock in the road" - the Irish Sea representing
the road during salmon migration) is a tiny island connected
to the mainland by a famous rope bridge, located here for over
350 years (although the rope has obviously been replaced since
then). We were excited to see, photograph and test the famous
bridge but winds were clocked at 60 mph and it was closed due
to safety concerns. Given our attempts to cycle into the wind,
we weren't surprised, and it was at this point that our guide
suggested we give in to nature's wrath and call it a day.
yet relieved, we moved on to a tasty pub lunch and I rode with
our driver to nearby Port Stewart. Along the way, winds blew
sea foam onto the main road from the sea about 50 feet below
giving the appearance of an eerie September snow flurry.
We traveled part of day three by van to meet up with curly-haired,
bespectacled Sean Mullen, owner of Walking and Talking in Ireland.
Mullen leads walking tours in both Northern Ireland and the
Republic and we drove with him through Derry (Londonderry) along
the western border of Northern Ireland and into Donegal, the
most beautiful county in Ireland in my opinion.
grew up in Derry and has a unique perspective on the area and
its history. "Out of the troubles seems to come great creative
energy, y' know," he said (he often ended his comments
with a lilting y'know). He is proof of that. Speaking English,
Gaelic, German and French, Mullen also organizes one-week walking
tours from Antrim to Donegal contrasting Scottish Ireland and
Gaelic Ireland and incorporating history and music, from the
native to the wild.
first Donegal outing with Mullen was to Glenveagh National Park,
an area steeped in history and geology and encompassing some
16,500 hectares of mountains, lakes, glens and woods. We wandered
through the gardens of the 19th century castle (original home
of the infamous landlord John George Adair who cast out hundreds
of tenants during Ireland's disastrous famine) and hiked above
it in yet another misty-cum-rainy afternoon.
weather finally cooperated fully on day four. We ventured with
Mullen to the western edge of Donegal to hike the summit of
Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The craggy
rocks stand stoic against the pounding Atlantic and as offspring
of Irish immigrants, I couldn't help but ponder the ships that
once passed by taking the young and old on to what they hoped
would be a better life in North America.
in Glencolmcille, a remote town with an ancient history, we
wandered through a small church cemetery where I saw the grave
of Madge O'Byrne, one such immigrant who died in the U.S. in
1886. Her tombstone poetically expressed that which I imagine
many of the Irish in America felt.
wished not death in stranger lands
Nor grave 'neath foreign skies
But home she came that kindred hands
Might place her where she lies
loved the land that gave her birth
As but the pure can love
Her prayer: A grave in Irish earth,
My soul to God above.
left us and we spent our last day with Johnny Daly, a tall,
tousle-haired blonde with a quick wit and a big dimple in his
left cheek (seen often as a result of his jovial spirit). Daly,
a seasoned traveler himself, organizes cycling tours with Irish
Cycling Safaris, a Dublin-based company that coordinates full-service
cycling tours throughout Ireland and parts of Europe.
became quickly clear that Irish Cycling Safaris was a larger
and more professional operation than some of the others when
we mounted slick Trek 720 bikes and received a full safety and
route briefing. That route veered away from the coastal areas
we'd seen on previous days and took us into the highlands of
Donegal along quiet back roads peppered with sheep and white
cottages. The weather was ideal as we ventured along winding
pavement, up and down vibrant rolling hillsides, alongside dramatic
waterfalls and stopping at a remote unspoiled beach with expanses
of sand patterned from the rippling tides.
that evening we dined with Johnny and our gregarious driver
Barry Hogan who'd taught us all about Irish craic (pronounced
crack), slang for an entertaining social outing. We listened
to their stories of "the troubles" (clashes between
the Protestants and Catholics in the North in the three previous
decades), the history of their country and tales of fairies
and leprechauns. Then we laughed into the wee hours while sipping
Guinness. The thought briefly crossed my mind to stay. I figured
I could steal and slightly alter yet another Irish lyric to
mother dear, I'm over here
I never will go back
What keeps me here, the price of beer
The fellows and the craic"
McAlpine's Fusilier, "the women
and the craic.")