Atlantic Seaboard (Part 4) Ireland (Aran Islands to Ballycastle)

My rules for this trip did not mean that I had to religiously follow the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW). Any route by bike or ferry that kept to the Atlantic Coast was acceptable. I also wanted to visit the Aran Islands again, after a 25 year absence, to see what has changed.

I could catch the ferry to Inisheer, then later to Inishmore and stay at the campsite. Question was which ferry to catch, the competition being fierce between the MV Happy Hooker and Bill O’Brien’s Doolin Ferry.  The latter won out, giving an opportunity to see one of the smaller Aran Islands.

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I had been cycling with a strong westerly wind that morning and the sea state was rough. This didn’t seem to worry the Doolin Express which coped easily with the swell as we left the harbour, much to the excitement of the passengers aboard.  You certainly needed your sea legs for this journey.

Safely deposited on Caherard Pier, Inisheer, I set about exploring the island before the later ferry to Inishmore.  It didn’t take long, so I settled on the beach to absorb the peace and tranquility of the island.  The upturned Currach’s waited patiently to be put to some use, but needed experienced rowers, who perhaps now had turned their attention to providing horse and trap trips for visitors.

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It was nice to just sit and reflect for a while, but soon I was ushered aboard the Doolin Express for Inishmore.  I was the only passenger, the ferry really making the journey to collect day trippers for return to Doolin.  Inishmore has changed significantly in the 25 years since I last stepped ashore.  Kilronan harbour has been enlarged and more commercial activities predominate, not least huge fleets of hire bicycles.

I did some shopping and made for the campsite, complete with the now mandatory camping pods.  No-one else was camping at this time of year, so vast kitchen block was empty.  I cooked a big meal and pitched for the night.

Early morning I made an attempt to visit Dún Aonghasa, the most extrodinary pre-historic fort, a semi-circular construction abutting a sheer cliff face.  The rain and the wind defeated me as I had to a ferry to catch, but the ride along the island reactivate my memory. Sadly the Lucky Star Bar had closed and was in a state of disrepair. No more roosters in the garden either.

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The Aran Island Ferry, which does not really take bikes unless asked, swiftly took me, along with coach loads of American tourists, to Rossaveel.  I had succeeded in crossing Galway Bay as planned.  As soon as the coaches had departed I was left alone to finish my lunch before setting out into Connemarra.

I had phoned ahead to stay at a B&B at Carna, after circum-navigating Camus and Kilkieran Bays.  The wind was fresh, which made progress difficult, but the warm welcome I received more than compensated.  I was sharing the place with a Dubliner, who was here for a week to study the Irish language.  This was a Gaeltacht region, which spoke Gaelic as the first language, primarily south of the N59.  I received a quick lesson and held on to the phrase “go n-éirigh an bóthar leat” – which means “bon voyage” or more literally “may the road come up to greet you”.  More a phrase used when you are leaving the pub after one too many, but I loved it. My hosts and fellow guests are wonderful, and by coincidence, the second leg of the Liverpool 4-2 Roma match was on TV.  Subconscious planning again 😉

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Up early to cycle to Clifden in a persistent westerly, but I am getting used to that now. The coastal scenery is ancient and dramatic, with scenes that would not have looked out of place 100 – 200 years ago.  I tried to visualise the landscape during the period of famine, made all the easier by the occasional graveyard, marked by hundreds of nameless stones.  Both of my maternal grandparents have Irish names associated with the emigration that occurred during the 1840s.  Had they not moved, I would not exist.

Clifden was busy with commerce. I stopped for lunch and decided against riding the Sky Road, as the cloud base would mean I would see little.  So I progressed towards a hostel on the shores of Killary Harbour, Irelands only fjord.

The hostel was busy with school kid ‘mudders’ thoroughly enjoying themselves in the peaty bogs, getting filthy along the assault course.  I meet another cycle tourer, Maria, from Germany, hopping around meeting friends and a few other hostellers similarly roaming Ireland.  I learn that a fjord is defined by its ecology, a mixture of sea and freshwater ecosystems, compared to a sea loch which retains tidal sea influence and was not formed by glacial action.

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I depart early to ascend Doo Lough pass and Lake District like scenery of Murrisk. The descent is lazy and swift into Westport, passing Croagh Patrick, a mountain with a well worn path taken by the thousands of pilgrims that climb it on Reek Sunday in July.  A cycle path takes me into town for lunch.

I now start along the Western Greenway, which will take me traffic free all the way to Achill Island.  Like the Waterford Greenway, I have a head wind, but the cycling is pleasant along the rail track.  I meet a German couple on e-bikes, making easier progress but conserving energy to reach their destination.  They are seasoned tourers who have now switched (so to speak) to electricity in their later years.  Not a bad idea at all.

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After a bit of a slog I reach a campsite in Doogort where I receive a warm welcome and take time for a long chat with the owner.  He bemoans the smartphone addiction he sees in young children.  Their first question is to ask for a WiFi password and not the direction to the beach.  I find the lee of a wall to camp out of the wind and sleep deeply after a long day.

The a fantastic tail wind assists me the following day, more like sailing than cycling, with the occasional gybe to switch the wind from shoulder to shoulder.  If I stand upright I can actually maintain a reasonable pace without pedalling.  I could spend another week in North West County Mayo but head more directly for Ballina, taking advantage of the wind direction.  The campsite has a few other cycle tourists and it is nice to chat for a while.  There are also motorcycle adventure tourists on near identical BMW GS 1200s. We all have similar tales of adventure and swap stories and details of the trails ahead.

Mine leads into County Sligo and wonderful section of coast past Easky.  The huge waves and breakers are easily visible from the road.  This is surfing country and the roads are full of campers and surfers exploring the beaches and lanes to find their fix.  I head for Halfords in Sligo, who have an HG-X 10-speed chain which solves my creaking transmission problem.  I celebrate with a McDonalds Burger (or two) before finding the campsite a Rosses Point, busy with holiday makers as the bank holiday approaches.

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The cyclists in Ballina recommended staying at Killibegs, which is a few miles west of Donegal. The coastal scenery is enhanced by a wonderful light, which illuminates the dunes and beaches as the clouds pass.  Bundoran, voted worst town in Ireland, I am later told, is best avoided and followed by very middle-class section towards Donegal town.

The centre is plagued by coach loads of tourists and the prices are high, so I rely on the usual high quality petrol station builders meal to fuel up before heading along the Donegal Cycle Route (DCR) towards Killibegs.  The town is a major fishing port with an active Pelagic Fleet, the campsite has superb views south of the route I have cycled over the past few days and is delightful. One of the best so far.

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Slieve League requires another visit, whose cliffs I have wanted to walk for decades, so I make directly for Ardara across a moorland country lane. Following the DCR at times, a wonderful route recently established.  It forms Eurovelo 1 and follows the beautiful Donegal coastline for some 200km.  A mountainous section takes me past Errigal, a cone of scree that is part of the Muckish Mountains.  Old peat track roads and rail lines link up nicely and make for excellent bikepacking country near to Glenveagh National Park. Worth a follow up visit for sure.

Creeslough campsite fits the bill, if anyone was around to collect the fee.  I learn that Rathmullan ferry is not running yet, so I plan a back route to Letterkenny which is far more pleasant than a busy road route afterwards.  But I have no choice. The busy N13 does have a decent shoulder and a nice cafe about 2/3rd of the way to Speenoge.  I rest for a while to demolish a lovely homemade Lasagne and spy a route to Buncrana through a Bird Sanctuary.  The hostel is industrial in size, but empty, usually catering for large groups.  I can park my bike in the dorm and eat and sleep well.

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I check that the Loch Foyle ferry is running before setting out towards Malin Head.  The wind direction is perfect again and I make deceptively rapid progress for a 40kg touring bike into Carndonagh.  Sailing past M2M’ers who have decided to cycle south to Mizen Head in a strong headwind.  Malin Head and the surrounding area is dramatic coastal gem. Huge breakers pound the cliffs and shoreline.  Inishowen Peninsula is certainly a place to dwell, to explore the hidden beaches and communities.  I stop for a superb bowl of seafood chowder, akin to Scottish Cullen Skink, before setting out towards Moville and the Greencastle ferry.

 

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The ferry is infrequent at this time of year, before the full summer timetable kicks in, but the boat sails tomorrow, so I find a B&B near the headland at Shrove, with stunning view towards the Antrim Coast and across Loch Foyle.  I’m up early to weather which is quite different from the previous days quiet still clear skies.  There is a gale blowing and I am not surprised to see the crew walk towards me to tell me the service is cancelled.  The winds are too strong to dock at Magilligan Point.

This is bad news.  I have a long 60km diversion and a schedule to keep to to catch the Kintyre Express to Islay from Ballycastle.  A service I had to book a few days earlier to guarantee a bike place.  The diversion takes me to Londonderry/Derry, south but heading north if your read the WAW signs and straight into the easterly gale.  Slowly but surely I reach the end of the WAW and pick up the National Cycle Route into the city, crossing the Peace Bridge to the railway station.  I have decided to take the sting out of a long day by catching the train to Coleraine.  Otherwise I would miss my ferry, which I was certain to reach had the Loch Foyle ferry sailed.

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I cycle along the North West 200 Motorcycle Road Race route to Portstewart and Portrush making slow progress in the strong winds to eventually stop, exhausted and Portballintrae.  A week later 200hp motorcycles would travel along the same route at 200mph. A local shop cooks up a greasy tasty burger and chips for me, even though there is no-one else around.  I get inside knowledge of a short-cut across the Bush River to the Giants Causeway and a tough coastal route to Ballintoy and Ballycastle.  The Antrim Coast is beautiful, even in this stormy weather, but I am glad to reach the hostel.  My hosts is out getting her car fixed, but she says the Ice Cream shop next door will let me in. Not before I polish off a calorific cheesecake, home made ice cream and several cups of tea.

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I’m now ready to catch the ferry to Islay tomorrow and the gale is forecast to blow out overnight, promising a good crossing of the Northern Channel.  The alternative would be to cycle along the coast to Larne and catch a car ferry to Cairnryan and hop across to the Isle of Arran to the Mull of Kintyre, so I am please to take this short cut.

I’m sad to be leaving Ireland and will not leave it as long to return again to explore the many areas I have missed.  Now into Scotland.

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