If life seems richer, greener, and more melodic in Ireland, that’s because there is simply more clear air, clean water, verdant countryside, and heart-lifting music in everyday life. Join me as I explore Ireland by bike.
For ten entrancing days, I cycled the quiet back roads of the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. By day, I wheeled down corkscrew lanes aflame with red fuchsia and yellow gorse, through frog-green hills crisscrossed with ancient stone walls, dotted with medieval ruins, and grazed by baaing sheep.
By night, I basked in the musical revelry of a local pub or the warmth of farmhouse hospitality. And I traveled solo.
I quickly discovered that, for a relatively small island (the size of Maine), Ireland offers an extraordinary variety of scenery and a network of intertwining trails and bike-perfect country lanes. Indeed, Ireland is a hiker’s and cyclist’s paradise.
Spinning through pastures of myriad shades of green, past high hedges, and rushing rivers, I felt the earth roll under my pedals, smelled the peat bricks burning, and tasted the salty air of the coast, where the ocean foamed onto rocky shores. Along the Dingle Peninsula I stopped often to rest on a towering cliff above the treacherous coastline and watch 3,000 miles of Atlantic surge towards the beach.
This was my first trip to Ireland and I traveled alone. Although I would have enjoyed biking with a buddy or significant other, no one had the same vacation time, so I took off solo—to a country reputed to be safe and hospitable. The glossy photos in the tour brochures I consulted showed smiling guests at sumptuous feasts, experienced guides, a support vehicle for cyclists, and luxurious accommodations in castles and manor houses. But an organized bike trip didn’t fit my slim budget, so I spent my nights in cozy cottages, farmhouses, and small B & Bs, where the matron of the house would tuck a hot water bottle in the toe of my bed while I went out for dinner.
And while bicycle tour companies provide their guests with twenty-one-speed hybrid touring models, my rented vehicle was a one-speed, heavy black bike with a wire basket in front, resembling the bicycle Dorothy’s wicked neighbor rode in The Wizard of Oz. I squeezed my backpack into the basket and headed for the open road.
For me, the allure of exploring rural Ireland by bicycle was the slow pace and the up-close contact with the land and the people. I could pedal along the most scenic routes, stop often, breathe the fragrant air, gaze out upon the verdant landscape, and remember every heart-pounding hill that passed under my wheels. My feelings of exhilaration came in a smug, distinctly self-satisfied way, in the burn I felt just before I hauled myself by pedal power to the top of yet another hill. Or after a long day in the saddle, knowing my muscles were harder. Or in the slight tingle in my calf muscles that reminded me I just had the most inspiring day’s ride ever.
Starting in popular Killarney, I rode around the Ring of Kerry, along the perimeter of the Iveragh Peninsula, and then along the Dingle Peninsula, following many off-the-beaten-path roads to avoid the tourist traffic.
Killarney is a busy tourist center, packed with tour buses, shops, discos, and cabarets. Yet the stunning beauty of the surrounding area—a combination of heather-clad mountains, deep-blue lakes and lush vegetation—remains unspoiled. Killarney National Park, famous for its lake and mountain scenery, occupies a large part of the valley.
Light rain is typical in southwest Ireland, but it seldom lasts long. The clouds billow over the lakes or hills, showers follow, and within minutes, brilliant sunshine and rainbows emerge. During the month of April, when I biked in Ireland, there can be more rain and cooler weather than May to September. The temperature ranged from 50°-60° Fahrenheit.
In good weather, the trip to the Gap of Donloe is an idyllic bike and hike excursion from Killarney. The gap is a four-mile trail that winds along the ridge above steep gorges and five deep glacial lakes.
Leaving the Ring of Kerry, I pedaled toward the Dingle Peninsula where the movies Ryan’s Daughter (with Sara Miles and Christopher Jones) and Far and Away (with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise) were filmed.
The Dingle Peninsula is a meeting place of sorts, where wave-carved cliffs and rolling hills fend off a moody, restless Atlantic, and the memories of sea battles merge with the scent of wildflowers. The natural stage of the Dingle itself, often veiled in mist, enlivened by the pounding surf, is a draw for travelers in search of solitude, renewal, and natural beauty.
Many evenings, after a hard day’s ride, I visited the local pub to share lively conversation and music over a pint of nut-brown Guinness. I would take a seat, call for a drink, and listen as the tune was handed on from fiddle to flute, from strings to pipe. Toe tapping began and I could feel the rhythm deepen as it went around, strengthening and gaining in confidence. I often found myself happily lost in the intricate melodies.
A green-eyed, bearded young fiddler assured me, “There isn’t a corner of the country where music isn’t central to the gathering. You see,” he continued, “it doesn’t have to be organized, and the group of musicians may change as the evening wears away.” When it was late and the fingers were flying, my heart would soar.
One memorable day, after six hours of pedaling over the hills through the soft Irish mist, I heard a hiss from my front tire and knew I had a problem. It had been hours since I’d seen the sun, my leg muscles screamed, and my back end burned. My only companions, black and white cows plodding across the road, were indifferent.
Enviously, I thought about the pampered guests on the organized tours. Had I booked my trip with a bicycle company, a support vehicle and guide would have come to my rescue to repair my tire, while I joked and commiserated with my fellow cycling companions. But alone, with a leaking tire, a wet body, and a soggy spirit, I wondered if Ireland’s terrain defied the laws of physics and the entire country was uphill. It was time to break for hot coffee and a warm scone–or perhaps, a reviving Guinness.
In the distance, at the crest of the next hill, I could see white cottages with gray slate roofs. Through the thin clouds one chimney rose above the others, pouring out a fragrant plume of peat smoke from a turf fire. “Ah,” I thought, “that must be the village pub.” After an hour of low-tire pumping, I was there.
I tramped into the pub’s inviting warmth, drenched and disheveled, feeling conspicuous, but the man behind the worn wooden bar put me at ease. As he served my Guinness, he grinned and asked, “Can you sing?”
Now where else in the world would a bartender ask this question of a young lady who stood dripping water on the floor?
“Yes, I think I can sing,” I answered. Lord Guinness worked his magic and loosened my tongue, and out flowed, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” which my half-Irish mother used to sing to me when she tucked me into bed. An elderly man in tattered tweed coat and wool cap stepped up to the bar, squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and then belted out, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Other customers left their darts and conversations to gather around us. “Sing another one, Yankee,” they urged and then joined in. They knew two or three verses to each song. It’s hard to stop a song session from taking shape when everyone loves to sing and it’s warm inside and spitting Irish dew outside.
An hour and a dozen tunes later, when I was ready to leave, the impromptu choir members insisted on paying for my brews and then escorted me to the door. As I stepped outside—miracle of miracles—the sun was shining again.
The men stood in the door and watched me start to wrestle with my little bicycle pump, ineptly trying to fix my flat tire. With loud and teasing guffaws, they poured out of the pub and organized a work party; the baritone fetched a repair kit from his barn. As they worked, we sang another song and I passed around the last of my Cadbury chocolate bars. It didn’t take them long to patch the leak, and as I pedaled off, I turned and waved. They waved back, smiles a mile wide.
Biking through a land of more rainbows than I’d ever seen in my life, over hills and through mist, pushed me physically, but my real discovery was the people. I learned that the sun in the Irish soul is expressed through song, and the smile in Irish eyes is contagious.