Touring Ireland – and its pubs – by bicycle |

Touring Ireland – and its pubs – by bicycle

My husband had been pedaling steadily uphill, into the wind blowing off the Atlantic, an Irish “soft” rain in his face, for over an hour. With every revolution of the wheels, he told himself, he was getting nearer and nearer to that oh-so-distant summit.

The pint of Guinness he drank to wash down the lunch of fish and chips was beginning to revisit his gullet and the cold was beginning to cause cramps in his calves. As he reached each rare level stretch, he stopped, obstensibly to photograph the view overlooking Lahinch and Liscannoor Bay on Ireland’s western shore, but more importantly, to give the muscles a rest.

We had reached Lahinch from Spanish Point and Miltown Malbay in County Clare after a lovely relaxed cycle in the morning mist along the Atlantic Ocean. After lunch in O’Looney’s Pub on the bay, we started out in the mostly sunny afternoon along the beautiful Links at Lahinch Golf Club.

After a quiet ride, we stopped for a short while in the bright sunlight at the ruined church and graveyard above the bay, before heading up the narrow lane to the Cliffs of Moher.

My husband is not a cyclist. Each time we stopped on that long ascent, I was right there: “How are you doing?” And each time, he swallowed hard and lied, “Fine … beautiful view,” as he looked away to the south, hoping I didn’t realize how incapable he felt on this second day of cycling.

The trip to Ireland in and of itself was to be my birthday gift, the bicycle tour was his idea of making it an extra special birthday. That night, should we both make it, we would celebrate in a pub in Doolin, enjoying Irish cuisine … something and potatoes … while listening to traditional Irish music.

After some two hours of torturous uphill cycling, our guide’s van came barreling down the paved cow path toward us, smoke curling from the tail pipe reminding me of the delights of a nice warm fire. As he inquired about our well-being – we were the oldest on the tour – I fumbled for reassuring pleasantries that would keep him from ordering us into the back of the van with those spare bicycles he carried.

John McDermott, our guide, was an energetic and encouraging presence throughout our tour. His “God Bless” as he drove away to search for other cyclists in his brood was as certain as my husband’s resolve to complete each day’s miles atop my two-wheeler.

Another hour and we could see the highway on the ridge above that led to the visitor’s center for the Cliffs of Moher. For those who have yet to travel in Ireland, highway is a word whose meaning is understood only when compared to the road on which we were cycling.

This time the summit was really the summit, and we were treated to a view of the parking lot and visitors center that spelled rest and warmth. Suddenly, the aching muscles, shivering bones, and my husband’s sorry disposition levitated somewhere above the west coast of Ireland and were dissipated by the winds of the Atlantic as we approached the expansive views.

Walking from the parking lot, having wearily and happily left the bicycles there, I could heard the plaintive sound of a soft Irish ballad being played and sung by a winsome lass. I could see the sunlight dramatically overpowering the clouds to illuminate a piece of immense coastline. The winds had increased to over 40 miles per hour, gusting to 60, and I hardly felt it. After five days, I was in Ireland and I suddenly loved it!

Wrapping and tightening our clothing against the gale-force winds, we began the climb along the cliffs to O’Brien’s Tower – one of the focal points of our trip. The tower’s and my name, O’Brien, is descended from that of an original king of Ireland, Brian Ború.

The tower is something of a small castle located at the top of the Cliffs on Hags Head, more than 1,800 feet above the sea. Through the distant sea haze, we can make out Inisheer, the smallest and nearest of the Aran Islands; to the north lies the entrance to Galway Bay and, further north, Connemara.

Our daily distance on the bicycle averaged slightly more than 30 miles each day, broken in the afternoon by a pub lunch and a pint. Planning the trip at home, the idea of traveling a distance of 30 miles during a period of eight hours seemed altogether achievable.

My husband actually trained by riding my bicycle for approximately three miles each day. A the time for the trip neared, he made the very hilly ride twice a day.

With that said, most fit individuals who walk two to three miles a day for three to five days will find themselves able to cover the 150-mile tour that seems to be the standard for a week-long cycling tour (our tour had a day off after the first two days, followed by three days on the bike). Certainly, if you ride a bicycle on a regular basis, the day’s cycling should not be an ordeal.

Doolin, County Clare, Ireland … nothing evocative there. World capitol of traditional Irish music … now you have my attention; as the Lonely Planet guide to Ireland describes, “… it has some of the best music pubs in the west” of Ireland. Our meeting place that evening was to be McDermott’s Pub, with a promise of a lively crowd and livelier music for my birthday.

A traditional pub, such as McDermott’s, usually occupies the bottom floor of a two- or three-story building, often with dormers and exposed beam architecture. The interior has a low ceiling and the walls are paneled and covered with decades of memorabilia. The place is overly warm, crowded, sometimes smoky, noisy, and always happy. (Irish pubs are now smoke-free.) The food is variable – some pubs take great pride in their food while others are content to offer the ever-present grilled ham and cheese (try it with chopped onions for variety).

On the West Coast of Ireland, the seafood was not to be missed. If fish or shellfish was on the menu, it was always fresh … no need to ask. This night it was the wild salmon, grilled and served over rice with – what else? – potatoes (chips) in a dish on the side.

While each pub we visited throughout our month in Ireland (and there were a fair number!) had its own personality, they all shared an open-armed friendliness that I have experienced nowhere else in the world.

That night, John McDermott simply told the waitress that we were celebrating my birthday and, following dinner, a delicious and beautiful plate of trifle magically appeared … no discussion about what would be appropriate, for how many people … just “Whose birthday is it?” As if on cue, the pub erupted into a long and boisterous “Happy Birthday.”

My husband and I planned our trip entirely on our own; it would have been better organized and taken less time had we used a travel agency. We like the opportunity to be spontaneous and make arrangements as we go.


Carole O’Brien Morris lives in Nevada County and enjoys cycling.

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