In the first eleven days of July I cycled with my friend David Ward from Mizen Head in west Cork to Fair Head in north Antrim to raise money for Concern’s work for girls’ education in Afghanistan. The journey confirmed me in my belief that we live in one of the most beautiful, peaceful and friendly countries in the world (I have been privileged to be able to visit over 60 countries in every continent except Australasia). Since I always try to devote at least one blog every summer to something that has nothing to do with politics, I thought I would try to describe my impressions of this 640 kilometre trip through the gorgeous heart of Ireland.
Our route took us from Mizen Head through Bantry, Macroom, Mitchelstown, Templemore, Tullamore, Mullingar, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, Ballymena and Ballycastle to Fair Head. We traversed 12 of Ireland’s 32 counties. The greatest part of the journey was along secondary and minor roads (and occasionally bog roads and cart tracks) since when you click on the ‘cycle’ icon on Google maps you are inevitably led away from main roads. So it was eleven days spent largely crossing the Irish countryside.
And much of it was in the unfashionable countryside of the midlands: from north Cork, through Limerick, Tipperary, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Armagh. This is not any kind of tourist trail, evidenced by the fact that we did not meet a single other cycle tourist in our passage across those counties. Yet even in the flat centre of Ireland, on the Offaly-Westmeath border, a yellow field of mown hay against a background wall of dark green deciduous trees is a thing of beauty.
There is plenty to marvel at in those relatively unfrequented parts of the country. We passed Ballydoyle stable in south Tipperary where Nijinsky, possibly the greatest European flat racehorse of the 20th century, was trained by Vincent O’Brien. We walked around the handsome and almost totally unknown King’s Square in Mitchelstown, a little gem of a tree-lined Georgian mall built by the extravagant (and eventually insane) Earl of Kingston for the local Church of Ireland community in the 1780s, where we met a builder from Kilkenny who was taking time off from his holidays to help convert six of the houses into accommodation for Ukrainians.
We rode up the wonderfully scenic Glen of Aherlow under the Galtee Mountains, looking across to the rich pasturelands of the Blackwater valley and the Golden Vale. There is good tillage here too – wheat, barley, oats and even maize – which makes an environmentally conscious ‘townee’ like me wonder if this shouldn’t be the future of Irish farming on fertile lands like these in an age of potentially catastrophic climate change. Certainly a world expert like Professor John Sweeney believes that Irish farmers must very soon reverse a process which has seen the size of the country’s dairy herd, its biggest agricultural polluter, increase by almost half over the past decade (Ireland’s 135,000 farms produce 37% of national greenhouse gas emissions).1
We visited Belvedere House on the shores of Lough Ennell outside Mullingar. Here the extremely wicked Robert Rochfort, 1st Earl of Belvedere, locked up his beautiful young wife for 31 years, accusing her of adultery with his brother, until she went mad. He hated and envied another brother so much that he built a folly called a ‘Jealous Wall’ between their adjoining stately homes so that he wouldn’t have to contemplate his property. A better example of an aristocratic 18th century waster it would be hard to find. A 20th century relative and occupant of the house was Charles Howard-Bury, who led the first British expedition to try to climb Mount Everest in 1921 (on which the lead climber was the astonishingly glamorous George Mallory, who was to die on the mountain three years later)
We skirted the Slieve Blooms in Offaly and Laois, stopping for lunch at a charming small cafe (Peavoy’s) in the equally charming village of Kinnity. It is marvellous how the new prosperity of rural and small town Ireland has led to the appearance of excellent cafés and coffee shops in the tiniest of places. In Toon’s Bridge near Macroom in Cork we had a vegetarian lunch of the highest quality in the Dairy, whose primary business is making Mediterranean-style cheeses from unpasteurised buffalo, sheep and cows’ milk and selling them in markets and shops across Ireland. In Ardboe in County Tyrone on a Sunday morning we had coffee and cookies at the High Cow Bagel takeaway coffee shop in a formerly derelict shed at a remote crossroads above Lough Neagh. An hour later we had lunch in a flower-bedecked lock-keeper’s cottage cum café on the banks of the River Bann at Toomebridge. 30 years ago – in violent and Sabbatarian Northern Ireland – such lovely places would have been simply unthinkable.
It is not only the village cafés which are a revelation, but the villages themselves. Places like Kinnity, Castlepollard in Westmeath, Redhills in Cavan and Glaslough in Monaghan are as neat and bright and colourful as any village in rural England or France. Modern bungalows and redecorated farmhouses are surrounded by immaculately-tended gardens. I’m sure there are still pockets of rural poverty, but to the passer-by this looks genuinely like a ‘new Ireland.’ It is a very far cry from the picturesque scruffiness, miserable housing and widespread rural poverty I witnessed when first cycling around Ireland as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, this is a sign of a successful country: when ordinary people in humble places traditionally neglected by the metropolis are clearly living in comfort and prosperity.
Another striking finding is the ubiquity of the Gaelic Athletic Association in out-of-the-way places. Every village in Ireland, north and south (outside the traditionally unionist areas of Northern Ireland), seems to have an immaculate GAA pitch, usually with adjoining training pitches, bleachers and often floodlights. It is little wonder that Ireland’s national identity is so strong in rural areas, with such a formidable, island-wide amateur (but superbly and professionally run) sporting organisation at the centre of community life everywhere. The Catholic Church in Ireland may be in sharp decline, but the organisation promoting gaelic football, hurling and other ‘national’ pastimes is stronger than ever.
For of course the great divide on the island is still only too apparent. Cycling through ‘rebel’ west Cork, the memories of the long struggle against British rule are as vivid as ever. At the Pass of Keimaneigh on the road from Bantry to Macroom there is a monument to four ‘Whiteboys’ who died in a clash with the British Army as long ago as 1821. Every few miles along that road there is a memorial to men who died in the 1919-1923 War of Independence and Civil War. In Inchigeelagh in the west Cork Gaeltacht there is a plaque commemorating the local ‘glebe house’ (the residence of the Church of Ireland minister) “burned down by Irregulars to prevent it falling into the hands of the Black and Tans (1922)” – a little rewriting of history there, since the Black and Tans were disbanded in 1922, and the anti-Free State ‘Irregulars’ were actually fighting the new Free State army.
It is a surprising (and recent) change also to see a plaque at Kilbarry National School to a former pupil called Michael O’Leary who won a Victoria Cross in the First World War. Apparently his nationalist father was not impressed. “I am surprised he didn’t do more. I often laid out twenty men myself with a stick coming from Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet,” he was reported as saying.
At the other end of the island, we rode into Ballymena (my birthplace) two days before the ‘Twelfth’. Across the street in Harryville (which made headlines for the wrong reasons back in 1996 when local Catholics were forced to run a hostile loyalist gauntlet on their way to Mass) was a traditional Orange arch bearing the message ‘Hold Fast to the Good; God Save the Queen.’ Holding fast to the British government’s internationally discredited legislation to overturn the NI protocol after agreeing it with the EU doesn’t have the same ring to it!
As we rode towards Ballycastle on the final day, through the beautiful countryside skirting the Antrim Hills, past Cloughmills (stronghold of my mother’s Gaston family) and Loughguile (birthplace of the late Cardinal Cahal Daly, whom I got to know and admire when I was Irish Times religious affairs correspondent in the 1990s), I felt some sadness in the middle of a perfect summer’s day. The regular Orange halls we passed were testimony to the fact that this is is one of the heartlands of Protestant Ulster. What is going to happen to these Ulster Protestants as events outside their ‘wee North’ turn against them? As the Tory grandees squabble over who is going to succeed the clownish and incompetent Boris Johnson; as the United Kingdom’s stock in the world falls again as it cuts itself off from its closest and most important allies and markets in Europe; as its economy further declines for the same reason; as Scotland, so close to Northern Ireland over the centuries, goes its own way; as Sinn Fein, now the largest party in the North, also becomes the largest party in the Republic after the next election?
So this column tries to avoid Northern Irish politics at least once every summer, and, once again, like every other summer, it fails.
PS Grateful thanks to the many readers of this blog who contributed to my all-Ireland cycle for Afghanistan. I raised €10,850 for Concern’s work in that stricken country.
1 ‘Failure to meet climate commitments will be costly’, Irish Times, 6 July