Connemara

Connemara

This is not our first trip to Ireland. We’ve been drawn back again, with our daughter, this time to explore more of the Emerald Isle together. We do have family roots here as well.
We flew into Shannon Airport and from there we loaded our bikes onto a bus to historic Galway, where we begin our tour.
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People flock from all over the world to attend Ireland’s biggest art festival; two weeks of cultural activities and celebration, featuring Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Arts and anything else related to art.
Nowhere is this more evident than the Macnas Festival Parade, in which a story is told through dance and music that is shared by parade-goers.
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We are concentrating mainly on the Connemara region of Ireland and the Aran Island of Innishmoor. This region is known as the “Wild West” and the rock walls, bogs and barren stretches prevail, as does the lovely beauty of the many lakes, low mountains, and sea views. The cycle route covers lots of territory on minor roads, with some unpleasant stretches on some busy roads with no cycle lanes. You will be in the company of some other cyclists. The route is varied and mainly rolling, with no major climbs. It can be windy at times.

Stage One:  Galway to Aran Island of Inishmoor   39,1 km

We headed out of town over the Wolf Tone bridge and then beside Galway Bay through Salthill. This road can be busy with traffic; but there are some great sea views. At the Tullymore crossing, we turn off to follow signs to the ferry at Rossaveal and the crew helped us secure our bikes on board for the crossing. It takes around 40 minutes, depending on wind and waves. Today way windy and the sea rough. We needed our raincoats for a few of the splashing waves as we sat outside with the rest of the passengers. We arrive at Kilronan and check in at the Hostel, where we are staying. This is a small town on the largest Island of the Aran Islands; Inishmoor. All the necessary things are here, though; pub, food, tourist info, bike rental and craft sales. If you are looking for that cherished Aran knit sweater, this is the place.
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Stage Two:  Loop ride of Inishmoor  27,3 km

Since weather can change quickly, we headed out next morning with both raincoats and sunglasses. There is one main route around the island, as well as an overland route up and over the ridge in the center. We pass a few cottages as we leave town and then we are beside the bay; riding past the abundance of rock walls. There are well marked signs to some of the ancient ruins along the way. We are following signs and heading for the well known Dun Angus. As we enter the parking lot, we are met by other cyclists, walkers, cars, tour buses and Jaunting carts with horses. This is a popular site. From the parking lot, it is an uphill hike of about half mile to read the rock fort. The sheer rock walls drop straight down to the sea and the whole image is spectacular. At Dun Angus, there is evidence that people were on this remote corner of Ireland three thousand years ago.
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After our visit to the fort, we made our way back to the parking area and retraced our route to the coast road. From here we are following signs to Lands End. This is a nice free wheeling downhill to the water’s edge, where we take some time on foot to cobble over the rocks and watch the crashing waves, close up. Then it’s back uphill to the road and we decided to take the overland ridge route back to Kilronan. Making the right turn, we leave Kilmurvy beach and start to climb away from the water. This is less traveled and from time to time very rough dirt and rocks; but, still a good choice. We climb up the island’s backbone; passing more rock walls and a few fishermen’s cottages, where they have left their colorful nets drying over the rock walls. It is steeply down to the road back to Kilroanan on paved surface for the last bit. We arrive back in Kilronan in plenty of time for dinner before our ferry departure. We are headed to our B&B near the ferry landing at Rossaveal.

Stage Three:  Rossaveal to Clifden  55,3 km

Today we ride through the bogs. We have generally rolling hills today; but, we have to contend with a headwind for much of the day. We begin with Clynagh Bay is to our left on the R336 and just keep following this past Loch Carrafinla. The landscape is dotted with lakes and soon we are passing Loch Corraundahy to the left and then Loch Nafurnace is to our right. We continue on and Camus Bay appears to our left. This whole area is just dotted with waterways and sheep are everywhere, roaming freely.
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Eventually we intersect and turn onto the Coast Road R340. Continue past Kilkieran Bay on the R340. Just after the narrow bridge, we angle off right at Loch Inbhear Mor to ride a less traveled road. We are in BOG country now. This is a lonely, desolate and windswept area. A little goes a long way, as the scenery is much the same for miles. This is where some the pungent peat is harvested for burning in cottage fireplaces. Kilkiean Bay appears to our left. Bog and more bog. We finally reach the junction where we join the 340. Again, we’re on a road with a white line; and more traffic as well. Darn!
Ride on past Loch Alurgan on the right and ride on to pretty little Cashel, with it’s nice viewpoint. We pedal on beside the bay. This bay road has a lot to offer. So far, not much traffic and some lovely bay views with wildflowers and rocky beach. At Arkeenbog, we leave the main road. There are a few pothole type lakes here and there. We start seeing more cyclists who are most likely day tripping from Clifden, as they’re not carrying any bike bags. Before we reach Cliften; however, there are a few more tiny lakes and MORE BOG areas. As we pass through some woods, then pastures and small cottages and farms, we know we may soon be seeing an actual town. We follow a windy, narrow road along and over the pretty rock bridge as we near Clifden. The closer we get to town, the traffic increases. No surprise here. We head right to our B and B to check in, change and explore the town. Clifden was once the last outpost of Irish Rail until it closed in 1935. Today, it’s the unofficial capitol of the Connemara region.

Stage Four:  Clifden to Letterfrack  14,3 km

This is a very short ride of rolling hills, which will allow us time to hike and explore Connemara Park.
We leave town, passing St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on the hill and ride beside the bay on a busy N road with misty fog obscuring the bay a bit. Soon the bay is out of sight for a while as the road serpentines through some woods. Before long the misty fog has disappeared and Barnaderg Bay appears on our left and we enjoy the fresh salt air and smell of the sea. We just follow next to the bay on the approach to Letterfrack. The main park entrance is a few meters ahead and marked with a sign pointing uphill and right. There is an entrance fee and official hours the park is open. We ride on to the crossroad in the tiny town of Letterfrack. We’ll head back to the park on foot to explore during the afternoon. The rustic Letterfrack Lodge is of lodging for tonight and it’s inviting, homey and brimming with Irish country charm. Letterfrack is a 19th Century Quaker town that has become an ideal home base for exploring Connemara Park. We started off our visit at the visitor center, where they have a small exhibit showing the evolution of the land in the park area. About ten thousand years ago the area started emerging from the Ice Age and eventually became covered in oak and pine forests. Then, about five thousand years ago, people started arriving and, as people do, began cutting trees down. Over the course of thousands of years, bog land started developing as the soil became waterlogged from the lack of trees. There is now a reverse effect going on in Ireland: once numerous, the bog lands are rapidly disappearing. I guess we were lucky to see so much of the vanishing bog on the previous day’s ride. There are two trails that you can hike there: The Ellis Wood Trail takes about 30 mins to walk and is not difficult, and the Sruffaunboy route which is much more challenging and with some steep sections of path. This trail takes about an hour to walk. Other hikes take you into the Bens, for some more incredible landscapes and commanding views.
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Stage Five:  Letterfrack to Leenaun  25,6 km

There is no fog or mist as yet allowing us to see Tully Mountain clearly to our left as we leave Letterfrack on a narrow winding road. There is one climb to Tully Cross and then just rolling hills. We enter the little village of Tully Cross and at the marker we make the right turn and downhill. The scenery is beautiful as we pedal past some houses with a view of the Atlantic and the Bens mountains. We pass another group of grazing sheep. This is their country, for sure. The road turns inland for a bit. On further is Lough Muck to our right. We continue on past Lough Fee. We stop for a snack beside the Lake, in the company of the many grazing and wandering sheep. Then we are off again. We ride on through this lonely, rugged countryside with the Bens mountains up ahead. Eventually we bid farewell to this quiet road as it will intersect with the main road into Leenaun. We catch our first glimpse of Killary Fjord to our left and we coast downhill with the fjord to our left and enter Leenaun at the end of the fjord; the only fjord in Ireland.
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We had chosen a lovely place to stay on the outskirts of town with a renowned restaurant as well. What a treat! Leenaun is a small village with a population of sixty-one; but they do have a fun little cultural center, so you can learn much about the various breeds of sheep. There is also a good array of restaurants and shops.

Stage Six:  Leenaun to Westport  51,4 km

This is what keeps Ireland green and tests the fortitude of a cyclist. We leave Leenaun on a rainy morning with much rain ahead. We leave Leenaun over the little bridge and begin the ride up opposite shore of the Fjord. It will be mostly rolling hills again today. As we follow this side of the Fjord, we find ourselves in a new county….County Mayo. We bid farewell to the Fjord as the R335 we’re on curves to the right to take us inland… past more sheep on our way to Delphi. We ride through Delphi and soon Doo Lough is on our left. The road ascends through the woods. At the end of Doo Lough we approach a Famine Monument; a tribute to a band of starving Irish families from 1847. We pause for a few minutes to read the inscription and then push on through the rain. As we enter Louisburgh, we can begin to smell the salt air of Clew Bay. Just outside Louisburgh this road becomes a real highway (for cars) and the traffic gets heavy. This is our route to Westport, so we keep up the pace. We are so thankful to see Westport Bay appear to our left. The final approach is downhill into town. Westport is the largest city since we left Galway and since we are arriving on a Saturday, this busy market town is filled with the hustle bustle that a weekend brings.
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We arrive at our B and B and peel of our very soggy gear so we can venture out to tour the sights of town. That night we enjoyed classic Irish music in one of the packed pubs and toasted the completion of this last day of riding the “Wild West”.
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Next morning we had a short bike ride to the rail station for a non stop rail journey to Dublin. Iarnrod Eirann, the Irish Rail system, whisks us from Westport to Dublin in a little more than three and a half hours. We head out from Dublin’s Heuston Station to our B and B, just across from Phoenix park; the largest urban enclosed park in Europe. Our B & B is close by the historic Guinness Brewing Company, where an informative multi-floor tour reveals the making of the famous stout ale and history of the brew itself. This is a very popular stop and well worth the time.
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We decided to tour the town center on foot and our walk beside the Liffy River takes us past the famous Ha’penny pedestrian bridge and into the heart of town. Grafton street is off limits to autos and you can browse to your heart’s content.
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Of historical interest, one of the most impressive sights is the Book of Kells, which is on display at Trinity College. For some of the best Irish music you will ever hear, wander into the Temple Bar district where the Guinness flows freely and traditional music plays nightly.

We made one more excursion from Dublin to get in touch with family roots. Our next travel day is mostly train and bus, leaving Dublin and taking the nonstop train to Waterford, walking to the Bus Terminal and busing to Dungarvan in the “sunny south” of Ireland. Next morning, we returned to the rail station from our B and B for the approximately 2 and a half hour journey to Waterford’s Plunkett Station. Then we took our bikes across the river to the bus station, where we made the necessary pedal and handlebar adjustments so we could load our bikes onto the bus to Dungarvan. Arriving in Dungarvan in about an hour, we were ready to ride and headed off to our B and B; Cairbre House. Built in 1819 and situated on the banks of the Colligan River Estuary,it is an historic house with a friendly old world atmosphere and all modern comfort and a warm welcome. Family run and owned for almost 100 years. Breakfast was gourmet and the gardens were beautiful. The port town of Dungarvan is a great home base for bicycle tours in the Gaeltacht regions of Ring and Helvick Head. It’s proximity to Waterford Crystal makes it a home for many of the glass cutters who have worked there. This shop in Dungarvan is run by a father and son, both veterans of the Waterford factory.
Dungarvan Loop Ride: 32km,
Our seventh cycling stage is a loop from Dungarvan to the end of Helvick Head and a return, with a challenging climb to 100 meters at Ring. We headed off on a sunny warm morning to Helvick Head. There are some actual bike lanes on part of the N25. Actually it’s used by tractors, livestock and anything else too slow to go in the fast lane. That’s fine with us. The final roundabout takes you right next to the Dungarvan Harbor. We watch for the sign for Ring, where we turn off the N road. The signs tell us in both English and Irish that we’re headed in the right direction. This is a Gaeltacht area, meaning they speak Irish in this region. As we climb we get glimpses harbor below and we stop for photos at the crest. Our first stop is a visit to Mooney’s Pub. How fortunate and convenient to have a distant relative who runs an authentic Irish pub. A pint of Guinness would go very well after the climb. After a pint of Guinness to quench our thirst, a visit with a cousin and a tour of the pub, we’re on our way again to Helvick Head. The road hugs the coastline and gives us some dramatic views of Dungarvan Harbor as it opens into the Celtic Sea. Our family ties in Ring have brought us to this small cemetery, where lie the remains of our direct lineage to the Fitzgerald clan. The remains of the church is where our ancestors Maurice and Mary Fitzgerald were wed back in 1836. Their markers have been obscured by time, but there are many other gravestones belonging to distant relatives. We felt fortunate to have made this connection. We retrace our route back to our B&B in Dungarvan and more Irish music entertainment after dinner.

The next day is nearly a full day of busing, with a bike ride on either end: starting in Dungarvan, changing buses in Waterford and ending up in Limerick, our last stop of the tour. Once in Limerick, we make for our hotel, near the station. One of the highlights of your stay in Limerick is a visit to King John’s Castle., built between the years 1200 and 1210 by King John of England.

Our final stage, an epilogue if you will, is a 24 kilometer ride back to Shannon airport, stopping at Bunratty castle and Folk Park and staying the night in Shannon, then continuing to the airport early the next morning.
We head out of town and are soon on a busy N road with the cars. The highlight is a stop at Bunratty, just beside the highway. Today, the castle is completely restored. The magnificent Great Hall contains a collection of 14th to 18th century furniture, paintings and wall hangings. The stairs to the dungeon are every bit as scary as they were five centuries ago.
The Bunratty Folk Park is a reconstructed traditional Irish village, complete with a main street, a post office and a pub. Thatched roofs top off the authentic buildings which house crafts shops, a blacksmith’s cottage, and weavers’ quarters. After a fun visit, we are back on the N road for the final kilometers to Shannon Town, near the airport, where we booked a B&B for the night, as we had an early morning departure.

A full and delightful family tour, with both sun and the rain that makes this an emerald isle.