Rough Stuff and Rough Times
by Richard Simmons
The Spanish Armada lost many vessels off the coast of Ireland, but this one rolled from side to side on a sea of tarmac, as if trying to shed passengers from their seats. I was on a 4 hour journey across Ireland heading for Ballina, Mayo, from Dublin, and the vessel was one of Bus Eirean's coaches. It was a long journey but one which deposited myself and bike at the right location for little more than a tenner.
7.30 that evening I had a choice of accommodation. Last year I had chosen cycle camping, but a combination of westerly gales, driving rain and the load itself resulted in a lot of walking whenever the road led uphill into the wind. With an abundance of cheap comfortable hostels I took this option and left the tent at home. Now I had just to locate the Salmon Weir Hostel in Ballina itself, but an hour later with several misleading directions I finally found the building, but which was a hostel no more. Never mind. A long queue for greasy fish and chips saved the eating problem and fuelled me for an easy seven miles to Killala, a pretty coastal village, and home of an An Oige official hostel. Alas, the rambling mansion house was easily found but boarded-up windows were the last straw, and the last time I travel with five-year-old information.
The following morning I really felt I could begin my holiday and set off full of anticipation to the far northwest corner of Mayo. I completed my backtrack to Ballina, first to withdraw cash, knowing this area to be devoid of banks for the next forty miles and those being in an isolated corner I did not intend to visit.
The morning progressed well, my third journey on the Killala road, then finally new' territory further west. The "miniature cottage B&B" stood out like the famous round tower built to withstand Viking attacks, and how I missed it I could not explain.
Ballycastle is a pretty one-horse "town" with traditional-fronted shops, window dressing unheard of, and westernised "go faster" mentality left behind although I was actually further west than I was in the morning. Maybe even in the Wild West. The skies and open moorland were endless and for a moment I might have been in the west of America - a radio station dedicated to Country & Western music broadcasting jangly music in the cafe. But then I remembered I was in Ireland: soda scenes, homemade jam and strong tea, looking out from a wonderful cafe at a street deserted with the exception of a tractor and an old chap in a flat cap riding a black roadster with one gear and a basket.
From Ballycastle trees start to disappear and blanket bogs stretch out for miles. Steep cliffs are to the right with the Atlantic as far as Donegal on a clear day. Bogs, cliff, sea. That's about it; but to look more closely one needs to be on a bike: skylarks darting across the sky, purple flowers in the ditches, piles of cut turf drying by the roadside for winter fuel, and a multitude of red and green stripes painted on the road, or made from ribbons tied to telegraph poles, to pledge support for the Mayo gaelic football team.
Mile upon mile of peat bog is punctuated briefly by a steep ravine full of trees and bushes untouched by farming, where time stood still. My destination was Belderrig, a tiny cluster of cottages around a rocky harbour, and the hospitality of my friend Joe. Travelling was now on hold for the afternoon as an endless cycle of conversation and tea-drinking commenced.
Stunning views of mountain and ocean drew me outside however. and the following day I set off to discover stony tracks across the bog. The "bohreen" was my first taste of rough-stuff all year because of Foot and Mouth restrictions at home. and I bumped stone by stone on a blissfully hot day enjoying every moment. This track was excellent and took me from Belderrig to an even more remote corner a couple of dwellings identified as Porturlin.
On reaching tarmac again. I continued towards Rinroe Beach, a beautiful expanse of sand dunes and breakers and ocean views. First I had to climb to the hilltop village of Carrowteige, home of hand-loomed jumpers and a crafting community. A restocking of food set me back double what I might pay at home, but blessing the scenery and the favourable exchange rate it was only a small price to pay. A surface road drops steeply to the shore, then steps by a lonely graveyard. At this point I was spoilt for choice for where to sit and enjoy my lunch, somewhat thirsty, hungry and in need of a good rest. The choice was tough, but grabbing my food pannier in one hand I made my way to the beckoning sands. Crossing the large rounded rocks between dune and strand, my destination arrived quicker than expected - the ground rapidly heading towards me as I flew forward through the air. I felt myself falling, stuck out a leg to stop myself but only added more speed to the final inevitable impact. There was a loud bang, and I slid forward on sandy rocks, resting face down in the sand, looking at a broken bottle. "That could have been worse", I thought. Sand filled my mouth, reminding me of childhood holidays on similar beaches with sandy sandwiches. I could see stars, I felt dizzy, and it hurt. I had to recover myself, to drink water and replace my sun hat, but I realised I was in need of help. Cuts all the way down my arms and hands, mouth swollen, burst lips and broken loose teeth. I was in no state to cycle, and already dehydrated, hungry and dizzy. The beach was not totally deserted - a family was enjoying a day out - so I collected my bike and asked them where I might find help. They suggested I telephoned the doctor from a call box in the village, a good mile up the steep hill so off I went. I shouted across to another couple I saw, to ask if they had a mobile phone, but like a bad dream the words didn't come out - I could hardly talk - and they shouted "hello" back at me returning an assumed greeting.
The hill to the village was long and steep and I was in no shape for and endless climb and uncertainty of delays or outcomes. The first cottage I came to had two men outside stacking turf, and I asked if I could use their phone. Neither they or next door had one, but two houses up - a modern bungalow - did. Here I called, and received fantastic help. Martina, a visitor to the house, was due to leave shortly into town. She telephoned my friend to report my incident and then took me off to the doctor's surgery ten miles away. My rescuer, a Catholic nun, waited patiently whilst my cuts and scratches were cleared of sand and patched up. Next it was a visit to the dentist to know exactly what I had done.
Another ten miles of bumpy road across the peat bogs took us to Belmullet at the far northwest corner of Mayo, and the dentist's waiting room in America Street. I could feel that my lips had swollen up like those of a Neolithic man and I received many looks from those waiting telling me it looked bad. The dentist told me that two teeth were broken and the middle one loose, but said he could do nothing until the swelling had gone down. He advised me to have the repairs done at home as it would be expensive in Ireland.
Martina had waited for the last hour and finally I was on my way back to 'base', Joe's cottage. By now it was early evening and having only eaten a breakfast all day, set about the grim task of eating lukewarm baked beans, soup and tea. Anything warmer than body temperature set off too many alarm bells.
The following day was spent in front of the fire. The 'heat wave' had gone. lasting for just one day, and now it was misty, with heavy rain. I was still in a state of shock over how badly I had fared and how easily I had fallen over. I spent the whole day feeding the fire with turf, and feeding myself with as much food as speed would allow, to compensate for yesterday. All confidence had been knocked out of me and my biggest test was to walk next door to buy food.
Recovery Day 2. I was feeling stronger and fed up of being the patient. I was confident, independent and ready to move on and enjoy my holiday. I had enjoyed my friend's company, but was ready to pursue my travels round this corner of Ireland, anti-clockwise towards Galway or perhaps Ennis in County Clare. It took me the rest of the morning for my thoughts and organisation to gather momentum, but when the moment arrived I felt liberated again, rolling off on my bike, off to the west. Cycling may be risky or dangerous - but not as dangerous as walking across the beach.
That night I was staying in Pollatomish, a picturesque village overlooking Sruwaddacon Bay, a large estuary filled alternately with blue sea and yellow sand. Here lies the key to my travels here: five years ago I was the warden at the An Oige hostel before it was closed due to low occupancy. To my surprise an English couple, Dave and Claire, had re-opened it as a private hostel and had made a wonderful job at it too. How calm it felt to be back at 'home' in front of my favourite fireplace. All the stops were pulled out now for a decent tour as I headed south towards Westport.
The road is one of open desolation for the first thirty miles: flat blanket bog interrupted only by a couple of tiny settlements (each house deserving a place name on a road sign), a small river to cross. a lake and a derelict church.
Paradise is reached again at Mullaranny, on the coast with far-reaching views to islands, mountains and ocean across a rather pebbly beach. After a rest I went on to Newport to look for a bed, but owing to the holiday period there were none left anywhere! Thanks to the helpful friend of the Tourist Board assistant I was offered space in someone's loft conversion due to become a B&B room, provided I didn't mind climbing a ladder instead of steps. No problem. On arrival the place was heaving, every bed taken by guests, children evicted from their beds, people camping on the lawn, and my poor host with a big heart convincing a family that three mattresses on the lounge floor plus sofa were the only beds for miles around!
My goal of reaching Westport for Irish music was dashed, because half of Ireland had the same idea. I greeted another cyclist at the B&B who had come from Denmark. He craved company: I the opposite, so endured a long evening eating a poor quality and expensive meal. The night was spent squeezed between a large plastic Father Christmas and broken unwanted toys; in the morning finding strength to eat a burnt Irish breakfast.
I was grateful for the stay, but equally as eager to leave. The eight-mile ride to Westport's tourist office confirmed there was no accommodation within their 50 mile radius so my only choice was retreat. No bed, no tent, no tour.
After returning to Newport I turned inland and took a spectacular track northwards over the mountains to a little known settlement of Keenagh. The singletrack road climbs to Traenlaur Lodge (now a hostel) overlooking lake and mountain, before continuing unsurfaced to the top of the pass. The road tarmacked again, I traversed the endless plains of north Mayo looking hard for features: here a flower, there a piece of bogwood, here a culvert. Belacorrig Power Station, which feeds off the peat, was in view ahead but took two hours to reach, and another to lose. Eventually I reached the small coast road which took me back to the "Old Rectory" hostel at Pollatomish and its welcoming home comforts.
My circular tour abandoned, I retraced my route to the B&B in Ballina (but this time in the son's bedroom) and on the next day went on to Sligo. The first half of the route can be taken along the coast road, which is quite pleasant but not the best scenery in Ireland. I stopped along it for lunch but had to pack up hastily owing to nuisance from stray/ unattended dogs, while the only designated picnic spot in one village had a resident alcoholic. Instead I stopped on the shore near gypsy caravans and was thankful not to be disturbed. The north Mayo coast has seen massive depopulation, this area being full of derelict cottages and some of them not too old. Even the tourists were absent as they sought the more popular locations.
After about twenty miles it became inevitable that I join the main road for the remaining fifteen to Sligo. Lorries hurtled past and the toil seemed endless, relieved only by the beginning of the dual carriageway. Here at least I had a whole hard shoulder to myself as I entered one of Ireland's larger towns.
My last night was spent in the company of musicians in one hostelry playing fiddles and mandolins until the early hours; a real taste of magic, with all worries and inconveniences left behind.