Connemara by Bike

Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy

Sheep Feasting Upon a Lush Green Hill at Derryneen

If you’ve seen Connemara only by car or bus, then you haven’t truly seen it. To properly experience the majestic landscapes and deep blue skies of Ireland’s fabled west, you need to stick your head out into the open air. With an absence of open-top tourist buses, your only remaining option is to get on your bike, or as the locals might say, Ar do rothar!

That’s exactly what I did this spring while investigating the path of the proposed Connemara Greenway. In the not-too-distant future, the cycleway will follow a disused railway line approximately seventy-six kilometres (forty-seven miles) from Galway to Clifden. The track will begin alongside the River Corrib before venturing northwest through the village of Moycullen towards Oughterard, which is where my own journey began. After pulling my bike from the bus cargo hold, I sped down the road, full of anticipation for what the next two days would bring.

As I was rolling out of town, the forest gave way to Connemara’s typical yellow-flowering gorse and rust-tinted boggy scrubland. At the first opportunity, I swung a hard left off the main road and headed for the hinterland. The first sight to greet me was the Quiet Man Bridge in the village of Leam. Stones covered in white lichen gleamed in the sunlight as the first of many pristine lakes shimmered below, leading my eyes towards the emerging mountains. Retracing the former Galway–Clifden railway further west, I spotted a quaint farmstead resting on the shores of Lough Bofin and approached the adjacent cottage to ask permission to photograph it.

A cyclist follows the former railway line along the eastern shore of Derryclare Lough.

A cyclist follows the former railway line along the eastern shore of Derryclare Lough.

‘Sorry, but I only speak French,’ came the heavily accented response as the cottage’s resident motioned for me to slow down. In broken French, I explained my situation. Meanwhile, a farmer materialised behind us. It seemed I’d met the family staying in Martin and Mary Joyce’s holiday cottage, Islandview. The couple welcomes the proposed cycle path, which will open up the beauty of Connemara; however, it appears the region’s lakes are already famous in France, thanks to the popular song ‘Les Lacs du Connemara’. Nonetheless, according to the Greenway’s chief engineer, Kurt Lydon, if recent experiences hold true, the Clifden to Galway route will prove an absolute boon for tourism. The Connemara Greenway is expected to prove even more popular than the Westport to Achill Greenway in County Mayo, which generated 7 million euros in tourist revenue in its first year of operation. This is an impressive figure to say the least, especially considering that it more than covered the Mayo route’s €5.5 million development cost.

I bid farewell to my newfound Gallic and Gaelic friends and soon after circumvented a pair of sheep rambling over an old rail bridge. The rusting span is just one of many hidden gems to be unearthed by the completion of the cycle route, affording views one simply cannot obtain by car. In the waterways below me, beds of emerald-green river grass swayed gently in the current. Crossing back over the main N59 road from Galway to Clifden, one soon enters dedicated turf territory. As the magical Maumturk mountain range loomed ever nearer overhead, I rumbled past the full array of machinery used to turn the slumbering bogs into heat-giving parcels of turf. Meanwhile, lounging cows stared up from beside the trail while a duo of inquisitive Connemara ponies trotted cautiously beside this foreign, two-wheeled contraption.

‘Lovely weather today!’ Six sharp syllables pierced the silence. Wheeling around, I watched as an elderly man emerged like an apparition from behind the gorse. ‘Stunning weather indeed,’ I responded to the man, whose blue eyes were as vibrant as the surrounding lakes and whose mane of snow-white hair fluttered in the breeze. And just like that he vanished, disappearing around a bend as he continued eastward under the beaming sun.

The hidden eastern shore of Derryclare Lough.

The hidden eastern shore of Derryclare Lough.

Rejoining the N59 at Maam Cross, my heavily laden bicycle thundered along the asphalt. Thirty minutes later, I parted ways with the smooth surface and rolled along an old boreen (rural road) into Derryneen. Hidden from the view of motorists, this side trip treats cyclists to views of lush, green hillocks dotted with sheep and a rushing mountain stream shooting beneath Derryneen Bridge. Mr Lydon’s comments seemed apt as I continued westward. He had noted that the Greenway would bring the additional benefit of allowing locals to avoid walking along the narrow main road—a rather dangerous pursuit on dark winter nights. Rural communities will be connected once again, all atop a route intended to link up with Dublin as part of the National Cycle Network, and even one day with Moscow as a component of the gargantuan EuroVelo system.

My next stop before sundown was the lakeside village of Recess, where Cushlough House Bed and Breakfast awaited my overnight stay. Bemused by my journey, the hospitable Maisie Molloy invited me to relax by the fire and revitalise with a warm cup of tea. After replenishing my energy levels, the sun’s diminishing stature prompted me to ascend the slopes behind us. With guidance from two local farmers, I managed to cycle halfway up Cnoc Lios Uachtair, an impressive peak. The freestanding sentinel provides spectacular views across the entirety of Connemara, and during this particular sunset it far surpassed expectations. I gazed past golden puffs of cloud as my eyes wandered north along the Inagh Valley, east across the Maumturks, south over expansive bogs towards the Aran Islands, and finally back westward to the towering peaks of the Twelve Bens. Then, as if a switch was flicked, the lands were engulfed in darkness, heralding my descent towards a well-earned sleep.

Riding past the former Recess railway station the next morning, soft light illuminated the quartzite pinnacles above. To my right, mist billowed from the river, shrouding a tract of pines. Suddenly, to my left I noticed a silhouette standing still atop a low ridge. The man dropped out of sight while I lay in wait to film a trio of unsuspecting sheep following the track. Right before I hit ‘Record’, the sheep began sprinting straight towards me. In the nick of time, I grasped my tripod and rolled to one side, narrowly avoiding a trampling. The instigator of the stampede—a sheep dog—emerged and tore past, eager to herd the three vagabonds.

Along the hidden eastern shores of Derryclare Lough, I met locals Pat and Jean Mullan using the gravel track to walk their dog, Bonnie. Further south, I discovered that the Athry rail bridge was out, and after fording the shallow stream, my soothed feet pedalled in the direction of Ballinafad. Here, two ancient cemeteries rest on either side of the azure Lough Nabrucka. As my bike’s weary wheels hit paved roadway, the thick forests surrounding Ballynahinch Castle offered some shade from the piercing sun. The estate is home to the scenic Owenmore River, along which extends a peaceful boardwalk, providing views of the castle with an impressive mountain backdrop. Little did I know that the real surprise lay right around the next bend.

The Twelve Bens at sunset, viewed from just north of the village of Recess.

The Twelve Bens at sunset, viewed from just north of the village of Recess.

After Ballynahinch, the most remote and exposed stretch of the proposed Greenway begins. The track winds its way across a palette of dazzling hues typical of the Connemara wilderness. To either side, I surveyed jet-black turf beneath blanket bog and bronzed heathland interspersed with purple moor grass. Untouched lakes dotted the desolate terrain, while the Twelve Bens commanded a full 180 degrees of my view. Apart from a few farmers, mankind has not gazed upon these lands since the railway closed eighty years ago. Lakes gradually gave way to tiny tarns, evoking visions of New Zealand’s highlands—an area more than eighteen thousand kilometres (eleven thousand miles) away.

Without warning, the desolation gave way to civilisation. From here on out, it was easy riding into Clifden along the only completed section of the Greenway. After refuelling with a delicious bagel at the Upstairs Downstairs Cafe, I had enough time to check out the view from the John D’Arcy Monument overlooking town. However, upon returning to my bike, I discovered that a dashing white Connemara pony had taken a liking to it and was attempting to eat my watermelon-inspired helmet!

After rescuing my rothar, it was with a heavy heart that I descended to conclude my adventure. I keenly await the Connemara Greenway’s opening in the near future, and—who knows—perhaps next time I’ll start my romp towards Clifden from Moscow!