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Ireland’s Great Western Greenway is home to great views, greater cycling and even greater headwinds: but if you’re up for the challenge, this ride is worth it.
My wife and I were pedalling hard but progressing little along the Great Western Greenway in northwest Ireland, stuck as we were in the cycling equivalent of one of those endless lap pools that churn out a propulsive current for you to swim against as you advance precisely nowhere. I’ve entered such a lap pool only once before, and frankly it seemed like a Sisyphean metaphor that I’d never escape—a hamster wheel in the water. On the Greenway, the current we were fighting was not water but a bristling headwind, though we did at least have the compensation of absurdly picturesque surroundings to distract us from the lack of forward movement.
We were on a seaside path from Westport to Mulranny in County Mayo. The sky was bright and mostly blue, except for the occasional pewter cloud galloping east as if escaping the clutches of some Druid giant. Clew Bay was dotted with dozens of tiny islets. The dramatic volcanic cone of Croagh Patrick dominated the far southern shore. Sheep clung to rocky slopes to the north. We were surrounded, in other words, by pure Ireland.
It hadn’t occurred to us in the planning stages of this cycling trip that we’d be confronted with what was becoming our central problem: it was 3 p.m., dinner in the renowned Mulranny Park Hotel was going to be served at 6:30 p.m., we were moving at approximately three kilometres an hour and we still had 20 kilometres to go. Forget dinner—we were coming to understand that breakfast might even be in danger. It had all seemed so blissful a few hours earlier. The west-to-east ride from Mulranny to Westport, a trip of maybe 25 kilometres, had taken under an hour. Gorgeous, we thought. Beautiful path. Good surface. Amazing views. Solid rental bikes. We quite literally breezed along, vaguely aware that maybe we had a light tailwind, yet choosing to believe our that our speed was due to our inherent fitness. After a creamy latte and a densely buttered scone in Westport, we turned to head back toward Mulranny. That was when the parachute opened.
Let me concede that the northwest of Ireland, or anywhere in Ireland, might not be the first place you think of when you imagine yourself on a cycling trip, given that the weather is more suited to wellingtons than pelotons. But if your perception of the weather in northwest Ireland is that it can sometimes be rainy and windy, well, I’m here to correct you. It is frequently rainy. And it is always windy. But, hey, it’s the west coast of Ireland, not Mallorca. There’s nothing between Clew Bay and Newfoundland but fishing boats, which means there’s nothing to interrupt the winds that race across the North Atlantic. But that’s okay, because every true cyclist knows that suffering is part of the challenge. Thank you, Ireland, for enhancing that part of the experience.
Not every cycling path in Ireland is so exposed to the elements: there are about half a dozen greenways criss-crossing the country, most along decommissioned rail lines or former canal drag lines. Many run inland. They are a scenic and efficient way to combine exercise with sightseeing, and they take you along routes that are just enough off the beaten path to feel adventurous (yet never too far from a pub). There are greenways in Limerick and Waterford, along the Royal Canal—which was constructed early in the 18th century to connect the River Liffey to the River Shannon—and through central Ireland between Athlone and Mullingar.
Ours, the Great Western, runs just under 50 kilometres pretty much right around Clew Bay and was once voted one of the top three cycling trails in the world by the New York Times. If you stay in the Mulranny Park Hotel, as we did, perhaps you’ll get lucky and score the Lennon and Ono room. Though not designed for a week-long bed-in, it is the very room John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in when they visited the area in 1968 to oversee the purchase of the tiny, 19-acre island of Dorinish in the south elbow of Clew Bay. Lennon’s dream was to build a home and retire there, but his life was cut short before he could make that happen.
But back to the greenway. When we turned around to head from Westport back to Mulranny, that light tailwind suddenly turned into a whistling tempest that was so strong I could feel my eyeballs changing shape from the compression. Our bikes were in their lowest gear. Our heads were down. We were struggling to keep any forward momentum. I am no meteorologist, but the wind had to be gusting up to 80 kilometres per hour. Every time we rounded a corner into a stretch of path that was protected by a grove of tall gorse, we could relax for 30 or 40 metres of calm cycling. And every time we came out of one of these stretches, the wind would hit us like someone had turned on a jet engine. It would have been comical except for the fact that we were on pace to turn the one hour to ride to Westport into a five hour ride back.
It’s not like we were rookies. It’s normal to take the wind into consideration when cycling. And we did, kind of, even though we broke one of the basic rules of cycling, which is to go into the wind on your outward leg so that the inward leg is, ipso facto, less strenuous. This serves many purposes. One, you get the tough part out of the way early. Two, you are expending the most energy when you theoretically have the most of it available to expend. Three, it will lull you into believing that cycling is a benignly enjoyable pursuit, a belief put to the test on this particular greenway.
Yet people cycle in Ireland. Lots of people. Tons of people. And we probably will again the first chance we get. Here’s why. There is no landscape as dramatic as the west coast of Ireland. Along the Wild Atlantic Way, as they call it, you can find sheer cliffs, picturesque fishing villages, crashing seas, sandy beaches, great golf courses, world-class cuisine, and, of course, a perfectly poured Guinness in every harbour. In Westport, we ran into two women who looked to be 50ish-fit, friends from Canada traversing multiple greenways from the southwest to the northwest. It was going to take them roughly three weeks. They were kitted out in sturdy bikes with panniers and waterproofed maps and guidebooks. Their entire bodies were enclosed in Gore-Tex. But they were so elated to be on their bikes along the Irish coast that we could not put it down to standard Canadian amiability. No, they were thrilled, they said, because the air was fresh, the landscape was bursting with a thousand shades of green, the people were practically hurling their doors open with welcome, and what could possibly create a more put-you-at-peace-with-the-planet mood than finishing a day in the saddle and putting your feet up beside a peat fire in a comfy chair in a hotel lounge with a glass of Irish whiskey on the table beside you. A bit of wind? Please. Sipping that whiskey in front of that peat fire would be a waste if all you had to do that day was pedal around in shorts and shirtsleeves along sunny beaches. Instead, you get to cycle past historic bays where battles were fought a thousand years ago, along volcanic ridges that still glower as you pass, through vast fields of peat that ancient Celtic societies harvested to heat their stone dwellings, through villages where life has unfolded according to ancient custom for dozens of generations.
Cycling is often about struggle, fitness and achievement. But it’s also about accepting the world as you find it: both the beauty and the battle. The greatest reward is to feel part of where you are—to be in the landscape, to have a pint in a pub, to chat aimlessly with locals, to wander village side streets—and there is no better place to feel part of this than the west coast of Ireland. We did finally arrive back to our hotel, many hours after leaving Westport. We were just in time for dinner after all. And no meal has tasted better, no Guinness felt more refreshing.
Originally published in 2023 July/August Western Living Magazine print edition
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