The Celtic Knot – Part I

Recollections from a 1,000km cycle ride around various parts of Ireland, July 2016

Thursday 28th July 2016

It was clear that Clara, once a thriving industrial town, had seen better times. Boarded-up shops and pubs greeted me as I hobbled around town (my feet blistered and in agony from walking too much around Dublin). Large and rusted machinery jutting out from behind crumbling walls hinted at former enterprise. After some wandering around I spotted some lean looking chaps with a distinct spring in their step who had also come to town for the Celtic Knot and directed me towards the Aspire Spa Centre tucked away behind a pair of once grand and crumbling gateposts.

Here I was warmly welcomed by the Audax Eire support crew who seemed genuinely surprised that I had cycled from Oxford to get there. Judging by the wide array of largely carbon machines, with a few titanium bikes among them, which were leaning haphazardly around the walls of the showers and changing rooms, it also appeared that I was one of the last to arrive.

In a nearby store I located some pies and retreated back to base to reheat them in the large and well-equipped kitchen and devoured them while chatting to some of the others – mainly Irish riders, but with a small number from further afield like Anne from Wales, Geordie from Dorset (although originally from Northumbria) and Caroline from Idaho (although originally from New Zealand).

The main organisers appeared to be Rory, Brian and Paul. Rory was bald and seemed a little anxious. He had taken part in the Celtic Knot before on a fixie (I believe he abandoned) and had, it later transpired, toothache. Brian was a hip Dubliner who had some issues with a shoulder, worked in cloud-based computing and seemed effortlessly cheerful and chatty. Paul was a superb host. He immediately offered to get drink or food and was full of lively and positive words of wisdom.

Some had already gone to bed while others had located a nearby curry house and were engaged in some serious carb-loading. I chatted with the volunteers and a few of the other cyclists who seemed to know each other and were catching up since previous exploits, until my eyes grew too heavy. I ended up in a room at the end of a long corridor bedecked with well-polished and varnished wooden flooring. A solitary occupant on the bed next to mine lay motionless as I slipped into deep unconsciousness before my head hit the pillow.

Friday 29th July

As I leapt out of bed at 5am I noticed that my room-mate was still asleep. After a quick shower I made my way to the kitchen where a generous selection of breakfasts awaited and was soon demolished. A cool, dry cloudy morning awaited the assembled cyclists. Just before we set off we received a few kindly words of encouragement and general advice (of which I remembered none) and then we slipped out of Clara and into the awaiting Offaly lanes and started the Celtic Knot in earnest.

After an hour or so a group of around ten of us formed into a natural club-run type of peloton. Occasionally some would shoot off the front only to be caught up the road; others dropped off the back only to catch up again at the next stop.  The group had a good range of abilities providing stronger riders with an opportunity to get up ahead and cut through the headwinds while slighter individuals could work around behind in 3rd or 4th wheel (or just hang on at the back). Among the stronger riders was Martin, John and a giant of a man who had grown up in a farming community in rural Ireland. Geordie (a recently-retired fireman) also managed to get to the front for much of the time. Others in this group were Dave Clark, a clubmate of Martin’s, who had only done a few shorter (200k) audaxes before CK but was full of fighting spirit. Geordie, Anne and Caroline had endured long-distance events before as evidenced by PBP jerseys. It was reassuring to be part of a group with such seasoned veterans.

As is common with large groups of cyclists equipped with multiple navigational devices, it wasn’t long before, upon reaching a junction, opinions begun to differ as to which road was the correct one. I had downloaded a deluxe all-1000km-in-one GPX prior to leaving home (several days earlier). But this, I discovered, had been superseded by three separate files for the individual loops; the differences seemed to be rather significant. However, this didn’t stop me from chipping in with route suggestions when the opportunity availed itself. Remarkably, given the variation in options, we tended to stick more or less to a route which connected the controls on my deluxe edition, although one or two legs on dual-carriageways didn’t feel quite right! The route-sheet, I should add, which caused much cussing, and was almost as indecipherable as a string of perverse DNA, was proudly mounted on many a handlebar and consulted in moments of deepest indecision with grim determination. To those trundling along at the back of the group this all provided some light diversion from the serious business of waffling on about anything and everything under the dubious summer skies of Ireland. We made good progress while sharing our cycling experiences and backgrounds.

Our route took us in a northerly direction towards Carrick-on-Shannon (our first control) via Moate, Balymahon and Longford. This took us out of County Offaly, across Westmeath and Longford and into County Leitrim in less than 4 hours. If cycling in England with a group of cyclists while crossing a county border sign you may get a faint phut of an acknowledgement from someone – “I say, old boy”, they might sigh, “did you happen to notice that we’ve just crossed into Gloucestershire?” In Ireland, a land where people are hard-wired to their counties at birth, and never truly leave them no matter how far across the surface of the globe they may wander, a county sign is an invitation to wax lyrical about the hurling championships, battles fought several centuries ago and childhood memories of driving tractors back home (while still a child). The odd disparaging remark about a particular football result might be hurled up in the air only to be returned with a swift volley about a memorable hurling result – frequently of historic vintage.

Cyclists from London, or indeed any British city, could not fail to be impressed with the standard of driving in Ireland. With the exception of towns (where inconsiderate motorists can nearly always be found), drivers will show great courtesy to cyclists and give them plenty of room while overtaking and exercise caution when driving behind them. Even when in a peloton, the drivers were generally understanding and this added to the pleasure of cycling in Ireland. For our part, there was a reciprocated courtesy of checking ahead and, if safe to do so, waving the motorists past the group – normally followed by a thank you toot of the horn. Not one window wound down and obscenities exchanged. A very different experience from that found in the South East of England where cutting up and swearing at cyclists is considered a mandatory part of the on-road experience.

The sun came out as we kissed the Sligo coastline like a glittering treasured jewel. It became clear that this was a tourist area as the number of foreign-plated campervans and twee little gift shops and cafes began to appear. This was a fine stretch providing some stunning views as we wound our way along the coastline until the sumptuous Killala Bay came into view and the delightful town of Enniscrone which was clearly popular with tourists. Martin, who had emerged as ride leader led us safely past the rather tempting harbour-view cafes to a rather average Irish supermarket where we grabbed assorted snacks and gathered on the pavement outside to the bemusement of passing tourists. Did I mention that we also cut across Roscommon en route to the coast?

Ireland possesses some of the finest small supermarkets and petrol-station forecourts Europe has to offer. In addition to the usual attractions and facilities, many also supply 24-hour full-Irish breakfasts, coffee vending machines and flushing toilets, which essentially boils down to 99% of the average audaxer’s needs. What they don’t provide – a fine dining experience – can normally be obtained several streets down the road. For the majority of the group, at least initially, this delicate balance in favour of basic needs over aesthetic experience was sufficient to hold the group together – normally sprawled around the frontage of a modest store. Perhaps an initial crack in this strategy first appeared when I succumbed to the temptations of a fish and chips shop over a meal of the more regular grab’n’go variety. Oh they tasted so good – even when gobbled down quickly to keep within the decreed stoppage allowances the group imposed upon itself.

“Come on now – we haven’t got all day!” And so on into Mayo to Ballina and Foxford (it’s rather cool to cycle from Oxford to Foxford), Kiltimagh and Knock (sadly no time for pics).

Between Ballina and Foxford is a small lane that goes off route to a tiny hamlet called Attymass – we were literally only a kilometer or two from it – where the author Marrie Walsh documented life growing up in this part of Ireland in the 1930s and 40’s in “An Irish Country Childhood”. It’s a wonderful read bringing to life the harsh realities of a way of life that has now all but disappeared. While she paints a picture of poverty which drives the menfolk and the older children away from their homes, and even their country of birth, in order to earn wages that will enable the younger children and women to be able to sit around the homeside hearth (which never goes out) and scrape together an existence, it also tells of those small activities that bound the isolated homes together in shared experiences – such as cutting turf, celebrating holy days and attending wakes.

My last visit to Knock had been on leaving Ireland after a friend’s wedding something like 30 years ago – a two-week blur that had taken me from Dublin to Malahide to Cashel, Tipperary and then to a town, maybe Charlestown, in Mayo, and then by a precarious high-speed drive down relatively minor roads to Knock Airport.

I’d known about Knock long before I ever went there, as my Grandmother, of distant Irish Catholic stock, had told me all about the pope’s visit there (in 1979). The Pope had attracted vast crowds of pilgrims when he came to the centenary of Knock Shrine; built to commemorate an apparition of St Mary, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, a Lamb and a cross on an altar, and seen by 15 people on 21st August 1879. Somehow the story of Knock, the Pope and the later airport all seemed to be intertwined in some mysterious modern miracle – for what else could explain an airport with a runway long enough to land a 747 in the middle of an Irish bog? Niall, who was connected to the European Parliament, and therefore knows such things, mentioned something about Star Wars and the Cold War (or was it the Iron Curtain) which sounded sufficiently X-Fileseque and of that era to be plausible. Sadly, we cycled straight passed the Shrine (and Basilica) where a candle and prayer might have been in order (for I was raising money for CAFOD by undertaking a 2000km cycle ride – of which CK was the main course).

I’d been to no airport like Knock. For a start, it was in the middle of nowhere – literally nothing but open countryside all around as far as I could see. Then the airport was little more than a collection of portacabins that had been joined together to make a check-in, arrivals, departures, shop and then the runway. I sat in a very small room with the other passengers each clutching our hand-luggage and duty frees and waited. Our plane, which was the only one on the runway, wasn’t moving anywhere. Eventually, the men who look at the underbelly of planes took a closer look and got their tool boxes out. Being a Sunday nothing was happening very quickly. Eventually we were allowed on the plane. But the unsettling sound of men tinkering under the fuselage wasn’t terribly confidence-building. After an hour or so, and still on the plane, we were told that the plane would not be going anywhere and that we would be allowed off – after the friends and family had left the runway that they had walked onto to get a closer look at the action – there was nothing happening, but my guess was that this was as exciting as it got on in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Eventually after several hours we were back in the departure lounge (a rather grand title for what was little more than a flatpack garage assembled into an airport facility). After further tinkering with the unwell plane and a little more deliberation we were told that a replacement plane was being sent across from Luton. The plane eventually arrived and we eventually took to the skies and I waved Knock and Ireland farewell to be unceremoniously bused into central London (compensation was basic in those days) in the middle of the night. I think dawn was breaking when I finally made my way back to Turnpike Lane just in time to have breakfast and catch the tube into central London and back to the office grind!

On we pedalled, worked as a tight-knit group, and cruised into Ballyhaunis, our last control of the day at around 6:30pm, and still in Mayo. This was a short stop and on we travelled into Roscommon through Creggs and Curraghboy (a name that belongs to the title of wistful poem) and finally to the outskirts of Athlone where a luxurious Texaco forecourt next to a McDonalds kept us all amused for a good half-hour and then, fortified, we went back into the night and into Westmeath via Moate and then safely back into Offaly for the final stretch to Clara at just after 11:30pm, and with 376km rather than the advertised 364km in our legs. Despite the distance, the steady shared pace and good company had made it a fine day on the road and I soon crashed out after feasting on lasagne, apple pie and proper fresh cream and chocolate milk-shake. The bed next to mine was unoccupied.

Part II

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