Mile Failte 2018 – Part I

Recollections from a 1,200km cycle ride around the south-west of Ireland, June 2018

The Mile Failte is a 1200km audax radiating around the south west corner of Ireland from its base in Killarney.

I suppose it all began two years earlier when I cycled over to Ireland and back to do the Celtic Knot. That ride was largely flat, slightly shorter, and stayed mainly in central and northern parts of Eire. However, it did tease with some of the WAW and some hills to the south, and even further hills beyond on the distant horizon….

And then there was HV Morton’s “In Search of Ireland” with his wildly lyrical portrayal of an almost unspoilt Ireland full of rustic charms and olde worlde delights. Surely those rustic cart-tracks and innocent barefoot girls were still there to be found?

When the pint was placed down before me I took a long time before I took a sip: to make the moment last that little bit longer. I’d cycled 550km from Oxford (via south Wales, then diagonally across Wales to Fishguard, Rosslare, Waterford, Dungarvan) and the temperature had been rising day by day. I was astonished by how light the glass felt in my hand as I slowly quenched a thirst that had been building for days. Murphy’s, I concluded, had an edge to it I’d not encountered in a Guinness. Maybe it was smoked peat? I ordered another, immediately.

I’d cruised into Killarney along the N22 and found the hostel after lingering in the sun in a parkland café. The briefing was nearing its end. “Well”, concluded Paul, “it is what it is, like.” I’ve always appreciated that no-nonsense, deeply understated Irish style of delivery.

Bikes adorned the outside of the old, stone hostel building in all shapes, sizes and materials. No other Flying Gates, but a number of other steel bikes. Several were still being assembled and tinkered with. I borrowed some lube and applied it to the chain. I decided to leave the accumulated road dust with a wink to gritty realism.

I think there were six of us in the dorm. I kept myself awake for an hour or more trying not to snore. When someone else made a little regular snuffle it seemed safe to drift off.

In the morning a full Irish and I recognised the lady in the kitchen, as cheery as she had been two years earlier.

*

Sprawled across the stepped plinth of a gleaming white statue of what appeared, as I shot past, to be that of the Virgin Mary, was the unmistakable spread-eagled form of a randonneur in what appeared to be the contorted, face-up and prostrate form of an unrepentant sinner. There was no sign of movement from the outstretched form. Had it not been for the bicycle laid at its side, it would have looked almost as if it had been carelessly discarded or dropped from a great height from passing jet plane. Later, it came as no surprise to learn that the apparition had been none other than Martin with whom I had ridden so much of the Celtic Knot.

*

One could hear Damon before you could see him – or rather his drone hovering above the poor suffering souls climbing up Goat’s Pass in the sweltering heat. Its little motors whinging and whining as it slipped back and forth effortlessly through the thin, hot air and torched tarmac that was beginning to slide back down the severe gradient. There were no goats. Not even sheep. Just the paranoid dentists-drill whir of an overactive motor driving a camera lens in search of pain and suffering – for this was not a hill that could be walked – that way would lead to everlasting shame. Reaching the top, gasping for breath, more lenses and the overjoyed face of the directeur at work. Someone had thoughtfully placed a statue of the suffering Christ at the crest of the hill. The irony was not lost on those of us who might make the final cut.

                                                                                                *

One of the more surreal and highly memorable moments of Mile Failte was arriving at Father Ted’s house, up way on top of the barren Burren landscape, and finding a swarm of nuns running a mock about the place while various randonneurs, who normally stand-out in any setting, went about their normal business of faffing about their bikes looking well, rather dull in comparison. I almost wept (it had been a very long, dry stretch and I had run out of water some miles back) when I saw a lookalike of Mrs Doyle holding a placard stating “GO ON GO ON GO ON” and gladly stood and posed next to her quipping, “DRINK! DRINK! DRINK!”. Inside there was water aplenty and stoutly brewed tea served from an enormous aluminium tea-pot. On the table were strewn large chunks of cheese and the sort of dainty cakes you would normally find in first class hotels served on classic multi-storey cake stands. People were suffering. The Burren had been baking hot where throats went parched and overheated heads lolled up and up yet another winding ascent. The tea and cakes and cheese were so welcome and so unexpectedly Audax-fare, that for a small moment it was almost as if we had tasted a little bit of heaven.

How do you explain the appeal of Father Ted to someone who has never seen a single scene? How do you even attempt to convey the rich gallows humour, delivered so perfectly on cue, of the main actor (God bless his soul)? To explain the juxtaposing personalities that rubbed up against each other and the overarching and all-pervading Catholic in-jokes that only made sense in the highly illogical mind of the devoted? I tried to explain in-between trying to breathe (it wasn’t easy on both counts) to a kindly German rider who probably grasped little of what I was attempting to convey and, as we turned yet another baking corner of limestone escarpment as the road went heavenwards, politely excused himself insisting that he take some photos of the unique flora so that he might have something to remember the journey by. It mattered little, for I continued to play the script in my head and probably continued talking aloud as the unique heat no doubt touched my head. Father Ted – it’s surely a religion?

*

That night, that warm, sweet, heavenly night with a sunset as pure as any I’d ever seen before, and the colour slowly leaching out of the night-sky and dissolving into a dusty darkness that turned to pitch among the giants of the hills. After coasting along the coast, headland after headland we eventually turned inland and uphill after passing through the lively streets of Kenmare where the local musicians played those distinctly Irish jigs to awe-smitten tourists, drinking and dining in the fine late evening air.

I was feeling strong and determined as the notes fell away and I began to climb up the road with another cyclist, John, several hundred metres behind me. The view from the top was truly breath-taking and I stopped to take a few pictures for posterity. Then on, on into the night. It cooled a little, but not dramatically so, and it was a pleasure to be out under the stars on these twisty silent roads amidst the hills. Eventually the road climbed up and over Moll’s Gap. I imagined what the view must be like from up here during the daytime before plunging down and through the tunnel and across the park that led back into Killarney and a waiting bed…

Part II

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