In the spring of 1995, as I approached my 30th birthday, I told Greg that I wanted to spend the month of September riding my bike around Ireland alone. Greg expressed support for the idea and encouraged me to start training.
To prepare for the trip:
- I took a bike repair class at Wright Brothers Cycle Works in Fremont, which started with a lesson in how to repair a flat tire and concluded with learning to build and true a wheel.
- I went on one longish (for me) ride across Whidbey Island to Port Townsend with my friend, Linda, who had ridden the STP several times so knew what she was doing.
- I purchased a set of Ortlieb panniers and a handlebar box to hold the paper maps that I would use to navigate.
- I bought two pairs of bike shorts and one pair of biking shoes, which looked like low profile sneakers.
- I borrowed a hard-sided bike box from Greg’s boss and learned how to break my bike down to fit in the box and how to build it back up again.
- I located and then booked a room in a B&B in Limerick that agreed to let me store my bike box in their garage for a month. (Noteworthy because this was before the Internet, folks.)
- I purchased a round trip ticket into Shannon airport in County Clare on the West coast of Ireland.
In September, I bundled my panniers together using a combination of black plastic garbage bags and duct tape, boxed up my bike, and headed off on my adventure. I have no memory of the long trip from Seattle to London but during the brief flight that took me from London to Shannon, I recall that the flight crew managed to take the Duty Free cart up and down the aisle so that the passengers, including at least one priest, could stock up on tax-free whiskey.
After landing in Ireland, I staggered through the airport, reclaimed my bike box and panniers, and made my way to the taxi stand, where I watched one taxi driver after another arrive at the curb, turn off their lights, and walk away from their cars. Apparently my carefully laid plans of catching a taxi to my hotel were foiled by County Clare’s surprising victory, the night before, in the All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship—their first such victory in more than 80 years.
The county declared a vacation in their honor, giving schoolchildren and everyone else a day off to celebrate. The taxi drivers and various other enthusiastic citizens flocked to the airport to greet the returning heroes when their plane landed at Shannon shortly after mine.
When I noticed that buses were still running and that one had pulled up to a stop about 150 yards away from the taxi stand, I grabbed my stuff and took off at a graceless shuffle, dragging the bike box behind me.
I made my way into and through Limerick, transferring to a second bus to get me to O’Connell Avenue. I relied on help from strangers, including more than a couple of happily intoxicated old men, one of whom held onto my bike box in the aisle of the bus, and patted the side of the box lovingly.
My hosts, John and Nora Coyne, seemed thrilled to have me and happy enough to store the empty box after I built up my bike. (John checked in on me while I reattached my pedals in his driveway and offered pointers as I realigned the bits and pieces that made up my bike. He was the first to call me a “brave girl,” which become a popular refrain during my solo trip.)
The next day I caught a train to Killarney to begin my ride.
The best part about my trip was that, although I had planned my route, I didn’t have specific requirements about where to spend each night. I was free to stop early if I happened upon a particularly charming place or to stay an extra night if I felt like it. When I arrived in a new place, I just walked around the town until I found a hostel, B&B, or small hotel that looked appealing and had a vacancy.
I stayed at least two nights in Dingle because 1) it was beautiful; and 2) I wanted to take a day to ride around the Dingle peninsula, where the roads were lined by overgrown Fuchsia dripping brightly colored flowers.
While in Dingle, I visited a movie theater to watch The Usual Suspects, slept in a youth hostel and shared a room with a pair of young women who stayed out very late drinking, found a shop that sold beautiful scarves from Kerry Woolen Mills, and sat in on an auction of farm animals.
My ride from Dingle to Tralee took me up and over a long hill that felt like a mountain.
From Tralee, I rode north then caught a ferry across a waterway that marked the boundary between County Kerry and County Clare. I stopped for the night in Kilrush because I was tired and cold and ready to rest. The owner of the B&B in which I took a room directed me toward a shop in town so that I could purchase a warmer shirt to wear because I was chilled and had packed few warm options.
The proprietor of the shop, Mickey O’Shea, was a 90+ year old man who inherited the shop from his father and his grandfather before him.
Mickey’s shop was utterly chaotic, with boxes and things stacked hither and yon along beautiful old wooden countertops and built-in shelving.
I bought a soft flannel “Grandfather’s shirt” to keep me warm and then headed back to the B&B to shower, change into my new shirt, and find something to eat.
When I returned later for an extended visit with Mickey and to take pictures of him and his shop, I found a sign that indicated that Mickey had taken a break himself and retired to his apartment above the shop, which was accessed by a separate door “at your right.”
After I gave several “good long rings” on the doorbell, Mickey came down to continue our visit. He gamely agreed to take a photo with me wearing my new shirt.
And when I left, he happily posed in front of the shop while twirling his cane jauntily.
As I recall, Mickey was unmarried and had no sons or daughters to whom to leave the shop. The Street View feature of Google Maps confirms that the shop no longer displays shirts and hats in its windows, although the building still bears the family name.
The next morning, my B&B host slipped me a plate of scrambled eggs in addition to the standard fare she served the other guests because I was setting off on my bicycle, which she thought was both foolhardy and brave. (Every hotel and B&B host I stayed with did the same so I never set out on a ride feeling anything less than fully fueled.)
Other highlights from my trip include:
- Wandering through countless cemeteries.
- As I rode through the countryside, being flagged down by people who wanted to chat. They all seemed to know that I was an American and assumed that I was of Irish descent. (Aren’t we all?) No matter where the conversation took place, I received the same response: “Kerns!?! You’re definitely from here! We’ve got one down the street.”
- Listening to live music in Gus O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin.
- Visiting the Cliffs of Moher.
- Spending my 30th birthday in the Aran Islands.
- Seeing my first mound of peat (and using my bike to show the scale of the heap.)
- Riding near Lisdoonvarna one morning during the annual Matchmaker Festival and encountering an older man walking along the road, who flagged me down to announce “I’ve come from Donegal and I’m looking for a wife!”
- Being greeted by name wherever I went because I’d had the good sense to tie my personalized Washington State license plate to the underside of my saddle before leaving home.
Offering: a pair of unworn hand knit wool socks, purchased in the Aran Islands in September of 1995 and stored in my cedar chest ever since.