Vicious Cycle

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Kerry and Clare, Ireland
By Micheal Jordan

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. Except I didn’t because I’ve never been to Manderley before. I tried, but the room was gone half an hour before I rang to make the booking! (I tend to leave things until the last minute.) It’s 6.30, Mick and I and our bikes are on a coach to Killarney, we’re due to arrive at 9.00 – night-time and we have nowhere to stay! To emphasise our dilemma it’s August; it’s Killarney, it’s Saturday night – we haven’t got a room. Neither do any of the B.&B.s on my short list that I am ringing frantically from the coach. All except Carriglea House, it has one room – a double room. As in a double-bed room. We have no choice, we can’t take the risk of finding one on speculation after nine o’clock at night, we have to take it. Tonight I am going to have to stay very very sober – or get very very drunk. Damn it – I’d loved to have stayed at Manderley. I chose it because of ‘Rebecca’. It’s been one of my favourite films for over 20 years and I’ve brought the book with me as this year’s holiday read (Mick has brought ‘A light-hearted look at the intrinsic rules of modern Rugby football’ – no honestly, he has.). And now I’m not going to be able to bring ‘Rebecca’ home to ‘Manderley Guest House’. I really must book these things properly! Now I won’t even see the Northern Lights.

Carriglea house turns out to be a fabulous place and our room may have one bed but it has two rooms – as it were, i.e. a small T.V. room off the main bedroom. Problem solved, I grab two large cushions off the chairs, a pile of spare blankets and I have a bed of my own. As Mick doesn’t drink I feel he is the one more likely to be in need of comfort as an aid to sleep tonight. Speaking of drink…

Left side of beach
Left side of beach
The B&B is on the Muckross Road, a long road stretching out from Killarney. Coming out of the long driveway we take a right turn up towards the Town centre in search of a pub. We do find several hotels – in fact nothing but hotels the whole way up. Finally I give up and we start making our way back – on a hotel bar crawl back to Carriglea. They’re all quite nice and they have that charming ‘We sell beer’ quality that I love, but there’s no real atmosphere in any of them. Still we do stay out until closing time.

After a good hearty breakfast (big fry-up) we pack our bags and prepare to start on the first leg of our journey. When we pay our hostess we comment on the lack of pubs in the immediate area. At least I do – loudly. She is surprised and points out that there is a pub just a few hundred yards down the road – to the left. I feel a bit put out by this and wobble a little on my feet. “Really?” “Oh yeah, it’s a lovely pub, real old fashioned and traditional” “Really?” I stumble sideways on my feet. “Yes, it’s owned by that writer fellow….” Mick carries me to the bikes. It turns out that the pub is owned by Bill Cullen. He is the author of ‘It’s a long way from Penny Apples’ which I’ve heard described as a sort of Dublin ‘Angela’s Ashes’. I haven’t read it myself – because I’ve heard it described as a sort of Dublin ‘Angela’s Ashes’. Anyway off we go.

(Important note to self; – NEVER EVER do something like this again) Today we are cycling the 38 miles to Listowel. (Never ever!) Originally we (I) had thought it would be best to start from Tralee but as that was only a distance of about 18 miles we (Mick) considered that too easy and a waste of the day. Of course we are now living in a land of Kilometres so to be more specific – we are cycling the 61km to Listowel because the 28km from Tralee is a bit wimpy. Oh yes and we’re travelling north – more popularly known as “up”. (Note to self – re-read first note to self!) The first section of the journey takes us to Farranfore, location of Kerry Airport – and a Spar. We stop there for a half hour break and get a couple of Isobionic drinks. We’re half-way to Tralee and nearly a third of our journey overall. So far so good, it’s only taken an hour or so and the roads haven’t been too tough. When we are finished our drinks we can’t find a bin and so go inside and hand them to the man behind the counter saying “Sorry, we can’t find the bin outside.” He seems quite taken aback (at last – I’ve wanted to use that phrase since ‘Five go to Kirrin Island – again’) and as we leave we hear him complain – “You should take your rubbish with you.” Feeling our abacks well and truly taken we stop in surprise outside and are soon joined by an angry American – who has been obliged to take his rubbish (an empty paper coffee cup) with him. We look away politely when he disposes of his rubbish – over their garden wall.

Onto Tralee and another pleasant easy cycle, we get there an hour and a half later and I am really coming round to full agreement with us that starting from Killarney was the best idea. As we arrive into Tralee I go over a slight pothole and get that sickening thud so feared by cyclists. The dull thunk that tells you your rear tyre is going flat. We stop and I check and sure enough the back wheel is soft – it obviously wanted to start from here as well. (Please stop me if I’m labouring a point) I have a spare tube if required – but I’ve only one and this is the first day! I pump up the back wheel at a garage and we hope for the best. We’re stopping an hour or so for lunch here anyway so that’ll leave it plenty of time for checking on. We find the Abbey Gate hotel right smack in the middle of a council estate and decide to stop here awhile. It is here that we come across our first proof of how rampant rip-off Ireland really is – in Dublin! In the bygone romantic and enlightened days before the Imperialist Fascistic smoking ban it was my occasional habit to spend a quite lunch-time in a nearby pub having a nice toasted sandwich washed down with a cooling rock shandy. I say occasional because such excursions while varying from pub to pub never cost less than a tenner and often cost quite a bit more. Today in Tralee, in a HOTEL Mick has a bowl of soup, a cheese and tomato salad sandwich and a Club Orange while I have a Pannini and a pint of Club Orange – all with complimentary side salad, for €14!!! Mind you, you still can’t smoke!

When we get back to the bikes my back wheel has stayed up so we are ready to go. It’s still early afternoon and we have just 18 miles to go to Listowel, we are more than half-way through our journey. As we get out to open country we pass numerous signs for B&Bs. One of them to my shock is called ‘Wuthering Heights’ – first ‘Manderley’ and now this. What next. Obviously every county in Ireland has somewhere called ‘Tara’ but is there a ‘Rosings’ a ‘Longbourn’ a ‘Hogwarts’?!! – An ‘Of Usher’ – an ‘Of Sand and Fog?!!!’ So distracted am I by these possibilities and so blinded my own smug cleverness when it comes to making literary references – that I fail to see the sign for what it is. – An omen. For this sign-post I later find is a sign to the last B&B, the last guest-house for a long long time. And just like the real Wuthering Heights of celebrated fiction – this is on the very edge of a deserted barren landcape where nothing lives – because nothing can. Blissfully unaware I cycle on – and on and on – and up and up.

And up. For the most part these uphills are relatively short. The only problem is – they are continuous. You turn a corner and see just ahead of you a few hundred yards (or a lot of metres) of uphill road before it makes a turn which must surely then turn down. And so you push on up to that turn, just – get – to – there – at which point you turn the corner and see just ahead of you…and repeat. Occasionally there is a slight respite when the road just goes level for a while and you don’t have to struggle so hard but you really long for the downhills which when they come are a gush of blessed relief. Down works. Down is good. But there are precious few of them, our only real allies in this fight are the flats but they too are becoming fewer as the cruel merciless ups just grow and grow in strength. Then I take one more corner, my hands numb with the pressure I am squeezing into the handlebars, my cycle helmet dissolving into salt on my head and my rucksack morphing into my back as my sweat-soaked t-shirt dissolves – and I see it – stretching out before for what looks like miles and miles, so far into the distance that distance itself ceases to be – one mother-fucking whore of a hill – and it’s going up!!

To cut a long section of the story short – there were many more roads like this. In fact – they were all like this. The road from Tralee to Listowel does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a road and nothing else, no stops no shops no houses – no people. Just road – and all of it up. Nothing to bother about if in a car – a nightmare on a bike. And of course – my puncture does reassert itself along the way. Still that gives us a chance to take a break, to change the tube, but at this stage we are running dangerously low on water – just when we need it most.

Finally Listowel – the most beautiful town in all of creation and in fact the only town on the planet hand-made by God himself on the third day – on his break from Antarctica. We find a B&B at the very start of the town – I can’t unfortunately remember what it was called because such was my delirium when we checked in I assumed ‘Guest House’ was its name. The owner of the B&B asks us where did we cycle from? I tell him we started in Killarney, expecting him to gasp in shock and awe. Instead he simply asks “Oh? Did you come over the hills or the flat way?” I stop on the stairs – gasping in shock and awe. ‘Th- there’s a flat way?!!” I ask weakly then turn to Mick to see if he’s as stunned as I am. He nods matter of factly – “Oh yeah, by the railway.” Reader, I killed him.

Listowel IS a beautiful spot. I have long feared that all Irish towns were becoming interchangeable. Every one having a Spar, a Centra and a Tesco shopping centre. An Xtravision or Blockbuster and a rash of disco bars. There’s none of that here. This is a real old Irish town that has enough modern trappings to keep everyone happy – nothing garish. Of course we go to John B. Keane’s pub and just like the town it’s subtle and quiet. It does not draw attention to itself in any way – it’s just another simple pub in town that happens to have one of the country’s most famous playwrights as its owner and namesake. Of course that’s the late owner but it is now run by his son Billy Keane – who is behind the bar when we go in. All the customers are locals and it being a Sunday the place is fairly quiet. There are posters on the wall for the various plays and film but otherwise nothing ostentatious. I really like this place. It sums up the town itself.

The next day and we’re off to Kilkee. This should be an easy enough cycle – 46k/29 miles but much of that journey is taken up on a ferry across the Shannon. This ferry goes from Tarbert, our last stop in Kerry. The fare is €4 each – a shocking price! You’d get nearly three bus journeys in Dublin for that. Of course you wouldn’t get to see a load of dolphins from a Dublin bus – at least not on the Southside. Hilariously (to me) while the ferry is basically one big open deck there is no smoking allowed anywhere on board and so no-one does. Again vastly different from Dublin Bus. You may be detecting a certain anti-Dublin bias creeping into this piece as it progresses. Perhaps it’s as I get nearer to home. I am in fact the first-ever Dublin born in my family – and my son Thomas is only the third. All my family come from Clare as far back as we remember – which is to my grandparents. Mick of course can trace his Dublin lineage back to the missing link but he too is pointing out the differences between his native sod and the actual bog.

The ferry docks at Killimer and a sweet little sign tells us we are just 20k from Kilkee, our ultimate destination, and just 5 from Kilrush – our lunch stop.

These 5k are the perfect cycle. A few gentle hills followed immediately by the same hills down, nothing too serious or dramatic. Which is just as well as I’m feeling a certain degree of muscle strain after the horrors of yesterday. My left knee is playing up a bit as well, a legacy of the days when I used to cycle 12 miles to work and 12 miles back again every evening. Worst however are my shoulders which are really feeling (to quote Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden when he was asked if they were walking on air – “quite literally”) the pinch. I have a small rucksack into which I packed quite literally everything but the kitchen sink. Socks, Jocks, T-shirts, Rain Gear, Jeans, Shirt, Toothbrush and paste, Razor and of course Rebecca. A pretty tight packed bunch – that unfortunately is compressed onto the one concentrated area of my back. I had loosened the straps a little to ease the pressure on my back but this was a big mistake as the effect is for the pack to wrench my shoulders back quite painfully and the straps are quite literally cutting my arms off.

In Kilrush – (another fabulous town – but we’re in a hurry) we stop at ‘Crotty’s pub’ for lunch. Again another bargain feed. A shared bowl of garlic mushrooms; a plate of sandwiches for Mick a plate of toasted sandwiches for me and a pot of tea for two (Mick’s idea and spot on) and we get change from a Euro. Well not quite – but it was very cheap. Plus as a little extra touch there is an extra tea-bag on the tray – in case we want a refill of boiling water, which we do.

And so to Kilkee. Ahh Kilkee. The last time I was here the Pope died. Pope Paul. Yes when I was but a child my mother used to take my brother and I here every summer holidays – and most reluctantly bring us back home again after. We always stayed in the Strand Hotel which was right opposite the beach (where oh where do they come up with these names?) The beach was a great big horseshoe with great rock-faces at either end. The right side had a big high cliff-like structure with giant steps carved into it which served as seating areas for those who didn’t want to sit on the sand. Every year without fail we bought a bag of periwinkles off a small cart stationed at the steps down to the beach – and every year without fail we got violently sick the following day. I remember one time spending a whole day in bed recovering and reading a book from start to finish. The only time I’ve ever read an entire book in one day – a proud moment for me and ‘Mr. Galliano’s Circus’.

Today we arrive late afternoon. It’s been a very easy pleasant cycle today but all the same Mick decides a nap is in order so once we check into our B&B (‘Nolans’) he takes one. I’m delighted as this gives me a chance to re-acquaint myself with the town again by myself. The first thing I see as I head in is the church. I recognise it immediately – but then like I said, the last time I was here the Pope died and we duly spent a lot of time inside. I go in briefly and looking at the alter I remember that at Mass the priest used to ask all the children up to sit around the alter – and it’s a bit of a shock to realise that I qualified. Oh yes, once I was nine.

Walking on down to the beach I go to the farthest end of it and start to walk along the footpath above to the other end. As it has been such a long time I am fully aware that everything could be completely changed but I am totally unprepared for what I see. Everything, everything – is exactly the same! The beach is the same, the rocks are the same, the giant steps are the same, the shops on the opposite side are the same, the amusement arcade is the same (and is still called ‘The Amusement Arcade’) – wow! I carry on along to where ‘The Strand’ was. Is it still there? Has it stayed the same? Has it held onto it’s glorious past and remained true to itself? Has it…? Oh there it is. And oh yes it has. No wait – no it hasn’t. Gasp, shock. It’s now called ‘The Strand Guest House’ – it’s a B&B! I cross the road to get a better look and see that what was once the dining room of the hotel is now ‘The Strand Restaurant’ and what was once the resident’s bar of the hotel is now ‘The Strand Bar’. It is a house divided. I quickly come to terms with it and head into the bar. Now this looks familiar, the layout of this place is exactly as I remember it and I remember it well – and why wouldn’t I? Didn’t I once meet Mrs. Riordan (from ‘The Riordans’ ) and get her autograph here?

A few pints and a couple of chapters of ‘Rebecca’ later I leave the pub and cross the road over to the steps down to the beach. I debate going down to the sand but time’s getting on and I’m supposed to meet Mick and go and get some dinner. I take another last look at ‘The Strand’ and shake my head ruefully, then with a polite smile and a nod to the man selling periwinkles from his cart beside me I head back to the B&B.

Right side of beach
Right side of beach
“Up,” said Fionn. And indeed at 9.00, it’s time to be getting out of bed all right. We did a slight pub-crawl (three) the previous night in Kilkee so we’re not too hung-over (well Mick’s not remotely) so we’re ready and able for the day ahead. Today is an even shorter run. Just 20 miles to Milltown Malbay. At breakfast the girl serving us asks us where we’re heading for next. When we tell her she gives a low whistle and says – ‘Oh that’s a tough cycle’. Mick laughs this off and says “No, not really, compared to what…” – “What?” I say nervously. “Why do you say that?” She smiles at us – not unkindly. And then raises her hand in a sloping upwards motion. I wait anxiously, but she doesn’t slope back down again. – she just goes off to get more coffee. Oh no. When we are checking out the owner asks us where we’re off to next. Again we tell her and she nods solemnly. ‘Hmm, fair play to you lads, that’s a good hard cycle all right’ ‘It’s only twenty miles’ I croak plaintively’ – ‘Ah yes, but there’s a lot of hills.’ Oh – no.

Well actually – no. Certainly there is one very long and very steep hill out of Kilkee. But it is a coastal town and you can only expect to go up to get out. Still it’s tough going and only the hope that for all this up there must inevitably be a down keeps me going. And it is a hope well placed because when we do finally reach the peak there in front is an endless downhill road. Bless. Just as well really as my left knee is really beginning to hurt now. It’s almost like it’s throbbing. I don’t know whether it’s cartilage or muscle or bone but every couple of minutes there is a real sharp pain under the kneecap that makes me stop peddling immediately. Mick cycles on but I take a five minute break at this peak. I drink back a load of water and take in the peace and quiet. It’s that wonderful time of the day when you realise that people are at work – and you’re not. I put the bottle back on the holder and gently let the bike start its roll down the hill. Ten seconds later and I am flying down avec toutes grande vitesse. I zoom past Mick who has unaccountably stopped for a water break – half-way down!! This is wonderful, this is why God invented bikes.

The propulsion generated by this phenomenal freewheel takes us easily to Doonbeg – about a third of the way in. We’ve barely broken sweat. Doonbeg is a sweet little town – one road, one church, one petrol staion, three pubs – a few houses. We stop to gather our thoughts and not having too many we get quickly on our way again. We’re making such good time we’re probably not going to stop for lunch today – unless we do so at Milltown Malbay which was our original destination and then continue onto Lahinch. There are a few slight hills as we head out of Doonbeg. But they’re not too bad and – ouch – there are always freewheeling downhills immediately afterwards. The road we’re on while an actual road is also – oooh – ouch – called the West Clare cycle-way. At least for a while, eventually the road splits into a dedicated cycle-way and a dedicated road, we keep to the road as the cycle-way – OW! Mother of God!! I have to stop the bike. My knee is absolutely killing me now. It’s not just the sharp jabs of pain that come with every rotation – it’s that terrifying feeling that something’s about to give. I am straining something to the limit and those pains are not just sore feelings of discomfort – they are desperate signals to the brain crying ‘For the love of God!! – Stop!!!’

So stop I do. And stay stopped. I have no choice – if I try to cycle any further something horrible is going to happen – I need that knee, the other ain’t a spare. Luckily we’ve not too far to go. I explain the situation to Mick and we agree that we have to keep to the original plan – and stop at Milltown Malbay. The rest of the way I wheel the bike up the uphills and freewheel down the other side. Finally we reach Milltown Malbay. While bigger than the other towns we have been through it is still a small enough place as we find out in a pub later that night when first someone buys a round of drinks for everyone because he’s just come back from his cousin’s funeral – “God Bless.” “Lord have mercy on the poor souls” – and immediately after a round of drinks is bought for everyone by someone who’s just won the local lotto – “Fair play to you Jackie boy – you old bollix!!” – Ah the craic.

And so the cycling ended – at least for me. The next day I got a coach to Ennis which very disconcertingly went back over every inch of Clare I’d cycled through for the last couple of days – in a little over an hour! Mick elected to cycle on and join me in Ennis. Of course the direct route to Ennis was too easy and a waste of a day so he decided to go the long way round taking in Ennistymon, the Cliffs of Moher; Lisdoonvarna, Sydney Opera House etc. I’ve always loved Ennis – or at least did the other time I was there for a stag night. It’s an amazing town – busy and full of life. Of course our night there coincides with the night the Leaving Cert results come out. The pubs are packed and when they are closed it takes a lot of persuasion to stop Mick from following them onto the clubs, “These are a different generation Mick – all they know about hedge-schools is what they’ve read in books!” The next day we get the train back to Dublin – splashing out for a change. So although I didn’t achieve my ambition of cycling right across Clare – I did achieve my later ambition of avoiding total paralysis. As soon as I get out of Heuston station Mick and I say goodbye and I get on my bike and start to cycle the wonderfully short distance home. Then with a cry of agony, hurriedly stop the bike and then proceed to wheel it the wonderfully short distance home! My knee’s still buggered!

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