Touring Ireland by bicycle

by Garry Lee <>

Editor's note: I'm very grateful to Garry Lee for submitting this article, it provides much detail on touring in the south and south-west of Ireland. Submissions on the west and north would be very welcome. - S.

People are always asking about cycling in Ireland and as I am a keen cycletourist, mostly abroad but also here in Ireland, I am going to do an all-in-one answer which every query from now on will get.

Ireland is not a small country, though in comparison to e.g. Texas it is. It is the same size as Portugal, bigger than Austria or Switzerland, Holland or Belgium, and would take a long time to fully explore on a bike. To illustrate the size of e.g. Co.Cork, the largest of 32 counties, suffice it to say that it is nearly as big as Crete or Cyprus or Corsica. Ireland has a temperate climate and is never affected by the extremes of weather that are all too frequent in e.g. the U.S.A. At the same time, the weather is changeable. Frequent mists or light showers are the rule. Really heavy thundershower rain such as is commonplace in the Alps is thankfully rare. In summer the weather is sometimes good but more often changeable but the temperature is usually around 20C. Ireland is a rather windy country and the prevailing wind is SW. In summer it is too warm to cycle with a Goretex in the rain and a cycling cape or a fleece jacket is a better solution. At the same time shoe-covers are a sensible thing to have. Earlier on in the year, woollen mountaineering socks, if they will fit inside your shoes, are an additional comfort. The extremely useful polypropylene undershirt such as made by Hely Hensen is an ideal garment for this climate. With a windcheater it is excellent in light summer rain.

The roads in Ireland, in most counties form an extensive network but in comparison to continental Europe are of poor quality. They are all surfaced (Paved) but most are bumpy and it is generally advisable to cut your planned mileage a little so they don't annoy you. I do 70 miles or so a day, abroad but 60 here. An additional feature of the bumpy roads is that they are more uncomfortable if you cycle fast, so SLOW DOWN here. 28c tyres are OK abroad but here 32C or even 37c is better as at a pressure of say 50psi you will get no punctures but will have a much softer ride. A smooth tyred MTB tyre with 35PSI in front and 45PSI behind copes very nicely. (I've experimented endlessly with these pressures). A Girvin Flexstem or Softride stem adds to the comfort but is not absolutely necessary. The minor roads in many places are excellent for cycletouring as they have little or no traffic, tend to be higher up, where there are hills and tend to be more scenic. Many cyclists use hopeless maps here. There are superb maps available with superb detail if you want. As a general guide to route planning I would recommend either the Michelin Map of Ireland or even better the new Euroatlas Atlas of Ireland. They both shows scenic roads in green. However not all scenic roads are marked and the Michelin Map does not show many of the smaller roads. A useful supplement to this is 1:250,000 series with Blue covers by the Ordnance Survey, where the country is divided into four, or the more detailed new Discovery Ordnance survey series. These latter maps, however, are very detailed and only cover fairly small areas. They are overkill unless you are concentrating on a very small area. Ireland is suited to mountainbikes for its lousy roads but there is very very little off-road cycling available. This is because the land is very much fenced, or is too boggy to ride on. The main roads are in general to be avoided, as they are fairly busy. Most have hard-shoulders on which you can cycle but it is no fun on many. There are so many minor roads available that you should seek them out. At the same time, very few roads are as busy as say, the St.Bernard Pass. Places to Stay. Ireland has a huge number of B&B's which are highly regarded by foreigners. They will give you a huge breakfast which will last you until nightfall if you want. They cost about $20/night or more if you want. There is a large number of hotels, a reasonable number of hostels and campsites and a fair number of restaurants. In the Southwest, Cork and Kerry, the food is much more sophisticated than in N.Ireland or Donegal, where large quantities of plain food are still what people want. If you are willing to pay, you can eat extremely well in the Southwest with top-class French-style cooking etc. Fish is VERY good along the coast. Irish desserts are marvellous and home-made Irish soda bread is a national treasure. A very nice pub type lunch is brown bread with smoked salmon. Irish pubs are good and in some you will get music. If you hit a good session, it will be something you will remember. Irish traditional music is probably the most highly-regarded ethnic music in the world at the moment. I love it myself and love nearly all folk music. The usual B&B breakfast is something like Orange Juice. Cereals or porridge with milk. Cooked breakfast. Fish or Sausages, Bacon, Fried Eggs, Tomatoes, Black pudding or Scrambled Eggs on Toast with Tea or Coffee and Soda Bread, Toast, Jam or marmalade until you burst!.

Many pubs do pub grub which can be good but is often unspectacular. A good thing to go for is toasted sandwiches. These are usually great. Smoked salmon or fresh salmon sandwiches are also good. Most do chips (French Fries. Americans, what you call chips are crisps here!)

Where to tour.

Areas which are particularly worthwhile seeing (on the way to Cork - ed.).

Co. Wicklow. Have not cycled it much myself but the Wicklow Gap, Glendalough, Military Road etc. make fine and rather challenging cycling. Some lovely scenery.

Kilkenny city. Some old houses there with fabulous castle old Cathedral etc. 3. West Co. Waterford. Area of Nire Valley, Lismore, Cappoquin etc. very nice. Not VERY touristy.

Waterford coast is also nice without being spectacular all over, but the Area of Dunmore East is lovely, Bunmahon and the surrounding shoreline is gorgeous, unspoilt and makes for fine, though hilly cycling, Ardmore is a pretty village with an old Round Tower 800y old.

Co. Cork. Cork City is the second city of the republic but has the best restaurants, for gourmets. Arbutus Lodge and the Ivory Tower are superb by any standards. There are loads of very good cheaper restaurants. It also has excellent pubs. Cork County becomes scenic on the coast from Kinsale towards the west.

Just west of Kinsale there is a pretty little cove called Sandycove. If you continue along the road which runs through it it will bring you out (after a bit of a climb) on the road to Garretstown. You can go and see the Old Head of Kinsale if you like. There is a lighthouse with a developing golfcourse, but it is not worth seeing in my opinion. Continue through Garretstown and go towards Ballinspittle. Just before that you turn left to Harbour view. Continue along the coast road to Timoleague. En route you will see the pretty village of Courtmacsherry opposite. Timoleague has a famous old ruined abbey. You can cycle out past Courtmacsherry to see the various headlands and then head towards Clonakilty which is now an attractive town. Known in the past as "Clonakilty God Help us!". You can cycle out along the coast. See Galley Head. Walk around point. Pretty. Head back to Rosscarbery and from there to Glandore. On the way there you can see the ruined old medieval fortified house of Coppinger Hall and the megalithic Drombeg Stone Circle. The latter is a must. Glandore is a pretty place with restaurants and a hotel. Continue around coast to Union Hall. Lovely spin this.

If you want to really see the coastline and have good gears there is a meshwork of poor quality quiet roads all along the coast. I love that kind of cycling but you may not. The next stopping point is Castletownshend. There is a terrific view of this lovely place from the eastern side of Castlehaven harbour. Worth going to see. It is rather roundabout to get to Castletownshend from here but that's what touring is about. On the way into Castletownshend make the short walk to see Knockdrum Megalithic fort. Good view there. Castletownshend is an old very sloping village and has a famous pub Restaurant, Mary Anne's. Lovely village. From there you can head west towards Toe Head. This headland is a dead end but on a fine day, has a marvellous view out to sea of the Stags Rocks. From there make your way (confusing roads) to fabulous Lough Hyne, a tidal lake with smashing scenery and for the biologists etc. among you, unique flora and fauna. From there you make your way cross country to Baltimore. I believe that Baltimore, Maryland is called after it. This popular boating place has some fine eating houses, a lighthouse, and ferries to Clare Island and Sherkin Island. I've not been on them (yet). Ringarogy Island which has a road onto it is NOT WORTH VISITING. Head back to Skibbereen, a fine West Cork town.

The next mini-peninsula has Lisheen at its tip. This is not particularly spectacular, without being devoid of scenery. Not strongly recommended. After that Ballydehob is a very popular pretty old village which is popular with the trendy set. Schull is even more so. You can travel between the two on minor roads and it's pretty but you MUST have a detailed map or you'll finish going round in circles. After Schull is Goleen which has lost its popularity to Schull. It's a lovely place and it is worth going to see the little harbours near it, Heron Cove etc. This leads on to Crookhaven. It is a lovely location and French yachts pull in there all the time. It has a few fine pubs etc. On the way out of Crookhaven climb up to the dead-end Brow head. Walk south of the road for a marvellous view of the headlands.

Continue from there out to Mizen Head, the most south-westerly spot in Ireland and a spectacular lighthouse which is now a visitor centre. Great cliffs very near it. From there head back and visit Three Castle head where you come to a dead-end near a little jetty. If the weather is reasonable Leave the bikes there and walk up to and to the left of the farmhouse and over a couple of hills (25 min walk) and you come to an old triple ruined medieval castle with a lake. Ultra atmospheric. Knights of the Round Table stuff.

Retrace your route and go up the north-western shore of the Peninsula. Terrific views over Dunmanus bay. This road takes you into Durrus. You can take a really tiny very hilly road over the mountain to Bantry. Great view of Bantry Bay from the top. Ask in Durrus. As far as I remember your guide is to follow the Electric wires. Sheep's head is at the tip of this peninsula. While scenic in comparison to some other countries, I do not think it is worthwhile cycling this peninsula. The roads are poor and the view at the end is easily surpassed by numerous views on the next three peninsulas.

The Beara Peninsula (Pronounced Bare'-ah). This has magnificent cycling, probably the best in Ireland but has challenging terrain. You must have a triple chainset and must take your time. Nearly every road on it and leading into it is worth cycling. The cycling highlights are. 1.The loop heading east from Ballylickey to Kealkil, Gougane Barra, Ballingeary, then across the mountain and down to Kilgarvan. In Ballingeary take the sign for Reenaree and at the very top of this climb take a left and this will take you through lovely mountain scenery to the allegedly highest pub in Ireland, The "Top of Coom". Continue on down through a lovely valley to Morley's Bridge where you turn left for Kilgarvan.

The Road over the mountain from Ballylickey to Kilgarvan is a magnificent wild mountain road, especially on the Kilgarvan side. It is rough but quite rideable.

Just to the West of this there is a more challenging climb over the "Priest's Leap". There is a mile or so of unsurfaced road on the Kerry side. Wonderful isolation. There is a steep descent which is a little gravelly so if you're nervous walk.Lovely valley on Kerry side. Comes out at Bonane. If you head towards Glengarriffe on this road and some bit further on, just before a bridge, as I recall turn right and then left you head into the Baurearagh (Pronounced Bawr ear uk) valley which is a dead end but quite magnificent. Very rough road. If you had not turned left you could go over a very wild mountain road, some of which you might have to walk as it has ferocious gradients on the way down. Not recommended.

Loop from Glengarriffe to Kenmare, the along the coast, going through Kilmakillogue rather than up the main road, then up the Healy Pass and down to Adrigole. At the top of the Healy pass, 50m from the summit on the Kerry (Northern) side go 50m off the road to your right. Magnificent view, one of the best in Ireland. If you like gardens go to see Garnish Island in Glengarriffe harbour. There are fantastic gardens on it. As you go west out of Castletownbere you will see a sign for Dunboy castle. Worth a look. Bere (Pronounced Bare, Bear) island is supposed to be worth seeing. I have never seen it yet. There is a regular ferry from Castletownbere. A little place called Garinish near Dursey island at the tip is worth seeing in good weather. Allihies is spectacularly situated. Old disused copper and tin mines here.

As you go west out of Allihies and round the corner of the peninsula it is very hilly and very spectacular. A few very severe gradients. One (in opposite direction) I've measured with an inclinometer at 17.5%. Make sure you have good brakes. You can go straight on for Ardgroom but if you follow the full Ring of Beara around the coast, be warned. It's gorgeous and VERY WEARING cycling. Endless short sharp hills. If you're not in a rush and the weather's good do it. Especially if you have a camera. At Ardgroom you can take a brief diversion up to Glenbeg Lough. If you like quiet places, you'll love it. Before Lauragh (law-ruck) turn left out along the coast to Kilmakillogue Harbour. This is much nicer than the main route. If you've not done so and want to see another lovely dead end, cycle as far as you can up the side of Glanmore Lake, in Lauragh. The road into Kenmare is bumpy but spectacular. Kenmare is the best base for cycling in Ireland. It has everything. Good places to stay, good restaurants and pubs, brilliant cycling in every direction.

The Ring of Kerry and Diversions. The Ring of Kerry is the most famous drive in Ireland, though the Ring of Beara which is much less popular due to its tiny roads, is in my opinion nicer and much more suitable for cycling. However, the Ring of Kerry is a fine cycle, although doing the complete ring is not necessary, and a few diversions and alternative bits make for finer cycling. From Killarney to Kenmare (stress on Mare) and on to Waterville is really beautiful. From Waterville around to Killarney on the Northern side is a poor relation of this, and although the first ten miles of it are boring, cycling down the middle of the peninsula from just to the North of Waterville is more rewarding. The Eastern View from the top of Ballaghasheen (bolokasheen') Pass is terrific. You can opt to go around Caragh (Kahra) Lake or continue over the second pass, Ballaghbeama (bolokbame-ah) Pass. You can also go down by Lough Acoose.

Diversions. 1. Valentia (valensha) Island. The roads down to this are rough but there is a fabulous view from the far side (North) of the island. There is an old slate quarry there and a large grotto. The old transatlantic cable station is on the island. The name has nothing to do with Valencia in Spain and comes from the Irish name, Cuan Bheal Inse (Cooan veul inshe). There is a savage climb over a hill from Portmagee towards Ballinskelligs and the view is worth it. Ballinskelligs is a small Gaeltacht (Irish language speaking area. The Irish usually call the language Irish, rather than Gaelic, though the Irish for it is Gaeilge (Galegah) or Gaelinn (gale-ing).

The Gap of Dunloe, Black Valley. This is a must unless you are unfit. This unsurfaced beauty-spot near Killarney is approached from Beaufort (Bohfurt). On a nice day it is unbelievably pretty. Cyclists can cycle up it but some bits require v. low gears and are a bit gravelly and dodgy so if you are nervous walk them. The road continues down into the Black Valley where there is a Youth Hostel. This is a smashing place also. When you continue down past the Youth Hostel you come to a fork where to continue in the direction you are going takes you down to a dead end meeting one of the Lakes. Go down this road, as it's lovely. When you return, continue out towards Molls Gap. This goes by a lovely stream with some very idyllic spots. You eventually take a left for Moll's Gap. The climb up is moderately difficult.

Near Sneem there are a few very pretty roads down to the coast. Just West of Parknasilla there is a short road to a gorgeous place called Tahilla Cove. As you climb west out of Sneem the road rises for a while. Then there's a long descent. At the end a road to the left takes you to a dead end at a lovely tranquil rocky cove. On the way into Sneem you can go into the Parknasilla Great Southern Hotel for a snack. Smashing location. A few miles west of Sneem you can go to see Staigue (stayg) Fort, a large prehistoric fort on a hillside. Bit of a climb on the bike. Not disappointing if you like such things. Near Caherdaniel (pronounced as spelt) you can see Daniel O'Connell's house. He was the great Irish patriot of the early 19th century and Caherdaniel in Irish (Cathairdomhnaill) means Daniel's town or city. Not worth seeing unless you're into history. Nice place though.

The Dingle (din'gell) Peninsula. This peninsula which is very popular with foreigners has pluses and minuses. In a country with bad roads, Kerry probably has the worst, and the Dingle Peninsula has the worst in Kerry. From Tralee to as far as the Connor Pass on the Northern side of the Peninsula is not worth seeing. The road from Castlemaine to Inch on the Southern side is bumpy and rather tedious cycling. Around Inch the scenery is lovely, it disimproves again until near Dingle. Dingle is famous for being famous. It has a famous friendly dolphin and you can take a boat trip out to see him. He usually obliges, they say. There are several good restaurants in the town.

The Connor Pass is a fine climb of around 460m, the highest pass, though not the highest road in Ireland. It is steeper on the Northern side. You should head out in an anti-clockwise ring around the tip of the peninsula. It's very spectacular. At Clogher (clo'her) head, walk to the high viewpoint not far from the road and you will have a magnificent 360 degree view. One of the best in Ireland. In Dunquin there is a famous pub (famous for being famous), Kruger Kavanagh's. Kruger who is long dead, but whom I met a few times years ago was a great local character who made it big in New York in his time as a theatre agent. Past Dunquin you will see a sign for Dunquin pier. There is usually a boat service to the Great Blasket Island and if the weather's good go there. It's absolutely stunning, especially for the view of the mainland. This island was inhabited by Irish speakers until 1954 and 3 of them wrote books about their lives. Three classics which have been translated into many languages. "The Islandman", "Peig" and "Twenty years a Growing". The road continues past Slea (slay) Head. Go and see the gorgeous Clogher (cloher) Strand, just next to it. Great surf here. The road continues past Ventry and back to Dingle. Tralee (tralee') is a fine town to stay with terrific pubs and fine restautants.

How to get out of Cork.

It depends on where you are going.

1. Killarney the easy way. Cycle out the Western Road. To get to this from Patrick St., go to Grand Parade and turn right at Capitol Cinema. This street is continuous with Western Road. The fine building you will see on the left, made of Limestone in a Victorian Gothic style is the University. Eventually you will see an Allied Irish Bank on the right. Turn right here and go to the end of this road (Across a fine bridge. Good view downriver from it). Turn left after crossing the bridge and continue straight on road. The fine buildings on your right are the old Mental Hospitals. The Second one (Grey) is said to be one of the longest buildings in Europe. The road climbs some time later (good view backwards) and then drops down again. You wind over a little humpback bridge and come out on a larger road. ***Take the centre road (Don't go right or sharp left) Follow this road almost to Macroom. You will pass through Lower Dripsey, Dripsey, Coachford and Carrigadrohid. At Carrigadrohid take a 50yard diversion to the left to see Carrigadrohid Castle. Very pretty view from this bridge. Just before Macroom there is a bridge to the left. ****. You can cross this and go right, or continue straight to the back of Macroom. The latter option is prettier as you pass an old mill with a mill stream etc. From Macroom you can either head straight to Killarney or add in a scenic loop, taking the road towards Millstreet, after Macroom and then turning left through Clondrohid. This comes back onto the main road at Ballyvourney. In sunny weather it's a fine bit of scenery.

Killarney the Hard Way. Follow instructions as far as ***. Take right turn. Follow the Main road on this for X miles X K until you see a ramshackle Petrol station/shop on your right and there's a sign for Rylane on your left. Turn left and continue straight the whole way. This road takes you over Musheramore Pass which is about 430m and is a fine climb. There's a small very steep bit about 600m before the summit. Maybe 15%. Continue on straight the whole way and you will come to Millstreet. From there, main road to Killarney. This route is difficult over Mushera but is very quiet, usually, as far as Millstreet, and is scenic. I love it. 3. Killarney partly on tiny roads, skipping Macroom. Follow instructions for Macroom the easy way until Dripsey. In Dripsey, the main road veers left past the pub, "The Weigh Inn". Go straight on to the right of the pub instead. This road takes you down to the picturesque mill-pond of the old Dripsey Woollen Mill. Lovely place for a picnic with the sound of cascading water and an old castle across the pond. Continue on. Road winds over small bridge and emerges on a road sweeping from right. Follow this (going left) for a very short distance, take first right and first left.(also very short distance). You are now on a flat bumpy quiet country road. Follow this straight until it emerges in front of a coniferous wood. Follow this road as it continues to right and you will come to Bealnamorrive. As you pass the pub on the left, ignore the sharp left and the road which goes slightly right and take the centre road which climbs a little. This lovely boreen continues on straight for miles. You pass through a yield sign and then drop down towards a narrow bridge where there is a meeting of streams. Lovely spot for picnic. Follow the road to the right from here rather than going left. This continues straight, crossing other roads, up and down until it comes out on a T-Junction with a pub just behind you on the left. Turn right here and you are on the road to Clondrohid which will take you to Ballymakeera/Ballyvourney on the Macroom Killarney road.

Cork-Glengarriffe, Bantry. 1. Via Cousane Gap. For this route, which is the shortest, and lovely after Coppeen, you need to go out the main Cork-Macroom road. This road is busy but has a wide hard-shoulder and is safe enough. Follow the initial instructions for Killarny the easy way as far as ***. Here turn sharp left and then right, having crossed the big bridge. This main road takes you via a roundabout to Ballincollig. Follow the main road out for about 10 miles until it bends to the right, where you will see a sign for Crookstown to the left. Go there and turn right at the sign for Bantry etc. (In middle of village). Follow this road for about a mile until you come to a junction at the "Diamond Bar". You take the road on the right for Bantry etc. This goes through Coppeen. Some miles after Coppeen the road veers left at an old house and there is a fork after this for Bantry. You can easily miss this if you're not paying attention. The road is now straight all the way to Ballylickey, over the Cousane Gap (Not difficult), through Kealkil. 2. Via Inchigeela. This is not much longer than the above, is more scenic, but a little busier. Follow instructions for Macroom as far as ****. Cross the bridge, turn left and shortly right for Inchigeela. Follow signs. It's straighforward. The lake between Inchigeela and Ballingeary is gorgeous. If you're coming back the same route, take the minor road around the other side of the lake as it's beautiful too. Gougane Barra, which is past Ballingeary, a short diversion, is worth a look in good weather. It's a pretty mountain lake, site of an ancient monastery, and is the source of the River Lee, Cork's river.

If the weather is stunning, and you are super-fit, and you don't mind bad roads, there is a mountain road from Ballingeary which comes down over this lake. You turn right on a tiny road, before the bridge which leaves Ballingeary. This tiny road comes to an old farmhouse where you turn left at one stage. It's quite complicated. The Road winds around and climbs steeply again, as far as I remember and again you take a left, and later a final left. Lovely above the lake. From Gougane (Googawn) or Ballingeary (Balingarey) keep on straight to Kealkil (Kalekill). You go through the pass of Keimaneigh (Came an ee). This is not difficult. The name means the jump of the deer as an Irish legend has it that a deer once jumped it. If it did it must have been distantly related to Carl Lewis.

Cork to Kinsale. There are actually 5 different ways you can go to Kinsale. The main road is the worst as the traffic will be heavy. The best way to go is to out the Main road to Bandon and to turn left at the roundabout which is the first one a few miles outside Cork. Although this is a very busy road it is wide and most of it has a hard shoulder. It also has a superb surface, something worth savouring in Ireland as it's as rare as hen's teeth. From the big roundabout on it's fairly quiet and not too difficult.

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