Rain battered the windows of the B&B. Killybegs harbour invisible in the low slung cloud. By the time we’d eaten a cooked breakfast and porridge, the sun had sneaked out.
The bikes were packed and water bottles filled with spring water. Patricia handed us a surprise packed lunch for our journey and we waved goodbye. That’s one of the thing I love about Irish B&B’s, you arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.
We set off along the road then onto quiet lanes, (known as bóithrín in Irish) to Kilcar. It was a steep climb out of town. It’s hard, going uphill first thing, before the legs warm up. The sky darkened once more and the wind whipped up. We cycled into a headwind much of the morning.
In Kilcar, we stopped at Mockler’s Cakes and Bakes for coffee and cake. Blueberry and lemon cake for Dan and the gooiest chocolate brownie for me. I had mine hot and served with fresh cream. On my way to the bathroom, I saw a tray of tiny pastel coloured sugar flower buds on the counter. I was tempted to eat one. They looked so good. My conscience told me they were for decorating one of their exquisite cakes. I battled with temptation and conscience as I washed my hands. Conscience won.
The sun was shining again. Only a light sprinkling of rain had fallen. I lifted my gloves from the hot radiator and put my hoody on. It was tough leaving the warmth of the café knowing the wind would suck the heat straight out of me.
Here, the land is littered with megalithic standing stones, tombs, stone circles, and promontory forts. A reminder that Ireland’s history dates long before Christian times. I find the stones fascinating. Some are decorated with cup marks, or swirls, other are not. When I first pointed one out to Dan, he asked what was he supposed to be looking at. “All I see is a pile of rocks in a field.” I rolled my eyes and began to explain the shapes. He buried his head in a map.
We met no one on the road from Cashel to Doonan pier. We cycled side by side through the countryside, mooing and baaing at the animals we passed. On reaching the village of Carrick, we turned left. Two old rusting bikes leaned against the wall of a building.
“See those bikes Dan. Do you know the story behind them?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “Many years ago,” I began,”A Donegal girl went off to see the world. She fell in love with an English man she met on her travels. She and her love came here on their bikes one spring time. She wanted to show him how beautiful her homeland was. He was spellbound and they never left.” Dan was well gone by the time I’d finished my wee story.
We rode the lane by the banks of the Glen River where spring salmon return to spawning beds through the peaty brown water. Kelp exposed by the outward tide lay flat along the shore of Teelin Bay and an old fishing boat lay dried out on its hull near the pier.
Following the signs for the Slieve Liag, we turned towards the Pilgrim’s Path. For over a thousand years, pilgrims have walked this way. It’s a sacred mountain.
Once through the five bar gate, the path turned to gravel. Black faced ewes roamed freely, their lambs close by.
Sheep are daubed with colour in the hills of Ireland, so if you see pink, green or blue sheep, you’re not hallucinating. The marks are to enable the shepherd to identify his flock.
Heaving in the granny gear, I pedalled until I could go no more. The path had changed to rock and grass.
I looked back towards the sea. The clouds moved rapidly in the sky, sunlight streaked through breaks in the cloud and light and shadow danced on the heather and lake below. We found shelter from the breeze, sat on some rocks and ate our salad wraps.
We heard American voices. A group of four tourists appeared over the hill, one carrying a go pro on a stick, another weighed down with huge lenses and a camera. Wearing only t-shirts and jeans, they seemed inappropriately dressed for the mountain.
“Rather you than me,” Said one, pointing to the bikes.
I felt stronger and cycled for a bit, pretty soon, I was pushing. Suspension on, suspension off. My arms were knackered as the bike bobbled over the stones up the hill.
“How high are we now?” Dan stopped and checked the GPS.
“Jesus. I’m wrecked.”
This was My Donegal. Hill walks and hikes, mountains and sea. Dan struggled to keep up, his knee hurt and he had SPD’s on his feet. It was a steep, muddy and rocky hike to the ruined church where the wind blew at a steady 50 knots. Progress was slow. Dark clouds raced landward. This was not a day for ‘One Man’s Pass’. We tucked down in the ruined foundations for a quick snack and a rest.
“Dan, do you want to go on or will we go back?”
“I don’t think we’ll see much in these conditions and we still have a long way to go to reach Glencolmcille. We should get going.”
I was sad that Dan didn’t get to see the view from the top, but excited to get riding down the hill. We met one couple on our way down. They were on their annual visit. He was a Donegal man, she was from Cavan. I promised we would go another day. Sliabh Liag (also known as Slieve League) cliffs are the highest sea cliffs in Ireland, twice as high as the better known cliffs of Moher.
There was no sign of Dan’s dodgy knee as he raced past me on the way down the track. Soon, we were back in Carrick stopping in the Slieve League Lodge for a drink. A fire burned brightly in the hearth. We moved away, our faces already on fire from the scourging wind. We quickly worked our way through a large pot of tea and left. I would have fallen asleep if I’d stayed.
As I waited outside for Dan, a grey bearded man crossed the street and came towards me. He held a bundle of A4 pages. He was German. He had information about megalithic tombs. I thought it was lucky he met me and not Dan.
I took the leaflets and carried on towards Malin More. Dan said he was keen to see one of the burial grounds. I told him what we were looking for.
‘As you said, a pile of rocks in a field.’
Dan was well ahead when found the path. I called his name, but he didn’t hear. I continued alone to the circular stone structure. I stood on the highest point and waved my yellow jacket. Eventually he saw it and came back.
We sat on a fallen capstone in Cloghanmore Court Tomb. Its walls enveloped like a pair of stone arms, protecting those, long since dead.
We took the track over Mullyoo, where turf lay in neat mounds in the bog.
We arrived at the B&B at around 6.30pm. My brother Marcus said he would join us for dinner when he closed up at the Go Karts. Geraldine, the host, made us tea and biccies, served in the front room in front of a turf fire. Dan had never seen or smelt a turf fire before.
Marcus joined us shortly after and we went in the car to the village. The street was lined with cars. Mass was underway. We drove on to An Cistin, where a girl said they were closed. It was 7:55pm. We returned to the village, as the café was closing. The girl locking the door said, “The chip van will be here around nine.”
I was speechless. Marcus took out his phone and called his wife to tell her to keep him some dinner. We bought food for the next day’s lunch and drove to the chip van’s parking spot. The chip lady wasn’t quite ready but put on a fresh batch of chips and a fish for me. Marcus gave us a bottle of Rioja and dropped us off at the B&B.
Geraldine set up the table, gave us wine glasses and left us to enjoy our meal. Dan ate chip butties and a slice of cheddar. Arriving before the ‘season’ kicked off meant we had everything to ourselves. Chinking our glasses, we laughed at our fine food.
Seamus from Ireland by Bike called over to the house to help us out with some local knowledge of tracks in the area. He said he was only stopping five minutes. There was much talk of cycling and then we got onto Dylan Thomas.
Dylan had been sent to Glencolmcille to recover from his over indulgence in alcohol! He was also expected to write. He wrote some disparaging statements about Ireland and the people, calling them unlettered, and un French lettered. The isolation made him lonely and melancholic. An echo in the hills became his only friend. He did eventually retract what he said, but his words have not been forgotten here.
You may have missed
Wild Atlantic Way – Cycle Hire for this area:
Seamus Gallagher runs Ireland by Bike. They offer combined cycling and walking trips. He has a wealth of knowledge about the local area and can supply you with a hybrid or electric bike.
Donegal is an exceptional place to ride, especially if you go off the beaten path.