Galway City to Mt. Brandon: My Cycle down the Wild Atlantic Way

I finished exams on May 4, spent a week viewing rooms in Dublin–I will be moving there at the end of the month to work on a natural resource valuation project at ESRI–and then waited impatiently for the Galway bike shop to finish tuning the old, fire engine red racer I bought on DoneDeal for 110 quid last September. On Friday morning, I set off on a trip that will be one of the most memorable experiences of my year in Ireland.

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Last Friday cannot be described as anything less than Glorious. I was brimming with excitement as I rounded Black Head, the official end of Galway Bay and a stretch of road I know well from the many days I’ve spent with the NUIG surf club. Feeling confident on the familiar road and sucking the still-cool morning air, I cycled hard and fast. At Doolin, I detoured to the pier to check the waves out at Crab Island, filled up my water bottles, and then turned up the winding track to the Cliffs of Moher. The elevation gain made for a beautiful looping coast down through Liscannor and into Lahinch, where I paused to cool off in the ocean. From Lahinch, I followed the Wild Atlantic Way down through Spanish Point, Quilty (the tide was low, so the sea fields were well exposed), Craggaknock, Doonberg, Kilkee, and Kilrush.

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On Saturday, I explored Loop Head, the westernmost peninsula in County Clare. Highlights included seeing the stud farm in Carrigaholt, hiking all over Aill Na Brun, which was being taken over by the Star Wars film crew as I was there, and watching the sun fall over the Kilkee cliffs. As I was climbing a hill late in the day, a very elderly man drove past me, made a U-turn, and then pulled up alongside. “Howyah!” he shouted across the passenger seat. Gordon explained that the pink wildflowers blanketing almost every un-grazed patch of ground are called Sea Pink, and they only grow within approximately 100 yards of the ocean. He has been coming to Loop Head every May for decades to look at the Clare flowers. Before we part, he lets me in on a secret: there’s a stunning prehistoric ring fort just off the main coast road, and with his directions, I find it. I finish the day in Kilkee, arriving in time to see the sun fall into the bay.

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Sunday I crossed the Shannon estuary and continued my trip south into County Kerry. I saw Carrigafoyle Castle, which was besieged and partially destroyed by the English on Easter in 1580, and rested at Ballybunnion, which overlooks a sun-soaked cove. After trading stories with a DCU student who had spent a summer in California on a J-1, I set off for Tralee.

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I had thought that I had seen the most beautiful part of the west coast on Loop Head—and in some ways I think that characterization is still true—but Dingle is otherworldly. The fog on Monday morning concealed the first of the Dingle mountains, Mount Baurtregaum, until it was looming over me in all its glory. Horses roamed the unfenced fields in Ballycurane, and I followed a scratch of a track out to a secluded white sand beach that looks directly across to Brandon Bay. The water was a near-perfect azure and not nearly as cold as I expected. At Cloghane, I began my climb up the breathtaking Connor Pass, on the other side of which lay Dingle.

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Endorphins surging from the descent into Dingle, I pedaled straight to Murphy’s Pub, where I met my good friend from NUIG and serious Irish cyclist, Tomas An T-Saoir, who was just getting off of work. We set out straight away for Slea Head, the westernmost point of Ireland and named by National Geographic as the most beautiful place on Earth. Disney seems to agree, because we passed two more Star Wars sets: one off of Coumeenoole and one near Rosroe. We ended the day by cycling the short distance to Tomas’s family’s pub and B&B, Tigh an tSaorsaigh.

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Tuesday was day five, and the good weather unfortunately broke. Tomas and I cycled the final stretch of Slea Head out to Brandon Creek, the most remote portion of the Peninsula. A hiking trail winds up Mt. Brandon, the highest peak on the Peninsula and the second-highest in Ireland, but we knew better than to attempt it with bad weather approaching. We stopped at Gallarus Oratory, an early Christian church, and then got drenched when the clouds finally unloaded on us during the final stretch back to Ballyferriter.

In short:

Padded biking shorts: 35 euros.

Two bags of Kellogg’s granola: 7 euros.

Water bottle cage & patch kit: 10 euros.

Cycling 311 miles down the Wild Atlantic Way to meet one of my best friends from Ireland? Priceless.

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