- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

KILRONAN, Ireland — Cycling across the largest of Ireland’s Aran Islands, it’s easy to lose yourself in the labyrinth of walls, painstakingly built over centuries, rock by rock, by a handful of people determined to eke an existence from a reluctant but beautiful land.

Fewer than 1,000 people live on Inishmore today, and the island historically was not home to more than a few hundred at a time. The seemingly endless grid of rock walls — built to clear the land for crops and pastures — stands as a testament to the human spirit.

“There’s no mortar in them,” said Padric Deirrane, 54, a part-time stonemason who was building a modern wall around a new residence just outside Kilronan when we rode up on our bikes. “We cheat now. We could build them without mortar, but it’s easier this way.”

Just 8.7 miles long by 2.4 miles wide, Inishmore is the largest of the three Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. In the past 20 years, since ferries started making the 45-minute trip regularly from Rossaveel, the island has become a prime tourist destination.

In August, as many as 1,500 people a day visit the island’s ancient fort atop a 300-foot cliff overlooking the Atlantic, explore the ruins of its medieval churches or cycle through the walled fields that dominate its landscape.

Inishmore was the last stop on a six-day, 170-mile bike trip my wife and I took through the rugged and picturesque Connemara region of western Ireland, a land of lakes, mountains, colorful towns and Ireland’s only fjord.

Organized by a Dublin-based bicycle touring company, our trip attracted 15 cyclists of all skill and endurance levels from five countries. With more than half the group older than 50 — and one cycling with a replacement knee, we quickly discovered that Americans are not the only baby boomers reluctant to give in to age.

The catalyst for the adventure was a 40-year-old Irishman, Sean McDermott, or John, as he insisted on being called. The self-styled deputy mayor of Ballyconneely, Mr. McDermott was the tour guide who took our bags from one bed-and-breakfast to the next, entertained us at dinners, rescued us when the weather turned bad, and performed nightly in pubs with traditional music and dance groups.

He also arranged two birthday parties, delivered anniversary toasts, steamed a pot of mussels the group had dug from a beach and made a determined but unsuccessful effort at matchmaking for the 15-year-old French student on the trip. In six years of leading group bicycle tours, Mr. McDermott proudly claims “two marriages and at least one child conceived on my trips.”

Most of the cycling was relatively easy, along lightly traveled roads with only minimal changes in elevation. The one exception was a continuous three-mile climb as we crossed the Partry Mountains on the first day’s trek from Cong to Westport. When the pedaling became too difficult, we simply dismounted and walked our bikes.

On a bike, particularly at our cycling speed, you see the beautiful countryside in slow motion — yellow fields of buttercups alternating with white fields of bog cotton; moody, mist-covered mountains that change as often as the weather; explosions of purple from rhododendron-lined country roads; and views so spectacular you forget your aching muscles.

It’s also easy to hop off the bike to check out “the first pub in Connemara,” “possibly the most interesting pub in Connemara” or even “possibly the most interesting craft shop in the West.” The Irish, it seems, are much too modest for Madison Avenue.

Sometimes, you just have to park the bike and walk. We did that at Croagh Patrick, the 2,510-foot peak in County Mayo where St. Patrick is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights in A.D. 441 while banishing all snakes from Ireland.

It’s an imposing holy mountain, with a summit that can be reached only along a half-mile climb through a rock field with a steep slope. Thousands of Catholic pilgrims do it each year, and a small number of them do it barefoot in keeping with a tradition that is no longer widely observed.

There’s a chapel atop the peak, and Masses are held every 30 minutes on the last Friday in July, known as Garland Friday, for an estimated 30,000 pilgrims who make the climb that day.

It took us almost two hours to reach the top, but the reward was an incredible view of Clew Bay and the west Ireland coast, the town of Westport, the island of Clare, and the Atlantic. The trip down was even more treacherous than the climb, with shifting rocks constantly challenging even the most sure-footed hikers.

At the bottom, entrepreneur David Gibbons hawked sandwiches and official-looking documents for $3 each, certifying that the climber had reached the peak. How did he distinguish the true climbers from the pretenders?

“I know how long they were gone,” he said. “Besides, I get the $3 either way. Why should I mind?”

From Croagh Patrick, we biked along the famine road, from Louisburgh through the Doo Lough Pass and the lush Delphi Valley, perhaps the most beautiful, and haunting, stretch of the trip. The road got its name when some 400 victims of the potato famine in 1849 were told they could get food at a lodge in the valley. They came, they were turned away, and they died.

Before reaching Inishmore on the last day, we also cycled around the Killary Fjord and into Leenane, past the 150-year-old Kylemore Abbey, through Clifden, across a typical bog into the coastal town of Roundstone, and southward along the coast to Carraroe and Rossaveel.

Along the bog road, we discovered there’s more to biking in Ireland than beautiful landscapes and interesting history. There’s also the unpredictable weather. The gentle rain of the morning had turned into a biting, wind-driven downpour that made cycling even on level roads almost impossible.

Squinting through the raindrops on my glasses, I pedaled alongside my wife as she struggled down that bog road and began singing at the top of my voice, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.” It was, after all, her 50th birthday, the event we had come to Ireland to celebrate.

She burst out laughing, and we both got off our bikes. Our two colleagues pulled up next to us, and we all agreed it was time to call Mr. McDermott. After the longest 20 minutes of the trip, his white van pulled up, and we were off to the hotel for another night of good food and music.

Advice on how to reach the Aran Islands by air or sea can be found at www.ireland.com/explore/counties/galway_a.htm. Check ferry schedules at www.aranislandferries.com/schedule.htm; boats to Inishmore depart several times daily from Rossaveel, a 30-minute drive from Galway.

The nearest airport is in Shannon; Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) operates daily direct flights to Shannon from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. From Shannon to Galway, take Bus Eireann, at www.buseireann.ie, about $13.40 per person.

Irish Cycling Safaris: Connemara tour (www.cyclingsafaris.com) leaves from Galway; $712 per person, includes 21-speed bike, room and breakfast for seven nights, guide with van and daily luggage transfer.

Aran Islands: For details on the islands, go to www.visitaranislands.com.

Croagh Patrick: Visit www.croagh-patrick.com.

West Ireland Tourism Web sites:Visit www.connemara-tourism.org/ or www.irelandwest.ie. To reach Tourism Ireland in New York, dial 800/223-6470.

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