Ireland and Northern Ireland – Cycle Touring

In April, after a winter locked down by Covid, we arrived with our bikes in Dublin, Ireland. Our plan was to cycle straight across to Galway, using the Green Lanes then to head North on EuroVelo 1, following the coast up through Connemara, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal and on into Northern Ireland. Once at Belfast we would hop on a ferry over to Stranraer in Scotland for the final stage of our trip up to John o’Groats from Devon. We have been off-road bikepacking through South West England from Devon to Bristol and across Wales to Holyhead in Anglesey. After 600 km and climbing over 10,400 m we are now hoping for an easier time in Ireland.

The pedestrian and cycling access to the ferry terminal at Holyhead. We were up and away early and a quick roll down the hill took us straight into the Holyhead ferry terminal. No queues, almost no people, we were ushered through while they wheeled our bikes away. We got straight onto a bus that drove us inside the ferry, so that within 5 minutes we were drinking coffee upstairs watching Holyhead slip away in the mist. Despite it being Easter Saturday the ferry was almost empty, just a few families with young children. The best bit was that it was flat calm all the way over to Dublin. Big relief as Bernie is not a good sailor.
Arriving in Dublin
On the Royal Canal Towpath. We all piled onto the bus again as we arrived in Dublin and it dropped us at the terminal where only a vague flash of passport was required, then we were in Ireland watching them unload our bikes from the van they had travelled across on.
Outside, sunshine and warmth! We were on the Royal Canal Towpath almost straight away which was a really easy way to get through Dublin. Emerging at a bridge we spotted the Bernard Shaw pub so stopped for a brunch. Sitting outside in the sunshine and warmth was so relaxing, just like other people’s holidays!
The Royal Canal. We were on the canal path for the rest of the afternoon but it kept us on our toes. There were a couple of diversions through side streets and the surface on the towpath very variable, changing from tarmac, gravel, rutted mud and lots of roots. Also the bit I hate on towpaths, ducking under bridges on the narrow path hoping no-one is coming the other way.
A heron. We stopped in Maynooth for the night as it was the only place outside Dublin where we could find accommodation on Easter Saturday.
Our plan was to cycle more or less straight across Ireland to Galway and the west coast and then head north following Eurovelo 1. We stayed on the Royal Canal to Mullingar then turned on to a very dull rail trail.
This part of Ireland looked very flat after the Welsh Hills
The small town of Moate were everything was shut on Easter Monday despite lots of tourists milling about hungrily. We had started the day fast as it was flat, but as the day progressed I found I had less and less energy and could hardly get the peddles to go round. I just about made it into Athlone by which time I was feeling really ill with all the symptoms that made me think I had Covid. So we booked in to a hotel with room service and I slept for the next 16 hours. Thankfully the shops were finally open again the next day so Bernie was able to buy some Lateral Flow Tests. Both Negative, a big relief although I still felt really ill.
We decided to hire a van and drove up to a remote cottage we found in Connamara, tucked under the Maumturk Mountains. The view from our cottage in Glentrasner, Connamara
It was a blissful place to spend a week while I recuperated and it gave us time to really explore Connamara. View of the Maumturk Mountains
Clifden Harbour
Connemara was a wonderful place and it was great to have time to explore. The Twelve Ben Mountain Range seen across peat bog. There was a lot of peat bog!
Kylemore Abbey
Kylemore Abbey gardens
Twelve Ben Mountains across a Lough
Lough Corrib the largest Lough in Ireland
Walking a bit of the Western Way in Connemara
Much of the Western Way is bog!
Connamara pony
A hare
lovely white sandy beaches on the Connamara coast between Roundstone and Ballyconneely
Farming here is not for the faint hearted
A heron
We left our wonderful hideaway cottage and set off past Maam Cross and along a stunning mountain valley. It was quite different to all the other valleys we had seen in Connamara, being green, fertile, not boggy and not covered in stones. Yet again it was a beautiful sunny day, we have been unbelievably lucky with the weather since we have been here.
By 10 we had dropped off the hire van at Castlebar and were finally back on our cycle tour. We were now in Mayo and headed for Newport on the coast. It turned out to be an easy cycle, with most of it on cycle lane, so we were there by 12.30. Bernie has set the first couple of days short as we weren’t quite sure how well I would manage a longer cycle. But apart from a lot of coughing all was OK.
So after lunch we decided to head along the Greenway to visit Westport. As it turned out this particular Greenway followed the route of a busy road, but one or two bits were pretty. Westport itself was probably also a pretty place but I struggled to see past all the cars and endless traffic jams.
We were lucky to have two weeks of glorious sunny weather with a light wind. We had an easy 20 km from Newport along the Bealach Glas Greenway. It was mainly flat and we bowled along through fields of sheep and around moorland on a smooth surface, almost like a motorway, with lovely views of countryside and the sea.
Ballycroy National Park
The road from Mulranny took us right to the edge of the bay. It was like parts of the North Coast 500 but without the dreadful traffic. Very pretty.
Then we were on smaller lanes, still following the coast and Eurovelo 1, with great views of Achill Island. We continued up the coast for a couple of days over mainly flat ground.
Peat Cutting
Belmullet main street
Heading out on the first headland. Having had it easy with short flat days it was a bit of a shock to have a long and hilly day between Belmullet to Killala and into a headwind by the afternoon. As the crow flies we didn’t go that far but our route took us out on one side of the headland and back down the other side several times.
Cut peat drying out
The second headland was the killer as we went up high over the boggy moorland. It was nice as it gave us the views we have been yearning for. One of the most frustrating things I have found here are the frequent signs announcing a cafe or pub is just around the corner only to find it is shut and usually up for sale. This happened several times today and I was hungry. Finally found the perfect cafe for tea and cakes in Ballycastle.
We decided to give the last headland a miss as we were flagging, so never saw Down Patrick close up, but from a distance the rock on the end looked like a giant slice of cake. I told you I was hungry!
The 700 year old tower in Killala
We found a 25.5 metre tall tower in Killala which is 700 years old and an intact old cathedral which is unusual in Ireland.
We also discovered that there is a Greenway that leaves from the town that wasn’t shown on our map. So armed with directions we turned through an arch between the tower and cathedral and found ourselves on a lovely empty Greenway that went through woods and past a horse racetrack then out into green rolling countryside. The countryside here is very different to all the brown bogland that we have seen so far.
After a few miles we turned off to look at the ruins of Rosserk Abbey. It was beautiful and very atmospheric being built right next to the estuary.
Swallows were nesting in the ruins and the calls of wading birds were echoing from the mudflats. It had been built in the 14th century and was a friary of the 3rd order, meaning men and women who were or had been married could live here.
We cycled along small lanes with estuary views before turned onto another Greenway that took us through the beautiful old woodland of Belleek Castle Estate.
There were various old monuments on the way through and we stopped by the Famine Wall on the Moy estuary. These are walls that landlords and religious groups got the starving people to build so they could earn enough to feed themselves during the famine.
Making the most of the sunshine on Enniscrone beach before the two weeks of sunshine ends. Rain forecast tomorrow
The rain had stopped by the time we headed inland the next day, round the edge of the Ox Mountains
Lough Tait on the way to Tubbercurry
Heading towards Sligo we got a brief glimpse of the Ox Mountains before the drizzle started
The route took us along green country lanes
And through bluebell woods
It was misty again as we left Sligo so we didn’t notice immediately the unusual form of the hills around here. As the mist lifted the we noticed how high the hills were compared to the flat ground all around. They rose almost straight up with cliff type rock tops and were totally flat on the top. Quite strange. I couldn’t find a name for the group of hills on my map but we asked a walker who gave us the names of a couple of the hills, Benbulbin and Benwiskin, which has a famous cave apparently.
We spent the day zigzagging around avoiding the main road and going through lovely countryside and along the coast. Great views across the sea towards Donegal. At one point our route appeared to have washed into the sea so we had to cycle inland for a bit.. Here Bernie is wondering if we can still get through were the sea has washed the path away.
After leaving Ballyshannon we dropped down to the coast and our route took us for about one kilometre along a sandy beach.  Just as well the tide was out!  I was just thinking it was a bit unusual to be cycling along a beach when we were passed by a Garda car, which was really bizarre.  They had to get off the beach at the next ramp as the sand ahead got too soft but we were able to carry on, although it was hard work.
As usual out route zigzagged along, much more undulating than of late.  Donegal turned out to be bustling but surprisingly small.  We stopped there for our second coffee and cake of the day and bought a picnic lunch as we could see nothing ahead that was likely to be open.
After Donegal things got seriously steep.  We hadn’t had big hills since leaving Wales so it was a shock to legs and lungs alike.  We left the green rolling countryside and climbed up to brown, barren moorland, where it started to drizzle.  Not the best place for a picnic but we eventually found a sheltered spot with good coastal views.
We realised that we were fed up with cycling along the coast everyday looking at endless building developments along every road.  It just made everything look grim and depressing. So we decided to leave Eurovelo 1 and head inland to the Glenveagh National Park and Glenveagh Caste and gardens.  As we entered the National Park shortly after leaving the hotel we had a whole day without seeing ribbon development, it was wonderful.  I hadn’t realised how depressing I was finding the fact that the countryside in Ireland has been ruined permanently by lack of planning laws.
The Lough at Glenveagh Castle in the National Park
There are 8 kms of cycle tracks around the lake and to the waterfall at Glenveagh Castle
We wandered around the lovely walled gardens and managed coffee, cake and lunch in their two tearooms.
a bee enjoying the Geraniums
As it was raining we had Glenveagh Castle gardens to ourselves
White Campion
Leaving Milford in County Donegal we headed towards Londonderry in Northern Ireland. It was raining heavily when we woke up but had eased off a little by the time we left. We ended up in full waterproofs all day, and as it was quite warm it was definitely a Boil in a Bag day!
We stopped off in the pretty old town of Ramelton and while Bernie was in the shop stocking up on snacks an ancient old man wobbled up to me and asked where we were heading.  On hearing we were going to Derry he announced Oh, that’s easy, it’s all flat from here to Derry.  Well I remembered what he said as we only just made it up the steep hill out of Ramelton.  In fact we ended up doing more climbing today than any day since we arrived in Ireland.  The hills were smaller than yesterday but there were a lot of them and some were very steep.  There was one hill in particular that we could see from miles away with something built on the top that overlooked the whole area.  Of course our route took us up there, and it turned out to be a round hill Fort.  The last bit up to the Fort was very steep and by then my legs were not happy, so I am afraid we just cycled on by.
Before coming to Ireland any thoughts I had about the place involved it being very green.  The power of advertising I suppose.  But all the way up along the coast of Galway, Sligo and the first part of Donegal the predominant colours have been the brown and black of the overwintered Heather and the yellow of the overwintered sage grass.  There wasn’t any green to be seen.  Suddenly today, through the rain, we were surrounded by blindingly green fields as far as the eye could see   With cows munching happily on the lush grass and fields of heavily fertilised cereal crop rolling into the distance.
Our route took us up the Swilly River until we could get across at Letterkenny then back up the otherside.  Letterkenny had seen better days but had a nice theatre with a good cafe.  At Newtown Cunningham we left the Swilly River and climbed back up before dropping down into a car filled Londonderry. We crossed into Northern Ireland just before we got to Londonderry but the only indication was that a speed sign said 60 miles an hour instead of 80 km per hour.
Lovely quiet, flowering lanes
One of the gates in the Derry City Walls. We waited for half an hour in torrential rain for the B&B owner to come and let us into what looked like a 1970’s student bedsit.  Our breakfast was a rice-crispie bar and a teabag, the kettle was 3 flights down.  I think we will go out for breakfast. 
We explored Derry and walked the city walls which are amazingly thick and still very much intact.
Looking down one of the Londonderry busy streets towards the wall and river. We arrived the day after the elections which is why the place is covered with electioneering posters
Looking down from the City Walls towards the area famous for its murals
The Peace Bridge over the Foyle River
We woke this morning to blue skies and sunshine and set off on foot to find some breakfast. Being a Saturday most places opened late but we eventually found The Scullery Cafe that was just about open and which gave us a good breakfast. All the shops in the centre of Derry had had their steel shutters down by 4 pm yesterday. I am not surprised as it seems that every third building here is a bar or pub and large groups of men had obviously been in them for quite a while. I had thought the shops would open up this morning but by 10 am there was no sign of this happening. We made the most of the sunshine and walked across The Peace Bridge.
Early morning mist rising over Derry
Then back to our grim room to quickly pack up and cycle back to the River where we picked up National Cycle Route 92. This took us out of Derry alongside the river on a wide, surfaced cycle track for about 8 km before turning on to small lanes and becoming more undulating. There was no wind and it was positively hot in the sunshine.
Our route crossed back and forwards over the border. Here we are back in the Republic for a bit. It was a short day, we needed a bit of a break, and we got to Strabane in time for a long café lunch before rolling the last couple of km to our hotel.
We had hoped to get away early the next morning but our hotel had other ideas. We did eventually get some porridge after a half hour wait but gave up waiting for the rest of it. It was a perfect cycling day, warm and sunny with some clouds. There was a headwind but it wasn’t too bad until the afternoon. The lower lanes were lined with bluebells
We had three big lines of hills to get across that day and now being back on a National Cycle Route, NCN95, it determinedly always took us right to the top. I have to admit that the views were amazing.
On the lower levels we were surrounded by lush green fields, woodland, green banks and hedges and lots of wild flowers and butterflies.
On the tops of each hills we went up onto moorland with a stronger wind but great views.
Herdmans Mill in an industrial village called Sion Mills. Built to house and educate the whole community between 1830 and 1860.
Being a Sunday there were a few roadies about but almost no-one else apart from the farmers. A lovely day. We stopped for a coffee and cake in Plumbridge which we ate sitting in the sun on the bridge. There were quite a few older men about, and after a while all their wives emerged from the church and took them home. We ate our lunch sitting in the sun on a hilltop, bliss. My legs were a bit tired when we arrived in Cookstown so needed some tea and cake. We are staying in a B&B here just above a pub.
A bad night’s sleep wasn’t good before a very long day in the rain, as we had 100 km to do to get us to Belfast and the promised rain was already with us. When we went back down to the bar we were staying above we were pleased to find a group of traditional Irish singers and players in full fiddle. So we stayed in the bar to listen, and later found we could also listen from our room! That was OK they finished at 10.30. As it was Sunday night we weren’t expecting the second act to start afterwards. The guy sang loud, slightly out of tune old pop songs for hours. So a bit tired and grumpy the next morning.
The rain was intermittent to start, which was just as well as there was a strong headwind and a few steep hills. As the ground flattened out the rain got heavier, so much so it was painful. We were going around the South end of Lough Neagh, which is massive, but looked uninspiring in the dull wet weather. 40 km got us to Portadown for coffee and 60 km got us to Moira for lunch. Moira was probably a pretty place but they really need to do something about their traffic problem, with very fast queues of cars and large lorries thundering down their main street it felt an awful place.
All day we were going backwards and forwards over the motorway and the traffic on the smaller roads was fast and impatient as it always is when it is raining. Thankfully NCN9 gave us two sections of traffic free cycle paths, one around the Lough and the other for 20 km into Belfast along the Lagan Canal, which was a relief. We were staying at the Premier Inn and they have a cycle route right up to their door which was wonderful. We put our bikes in their store room. They had suggested we take them to our room but they were dripping and muddy and I didn’t fancy sharing my room with them!
Either Goliath or Sampson in Belfast. The sun was shining this morning until the second we started peddling. I think we thought it would be a quick shower and we only had 8 km to cycle to the ferry. For whatever reason we didn’t put our full waterproofs on. It got heavier and heavier, we were drenched and our shoes were full of water.
We had to cycle through the centre of Belfast and although there were quite a few cycle lanes we also had to negotiate several 3 or 4 lane roundabouts. Saw lots of interesting buildings but I didn’t get any pictures as the traffic (and the rain) was just too heavy. Near the ferry terminal we were up on a pavement cycle lane next to a slightly flooded dual carriageway. A large lorry came past and drenched us in the old classic water wave. Of course as soon as we got to the terminal the rain stopped. We had to go and get completely changed.

The ferry to Stranraer was fairly empty as it had been on the way over, and we were able to ride on and leave the bikes in a small cabin on the car deck. Luckily despite the wind we had a flat crossing and in no time we were rolling off in the sunshine in Cairnryan, Scotland.

We continued our cycle tour on up to Glasgow and then off-road on An Torus Mor to John O’Groats. For the full map of our route from Devon to Scotland click on the link below:-

The previous section of our trip was Bikepacking across Wales and the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia National Park, see blow:

To read the final section of our Bikepacking trip from Devon to Joh o’Groats see below:-