Achill is the largest island off the coast of Ireland. If you picture Ireland as a teddy bear sitting sideways-on, with Northern Ireland as the head, then Achill is on the uppermost of the top paws. At 200 miles from Belfast, the journey there should take about four hours, plus stoppage time. The first part of the trip is yawningly boring — the motorway peters out to be replaced by a winding road that passes through villages which haven't yet been bypassed. On through Augher and Clogher and Fivemiletown where, according to an old rhyme, the roads go up and the roads go down. (Where is Fivemiletown five miles from, anyway?) On to the Ballygawley roundabout and well-known meeting point, being the crossing of two main routes running east-west and north-south.
And on to Enniskillen, self-styled island town, being as it is in the heart of Northern Ireland's lake district. It's also the place where I had my one and only car accident, so I don't like to hang around there too long.
Stephanie Knows All the Chords1
And so we crossed the border. Persephone, as I christened the wee lady in the GPS machine, and I had a serious falling out somewhere near
Manorhamilton. I was pretty sure we wanted to take the main road to Sligo, especially since sentences like 'We'll stop in Sligo and get some cash' had been uttered in my presence. But Persephone seemed to want us to take some route over the hills. Very lovely hills they are, to be sure — Benbulben looks not unlike a sleek railway engine, the inland cliffs around Lough Glencar are stunning and I recognised the little knob at the top of another hill as the rocky mound that marks Queen Mebh's grave. Now, I'm very proud of my navigational skills. I love poring over maps, caressing contour lines, finding roads with a sea view and all that sort of thing. But Persphone's handle on all things
cartographical is nothing short of phenomenal — she knows the name of every road and river, knows where the nearest petrol station and restaurant is, when we're likely to get there and even what height we are above sea level. Frankly, I'm jealous as hell.
I still insist we were not lost, we were in Sligo. And if you ever find yourself riding round and round in circles in Sligo, ignore the directions for 'all other routes' and follow signs for Dublin instead.
When I'm Strolling Through the Wild Wild West
Part of Achill's attraction is its remoteness — this part of Ireland has a wild and untamed beauty that differs from the rather Disney-esque tweeness and paddywhackery that is evident in Kerry, aimed squarely at rich American tourists. On Achill, there isn't a cash machine. There isn't even a bank, although a mobile van calls once a week on a Thursday. Isn't is lovely to find somewhere in this 24/7 always-online world that remains so untouched?
We arrived in plenty of time to unpack, have a pint and watch the other bikes pull in. Old acquantainces were greeted heartily and new faces were introduced. Time for the first ride-out — a trip around the hills on Achill itself. Despite the rather damp and windy weather
(or perhaps because of it), the views of this part of the coast are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The turquoise sea crashes over jagged rocks at the foot of dramatic cliffs. I looked behind me at one stage during a twisty descent to a beautiful little cove and was impressed at the sight of about 20 lights snaking behind me. I remarked to one of the other pillions that we really ought to learn how to do that professional cameraman-style 'sit on the bike backwards' thing in order to take some decent action shots. The route continued to the wireless masts at the top of a hill (well, nearly the top. Somebody did try to make it right to the very top, although riding over peat bog is not recommended). What
a view in all directions! We finished with a stop at Keem Bay, where I was reminded how soothing it is to just watch the waves do their rhythmic advance and retreat, like a slow steady heartbeat.
Over dinner, I learned more about the Scooters in the Sahara project, where seven of the guys and one very brave girl had ridden Honda C90s across the Sahara desert to deliver them to a hospital in the Gambia. While they were there, they were very moved by the sight of biscuit tin lids marking the graves of premature babies. When told that this was to stop the hyenas from raiding the graveyard, they were galvanised into
action and are currently raising money to build a wall. I don't think there was a dry eye at our table.
The evening's entertainment continued with a one-man band who was capable of blowing his own trumpet, as well as managing to segue from 'The Fields of Athenry' into 'How Great Thou Art'. Now that's talent!
Breakfast was a rather subdued affair, as there were one or two sore heads about. I did pity those who had elected to camp and gone to bed about 3am when the rain really started. Unsurprisingly, there were a few enquiries at the hotel for cancellations. We elected not to go with the
main group on their long run, but instead headed for the lovely little town of Westport for lunch. There is a huge variety of seafood on offer here — oysters, wild salmon and one bistro was serving mussels with a choice of four different sauces. Yum! We continued our ride past the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick, named after Ireland's patron saint. It was here, apparently, that Saint P banished the snakes from Ireland2. It is traditional for the very devout to climb this mountain barefoot and a pilgrimage is held on the last Saturday in July.
Unsurprisingly, we spotted various emergency services hovering at the car park at its base as we rode by. As we turned towards the Doo Lough pass, the wind started to blow across the open moorland in earnest and was not making for pleasant riding. We found a road through the mountains round the back of Croagh Patrick, which I christened the Holy Wow road. We had to ban the word 'stunning'as it was being blatantly overused. But oh my, such a fabulous road! Such amazing scenery!
Back at the hotel, we declared it was Guinness o'clock and had a few bevvies before changing for the evening meal. It is traditional at these events to wear as loud a shirt as possible, so the sea of clashing
colours at the bar was a sight to behold. During the raffle, I won the apron I wanted (honest!) and having bought a copy of the Scooters in the Sahara book, got those who'd been on the trip to sign it for me. After dinner, I tried to teach a bit of Irish dancing to the English visitors, but when that failed we decided to invade the local disco. Taking our chances on the glass-strewn floor, we thought we were blending in nicely until a local boy told Dai, 'I hope I'm half as good a dancer as you when I'm your age.' Ah me, how we laughed! It was good to hear old favourites like 'Where's Me Jumper' again, although I suspect it may have been a mistake to go back to the hotel for a nightcap or two...
Sunday morning found us unwilling to get up for breakfast, although having failed to find any painkillers in our toilet bags, I did manage to struggle out to the local supermarket (closed)3. Thankfully, someone came to my rescue and after a couple of aspirin we felt able to face the day. The long journey home was made even more difficult by the fact that we could see the weather we were heading into — brooding and thundery. The sky was, in places, an eerie shade of inky indigo and the rain that splatted on our helmets was heavy. You know the way that Eskimos have 20 words for snow? Well, here in Ireland we have a similar lexicon for rain. It ranges from the soft day/mizzle/drizzle through the
showery/lashing/downpour right up to stair-rods/bouncing off the road/passion4 level. It perfectly matched our mood, sad to be at the wrong end of a fun weekend and with the thought of work again the next day.
character.2Old joke alert #1: What did St Patrick say as he was driving the snakes out of Ireland? 'Are ye all right in the back there, lads?'3Those olde worlde opening hours aren't so charming now, eh?4Old joke alert #2: what's the definition of
'passion'? Raining heavily in Ballymena, hi.