Cycling Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

I want to tell you about Ireland. My Ireland. No, I’m not Irish, and obviously I don’t own the place. That’s not what I mean when I say my Ireland.

My Ireland

Each of us live our own lives, and we have our own experiences. When I talk about my Ireland, I’m referring to my experience of cycle touring part of the Wild Atlantic Way. I’m talking about my memories of that beautiful, emerald-green island, which live on in my heart.

When you go visit Ireland (and you really, REALLY should!) your experiences will be unique to you, and you will find your own Ireland. Afterwards, you can tell me about your Ireland. This is the story of my Ireland, when I cycled roughly the bottom half of the Wild Atlantic Way.

Why Ireland?

Well, why not Ireland? After all, I live in the UK and Ireland is the UK’s nearest neighbour. I expect the difficult, at times violent history between the UK and Ireland lies at the heart of the average Brit seeming to know very little about Ireland, and I find that both curious and regrettable.

No, this isn’t a deep-dive into Irish history (but please, please stop believing the “potato famine” was simply an “unfortunate natural disaster”).

Ireland is a hauntingly beautiful island, full of incredibly friendly people. It’s a modern country, with a booming economy, but with some very deep-rooted traditions. Everywhere you go there are signs of growth, and new building projects are simply everywhere. Juxtaposed with that are the very many old and derelict buildings in the countryside.

Flight-free

I’ve been flight-free since 2008, and would prefer to remain that way. Going cycle touring in Ireland meant I could rely on a combination of trains and a ferry to get me to the start, in Cork city.

Planet earth quietly hit 1.5 degrees Celsius warming recently, which is frankly terrifying, and we’re on track to blow past 2 degrees warming within the 2030s. It is extremely important that we stop, or at least vastly reduce leisure flying, and radically reduce driving, as well as red meat consumption. We only have a tiny opportunity remaining to avert cataclysmic climate breakdown.

Irish people

Obviously, I didn’t meet every single person that lives in Ireland, and my perceptions are flavoured by my own experiences. Equally, I’m sure that in Ireland – just like in any other country – there will be a minority of deeply unpleasant people.

However, the majority of the Irish seem to be extremely friendly, kind-hearted people. On the Beara peninsula I was pushing my bike up an incline too steep for me to ride up (the front wheel kept lifting if I tried to ride) when a man in a small van pulled up next to me. I was expecting a negative interaction, but he simply asked if I was OK.

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When I explained that it was just a very steep hill, he sympathised, then asked if I had everything I needed, including enough water.

Later, near the Cliffs of Moher, as I crested a hill I stopped to admire the view. A big 4×4 pulled up alongside, only for the driver to explain that the view is even better a short distance ahead. He drove off, then waited at that spot (he was right about the view!) While we were chatting, he asked where I was heading, and on hearing my destination was Galway, he proceeded to give me route advice to help me avoid the main road.

These are just two of a large number of acts of kindness I was shown. I never expected that I would experience this much of a culture shock when visiting Ireland, and the people I met along the way are a big part of the reason why I fell in love with the country.

In Cork city, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Bike Bop – much like a critical mass ride, but lead by a man on a cargo bike, blasting out music from a large speaker system. The reaction from the public was amazing! People would clap and cheer, or start dancing to the music as we cycled by.

Food

Ireland is a cycle tourer’s dream destination! The supermarkets are posh, compared to British supermarkets, and they all have a deli selling a wide range of delicious calories (when cycle touring, your only food concern tends to be getting enough calories in!)

Almost every petrol station has a deli too, again with fresh soup, and various other scrummy offerings, all at reasonable prices. Typically, there’s a coffee machine too, offering quite decent coffee.

When cycling the Wild Atlantic Way, there’s little need to carry food on your bike, and you will usually have ample options to buy fresh food along the way.

Traffic

The Wild Atlantic Way can get very popular in parts. Especially the Ring of Kerry will be swamped with campervans and touring coaches, and that can make for unpleasant cycling. The high season starts towards the end of May, and the number of campervans, and tourist coaches and cars, will sharply rise.

My experience of Irish drivers was mostly really good. I had a few close overtakes, but those were the absolute exception, and were still not as close as what I’d expect to experience several of when I cycle in to the office.

Generally, cycling in Cork was lovely. Most of Kerry was good (traffic-wise) too, but that changed along the Ring of Kerry. Cycling in county Clare was a bit hit and miss: on rural lanes it was bliss, but the driving standards were noticeably poorer along the main roads. I suspect that was related to it being the start of the high season when I cycled though there.

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Riding through the Burren forces you to ride on the main road for extended stretches. It’s a fairly narrow two-lane road, and is windy most of the way. Along that road I had an extremely close pass from the murderously-incompetent driver of a Transport For Ireland coach, and I was very glad to get off the main road. Finally, driving standards started plummeting as I approached the city of Galway.

Accommodation

You will be spoiled for choice, but be warned that B&Bs and hotels will fill up fast during the high season. The same goes for camp sites, of which there aren’t all that many. If you are planning on staying in B&Bs, hotels, or formal camp sites, do yourself the favour of pre-booking your accommodation well in advance.

If, like I mostly did, you are looking at wild camping, officially wild camping is not permitted. However, I had no issue at all when wild camping (except the one morning when shooting from a nearby gun club woke me).

Should you opt to go wild camping, do consider asking for permission – the answer is very unlikely to be no – and as ever, follow the Leave No Trace principle.

Support for cyclists

In cities like Cork, it will be quite straightforward to get mechanical support from any local bike shop. Even in far smaller towns, such as Clonakilty, there are multiple options, but don’t be fooled: bike shops will be few and far between.

I can highly recommend Bike Circus in Clonakilty, and O’Sullivan’s in Killarney. Both are extremely helpful, friendly and very supportive. Though there’s a sports shop in Kenmare, it’s not a bike shop as such and was in my case utterly unhelpful.

Overall, it seems Ireland hasn’t yet woken up to the enormous potential of cycle touring, and this shows along the Wild Atlantic Way. I encountered one bike repair stand in Lahinch, with an integrated pump, along the entire route, and the pump wasn’t working!

The lack of support for cycle touring will be obvious to you though various tell-tale signs. For starters, there are few cycle stands anywhere along the route. Also, businesses simply aren’t catering directly to the needs of cycle tourers.

For example, at camp sites, there are no lockers with power sockets where cycle tourers (and other people) can leave their gadgets safely locked away while charging. Expect many B&Bs to have no drying rooms for wet gear, and no secure cycle parking facilities.

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I hope Ireland soon realises what an absolute goldmine attracting more cycle tourers can be, and starts providing more support.

The Wild Atlantic Way route

The Wild Atlantic Way official route is well-signposted, and as a result, is easy to follow even if you just look for the road signs. There’s a catch, though: the route was designed for drivers, and significant sections include stretches of main roads that can be busy, with fast traffic.

When you go cycle the Wild Atlantic Way, do yourself a favour and deviate from the official route regularly, preferring the well-signed Eurovelo Route 1 instead. This will get you off the main roads most of the time, though there are several places where Eurovelo 1 follows the main roads, too.

As a rule of thumb, whenever possible, stay off the main roads, and avoid cycling through Limerick. Instead, take the Tarbert ferry across the Shannon estuary. If you have your heart set on cycling the Ring of Kerry, do so in a clockwise direction. This is because touring coaches are limited to driving the route anti-clockwise, so you should at least avoid being overtaken by those.

The best way to get to the start in Cork is by train, from Dublin’s Heuston station. Ireland’s rail network is limited, but still useful in providing bail-out points. After Cork, there are train stations in Killarney, Tralee, Limerick, Ennis, Galway, Westport, Balina, and Sligo.

An honest review

I tried to give an honest overview, based on my own experiences. Your experiences will be somewhat different. Nevertheless, I very strongly urge you to go cycle Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. When you do, and you really, really should, I expect that you will fall in love with the country as much as I did.

It’s a stunning route, through an amazingly friendly country and if you’re in the UK, it’s but a ferry and a train ride away.

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