Cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bike: Week #7
Two wheels and a Taoiseach
Mark Graham's 2,500km cycle continues with a surprising encounter and a sensational trip to Skellig Michael.
“Are you the fella cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on a wooden bike?” Enda Kenny asked me at the summit of Coomanaspic.
“I am, Taoiseach,” I replied - more than a little bit shocked.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. It turned out to be one of those rare days, when it feels like the stars have aligned and fate is floating out buoys to let you know you’re steering the right course.
It had an inauspicious start, though.
Sailing out from Portmagee for The Skelligs that morning, the Spanish tourist sitting next to me on the Anchorsiveen found the turbulent seas a little too much and deposited his breakfast over the side. I averted my gaze, partially to spare his blushes, but mostly because I didn’t want to join him on the rail.
Although buffeted by a lumpy sea, with the large Atlantic swell meeting the outgoing tide, I still felt lucky. A trip to Skellig Michael is something of a lottery with limited ferry spaces and the vagaries of the Irish summer fixing the odds.
A bird's-eye view of Skellig Beag
A visit to these off-shore rocks has been on my bucket list for a long time, and the don't disappoint - it’s difficult not to be impressed by the two gigantic lumps of sandstone that jut jaggedly up out of the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles off the Kerry coast.
Skellig Michael is the taller of the two, reaching over 700-ft, and cutting an impressive silhouette even from the mainland. The beast of an island is more impressive still when your boat pulls up alongside, insect-like against its dark bulk.
Having climbed the 600 steps to the monastic settlement that balances on the islands craggy peak, a stillness descended, a natural sense of reverence.
There is something special about this place.
Ever before monks perched themselves on the precipice in 600AD, legend has it that the Tuatha de Danann whipped up a magical storm here to repel an invasion by Milesius. Stories also tell of The King of the World (Daire Domhain) using the island as a training camp before rumbling with Fionn mac Cumhaill and The Fianna.
After Star Wars Episode 7 is released this December, with Skellig Michael as a location, one can't help but feel a whole new breed of pilgrim will visit. The bee-hive huts seem a much more suitable home for Yoda than the swamps of the Dagobah System.
Video by Velocity Lens
George Bernard Shaw captured the mood of the place when, after a visit in 1910, he wrote: “I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world."
If you only visit one place in Ireland this year, I suggest Skellig Michael.
As I wound down the path that snakes towards the pier, the garrulous cackle of the gulls drifted upwards, underscored by the rumble of the ocean, making the sandstone peaks seem like a pipe organ of the gods. The wind chimed in, incanting psalms that have sounded here for millennia. Nature was pulling out all the stops.
Our boat caught a smoother swell home, and right on cue a congregation of dolphins whipped in and out of our wake. It was fast becoming a day worthy of worship and praise.
That afternoon I started cycling the Skellig Ring, a fringe event to the Ring of Kerry that provides some respite from the tourist traffic, but still has all the scenic trappings.
Back on The Ring, the spin from Waterville to Caherdaniel is up there among my favourites in the country - especially that last downhill stretch where Kerry lets you know exactly why it’s called The Kingdom.
I called in to the home-place of Daniel O’Connell and took a stroll along the beach to the ruin of Derrynane Abbey, imagining myself tracing some of The Emancipator’s footsteps and envisaging a time when coffins were shouldered along this beach to the abbey's graveyard.
Skellig Michael recedes in the distance
As twilight set in, I floated on my back in Derrynane's crystal clear waters, the whole beach to myself, smirking as I replayed the chat with Enda Kenny.
“I’ve been accused of being a bit wooden myself, you know," An Taoiseach quipped as we stood by Ashling (my wooden bike) and his son took our photo.
“On a day like this when you look out to Skellig Michael from the beach at Ballinskelligs,” he mused, “it’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to Jamaica or The Canaries, with all this on our doorstep."
Who am I to argue with An Taoiseach, Daniel O’Connell, George Bernard Shaw and 27,000 gannets.?
Glenbeigh to Portmagee - click here
Portmagee to Caherdaniel - click here
Caherdaniel to Kenmare – click here
Kenmare to Allihies – click here
Allihies to Castletownbere - click here
More info on The Skelligs - skelligexperience.com
More info on Woodelo wooden bikes - woodelo.ie
You can hear Mark talk about his adventures every weekend on RTE Radio One's Marian Finucane Show. See also wildatlanticway.com.