Over the Moone on my Segway
Kim Bielenberg visits Boyle to meet the man behind a Chris O'Dowd tourist trail - and steps onto a Segway
After a pleasant stopover in Athlone, I set off for Boyle on my never-ending cycle tour across the country.
Until recently, the town in County Roscommon mostly hit the headlines because of reported sightings of UFOs.It almost became the Roswell of Ireland after rumours of aliens crashing into a lake there in 1996.
Now, even the UFOs have been eclipsed by Moone Boy, the sitcom devised by Boyle's proudest son, Chris O'Dowd. I was off to meet an enterprising local man, who has created an ingenious Moone Boy Tourist Trail.
But, first, there was the journey to contend with. With my legs weary after cycling around, I flag down a bus. On my way to Boyle, I meet Daniel Murphy, a Cork man, who is cycling most of the way from the south of the country up to Derry.
Clad in sensible lycra, he is making this journey for a simple reason: "I was born in Derry 60 years ago, and lived there until I was 10. So I thought it was time to go back, even though I have no family there."
"I was happy as a child in school in Derry, but I remember the sheer terror of moving to a school in Cork with draconian teachers."
There was no hint of a Derry accent now. It must have been beaten out of him.
His Brompton bike neatly folds into a tiny bundle and can be carried easily on a bus when he wants to take a break from the cycling. But he seems to be pedalling most of the way from south to north.
I arrive in Boyle, just past the Cistercian Abbey, and go looking for lodgings. The town is an unusual mix of stately Georgian elegance, dotted with relics of the Ascendancy, and a slight hint of dilapidation. Along Main Street, shops have gone out of business, and there is no longer a hotel in the town; the Royal Hotel, which used to run along the river, is derelict.
Boyle may have had its ups and downs, but there is still plenty to see, and there is now a mini-tourist industry around Moone Boy.
In the tourist office, which is run as co-operative, Enda Regan tells me: "Chris O'Dowd always goes out of his way to mention Boyle whenever he can. He is 100pc supportive."
The quirky Sky sitcom about a boy, Martin Moone, and his imaginary friend Sean, played by O'Dowd himself, is set in the town. It is now attracting a significant number of tourists.
Enda Regan, a graduate of Sligo Institute of Technology, tells me how he devised the fiendishly clever Moone Boy Trail.
The Boyle branch of Londis may not be up there with the Taj Mahal as a tourist attraction, but it features on this partcular trail because it pops up in the programme.
Fans of the sitcom are given a map with numbered landmarks from the programme. Each landmark has a QR code (similar to a barcode) that can be scanned with a phone. When they reach these landmarks, tourists simply scan in the code, and their phone or iPad plays a relevant scene from the series.
"I thought it would be an enjoyable way for people to see the town," says Enda, whose late father Christy was a well-known local press photographer. "It wasn't too hard to work out the technology for it."
I try out the interactive trail. I am ambling with the bike on Nun's Walk along the river past a school; I scan the code on the brochure with my iPad, and all of a sudden Chris O'Dowd appears on screen in the same place.
In the tourist office, there are Moone Boy bobble hats and T-shirts, and the local bed-and-breakfast owners welcome the business when the film crew comes to town.
Enda tells me that Boyle grew up around the rambling estate of the King family, who were granted their land "for reducing the Irish to obedience".
Their main mansion, Rockingham, in what is now Lough Key Forest Park, was destroyed by fire in the 1950s, but another of their vast homes, King House, still stands as an imposing landmark in the town, and was turned into a barracks.
It was from here, 100 years ago, that hundreds of Connaught Rangers left to fight at the front in World War I. Tommy Egan, who works in the house, shows me the dark dungeon where prisoners were locked up.
"Prisoners on the anti-treaty side were kept here during the civil war," he says.
Then, it's back on the bike to cycle about Lough Key Forest Park. The big house may be gone, but there are signs all around that an opulent mansion once stood here. The estate is entered through mock gothic arches. In high summer, the park buzzes with life - families camp, swing across the zip wire, and walk along elevated foot bridges through the trees.
I meet up with Colm Berry, who rents out Segways for quick glides around the park.
"I set up the business after being made redundant as a biochemist in Abbot," he says. "So far, it has been very popular. I find it enjoyable working in the park."
I am a bit doubtful about the Segway, after reading about its inventor, Jim Heselden, who met his untimely death after riding one of his scooters over a cliff. Colm is reassuring, however, and learning to ride a Segway proves to be much easier than learning to ride a bike (you simply lean forward to make it glide away).
In a daredevil stunt, prompted by an onlooker, I glide down a little pier and, to the relief of Colm, manage to avoid turning this trip into a Segway splash tour.
Moone Boy may be the hot tourism topic in Boyle, but the town has not forgotten about its alien heritage. Back in Boyle, I learn of plans to build a space and UFO centre in the town. Following this, it's time to set off for County Sligo on the next leg of my tour. On my way, I meet an American woman and her teenage daughter, waiting for a bus. She is searching for her family homestead in the Roscommon countryside.
But the bored teenager looks distinctly unimpressed at the prospect of spending her holiday gazing at tumble down cottages.