Over 500,000 people have visited the Limerick Greenway since it opened. Pól Ó Conghaile cycles the 40km route...
I feel like a time traveller, gliding through a golden age of Victorian rail on an electric bike. Beside me, steep flanks of rock veer upwards, carpeted in electric green ferns and moss. Ahead of me is the entrance to a 115m tunnel, a stunning feat of 19th-century engineering.
The portal comes up surprisingly quickly, sucking me from bright daylight into a cavern of darkness. Drips bop off my helmet. My voice turns echoey, bouncing off meticulous brickwork. It’s an exhilarating feeling.
This is Barnagh Tunnel, a highlight of the rebooted Limerick Greenway — a 40km cycling and walking trail linking the towns of Rathkeale, Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale along the former Limerick-to-Tralee railway line. The original tracks were built in stages from the 1850s onwards, and steam trains once stopped at Barnagh to replenish coal and water supplies. Today, we are two cyclists tinkering with the assist settings on our 21st-century e-bikes, stopping off to refuel on coffee and lemon drizzle cake.
“On a fine day, you’ll see a Thomond Park,” says Ben Noonan, peering out from Barnagh’s viewing point — though on our visit, the vista over Sliabh Luachra and west Limerick’s farmland dissolves into foggy oblivion.
Ben is one of the engineers that worked on the greenway revamp, a €10m effort that Limerick City and County Council says is the biggest outdoor tourism amenity project it has ever undertaken. He’s also cycling with me for the day — the ideal companion to help draw connections between the 19th-century railways, trains and stations, and a modern trail resurfaced with tarmac so silky-smooth it sometimes feels as if my bike is floating on air.
“If you wrote to Santy, you couldn’t have asked for a better place than this,” Ben says as we break for our pit stop at Platform 22, a café at the Barnagh Greenway Hub.
Similar to trailblazers like the Waterford and Great Western Greenways, Limerick’s off-road trail is designed as a fully accessible resource for locals and visitors. You can do the full thing, lamping into it in lycra, or bite off chunks as you please. Ben and I planned to set out from Abbeyfeale, doing the 40km to Rathkeale, with lots of stops over the course of several hours. Along the way, we pass walkers, joggers, cyclists, people pushing buggies and leading dogs, and a man in a power wheelchair.
Since it opened in 2021, counters along the route have clocked over half a million users, the council says, and the sound of traffic is mostly a distant muffle.
Nature feels close. Within a few hundred metres of Abbeyfeale Station, a bird of prey swoops down and glides along a section of the trail in front of us. It’s small; possibly a merlin or sparrowhawk. The 9km spin towards Templeglantine takes us through a tunnel of trees in Tullig Wood, where autumn runs through dying oak and elm leaves like the blurring colours on an artist’s palette.
We’re soon chatting freely about kids, health, food and music; sharing learnings as we glide through one of those stolen moments when phones are stashed, wheels are whirring, and you don’t have to worry about an articulated truck thumping you into the hedgerows.
Greenways are having a moment, and it’s not hard to see why. Cycling is cheap and healthy. It chimes in times of climate change. During lockdown, when we were confined to 2km, 5km and 20km limits, new bikes couldn’t be had for love nor money. Add a sense of being safer outdoors during the pandemic, and electric bikes that make longer distances or windy conditions more doable for occasional cyclists, and off-road trails feel like no-brainers.
And it’s not just in Ireland. As the world looks for more sustainable ways to travel, and for Insta-friendly outdoor attractions to entice tourists and serve local communities, new routes are popping like mushrooms. In Utah, the Aquarius Trail is a series of mountain bike routes with huts to stay in along the way (and electric bike chargers). New York State has invested $200m in an Empire State trail linking the Big Apple to the Canadian border.
“Covid changed our perspective on the outdoors,” says Olive Sheehan of Leens Hotel in Abbeyfeale, where I stay before my trip. She and husband Maurice also run Platform 22, the café Ben and I visit at Barnagh, where a former garden centre now houses a cycling pit stop, bike hire business and shop. The greenway is “a game changer”, Olive tells me. “It’s woken up lots of sleepy little towns around here.”
“People are coming from far and wide,” agrees Mary Flynn, who I meet manning the counter at An Siopa Milseán back in Abbeyfeale.
It’s a store with a story. Mary worked at another sweet shop in town for 37 years, but it sadly closed following the death of its owner in 2020. Determined to continue its legacy, and to inject life into a street that has suffered its share of decline, a group of locals got together to open An Siopa Milseán, with Mary among the shopkeepers at its helm.
Browsing the old-school grocer-style space, I see local scones and sausages, litres of milk, packets of Madeira queens, hand-knitted baby clothes, and local and national newspapers laid out on a table. Shelves also feature vintage boxes of biscuits, sweets and cereal — rescued from another shuttered shop.
On the counter, an antique weighing scales sits near a coffee machine grinding Badger & Dodo beans. A hand-painted sign catches my eye: “In a world where you can shop anywhere, shop local.”
“When I went to the shop with my mam, she always stopped and had a chat,” Mary tells me after a local woman drops in for a box of Barry’s tea. “We have all kinds. Someone might come in wellies from the farm, or all dressed up from head to toe looking for a skinny latte… I like to feel that you leave a little better than you came in.”
I’ve driven through Abbeyfeale and other towns countless times on the N21, but cycling the Limerick Greenway provides a new excuse to slow down and explore. In the 1800s, I learn, Abbeyfeale was home to one of the area’s largest Bianconi stage coach depots. I also see the surprising plasterwork of stucco artist Pat McAuliffe. “Vita Brevis, Ars Longa” (“Life Is Short, Art Is Long”) reads one of the inscriptions on a building he decorated on Main Street — though its crumbling condition tests the theory.
The greenway is dotted with helpful heritage signs. On Barnagh’s, I read about a “runaway train”. In 1923, anti-government forces made passengers disembark, set the train on fire, disengaged the brakes and sent it downhill toward Newcastle West. Thankfully, nobody was killed.
From there, Ben and I follow the same trail toward Newcastle West, a 10km stretch taking us over the cast-iron Ferguson’s Viaduct. The greenway is pristine and flat for the most part, with occasional gates for country roads or crossing cows. You’ll also see ‘code of conduct’ signs noting basic etiquette — cycle on the left, pass on the right, ring your bell to alert pedestrians, keep dogs on the leash and so on. Most walkers we pass are grateful to hear our bells, moving over and thanking us as we whizz by.
Ardagh is another village I’ve never been to. It took a step into the future when the railway arrived, and a step into the past in 1868 when two boys discovered a hoard of 8th and 9th-century treasure while they were digging potatoes. It included the Ardagh Chalice (the original is in Dublin’s National Museum; a replica is in Limerick’s Hunt Museum). Today, the village’s main street feels a little lost, or in limbo. We find it almost empty, apart from a teen who cycles by us with a hurley in his backpack.
I see huge potential in the tidy, mini-park-like grounds around its restored station, however. As more walkers and cyclists take to the greenway, you can imagine coffee huts, playgrounds, seasonal pop-ups, public art, and other attractions along the route, similar to the developments along more mature greenways in Waterford and Mayo.
Newcastle West is buzzing. Leaving the greenway and heading into town, streets are thick with shoppers and schoolkids.
“Back in the 1980s, there were trees growing in this place; it was totally overgrown,” says Dr Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, taking us on a tour of the Desmond Banqueting Hall, an OPW heritage site at the heart of town. It was begun in the 13th century by Thomas ‘the Ape’ FitzGerald (according to legend, an ape took him as a babe from his cradle to the top of Tralee Castle and back again), and today offers an immersive insight into the life and times of Desmond earls who would have feasted here, while musicians played in an oak gallery overhead.
“I’m blown away by how into the greenways people are,” says Ann Madigan of Rathkeale House Hotel, our final stop. Like many, she was unsure whether the trail would take off, but loves seeing the “greenway followers”, as she calls them, drawn to west Limerick. Many of the cyclists want a night away “and a decent bite to eat”, she adds.
Before returning the hire bikes, we take a quick spin around Rathkeale, learning about the Palatine families who settled here after fleeing persecution in Rhineland-Pfalz in the 18th century (the former station house is now home to the Irish Palatine Heritage Centre), and their legacy in surnames like Teskey, Sparling and Ruttle.
I also spend a few minutes photographing an Art-Deco-style cinema with two fin-like features on the facade. It dates from 1945, though sadly looks pretty forlorn today.
It may not have to stay that way. The Limerick-to-Tralee railway closed in the late 1970s. Almost half-a-century later, the Limerick Greenway is giving it new life, opening up tantalising opportunities for towns along the route. In the near future, there are plans for an onwards link to Listowel. Ireland’s time-travel adventures continue.
The Barnagh Greenway Hub includes a garden centre reborn as a café, shop and bike hire business. Platform 22 has treats baked on site and barista coffee (see Facebook)
The Silver Room
The tasting board at this polished Newcastle West restaurant includes local treats like Tournafulla black pudding, Cahill’s cheese and, of course, Limerick ham. silverroom.ie
Rathkeale House Hotel
A handy staging post just a few hundred metres from the greenway, this newly refurbished hotel also does bar and bistro food. rathkealehousehotel.ie
Parking facilities and access points are at Abbeyfeale, Ardagh, Newcastle West, Rathkeale and Templeglantine. See limerick.ie/greenway for more info and bike hire options.
Looking for bike hire on the Limerick Greenway?
Limerick Greenway Bike Hire has locations in, Rathkeale, Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale. 087 372-6914; limerickgreenwaybikehire.ie
Limerick Bike Hire is a mobile bike hire and bike experience business servicing the Limerick Greenway in West Limerick. See rentle.store/limerickbikehire/about or @LimerickBikeHire.
Like Bikes has local depots at Abbeyfeale, Listowel and Ballybunion. 087 693-6889; likebikes.ie
Locomotion Bike Rental is located directly on the Limerick Greenway at Barnagh Greenway Hub. 085 255-2890; limerickgreenwaybikerental.ie
Pedal pursuits bike hire is near Newcastle West but a fully mobile bike hire business. 086 813-4061; pedalpursuitsbikehire.com
Pól was a guest of Limerick City and County Council and local businesses. This story has been updated to include bike hire and other information. It was originally published on 20/11/2021.