Secret Ireland: The Great Western Greenway
Pól Ó Conghaile makes tracks to Mayo’s new cycle trail and finds sights, history and great food along the way.
The royal connection
Set on the tidal Black Oak River, the first thing you'll notice about Newport is its viaduct, originally built to carry the Westport-Achill railway in 1895. But there are hidden gems too, not least Harry Clarke's resplendent stained glass windows in St. Patrick's Church.
Installed in 1926, the windows nearly broke the bank -- Rev Michael McDonald had to sell his personal life insurance to raise £800 to pay for them -- but the explosion of colour when you step through the door, complete with Jesus in a raspberry-pink cloak, is worth every penny.
Newport also has an unlikely connection with Prince Albert of Monaco, who visited with his then-fianceé Charlene Wittstock this April. His mother, Princess Grace, who had family connections in Mayo, apparently planned to build a holiday home here before her untimely death in 1982.
Details: 098 41895; greenway.ie.
The island escape
The Great Western Greenway begins (or ends) at Achill Sound, but that doesn't mean that your cycle has to. The West Mayo Cycle Network also uses the island as a hub, and three of the bike routes which are available from here vary from 12km to 44km in length, with a fine smattering of pubs and picnic stops to enjoy along the route.
If you're feeling saddle sore, you could also swap two wheels for four at this point, following the original Atlantic Drive towards Cloughmore. Along the short, 20km loop, look out for the RNLI lifeboat tied up beneath Grace O'Malley's castle at Kildownet, sea-stacks and rocks bearing the brunt of a thundering ocean, and a storm beach said to get sandy once every seven years.
On a good day, the views here stretch as far as Clare Island. On a bad day, you'll feel like you're driving through an Atlantic car wash. Either way, it's a diversion to remember.
Details: mayotrails.ie/achill.html; achillbikes.com.
The Victorian vantage point
Locking my bike in Mulranny, I cross the N59 opposite the old railway hotel and take the stone steps down through a tunnel of trees towards the town's Victorian causeway. Built across Trawoughter Bay in 1889, the causeway serves as a short-cut to Mulranny's beach, salt marsh and pier.
It's a remarkable blast from the past -- a fastidious structure dog-legging into the bay, with grass reclaiming its stone surface. At low tide, I see crabs, oyster catchers in the wet sand. From the storm beach, views stretch across to Croagh Patrick, and those inclined to make an afternoon of it could link in with the local Burrishoole loop walks.
Details: Mulranny, Co. Mayo; greenway.ie.
The bike trail to beat 'em all
If you build it, they will come. That's my sense of the Great Western Greenway, a 42km cycling trail revitalising the old Westport to Achill railway route in Mayo.
I saddle up and set off from Achill Sound, and am soon skirting around the Currane Peninsula on a trail that feels fresh-from-the-packet.
The scenery peaks where the peninsula meets mainland Mayo, a sweet spot where the Atlantic Ocean, surrounding forests and mountains and an elevated section of the trail combine to make cyclists feel almost like they're floating.
At 18km, Mulranny to Newport is the longest section, with highlights including smashing views of Clew Bay and an arched bridge over the Black Oak River.
On the final stretch towards Westport, I encounter several flowerbeds cultivated by local landowners.
This year, the Greenway became the Irish winner of the annual European Destination of Excellence Award, establishing it as one of the finiest trails in Europe.
A word of caution -- although the 42km route is mostly on the flat, it does require a reasonable level of fitness to complete.
Details: 098 24818; clewbayoutdoors.ie; €20pp for bike hire and drop-off.
The gourmet greenway
The beauty of the Great Western Greenway is that it is at once a cycling trail, and so much more than that. I see locals walking, mums pushing buggies and artists using it as a source of inspiration, along with many others. Along with local food producers, the Mulranny Park Hotel has even devised a 'Gourmet Greenway'.
The food trail showcases artisan food produced along or near the old railway line. Why not pick up some Carrowholly cheese at the markets in Westport, for example? Or stop into the hotel for lunch? I did, and enjoyed a bowl of soup made from nettles that were picked that morning on the Greenway.
At Kelly's butchers in Newport, I hop off the bike to find Seán and Seamus Kelly holding court in striped aprons and straw hats.
The brothers, a highlight of the Gourmet Greenway, are renowned for their puddings -- Sean shows me one big slab of putóg made from a 200-year-old recipe.
"Back in the day, any farmhouse from Donegal to West Cork was making black pudding," he tells me. "Obviously, they couldn't go out for an Indian or Chinese meal." I buy a roll, determined to cook it with scallops, though he has a much simpler recommendation for a snack: spread it on toast with marmalade.
Details: 098 41149; kellysbutchers.com.
The Greenway artists
Ever since Paul Henry tore up his return train ticket and tossed it into the ocean off the rocks at Dooagh, Achill has been a magnet for artists. And so, breaking from the bike at An Dánlann Yawl in Owenduff, I'm not surprised to find Seosamh Ó Dálaigh painting the elemental landscape.
Ó Dálaigh sells his watercolours, acrylics and oils in a gallery space, and his wife Nora runs a lovely little café overlooking the Claggan Mountains beyond. You can also attend their painting school, or browse a small collection of local knitwear, sculptures and cards made with bog cotton.
Nor is Ó Dálaigh the only artist along the old railway route. The local Greenway Artists Initiative has been using the track as a catalyst, exhibiting their work in Westport Tourist Office and the Mulranny Park Hotel, so walkers and cyclists can drop by for a cultural fix as they go.
Details: 098 36137; achillpainting.com; greenwayartists.blogspot.com.
The Achill prophecy
Long before the Great Western Greenway was a cycling trail, it was a narrow-gauge railway line. Centuries before that, a mystic from Belmullet had prophesised that carts on iron wheels would one day come to the island.
The prophecy was a macabre one -- according to Brian Rua O'Cearbhain, the first and last trains would come bearing the dead -- and bizarrely, it came to pass. In 1895, the first train carried the bodies of 32 locals drowned when a hooker capsized in Clew Bay. In 1937, a special train was laid on to bring home ten migrant labourers who had been killed in Scotland.
You can trace the awful Achill prophecy for yourself at Kildownet Church, where the dead lie buried in plots on either side of the road.
Details: 098 20400; discoverireland.ie/islands.
The overnight suggestion
Mulranny Park Hotel originally opened as the Great Western in 1897, and a combined rail and hotel ticket was available shortly thereafter. By all accounts, it was quite the trailblazer in its day -- with guests basking in the glow of electric light and hot water baths by 1900.
Like the Great Western Greenway, the hotel has been born again in recent years, complete with a 20m pool, Canadian hot tub, stylish restaurant overlooking the bay, and a fine line in kids and adult activities (think bridge and bread-making, as well as kayaking, surfing and cycling).
The Greenway runs right behind the hotel, so it's a good option for a stayover en route (guests can have bikes delivered or collected), but it also does packed lunches (€9, order in advance), Sunday lunch (from €11.95) and a four-course dinner (from €37.50) if you get peckish along the way.
Details: 098 36000; mulrannyparkhotel.ie. Two nights B&B plus one evening meal, one day's bike hire and one packed lunch from €149pps.