27 Jun 2023

Touring Ireland by Motorcycle

Why tour Ireland by motorcycle? Why not? I'm 52 years old, live only two hours from the port of Holyhead from where ferries leave for Dublin several times a day for a reasonable sum, and yet have never in my adult life been to Ireland.

So, why? I wasn't sure. We're taught nothing about Ireland in English schools. I've learned more about it from Father Ted on the television than anywhere else. The news has nothing good to say about the place. 

I'm quite happy to drive five hours to Calais to cross to Europe but never once thought about visiting Ireland. I suppose the main thing that made me not think about it was the rain. It does rain a lot.

And then I read a book called 'What Fresh Lunacy Is This?' which is a biography of Oliver Reed. The actor spent his final years in Ireland, in a small village in Cork. The depiction of the place interested me enough that I read some more about it, and then I bought a big paper map which I spread out on the floor and started planning a trip.

Four of us regularly travel to places on bikes. Last year we rode to the Pyrenees. We all agreed to do the Irish trip. I roughly planned a route and reckoned we could cover enough ground in four days.

So we all booked ferry crossings, and I planned the trip in more detail. 

When I route plan I set hard points and let us decide which way to go on the day. I plan options so we can make decisions on the fly. I booked three hotels - in Kilkenny, Killarney, and Ballina. And worked out mileages and waypoints.

We were set. Two weeks to go. And then one of us, my brother Colin, was knocked off his motorcycle by a driver who wasn't looking and appeared from out of a junction and into the side of him. He suffered a broken collar bone, every rib, scaphoid and kneecap.

In the hospital the extent of his injuries was identified. Luckily there were no issues with his spine or brain. He would heal. It would take a long time but he would heal.

We discussed what to do. Colin wanted us to go. One chap didn't want to go with Colin out of action, but two of us - Nik and me - decided we would.

NB - Little Col did come on the trip. Take a look at the photo at the very bottom of this article.

Day 1

Nik, arrived at my house at 7am. The ferry was sailing at 10.40am from Holyhead. We left at 8.15am and blasted across Wales and Anglesey on the A55 in two hours. We ate breakfast in a cafe in Holyhead and then halfway through a sausage I realised it was half an hour til sailing and we chomped what we could in thirty seconds, jumped on the bikes and headed for the port.

At 2pm we had unloaded and were in Dublin. The port is the same as any port in any city. Industrial and rather bleak. I wanted to see the GPO and Nik wanted to see Temple Bar so we headed into the city centre.

Dublin's roads are the most anti-motorcycle I've even encountered. Most roads have a wide lane for cyclists, and then another for buses, and taxis. And then another for everything else. So whilst private hire vehicles carrying civil servants on expenses, and bicycles have free abandon the motorcycles are stuck in a single lane so narrow it's impossible to filter past lorries ands coaches and cars. 

And it was hot. Very hot. On a motorbike you need a bit of speed to feel the cool air but for most of the time we were stuck behind some HGV. We stopped a couple of times to take photos, got separated trying to find Temple Bar, and gave up on the city.

To the countryside...

Dublin to Kilkenny is only 125km and just over an hour so we thought we'd head south  and stop somewhere for a cuppa. We duly rode southwards on the M11 for a while and then at a random junction left the motorway and had a look at the map. 

We skirted the Wicklow mountains and stopped in a small village called Churchtown for refreshments, and here it was we encountered our first locals.

We were sat outside and I spilled my tea on Nik's phone, and said 'Shit!' and a woman who had been talking to Nik got the giggles which were contagious and soon enough I was giggling and it wasn't long before tears were streaming down our faces.

Riding though the Wicklow area reminded me of South Tyrol in Italy. Green, mountainous and open. It had the look and feel of the place, only with worse weather.

We arrived at your hotel in Kilkenny and the receptionist said 'Is that you lads with the motorcycles. Oh I love fecking motorbikes and I got a 125 and me da' said you want a bigger fecking bike than that and I said I'd better fecking save up then'

She was a genuine delight, and helpful with where to eat that night. Not until I'd had my first Guinness though!

Day 2

It rained overnight and was drizzling as we packed up and headed out. This day was to be a morning on the motorway followed by an afternoon tour of the Ring of Kerry.

We took the M8 to Cork. Irish roads (outside Dublin) are generally quiet. Speed limits are about the same as in England and are usually adhered to. But there was no evidence of any speed cameras or police, so we thought it safe add a few kph to the limit as a good cruising speed.

We stopped at Sneem, absolutely wet through. It had drizzled heavily all morning. Not quite rain, not quite dry. But wet enough to make us miserable, and for our phones to stop charging. We took solace in a cafe, had some lunch and dried out. A bit.

After lunch we started the Ring of Kerry. The ring is a 100km route around the Kerry peninsula. It's world famous and takes in various sites such as the Skellig Isle, Waterville village and miles of rugged, beautiful coastline. It felt to me like Highway One in California - only more wet.

The roads were busier than any others we'd encountered so far in Ireland, and we saw for the first time something we'd see more of as we progressed - American tourists. They were there in coaches and rental cars en masse.

It was really quite a lovely place but the weather tempered the experience somewhat. At one point we parked at a statue of Mary high up on the cliff at Com an Chiste. It's advertised as a viewpoint but you could only see maybe 100 metres.

We stopped in a place called Rossbeigh to take in the views of the beach before the final hour's ride to Killarney.

Killarney town was larger than I'd imagined. I thought that out here in western Ireland the towns would be small and only populated by locals. How wrong could I be. The rain had cleared up as we walked to town and we ate in a place called Paris, Texas which did great food, and then moved on to a pub called Killarney Grand which did great Guinness and had an Irish band and we talked at length to a chef who was half cut. It was a good evening.

Day 3

The next morning we left early and the weather looked good. No rain forecast. A friend on twitter had recommended we try the Shannon ferry from Tarbert in County Kerry north to Killimer in County Clare.

The ferry crossing was fun. It took twenty minutes and was smooth. One coach, four motorcycles and bunch of cars. The lady who took your money for the crossing was another delightful personality, full of jokes and general happiness.

Once in Clare the trip stepped up a gear. 

The road east from Killimer is an R road, which is the Irish equivalent to the English A road. Only there was no-one on it. The limit is 100kmh but you can safely travel at more than that if you've your wits about you.

Then we decided to find the real Craggy Island Parochial House which is actually a large detached house in the stunning Burren National Park. The road there was an L road which is Ireland's equivalent to the unclassified road. It was narrow, had grass growing in the middle, and bumpy. Huge fun.

At one point we stopped in a place called Six Cross Roads, which was exactly that. A pair of border collies guarded a statue of Mary. I said hello to the collies and Herself and we headed north to Burren. The views were stunning with mountains rising up in the background and seas of rocky outcrops either side of the road.

My Triumph Tiger 900 Rally Pro was perfect on these roads. Stood up or sat down the chassis absorbed all bumps and the ride was comfortable. Nik on his Honda VFR1200 enjoyed them less so.

We found Father Ted's house which provided a frisson of excitement! I took a few photos and we carried on through the spectacular Burren National Park to lunch in Kinnane.

After a great start the day just got better and better. 

We passed through Galway and along the coast to Inverin where we turned north and through the mountains and lakes (Loughs) to Camus Oughter and on to our hotel in Ballina.

But pause, rewind. That afternoon's ride was possibly the best of my life. The dead quiet mountain roads were a revelation. This, in Galway and then Mayo, is where I found the Ireland I loved.

Vast open spaces. Not for the first time was I reminded of America. Western Ireland's roads are well maintained and very quiet. Sometimes they twist and turn and you can flip the bike from one side to the other - my brand new tyres were worn right to the edges - and sometimes they are long and straight and with rocky spaces on either side with mountains in the distance and a view to die for.

And then I started to notice the details. Ireland is a lush, green place. Emerald Isle indeed - must be the rain. And there are cows everywhere. Sometimes tiny fields in between houses will have three for four cows quietly grazing under leaden skies.

Not only cows but donkeys! So many donkeys. At one point on a particular lunar landscape of rocks and not much else stood a lone donkey chewing at a small patch of grass.

The houses tend to be detached and often single storey and line the roads with cow fields in between. White, cream or stone coloured they are rendered and surrounded by sturdy rendered walls often with decorative columns. Some may say this architectural style is twee but in it I saw a proud people who like to take care of their appearance.

As described elsewhere speed limits are generally adhered to, but sometimes drivers stay well under the limit, and find a long train of vehicles behind. It's not unusual to see twenty or thirty cars in a slow moving convoy for mile after mile.

It was fun overtaking them all. And when I did none of them reacted badly, like they do in Wales or England.

Day 4

Dark skies overhead but no rain. We had a few hours until the ferry so we decided to stay off the motorway except for the final section into Dublin.

I set the satnav for a place called Cavan and we were soon whisked into a biker's fantasy of completely empty, perfectly paved, roads. Sometimes miles long which allowed super fast cruising, and then mile after mile of twists and turns. Absolute heaven.

We came across a classic car show as they were leaving a village, and ended up in the convoy, being photographed and videoed by a clapping and cheering populace. Well I had to wave back didn't I?

And then we were on the N3 motorway, which turned into the M3 - though I don't know the difference. Part of this was a toll road and motorcycles were charged 80 cents which I thought very reasonable.

So it was we waited an age at the port for the ship that was late to leave and late to arrive in Holyhead. A two hour blast home and the trip was over.

Over four days we covered 1,000 miles. I know some people like to take life slower and to see more of where they are. But I like to stretch things out. Get into the groove, enjoy the road and see the sights, sounds, smells and action as I pass it.

I loved Ireland. I learned a lot about it and its people. I learned I knew very little about it before I went and that four days wasn't nearly enough to learn much more.

I will be back.

By Matt Hubbard