The puzzle was laid out before me. A big long tandem bicycle, a normal bicycle, a baby seat, two bicycle trailers, eight panniers full of equipment; our new family-sized tent, clothes, cooking hardware, a few bicycle tools, spare tubes, books, maps, kid’s toys, and whatever else we would be pedaling around southern Ireland that had to fit in our tiny Ford Escort car, along with the four of us. With an old roof rack from the seventies a friend gave me, a few cleverly made adaptors to create a makeshift tandem bike rack, we shoe-horned into the heavily-loaded car in Weymouth, and drove to within an hour’s pedaling distance from the port of Fishguard, Wales. We spent two nights with some friends of Angie’s parents, went out to a local pub where our car would remain in its parking lot for the month we would be gone. The big day approached, we rode our fully-loaded bikes for the first time to the port, about an hour or so of undulating Welsh country roads. Probably not too different from where we would be rolling off the ferry later in the day – Rosslare in the Republic of Ireland.
The foghorn of the boat announced our arrival. We pedaled out of the bowels of the large ferry amongst the cars, trucks and motorcycles all leaving on their own journeys. The light drizzle, in Ireland known as ‘mizzle’, softly greeted us as we strained with the effort of pedaling our eight-wheeled traveling circus into the hazy light of day. We would be whipping into better shape over the next four weeks, for now we grunted on the first climb of the voyage, the boat ramp!
Our fellow ferry passengers thought we were, “Oh so brave to tackle such a long trip with a young family.” As we pedaled along the first few meters of the upcoming journey bemused onlookers smiled, pointed, and even applauded at the sight of our entourage. Thirteen month old Francesca in her baby seat behind her five year old brother Louis, the stoker, (the back seat pedal position on the tandem) and me in the captain’s position were all smiling finding our equilibrium, and basically for the first time, heading out on a big family cycling adventure. Angie had her own trailer and heavily-loaded steed to maneuver. She was probably thinking once again, ‘What the heck have I let myself in for with this crazy nomadic husband of mine?’ Probably much like our first date all those years ago when we pedaled off into the misty rain on the Tibetan Plateau when we first met in China, or maybe two years later when we disembarked in Bilbao Spain which was the beginning of a four month cycle tour of Europe which ended with a pregnant Angie. Or just maybe the fair amount of moving around we had done since the birth of Louis, and now Chessie, as I have recounted in this blog series. Whatever was swirling through her mind at that specific moment, the reality was upon us, the light mist in our face, the loaded bikes under our bodies, and the bicycle trips pedaling into the unknown still happening. I assumed Angie enjoyed the adventures, because there she was astride her touring bike and still smiling!
After our brief celebrity at the ferry port, the open road lay ahead, unknown adventures nestled in the green hilly countryside, all made so much better by the soft Irish accent we were greeted with everywhere. This trip was going to be new ground for all of us because neither Angie nor I had ever stepped foot on the Emerald Isle – and by default, neither had Louis and Chessie!
After the mist gave way to a heavier rain we thought a nice hot cuppa would be well-worth it. Of course, it was. Not only for the warm welcoming Irish smiles we were met with in the small tea shop, but the warm pot of tea and soda bread. We’d soon learn the Irish loved their soda bread. The mist was slowly lifting, and the day was drying out. We would dance our way through raindrops, big and small, quite often. Yes, it rains in Ireland, but what we didn’t realise is that meant in one day we could be met by at least three season’s worth of weather, and one of those seasons inevitably was the rainy season, but it did also mean that the rain wasn’t constant, after all it was August, and even stuck out on a small island in the Atlantic, the sun did make its presence known!
Another circus was in town, Tom Duffy was our competition. Whereas we were the beasts of burden in our traveling show, it looked like his circus was still using animals in their big acts. On the promo posters we saw photos of lions, tigers and elephants. I thought those sort of acts were no longer allowed in Europe. Well, I guess we were by definition in Europe, but by all other methods of conscious awareness, it was the Republic of Ireland. Not only was the weather a constant reminder, but the complete throwback in time where hospitality, smiles and a genuine interest in what we were doing made us feel lost in another time and place. The ever-present Irish-ness that the accent accentuated all the more, comes bursting through, and stays with you warmly while facing a brisk wind, or some mizzle as you pedal down a windy road into the hinterland. With more Irish people living out in the world beyond than the three million or so that still inhabit the small, green, wet, isle we were exploring, we were always so pleasantly surprised to find – in the old and young alike – a deep affection for Eire (Ireland to the rest of us not using the Gaelic term). Unbeknownst to us on those first few days of cycling, we would also be calling Ireland home for two years. How did that come to pass? Pedal on with us and find out.
As our fitness pedaling fully loaded bikes quickly came back, so did our love of putting up the tent at night. Thankfully Chessie kept her side of the sleeping bag/pee bargain, if you remember that from my last blog. We were finding our camping groove as our last three years in Brittany had been such an adventure, as well as moving from France to New York then back to France again, and having another child amongst it all kept our tent in its stuff sack for far too long. When we did take it out, it was definitely going to be too small for all four of us, hence, the new family-sized tent we were carting along on this trip, and appreciating every inch of space it afforded us at night. Pure luxury that we paid for during the day lugging it around, but hey, that’s what cycle touring is about – a bit of tough work in the saddle, but constantly being rewarded, with hot cups of tea, beautiful quiet roads, camping under the stars or clouds, and eating generously big guilt-free meals and snacks! Our little foray into the lush green isle had so far been a nice soft landing for us all.
It was kind of strange pedaling along on the tandem. Angie would cycle next to Louis and hand out snacks to him and Chessie. It felt like we were in some sort of camping car with all the conversation happening in the back as I was steering and pedaling along. Don’t get me wrong, when Louis did take his feet off the pedals for a rest, I felt the difference, being reminded the internal combustion engine was not propelling us forward. While going along a straight, flat road the trade-off was well worth it, as it was actually enjoyable hearing all the banter going on behind me. That little bit less help because Louis’ feet were up on the bike frame and not pushing on the pedals was fine once in a while, but just that noticeable teeny bit less power in the pedal stroke made me appreciate how much help five year old Louis was actually being, especially up the climbs. Louis and I had to coordinate when the climbs got long and tough. He was such an enthusiastic cyclist that we had a code for when we needed to get out of the saddle to dance on the pedals. We had to both start at the same time or else everything got out of sync, and it would be a disaster having to stop mid-climb losing any momentum we had. So when I tapped Louis’ leg and said Let’s Dance, (a la David Bowie) the next pedal stroke we’d simultaneously get out of our saddles and get into our groove. Luckily Louis and I had spent quite a lot of time on the tandem. It was a vintage bike given to us by an older friend in England, I had to do quite a bit of modification to get it up to a modern(ish) standard. It was Louis’ fourth birthday present, and he had actually helped me with the modifications. So we knew the bike well, and Chessie was happily snacking away in the bike seat, but still a few years off of pedaling in that stoker position that she would eventually occupy for quite a few years. Ah, but I digress, to be sure, to be sure!
When Ireland joined the EU and started integrating, miles gave way to kilometers, gallons and pints to liters, etc… The one cheeky thing we found out the hard way was when it was private sign posts, it seemed like the miles magically turned into kilometers in name alone, as it was cheaper to keep the sign and just change the words. You might not notice it too much in a car or on a motorcycle, but one day when we had a feverish Chessie, and a tired Louis, and a constant mizzle accompanying us the whole latter part of the day, the campsite only being ten more kilometers down the road was a blessing, as that translates into a few yards more than six miles. But, when it is the other way around and the sign really meant ten miles with just a word change, that translates into sixteen kilometers, and believe me being at the tail end of a hard day in the saddle looking forward to a hot shower and setting up camp, that extra few miles was disheartening indeed! We did make it, and asked the girl working in the small family-run campsite if she knew about the signpost, she gave us a beautiful shy smile, and the sheepish shrug of her shoulders spoke very loudly indeed. All was forgiven shortly after as we were setting up our tent and a tray was placed in front of us with a hot pot of tea for us and some apple juice for the kids. How can you begrudge a bit of fiddling with a signpost with such a lovely Irish attitude like that?
I mentioned Chessie snacking in her baby seat. Well this was a most memorable moment for sure. We had been hearing of this long climb that we were going to have to crest. Luckily Brittany was a hilly part of the world so we were no strangers to undulating roads. When the climb began, we were mentally and physically prepared. Of course it was one of the sunniest days of the trip to date – sunny and quite hot, just when a bit of mizzle would have been most welcomed. Although in saying that, the scene would not have been as idyllic in the rain. The blackberries on the road side were easy pickings at the slow rate of ascent. We even did stop once in a while breaking our stride to fill up our plastic buckets with lovely juicy blackers. Buckets full, and some blackberries packed away for our evening dessert, we still had a bucket each to enjoy on the continuing road. We were lucky to be on our bikes. There was no way you could have enjoyed the bounty passing at 40mph(65kph) in a car or on a motorcycle, but our slow moving bikes were perfect. That was why the blackberries were so abundant as well. No one was really able to get to them safely, as it was a slightly busy road. As we were in our high-vis-vests, with colorful trailers behind us the cars had to slow down to pass us, and we were able to pick and pedal and occasionally stop. The joys of cycle touring!
On the fast decent, Chessie decided it was a good time to polish off her bucket of blackberries. She happily gorged herself on nearly a whole tupperware full of the bittersweet fruit. The speed and slight bumpiness of the road, jiggled it all up enough so that when we made it to the bottom, Chessie’s blackberry stained lips were quite a contrast to her green face, which quickly led to a fountain of slightly digested fruit spewing from a teary-eyed young girl. It was actually quite comical, Angie and I had to hold back our urge to laugh, while young Louis was just saying, “Gross”, but luckily wasn’t in the line of fire. Chessie finally calmed down, Angie and I did our parental duty and cuddled and changed our daughter with occasional glances at each other knowing we were never too far from a giggle. After she regained her normal swarthy color, and her bizarrely stained, smelly clothes were put directly into a plastic bag to be dealt with later, we were ready to roll. With Chessie’s stomach now empty, she wanted more blackberries. We definitely had enough and gave them to her with a warning to eat them slowly. I was glad she recovered so quickly, and proved to be a true cycling Diomede, feed that stomach while exerting that power on a bike. Okay she wasn’t exactly exerting much power pedaling, but she was only fourteen months old and her energy was being used up just growing!!!
One of the big reasons we were on this trip was to check out an Ecovillage project we had read about in a magazine we subscribed to called Permaculture. An Ecovillage is an intentional community of people who commit to live together in an ecologically positive way, such as growing food, sharing cars, building creative green buildings, not green as the color because we were in Ireland, although that sounds kinda cute, but “green” in the ecological way of speaking. For us the specific destination on the trip was Cloughjordan, a small village where such a project was in its embryonic stages, the biggest of its king in Ireland. They were looking for members, and as the universe had been working with us in our last few moves, so it continued on the Emerald Isle.
So our Irish adventure was slowly closing in on our destination after a week or so of pedaling. We pulled into a small town called Roscrea where we saw an organic food shop. We stopped in to buy some food and snacks to keep us going, and started speaking to the owner. His name was Caoimhín, sort of the Irish equivalent of Kevin. Don’t ask about spelling, pronunciation, or any of it. The Irish language is an official European language, but for me it is still a mystery. Anyhow Caoimhín was part of the project in Cloughjordan, and lived there as well. It was our evening’s destination, and it just so happened as the upcoming weekend was the open house for the Ecovillage, hence our arrival timing, it was also his son’s birthday party. We were all invited, so would get to meet more members as a few people already involved in the project were in town. Potential members like us were arriving as well for the presentation/membership drive, so it was all very exciting!
We pulled onto the Main street of Cloughjordan, appropriately named ‘Main Street’, and our first sight was a picnic bench in front of a pub called Bomber’s. We all took a seat, and started foraging through our panniers for some of those organic snacks we’d just bought in Roscrea. No sooner, a well-rounded, ginger-haired man with glasses came out of the pub and asked us if we would like a pot of tea. We couldn’t say no to that, and, lo and behold, even some soda bread. He asked if we were part of the project and we told him about our journey and he pointed out the Ecovillage office down the street on the right. So I meandered down Main Street for the first time in my life, but certainly not the last, as I would open a small bicycle shop right across the street from where we sat, rent an apartment about twenty yards, oops I mean meters from where we currently drinking tea, and eventually buy a house on this same street, and all in the not-too-distant future.
The first person I met was Helen. She was a local working as the secretary for the Ecovillage project. She was loud, friendly and oh so Irish. She filled me in on everything I needed to know, and some things I didn’t. In our first brief meeting she introduce me to Mick, the chap who would be hosting the open house the next day. It was Mick’s enthusiasm, and, shall I say salesmanship, that changed the path of our lives for the next two years.
We were nicely put up in a room for guests in the office. We paid a small donation fee, and settled in for the next week or so meeting some of our potential new neighbors. Louis, met a few kids at Oisín’s birthday party, Caoimhín’s and Áine’s son. The names were going to be a challenge, but we were all speaking English, and after more than three years in Brittany, the Irish culture in many ways made me feel like I was back in New York.
The open day was full of hope; it was inspiring to see what this small group of motivated eco warriors had put together. As we walked down Main Street after the weekend, I commented to Angie that there were a few empty commercial premises, and no village bike shop. She looked at me with knowing eyes, the small premise next to the post office would house yet another small business one day soon called, ‘Cloughjordan Cycle Co-Op’.
The week filled us with such promise that we bought into the project immediately. We met so many, soon to be, friends, and Caoimhín and Áine were only part of a small group of folks who were actually living in ‘Clough’, as the locals referred to the existing village. I was now in a different modus operandi. I knew we were coming back soon, and needed to find a place to live. So before we left southbound towards Cork where our departing ferry would take us back to Wales, I needed to switch into my get things done mode. I met the local shop owner of Centra. Which was basically the large grocery store of the village. Murphy’s was across the street, a bit smaller and more family run, whereas Centra was a franchise. Anyhow, Donald, the owner of Cloughjordan’s Centra, had an apartment for rent above the shop. I took a look at it, shook hands on a rental deal, and he promised it would be ready in November. I think I pushed his slower moving Irishness to the limits when I said, “Okay, I’ll be back on November first with all our stuff.” He looked a bit shocked, but as I got to be quite friendly with Donald over they two years we lived there, I would come to know he always had a look of being slightly overwhelmed, but was quite a lovely, likeable guy.
We pedaled out of Cloughjordan a week later feeling like we were pedaling out of a weird dream. As the road we cycled down would be so familiar in a year’s time, we were on it for the first time, saying to ourselves, “Did we really just buy into this Ecovillage project in the middle of Ireland?” Yes was the answer and now we were looking at this small moist island in a whole different light. When we met those Irish people who were so happy and proud to be Irish, we were bursting with the same enthusiasm telling people we were coming back in November to call Ireland home. Wow, it was sort of surreal.
The last week of our journey was going by too quickly. We tried to put out of our heads all the logistics to come. We had been fully moved out of Brittany, and our worldly belongings were in a friend’s storage unit on another small island, called Portland, just south of Weymouth. My life had been quite full of adventures before becoming a dad. All of my travels and moving around the globe had been a lot of fun when I was single, footloose and fancy free. Everyone told me it would all end when I settled down, got married and had kids. Man, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The last eight years of my life had been full of crazy adventures, firstly working in and running bike shops in England and New York, living in two different areas of France, learning to grow food to live semi-self sufficiently, getting married, having two kids, and moving at least three times with a small family, no steady income, and enjoying every minute of it. Now we just bought into an Ecovillage project in the hinterland of Ireland, where in the back of my head the seed was already growing of opening up my first bike shop. Get me to that ferry, I want to get this ball rolling.
The Irish adventure continues……………………