Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on Wheels! Final part

My bicycle sunbathing on the last day of the ride

My bicycle sunbathing on the last day of the ride

On the last day of the journey, the sun came out; too late for my comprehensively sodden gear, but so very welcome on this day of all days. The almost brutal amount of rain that had poured itself on me and at me during the trip seemed completely in keeping with following the Táin bó Cuailnge. If the sun had smiled upon me for 350 miles it would have been too easy; the weather had gifted the journey with an appropriate intensity. But perhaps a little like Medb’s army – routed by Ulster’s forces once they were in retreat towards home – the dogged spirit that had seen me pedal on through epic amounts of water over nine days was suddenly blunted now by the beckoning of rest and a dry bed.

A few hours in the saddle, through a limestone landscape bright with sun, brought me to a hamlet on a shallow rise of land overlooking the plain: Emmoo… When Medb arrived back at the court of Connaught, her army was in tatters but the prize was hers: there stood the pride of Ulster, the Brown Bull of Cooley. Now, at last, her wealth was equal to her husband’s. She watched the magnificent animal – so large that one hundred and fifty children could sit along its back – raise its head to the sky and bellow. But in answer, another vast bull lumbered across the land: Findbannach, the bull of Ailill the King, large enough for a hundred warriors to shelter in the lee of his side. Medb had no idea that she had brought two old enemies together (see part 2): two pigkeepers of the kings of the Sidh – who had years before fought each other as warriors, birds, dragons and sea monsters – now reincarnated as bulls. They charged at each other for the last time. And the place where they met was Emmoo.

At Emmoo, scene of the Battle of the Bulls

At Emmoo, scene of the Battle of the Bulls

Findbennach’s horn pierced the Brown Bull’s leg, breaking it. Locked in combat, they staggered into the waters of a nearby lake and disappeared under the surface. The crowd of onlookers waited….

One pair of horns appeared through the skin of the water: one bull limped out of the lake – with his rival’s shoulder blade lodged on one horn and his liver on the other: the Brown Bull of Cooley. Medb was beside herself with exultation; Findbennach’s death left her the wealthier! But the Brown Bull of Cooley stumbled eastwards and homewards and, with a final bellow, the prize for whom so many had lost their lives dropped to his knees… and died. Medb sighed and looked at her husband: “Oh well”, She said, “… at least that leaves us equal”.

Full circle: back at Roscommon from where i had pedalled off across I

Full circle: back at Roscommon from where I had pedalled off across Ireland

I arrived at Roscommon train station, barely recognizable under a blue sky as the same place from which I’d emerged into a skyfull of raindrops like hailstones at the start of the ride. The train came in. And I left the weather, the land full of stories, the endless tarmac, and I wheeled my bike aboard, and slumped in a seat.

I hadn’t been in a confined space aside from my tent for the duration of the trip. The overriding sensation wasn’t the bittersweet mixture of relief and sadness that it was nearly over. It was the awfulness of the smell from my sodden trainers – an awfulness that I must have shared with every other passenger in that half of the carriage, on what must have been a very, very long trip to Dublin.

The GPO in Dublin, epicentre of 1916's Easter Rising

The GPO in Dublin, epicentre of 1916’s Easter Rising

I walked out into Dublin with hours to spare before my ferry so I walked my laden bike around the centre. I found myself on O’ Connell Street. On the far side stood the GPO, famous as the HQ of 1916’s Easter Rising. In a window in the front of the building was a bronze statue: a sculpture of a man tied to a rock with his own belt; his dead weight slumped against it, his sword still grasped tight in his right hand. Cú Chulainn. When the Irish erected a memorial to those who had died fighting for independence in those fateful days of 1916, it was his image they chose.

The statue of Cú Chulainn in the GPO

The statue of Cú Chulainn in the GPO

I boarded the ferry, reprised my argument for having a cabin, won again, and was lying in a bunk by the time the boat nosed eastwards into the Irish Sea.

Throughout the journey a feeling had been growing that I wasn’t alone. I had spent twelve hours and more every day with the figures at the core of the stories: Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Conall Cernach, Medb, Fráech, Scáthach, Fer Diad, Conchobor… imagining them, invoking them into the landscape, meditating on how the events in the epic must have affected them. After nine days they had become vivid, concrete, real. And as I lay in my cabin, it was as if they were still there around me. The feeling would persist for a long time after I had walked off the ferry onto English soil, saddled up and cycled through Liverpool to catch a final train to Lancaster.

On the way to Dublin's ferry terminal and home, past the Samuel Beckett Bridge

On the way to Dublin’s ferry terminal and home, past the Samuel Beckett Bridge

Even back in Lancashire, the connections to landscape and place were not quite at an end. Though he has become it’s central figure, Cú Chulainn is a relatively late arrival in the Ulster Cycle. Meanwhile, though chariot fighting dominates the action in the stories, there is little archaeological evidence to support its widespread use in Iron-age Ireland. Some have argued this aspect was added by medieval scribes, to create an Irish equivalent of The Iliad. But others have looked elsewhere for an explanation. Cú Chulainn’s original name is Setanta, and along the Lancashire coast lived a Celtic tribe called the Setantii who fought their battles from chariots. Some scholars of Celtic Studies suggest Setanta’s introduction into the stories represents the migration of some of the Setantii from the coast of Lancashire directly across the water to the coast of Louth. In other words, it is possible that in one sense Cú Chulainn came from Lancashire. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

Back at my house, at the top of a series of steep hills, I took everything off my long-suffering bike. I was hungry and the fridge was empty. I freewheeled the bicycle back down the hill to the shops. I made it five yards before I fell off. Now that it wasn’t weighed down with twenty five kilos of gear, the slightest turn of the handlebars sent it at right angles into the middle of the road. It would be a couple of days before I was fully safe on its unencumbered frame.

Five years later, I am at last touring my completed performance piece created from the stories of the Ulster Cycle. I’ve been through a very long process of researching, shaping, workshopping and rehearsing it. It’s a one-man show, and nearly three hours long. It is the landscape that keeps me on course through its length and complexity, the landscape I really came to know, yard by cycled yard, in nine days in 2010. My director, Michael Harvey, noted on our first day working together that the times when the stories were working best were when I brought into the telling the real places of Ireland in which they happen. In those moments I can see the landscapes in front of my eyes: the rushes spiking the marshy plains of Connaught; the huge skies of Louth above the flat sweeps of harvest stubble; the rain-dark hills of Carlingford across the grey gleam of the sea. It is when I’m in touch with these physical truths of the landscape that the other hidden truths in the stories can begin to show themselves.

The Tain Trail 039

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Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 7

I had followed the route of Medb’s army across Ireland from Connaught to the hills of Cooley, and curved back southwest, past the place where Cú Chulainn had faced his best friend in a tragic fight to the death. Now I was following the route of her army as they had hightailed it home with the cattle and treasure, and the women and children of Ulster, and the Brown Bull of Cooley – for whom Medb had engineered the whole raid. I cycled past Mullingar and through the low hills between there and Athlone: somewhere here, the final battle of the Taín bó Cuailnge had been fought.

Stopping by fields near the site of the final battle

Stopping by fields near the site of the final battle

Cú Chulainn lay wounded and sick in his heart from a fatal duel with his best friend. After months of standing alone against Medb’s army, he could only lie on his sick bed as her forces made off towards Connaught. But the curse of the labour pains finally left Ulster’s warriors. They rose, armed, and swept after the retreating host. Cú Chulainn heard the distant din as the two armies met. He forced himself to his feet, and dragged his chariot across the hills and into the melée. He swung the chariot in front of him, sweeping warriors from his path as if they were leaves. And he came to his foster-father Fergus, now fighting for Medb. He reminded Fergus he had promised to run from Cú Chulainn the next time they met. Fergus kept his word, leaving the field with all his men. When the Leinster and Munster forces saw this, they left too, until only Medb’s Connaught troops remained to face the Ulster’s wrath. But Medb had already sent the Brown Bull of Cooley onwards to her court. The prize seemed to be hers…

I stopped in a hamlet. Outside a tiny shop stood a picnic table. I sat down and held my phone beneath the table to protect it from the rain as I caught up on texts. I’d become adept at this technique in the dripping wet days of the trip. But as I sat there the rain became heavy. And in the distance a wall of super-dark cloud was advancing, looking like black ink poured into water. ‘Heavy’ would soon be a relative word.

I had still to reach Athlone and make my way up the far side of Lough Ree to a campsite. Texts had better wait. I pedaled off. But I doubt even Cú Chulainn could have outstripped the weather on a pushbike. When it caught up, water crashed earthwards in such quantities that cars appeared only at the last possible moment, as if teleported into the road beside me, emerging from the semi-solid curtain of rain from another world. The floods through which my wheels churned were enough to stop me in my tracks without determined effort. But I noted with soggy satisfaction that the journey had had an effect: I was fitter than when I’d started this two-wheeled rashness.

Crossing the Shannon at Athlone

Crossing the Shannon at Athlone

I crossed the Shannon at Athlone, stopping to snatch a photo in a moment of calm, before pushing on into the aquatic murk. I came to a petrol station. The few people sheltering beneath its brightly-lit awning stared. A cyclist must have been the last thing they’d have expected to see coming out of a darkness that was 95% water. There was no point wearing waterproofs. They wouldn’t have stood up to that downpour for five minutes. So I was dressed only in a thin thermal top and Ronhills, the water streaming down my drenched body. Even in the dull exhaustion of this dogged epic, there was something a little liberating about travelling so, exposed to the elements yet warm, and journeying under one’s own steam through the worst the Atlantic could throw down on Ireland. I bought more chocolate, snack bars, cake – anything that said: “Energy! Fuel!” – chomped them in the luxurious dryness beneath the petrol pumps’ roof, and set off again.

Fitter or not, I was really tired now. My legs were still going round on the pedals mostly because they no longer knew what else to do. The thing that kept me going was that I was heading for a bona fide campsite for my last night of the journey under nylon, with hot water, with facilities… maybe even a little store of goodies to buy in the office. The image of it dangled in my mind; I dragged myself towards it as if pulling on a rope made of these dreams of modest camping splendour.

And finally I was turning off the main road, sploshing along a little minor road that led to another minor road that led to the very very last little road of the day… that brought me to the gate of the campsite. Which was padlocked shut.

The campsite was closed. It was mid September and the campsite was closed for the season. A roll of barbed wire was coiled along the top of the metal gate. Un. Believable.

I was completely finished. There was no possibility of continuing into the night again to find somewhere else. Barbed wire or not there was only one thing for it. And hadn’t I been here before?

But this gate was five feet high, mercifully. So… everything off the bike and panniers lifted over and gently tossed onto the grass beyond, and the rucksack with them; the bicycle was gingerly elevated above the wire and down the other side. I lifted a foot onto the top of the gate between the wire spikes. My sodden trainer slipped along the rail and left me fearful of committing my whole body to it (with the accompanying risk of losing my footing and landing on barbed wire with my tenderest body parts). But my panniers now lay out of reach on the campsite so I had to go for it, and with a little slippery teetering I was over. And exhausted. And thirsty. And of course – of course – they had turned the water supply off.

The campsite, with its facilities firmly locked up till the Spring

The campsite, with its facilities firmly locked up till the Spring

The rain slackened for an hour. But the tent was soaking wet inside and out. There were only two things still dry in my panniers – full of eight days’ of saturated clothing: my sleeping bag and Thermarest. I unrolled the one on the other, an island of dryness on the sopping groundsheet. I stripped off my clothing in the tiny tent porch and hopped like a frog onto the sleeping bag. The only food I had left was a hunk of porter cake. I lay there like a castaway on a tiny island, stolidly chewing my final rations, listening to the rain battering the flysheet. The next day would be the last leg of the journey. And at that moment, fittingly, it did now feel that it was time to go home.

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Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 6

The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here. ______________________________________________________________

The day had started with cycling from the edge of the sea to the tops of the Carlingford hills, 500 metres higher; then over the passes, down through the foothills and across the northern edge of the old plain of Muirhemne to Dundalk – hours of cycling. But the day had hardly begun: ahead lay three key places of pilgrimage for any devotee of the Ulster Cycle stories. And the first was on the outskirts of Dundalk itself: the hill of Dun Delgean.

It was on this hill that Cú Chulainn’s home and fortress had stood: ‘Dún Delga’. And when I arrived at its foot there was a six-foot high gate, firmly padlocked, blocking the track that wound up to its top.

I stared at my bicycle with its four bulging panniers weighed down with sodden clothing, and the rucksack on the rack. I couldn’t leave it all by the roadside unguarded, but to take panniers and rucksack up the hill without the bike would require four hands and Cú Chulainn’s physique; and I wasn’t leaving this hill without climbing it, not after several hundred miles of miles of rain-soaked slog. I removed the luggage, grasped the bicycle in one hand and a railing in the other and began The Epic of The Gate. After enough time for the sun to have visibly moved across the sky, I was teetering on its spiked top and lowering the cycle down on the other side. I repeated the manouevre with one pannier after the other, lowered myself in a sweaty heap beside them, put everything back on the bike and pushed it up the steep track.

Looking out from Cú Chulainn's home, Dún Delga, on the edge of Dundalk

Looking out from Cú Chulainn’s home, Dún Delga, on the edge of Dundalk

And it was worth it. At the top I stepped into sunlight and onto its wide disc of green grass encircled by a turfed rampart. The trees beautifully framed the views back towards the Carlingford’s hills and onwards – south and west across the plain. A more fitting home for the Hound of Muirhemne it would be hard to imagine.

The remains of an early medieval motte-and-bailey castle jutted from the turf, topped by the stone finger of an 18th century tower. The folly and its medieval foundations simultaneously made it hard to imagine the place as Iron-Age fortress and reinforced the feel of it as a timeless place of dwelling and defence.

I lay down against the grassy earthwork and soaked up sunshine into my waterlogged pores. And then I remembered how far there was still to go, how much more there was still to see, and just how long a day this was looking like becoming. I returned to the gate, wearily willed it to go away, and when it didn’t I repeated The Epic in reverse.

The grassy swathe of Dun Dealgan's top

The grassy swathe of Dun Dealgan’s top

Only a handful of miles away stood the second place. In a field by a busy road near Knockbridge stands a stone. It is slightly taller and wider than me. From its top a shallow crack runs. Orange lichen is splashed across the upper part on that side, like paint flicked from a brush. It seeps down the crack as if it was once liquid, now dried to a rough glaze. The stone is upright, but leans a fraction; if you put your back against it, the rock takes a little of your weight.

I gazed out from it across the field. Alone, Cú Chulainn had looked out from here at thousands of enemies. Mortally wounded, he held his innards inside the terrible gash in his stomach with one hand and held his sword in his other. He had tied himself to the stone so he could die facing his foes.

Standing where Cú Chulainn had waited for his lonely death was strangely and strongly affecting. This was a story I was following. But it’s an epic, part of a mythology… neither history nor fiction but some other kind of truth. As Alan Garner says, it is through these kinds of stories that a people dreams. Our collective experiences are distilled into the rich metaphorical brew of our collective stories. And in that way they hold truth for and about us all. And following the concrete route of the story for 12 hours a day, every day, the characters that populate these stories became almost as real as the people I cycled past in the villages and towns,  going about their daily lives.

The stone to which Cú Chulainn tied himself so as to die facing his enemies. Knockbridge, Co. Louth

The stone to which Cú Chulainn tied himself so as to die facing his enemies.
Knockbridge, Co. Louth

And then… it is healthy to be brought back entirely to the present world from time to time…

Two hours more in the saddle brought me to the day’s last key stop and the crux moment of the Táin bó Cuailgne: I had arrived at Ardee. Here, Cú Chulainn was confronted by his best friend Fer Diad, sent to kill him by Queen Medb. Despite Cú Chulainn’s pleas, Fer Diad could not find it in himself to back out. By the fourth day of their duel, both had been wounded so grievously that birds could fly through the hacked holes in their bodies. Cú Chulainn resorted to the Gae Bolga, a barbed spear that only he possessed. It pierced Fer Diad’s body and he fell dead. Cú Chulainn grieved and lamented for him, and was too sick in his heart and too badly wounded to fight on.

Now I was standing where this had happened, already sensitized to the tragedy of the story by visiting Cú Chulainn’s stone. I gazed at the water of the ford slipping past as it would have done that terrible day. Another bicycle came to a stop beside me and a man got off. His head wobbled about on his neck in a way that put me in mind of some wooden child’s toy.

“I saw the gear on your bike”, He said, in a local accent. He took a can of Red Stripe from his bag and rolled a cigarette. He told me he’d been on a 30-hour bender – drinking, smoking, doing a bit of cocaine; and there was a party at the Rugby Club that evening so he’d come out for some air before heading back into the fray for another wild night. His wobbly head suddenly made sense.

“So why have you stopped here?” He asked. “I saw you staring at the water”.

I told him I was cycling the route of the Táin, and that this was where Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad had fought their fateful duel.

He nodded. “I know, I know…” He waved his roll-up in lazy circles whilst his head wobbled on “…But it’s all bullshit you know. You don’t believe any of that do you?”

It was a magnificently irreverent counterpoint to the story’s domination of my imagination.

The daylight was subdued by the time I left Ardee. I realised that in aiming for Dún Delga, Cú Chulainn’s Stone and Fer Diad’s ford I had forgotten to plan how I would make headway across the country and where I would stay that night. Whoops. I cycled solidly onwards for an hour, and then another. The light became gloomier. I passed nowhere that invited me to stop and there were no campsites. I cycled dully on, into the growing dark – another hour, and another. I realised I’d been on the road for more than fourteen hours and the perfect place for the night wasn’t going to appear. I stopped in exhaustion by the next field gate, threw panniers and rucksack over it, heaved the bicycle across (wasn’t I practiced at this now, after all?), put up my tent behind the hedge, very badly, and fell into it. In the few seconds between lying down and falling asleep I thought of my friend back at Ardee. While I couldn’t keep my eyes open, he would at this moment be several hours into his next night of partying. He certainly hadn’t looked like a warrior, but his stamina for revelry would surely have impressed the stalwarts of the Ulster Cycle.

The end of the longest day: falling asleep behind a hedge after 14+ hours in the saddle

The end of the longest day: falling asleep behind a hedge after 14+ hours in the saddle

The Hero Light is coming to Felin Uchaf, North Wales, this Friday, 7th August 2015.

Here’s a link to the venue’s events page: http://www.felinuchaf.org/1/news.htm

And you can see a trailer for the show here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20

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Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 5

The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here. ______________________________________________________________

Carlingford mountain, looking magnificent but intimidatingly steep for an overloaded cyclist.

Carlingford mountain, looking magnificent but intimidatingly steep for an overloaded cyclist.

The next morning the weather seemed to be feeling guilty. It treated me to several hours of clear skies and sunshine. I gazed across sun-dazzled water to the Mournes sweeping up from the sea. In their folds lay the Silent Valley, to where Cú Chulainn had been taken by his wife and the druids, long after the action of the Táin. They hid him there in a desperate bid to save him from the illusion of a huge army his enemies had created to lure him to his death.

At the eastern end of the narrow rim of flatland between mountains and sea was Dundrum, home to the Ulster Cycle’s most irascible troublemaker. Bricriu of the Poisoned Tongue was never content until he had turned a peaceful occasion into a bloodbath. He organized a magnificent feast at Dundrum for all the warriors of Ulster. When they refused to attend (“if we go, our dead will outnumber our living”) he threatened to turn every woman’s right breast against her left breast and her left breast against her right breast until they banged against each other and “the milk that comes from them to feed the babes of Ulster will be foul and putrid”. So they agreed to attend but only on condition that Bricriu did not. Always one for a challenge, he wound up the principal warriors and queens of Ulster in advance so that utter mayhem ensued. The account of this – ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ – is one of the comic masterpieces of the Ulster Cycle.

Looking across to the narrow, green lowland strip between the Mournes and the sea, running eastwards towards Dundrum

Looking across to the narrow, green lowland strip between the Mournes and the sea, running eastwards towards Dundrum

I had camped in the Mournes the previous summer, on my first field trip following the Ulster Cycle stories (the same visit in which I had parked by the roadside in Carlingford that day – see previous excerpt). The campsite had a good fifty tents arranged across it, and looked straight up towards Hare Gap, the notch in the mountain wall of the Mournes. This notch, I now know, funnels the winds from the sea into a jet stream when the weather is wild enough. As it was on our fourth night… A storm came in. It was as though the giant Cú Roí was wandering around the fields flattening tents with his hands. I emerged into the maelstrom at 3am to discover our family tent had several broken poles and was in danger of being flung to the ground entirely. I had a pack of spare guyline so I went to tie the tent down in as many places as humanly possible. I had no more tent pegs so I used our cutlery – banging knives, forks and spoons into the turf as the rain laughed at my waterproofs and soaked me to the skin with the aid of its mate, the wind.

In the morning it was quite a sight: The tent was pinned down beneath a spider’s web of guylines, and protruding from the grass were all manner of household implements. It looked pretty Dali-esque. Our tent was the only one left: the others had been thrust into cars by their owners as they evacuated in the night, or had simply been abandoned where they lay. There wasn’t a single other camper left on site. A couple of dozen destroyed tents littered the field, shattered poles poking through their torn nylon skins like emaciated animals massacred in some wild hunt. The farmer saw me:

“You’re still here”, he observed.

“We are”, I said, “But the tent’s in a bad way. Some poles are broken”.

He gestured across the field at the post-apocalyptic landscape of ruined tents: “Just go and see what you can find from these, and take whatever you need”.

“Won’t their owners be coming back for them?” I asked.

“Oh no”, he said, “They never do”.

I looked at his unperturbed face: he knew very well what came through that gap from time to time. But absolutely nothing had been said when each camper had walked into his office and had paid for their stay (in advance). Bricriu would have been proud of him.

I remember it being a relief in a way, to now find ourselves alone. The other campers were from the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. We had got on well with them and chatted freely. But my experience in the past had been that the name Dominic Kelly had such strong Irish catholic resonances for people from that background that it didn’t always produce a friendly response and I kept it to myself. However on day three, one of my family mentioned my name to our neighbours and that was the last time they talked to us. That was also when things started to go missing from the tent when we were out. This is not a slant on that community. No doubt one could have had a similar situation if the backgrounds of myself and the other campers had been reversed. But as someone mostly sheltered from prejudice it was a striking experience.

The story of Cú Chulainn is interesting in the way it has been adopted by both the Nationalist and Unionist communities. On the one hand it is an epic of all Ireland, with a pedigree going back to at least the Dark Ages; steeped in the Irish language and the old roots of the names in the landscape, it has a natural home with the Nationalists. On the other hand its theme of one lone Ulsterman standing firm against the rest of Ireland chimes with the Unionists’ view of their position and they too have taken it in as one of their stories.

Back in 2010, I looked at Carlingford mountain rearing up behind the hostel. My route lay over the high pass beyond its summit. I loaded down the bicycle and set off. Well, it nearly killed me. Luckily the views were magnificent so I could stop repeatedly and lengthily whilst salvaging some dignity in front of passing motorists by pretending to be merely taking in the panorama. It was up here that the Brown Bull of Cooley had secreted himself. Medb had dragged half her army over the tops, ordering them to hack a cutting through the hills to effect their passage.

Just 'having to' stop and look back at the view... before the endless climb kills me.

Just ‘having to’ stop and look back at the view… before the endless climb kills me.

Slumped in a sweaty heap at the top of the pass, I stared south and east: it was all downhill from here, all the way to the Louth plain – Cú Chulainn’s beloved Muirhemne. And on the eastern edge of Dundalk, there in the distance, rose a lonely hill: Dún Delga, Cú Chulainn’s own home, his fortress. That was where I was headed. I wheeled the bike back onto the tarmac, pointed it at the plain and let it freewheel wildly down the pass, taking me towards the next stage of the journey.

It's all downhill from here... looking back at the first part of the long freewheel back to the plain below

It’s all downhill from here… looking back at the first part of the long freewheel back to the plain below

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Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 4

The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here. ______________________________________________________________

Reaching the east coast

Reaching the east coast!

I cycled out from among the hills and onto the Louth plain in glorious morning sunlight. There was a magnificence about the expansiveness of the land with its golden harvest stubble, and the huge depth of the sky. No doubt the feeling was magnified by nearing the Táin bó Cuailnge’s epicenter; for there were the rain-dark hills of the Carlingford peninsula – Cuailnge itself – now visible in the distance, contrasting so dramatically with the bright plain. And soon the land stopped and I was staring across the sea; from the opposite side of a wide inlet, the slopes, passes and valleys of Cooley stared back.

Across the water to the hills of Cooley

Across the water to the hills of Cooley

I cycled through Dundalk and now there was little between me and the peninsula. I didn’t go directly there for just off the route stood a hill from where Cú Chulainn had harried Medb’s army with his sling: Focherd (now Faughart), sporting the hardest place name from the trip to pronounce in polite company. The road to its summit was the steepest yet. I got off my overloaded bike in the hilltop car park and walked my rubber legs over to the low wall with my heart pounding from the climb. It was raining again. Of course. But only a little. And the 360-degree views were amazing. If I were choosing the perfect lookout hill from which to follow my adversaries across this land, I too would plump for that one.

Just a small slice of the 360-degree view from Focherd

Just a small slice of the 360-degree view from Focherd

I unwrapped a slab of porter cake and started cutting drizzle-soaked slices with my Swiss Army knife. There was one car parked there. A young couple sat hunched in the front seats. The driver’s door opened and industrial quantities of cannabis smoke gently permeated the damp air. Emerging from the car was a huge young man, who had had some trouble unfolding his muscled bulk into the fresh air. He walked in an ultra-slow-motion stagger across the car park. He looked like trouble. If Pixar set out to create the visual epitome of a thug, it would look just like him. I carried on cutting cake whilst repeating in my head, “Please don’t come over here. Pleeeeease don’t come over here”. But although his internal navigation app was crashing a lot, his intended destination was clear: eventually he was standing over me, swaying. My heart began thumping in my chest again, even though I wasn’t on my bike. One of his ludicrously thick fingers extended itself and pointed at me. And he said… “Can… I…. have … some of… that… cake?”

Oh my God. He had the munchies. That was all. He had the munchies. My relief and generosity skipped happily side by side and knew no bounds. I gave him a slice of cake. I gave him another. I gave him one for his girlfriend… He told me he’d been shot in the knee – I don’t know how or why; I didn’t ask and he didn’t explain. He did roll up his trouser leg for me to see, and though I have no experience with gunshot scars, it looked pretty convincing. He wanted to swap knives – my Swiss Army model for his smaller one. This was pretty attractive – how much more Iron-Age could the trip get than exchanging ‘weapons’, as it were, near the epicenter of the Táin bó Cuailnge?! But my knife was quite big for a Swiss Army model, and covered with my fingerprints, and I worried a little about what it might be used for (his sales pitch for taking HIS knife centered on it being too small for the Garda to confiscate). So in the end I refused, with the excuse (true) that my brother had given it me as a birthday present.

He made his epic journey back across the tiny car park and folded himself into the vehicle. He started the engine – at which it rolled down the car park as if the brake pedal had been removed, before coming to a juddering stop inches from the wall. They both sat there staring around themselves with dazed and bloodshot gazes, looking as if they’d inhaled enough hash to down an elephant. Eventually I packed away my things, remounted my bicycle and pedaled off. They were still there. It was hard to imagine how they were going to leave that car park in the near future. I sort of imagine they’re probably still there now.

The lookout hills of Cú Chulainn, with Ochaine to the right and Focherd amongst the rounded green hills near the centre (Slieve Gullion rises higher and darker in the distance)

The lookout hills of Cú Chulainn, with Ochaine to the right and Focherd amongst the rounded green hills near the centre (Slieve Gullion rises higher and darker in the distance)

Carlingford has a reputation as a republican stronghold with a history of IRA activity. And as I cycled along the flanks of its hills, there was in fact a Republican poster affixed to every lamp-post. I had been to Carlingford the year before on a shorter research trip. And I had sat one day by the side of the road in my car, with its UK number plate, wondering where would be a good place from which to head up onto the hills, when a farmer drove up a nearby track in his battered 4×4… … As he went to turn onto the road he saw me, paused, made a quick call on his mobile, then drove off. No more than 120 seconds later, a car came out of nowhere and stopped by mine. A man got out and asked what I was doing. He wasn’t unfriendly; in fact he was charming and polite. But he wanted to know. I explained why I was there and that I was trying to find the best way up onto the hills. He directed me towards the car park on the top of the pass, and advised me not to leave any valuables in the vehicle. I thanked him and drove off. When I later recounted the incident to a friend well-versed in the political landscape of the area, he said, “Well, that would have been the local IRA man then”. Who knows if that was so. It certainly is possible, although alternatives narratives can also be fitted to the incident just as easily. In any event, it was a moment that had stayed with me as something that wouldn’t have happened just anywhere.

Anyway, a year later, on my cycle trip, this was the only night on which I didn’t camp. When I Googled opportunities for life under canvas in Cooley I found instead a warning against camping there at all. A couple had overnighted in a campervan recently and been set on by men with axes, from over the border in Armagh. They’d been robbed and assaulted. That sort of intense and violent experience would be very much in keeping with a journey following the gritty, blood-soaked Táin. But it didn’t sound like a lot of fun. I booked a night at the Carlingford Hostel instead.

The weather seemed to resent my imminent escape from its clutches for a night: as I cycled round the southern curve of the peninsula, the rain hammered down with such intensity that the hostel became visible only when I was almost upon it. This stretch of land was at the heart of the story, and the hostel marked the furthest eastward and northward extent of my journey. I was in Cuailnge, the place that the Brown Bull of Cooley called home and the place on which Medb had set her sights. The whole dramatic sweep of the first half of the Táin had been heading for the place where I now stood. Before I entered the building I looked east across Carlingford Lough: a double rainbow leapt from the far shore, and beyond it the Mourne mountains showed a hint of their bulk through the mist. A more stunning sight to mark this watershed moment of the trip I couldn’t have asked for.

Across Carlingford Lough to the Mournes

Across Carlingford Lough to the Mournes

______________________________________________________________ Watch a short trailer for my show The Hero Light here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20 More info at www.dominic-kelly.com

The show is currently booking for Spring and Autumn 2016. Email dominicjskelly@gmail.com

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 Cycling the Taín: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 3

The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here (scroll down a little further to read the first two excerpts first). ______________________________________________________________

Cycling up a Westmeath hill at the speed of a nimble young snail

Cycling Westmeath’s hills at the speed of a nimble young snail

When I’d been careering across the Connaught plain, four panniers and a rucksack had been a marvelous aid to momentum. Now I was pedaling up the hills of Westmeath and I couldn’t have gone slower if someone had been holding onto the back of my bike. Which wasn’t all. Before leaving I’d invested in a new saddle. The shop had two touring options: one cost £19.99, the other £69.99. No brainer! I chose the £19.99 model. It even looked comfier! I can now say to you, dear reader – with the authority born out of eight days of severe aching in the tenderest body parts and a month of post-journey pain – that if you ever face the two-saddle dilemma then for God’s sake buy the expensive one.

Nearing the top of the long slog to Crossakeel

On the long slog up to Crossakeel

The longest hill climbed to Crossakeel. It was here Cú Chulainn first awaited the enemy. Every other Ulster warrior was struck down by a curse, lying in bed with labour pains; so at 17 years of age he had come to face Medb’s vast army alone. Standing where I now stood, his otherworldly horses ate away the grass, their roots and the very soil down to the bedrock. Cú Chulainn had promised to tryst with a woman that night. Yet he knew the army of Ireland would soon arrive. “But if I stay, it will be said that men’s promises are false”, he told his charioteer, and kept his tryst.

Before leaving he twisted a wythe into a hoop with one hand and threw it over a standing stone with a challenge to Medb scratched in ogham. When the queen and her army arrived they read Cú’s challenge: to take this road, one of you must make and throw such a hoop one handed, or one of your number will die… But when Cú Chulainn returned the next day he was mortified to discover Medb had sidestepped his challenge, felling a whole forest to plough a different road east. Full of guilt, he hurtled after them. Medb would never again have it so easy…

Not-so-mythic rural suburban-ness near Crossakeel

Not-so-mythic rural suburban-ness near Crossakeel…

On Crossakeel in 2010, one had to work hard to mentally blank out the hilltop settlement and imagine it as Cú Chulainn would have found it. But atleast it wasn’t blighted by the eyesores of the Celtic Tiger boom: cycling east I passed endless palatial houses plonked in fields with gay abandon across large swathes of the country and, due to the subsequent bust, now left apparently untended and uninhabited. At the speed of a bicycle one could take in these temples to tastelessness in all their abandoned glory. Each new-built house was optimistically huge (who had these been designed for?), with a never-lived-in look to them, and without fail utterly out of keeping with their surroundings. It was as if they had been built for some suburban, anti-aesthetic satellite TV-watching version of the Tuatha de Danaan, who had then suddenly moved to the otherworld beneath the mounds, leaving the countryside littered with the homes that had been made for them.

I often had a convoy of cars behind me on Westmeath’s windy roads. When drivers finally managed to overtake, they often beeped their horns. Coming from impatient England I imagined them signaling their annoyance at the two-minute delay to their journey. But I realised it was happening at other times too. It dawned on me these were friendly beeps. Encouraging beeps. “That looks some load you’re carrying there on your bike and you must be going a good way with it so fair play to you and keep it up” sort of beeps. What a fine thing. That wouldn’t happen much in England. I even started looking at the empty new-builds in a slightly milder light.

... balanced by occasional magnificent, mythic skies

… balanced by occasional magnificent, mythic skies

Each day I followed the route of Medb’s army; I stopped at every place where something of significance happened in the Táin bó Cuailnge, imagining that part of the narrative in situ before settling my martyred behind back on the saddle and thinking through the implications of this episode for the main characters as I pedaled through the rain. It was an intense process that saw me taking to the road first thing in the morning and collapsing into my tent around nightfall or later. This was one of the longest days, all the way from the eastern edge of Connaught through Westmeath and Meath to the border with Louth itself.

When I was finally lying in my tent in a campsite not far from the ancient site of Newgrange (referred to often in the Ulster Cycle stories) I took stock of my stuff and myself. The state of both was identical: sopping wet. Around my camping mat, a layer of moisture gleamed across the tent floor in the headtorch glow; the groundsheet had surrendered to the water pressure from the ground beneath, and would never again be dry. My feet had been permanently wet since stepping off the train in Roscommon. As I peeled  another day’s sodden socks from them, the skin beneath looked pale and unhealthy, like wrinkled rubber. The smell from my feet and my trainers was grim. Another few days would see it get so bad I would want to run away from my own footwear (the trainers were ceremoniously binned at the journey’s end – no amount of washing would redeem them for they had been worn morning till night for nine days whilst being permanently saturated 24/7 and had become the abode of evil foot demons). My waterproofs kept the rain out for only the first couple of hours of the day. By mid-morning I was soaked to the skin. But it was September and mild, and I was cycling and generating my own heat, so it didn’t matter that much. But my drybags were filling with used and sopping wet clothes and the panniers grew heavier by the day.

Medb’s army had camped at Kells – through which I had earlier cycled. There they were assailed by a snowstorm so heavy that nobody got any sleep. After 13 hours on the road I had no such problem.

A last glance back west towards Connaught before heading towards east into Meath and Louth

A last glance back west towards Connaught before heading east into Meath and Louth

Watch a short trailer for my show The Hero Light here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20  More info at http://www.dominic-kelly.com

The show is currently booking for Spring and Autumn 2016. Email dominicjskelly@gmail.com

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Cycling the Táin: the Ulster Cycle on wheels! Part 2

The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. In 2010 I cycled the 350-mile route of The Táin, its central story, across Ireland. To mark the performance’s completion, I decided to serialise excerpts from my account of the cycle trip here  (scroll down a little further to read the first excerpt). ______________________________________________________________ 3 Rain-soaked Connaught from inside a plastic bag Could the eastern Connaught plain be much different now than in the Bronze/Iron-Age origins of the Ulster Cycle tales? The landscape I cycled across for ten hours felt old, and impossible to categorize: waterlogged, spiked with rushes, scattered with sprawls of hazel, and dotted with mini heathlands; the boundaries between marshland, woodland and farmland almost non-existent. This geographical anarchy is alien to the order of England. I loved it – even if I had to capture it through the transparent drybag that sheltered my camera. Much of it was dominated by cattle still, as it was two thousand years ago. They were spread across the plain as if scattered at random by some giant hand. 6 Connaught looking no different to the Iron Age Medb, Queen of Connaught, came this way to raid Ulster for the only bull in Ireland that could match her husband’s. Unbeknownst to them, both bulls in question had a long mutual history. They were once great fiends, and royal pig-keepers of two kings of the Sidh, the supernatural people of the otherworld. In a friendly game of one-upmanship, each put a spell on the other’s pigs. But these left the animals so thin, their skins hung from little more than bones, and the furious kings banished the pigkeepers. The erstwhile friends blamed each other for their fate. They transformed into hawks and fought each other for two whole years; then as sea creatures for two years more; then as stags… and warriors… and ghosts… and as dragons – from whose bodies snow fell on the lands beneath as they battled. Exhausted, they finally shrank into two maggots and let the winds carry them away.

One was carried west, landed in a Connaught river and was accidentally swallowed by a cow drinking at the riverside. The other was blown east and landed in the hills of Cooley, in another river… to be swallowed by a second cow. On opposite sides of Ireland, the cows gave birth to two huge bulls the like of which had never been seen and would never be seen again. And unwittingly, Medb was now conspiring to bring them face to face…

Midway through the day I was cycling towards Granard (from where Fergus – Cú Chulainn’s foster father and Medb’s ally – sent a warning to Cú Chulainn of the coming of Medb’s army). By the roadside I passed a monument from one of Ireland’s many historical conflicts that so mirror the battles of mythology. In this place on 2nd February 1921, the IRA’s North Longford Flying Column lay in wait for a convoy of ‘Auxiliaries’ – ex-military officers conducting anti-IRA operations. Clonfin Ambush memorial The Column exploded a mine in front of the convoy and the 21 IRA men opened fire. Four auxiliaries were killed, and many wounded. The survivors surrendered. Given the fierceness of the conflict at the time, it’s notable how humane was the prisoners’ treatment by IRA column leader, Seán Mac Eoin. He prevented any prisoners being assaulted and had water brought to them from nearby houses. In fact being landed with prisoners almost lead the column to be caught by 14 lorries of British reinforcements who were belatedly approaching. The event became known as the Clonfin Ambush. 8 Camping by lough Derravaragh Evening brought me to a campsite by Lough Derravaragh. Ireland is so populated by old stories, one even stumbles upon myths one isn’t looking for. I’d ended up by the very lake where the Children of Lir spent 300 years as swans, part of their 900-year exile from their own people, the Tuatha de Danaan. As an astonishing sunset played itself out upon the lake water, two swans obligingly swam across the pink and gold reflections. The Marie Celeste campsite was already closed for the season, though luckily they’d left the water taps turned on… 9 Camping by Derravaragh ______________________________________________________________

Watch the trailer for The Hero Light here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20

The show is currently booking for Spring and Autumn 2016. Email dominicjskelly@gmail.com

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