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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About dominickelly

I'm a performance storyteller, touring to theatres, festivals and schools. I create contemporary performance pieces based on traditional stories.
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