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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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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