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.
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.
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 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.