The Hero Light, my one-man performance of the stories of Cú Chulainn, is now touring. I first started working on the piece five years ago, and 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 serialize excerpts from the cycle trip here on the blog. ______________________________________________________________ In working with Irish myth, one can stand in virtually every spot where the stories’ events are said to have happened. The landscape of Ireland is saturated with these tales, and webbed with their plotlines; one can follow them across its contours.
In 2010 I had been working with the Ulster Cycle for a year, fascinated by the lives of Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Conall Cernach, Briciu and Medb; and by the exuberant wildness, contemporary humour, beauty and tragic power of their stories. I’d been on a week-long trip to sites in Armagh, Down, and Louth in 2009. Now I planned to retrace the entire route taken by the army of Ireland in the Ulster Cycle’s epic centerpiece, the Taín bó Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. I realised that to feel what the route really meant was to experience it at the pace of the story – to cycle it, at the very fastest. So I bicycled from Rathcroghan in the west, across to the east coast, up to border with Northern Ireland and back, in a 350-mile figure of eight.
I had been cycling virtually every day for a year beforehand. But that was mainly up and down the long, steep hill into town from the eastern outskirts of Lancaster where I lived. I’d never in my life been cycle-touring (though I’d done a lot of backpacking). And I’m useless at travelling light. When I trial-packed my kit it came to two back-panniers on the front of the bike, two more on the back and a rucksack strapped to the rack. I called a bicycle mechanic to give the bike a pre-trip service.
“Err… is this the bicycle you’re going on a tour with?” He asked. I nodded.
“Is that a problem?”
“It’s got a very long back axle. This is an old design, and a cheap one. It’s no good for cycle-touring really. If you go over a pothole carrying a lot of weight the axle will bend and that’ll be that”.
“So I’d have to push it?”
“The axle will be bent. You won’t be able to push it. It’ll be an over-the-shoulder job”.
“But I’ll have four panniers and a rucksack. I won’t be able to put it on my shoulder. So I’ll be…”
“You’ll be stuffed. But don’t worry, you’ll be OK if you’re really careful: just stick to good, smooth roads and avoid any potholes. Where is it you’re going anyway?”
“… Ireland” I said.
A few days later I took the train to Liverpool, cycled to the docks, embarked for Dublin and was wave-rocked to sleep in my cabin (pried from the grasp of the ferry staff – hadn’t they read their own terms and conditions? ALL passengers with a vehicle got a cabin, and according to their own website a bicycle was a vehicle). I pedaled off the ferry at 5am and through pre-dawn Dublin. At the railway station I boarded a train to Roscommon.
When I rolled by bike off the train at my destination, it was raining so hard the drops were bouncing off the roads like hailstones. I come from the Lake District, an area boasting the wettest locations in England, so I’m no stranger to precipitation. But the weather during the trip was often unbelievable – and this was just the beginning. Anyway there I was heading northwest towards Rathcroghan, site of Crúachan Aí, fortress of Medb, legendary queen of Connaught. I could barely see for the rain, and I was terrified of potholes. After a few miles I looked behind me: the queue of traffic stretched back towards Roscommon. My bike was as wide as a two-wheeler can be with four panniers stuffed to capacity. At every sign of a pothole I would swerve erratically across the highway, and this had so unnerved the drivers behind that no-one dared overtake.
When I reached the visitor information centre at Tulsk near Rathcroghan I couldn’t have been wetter if I’d jumped in a river. Beneath the table at which I sipped my tea, my clothes pooled the floor extravagantly with water, and I then left a trail of puddles around their exhibition of Iron-Age reconstructions, and diagrams of the astounding archeological richness of the place. When I made it to the mound of Rathcroghan itself, the rain took a short breather. The wild dark of the cloudscape suddenly became the most compelling backdrop, conspiring with the intent of my trip by somehow wiping away two thousand years of human history from the land. To snatch the only bull in all Ireland that would be the equal of her husband’s, Medb had gathered 54,000 warriors from every corner of the country to raid Ulster. They had marched eastwards to war from this spot. I saddled up and followed their footsteps. And the real route of the Táin began. ____________________________________________________________
Watch the trailer for The Hero Light here: https://youtu.be/27qIzp5zc20
The show is currently booking for Spring and Autumn 2016. Email email@example.com