Well, I took a stroll on the old long walk
Of a day-I-ay-I-ay
I met a little girl and we stopped to talk
Of a fine soft day-I-ay-I-ay
And I ask you, friend, what’s a fella to do ?
’Cause her hair was red and her eyes were... whew.
So, when the opportunity arose to become a trail-blazer like Graineuaile, the West’s pirate queen, off I went to the Mayo/Galway region to check out the 42km traffic free Great Western Greenway cycle route, using the Galway Coast Cottages in Barna as my fortress. Gráinne Mhaol was always going to be on my crossbar as I coasted from the wild Achill Sound, to Mulranny, freewheeling on towards Newport before arriving in wonderful Westport.
I didn’t realise it at the time but the best decision I made prior to packing my cases for Westport was to pick Barna, just outside Galway, ’round the Salthill prom, as a base. On a busy Friday evening it’s over a two-hour drive from Cork to Galway Coast Cottages. You get there tired, hungry, cold but lifting the latch, you immediately ‘get’ the Galway warmth, hospitality like it should be. The stove is lit, heating on… I ask you friend, what’s a fella to do. It was better than a flat downtown.
It was an early start the following morning, 8.30, but buoyed by a cosy night’s sleep, the porridge and fruit, bought in the fabulous nearby Barna village Centra, the one hour and forty minute scenic drive to Westport was a breeze.
Now here’s the thing. They say you can cycle the greenway from either direction, and you can, but if you are, like us, doing it for the first time, leave the car in Westport, do your bike hire there at either of the two operators, and here’s the important part, they drive you to Achill Sound to pick up the bikes and you cycle back to Westport, with the wind to your back. If you try to leave your car in Achill Sound, to hire bikes there, when you arrive in Westport the only way back to the car is by taxi, or limited public transport. One other tip, check out the saddle before you leave the bike hire shop… and wear padding, otherwise it can be a pain in the…
It could be a drudge of a cycle if the weather isn’t spot on, luckily for us, we had a pet day. It’s important you relax about the cycle, stopping off regularly to take in the beautiful colours, scenery, and to read the information signs which fill you in on the history, as you head for Mulranny’s gorgeous former railway station.
It’s worthwhile leaving the cycle track for a while here to visit the village, with has fabulous views over Clew Bay, it’s archipelago of drowned drumlins, the vast Nephin mountain range and Bellacragher Bay, a sight to behold. Local folklore had it that Grace O’Malley, as a young girl, wished to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father from the bay. Upon being told she could not because her long hair would catch in the ship’s ropes, she cut off most of her hair to embarrass her father into taking her. This earned her the nickname ‘Gráinne Mhaol’ from maol meaning bald or having cropped hair.
The first and last trains on the Achill line have very unfortunate associations. In 1894 a group of over 30 harvesters from Achill drowned in Clew Bay. Their hooker had capsized while carrying a full load of passengers to the steamship in Westport that would bring them to Scotland. A special train was brought into operation to transport the bodies of the victims home, for burial in Achill’s Kildavnet Cemetery, even though the Achill railway extension was still under construction at the time of the accident.
Forty-three years later, in September 1937, another special train was put on to return the bodies of 10 young boys to their native Achill. They had been working as harvesters in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, and had been burnt to death when their bothy or cabin, into which they had been locked for the night, had caught fire.
Two weeks later, on September 30, 1937, the Achill line closed for both goods and passengers, and the tracks were removed shortly afterwards.
The decision to open the greenway is really paying off now though for the region. It’s bringing in a whole new train-load of tourists. The buzz in Westport is palpable, helped by the cycle trail.
I was glad to head back to Barna that night to the comfort of the Galway Coast Cottages, with its home away from home comforts. The three bedrooms all have en suites, there’s fine livingroom/kitchen, big enough for an extended family, and as we head towards the festive season it’s a great get away option - warm hearts, cold noses and the magic of Galway at Christmas time.
December shopping, markets and all the festive cheer that comes with Galway twinkling bright - there’s no denying that this vibrant city knows how to celebrate a big occasion - well you won’t go far wrong. Relax back at the cottage as the log fire crackles in the corner and enjoy a complimentary bottle of chilled Prosecco and a box of chocolates and cosy up to some favourite Christmas movies. When the sun rises, wrap up warm and explore all this beautiful coastal area has to offer.
Treat the family to a hearty breakfast in one of Barna’s delicious local cafes, take a refreshing winter walk along the seafront or jump on one of the complimentary cottage bicycles for a morning adventure together.
In the afternoon, soak up the festive atmosphere of Galway’s Continental Christmas Market on Eyre Square, tick off your Christmas list while live music fills the air on Shop Street or visit Santa Claus and his helpers at Galway’s Loughwell Farm Park. Restaurants are within a short walking distance from the cottage. A two-night stay is priced at €269 per night, staying between December 1 and 21. www.galwaycoastcottages.com
And hey, it’s true... I’ve travelled around, I’ve been all over this world, boys, I ain’t never seen nothin’ like a Galway girl.