Ireland - The Emerald Isle
By Tim Burke - Follow Tim on Instagram
First thing, first. It’s essential that you read all the quotations in this article in your best Irish accent. It’ll help the story. Trust me.
Ireland is good. Ireland is so good. It’s good in every way that a motorcycle trip needs to be. From tiny roads to stunning vistas, ancient cobblestone streets twist through the greenest colors you’ve ever seen. Historic ruins and stone walls that were built generations ago are literally everywhere. This tiny island is only about the size of the US State of Maine, but it packs a personality the size of Jupiter.
Before jumping around, I need to explain my first trip to Ireland and why I keep finding excuses to come back.
I first rolled off a boat in Belfast, having had just come from Scotland. It was immediately after my week-long adventure with Chris Modell and the boys from Rentamotorcycle.co.uk Whisky Bent and Scotland Bound, Issue 15. That’s a ridiculous story in-and-of-itself!
Anyways, there I was: Still recovering from my liver-straining adventure in Scotland (literally dedicated to tasting whiskys at the end of every days’ ride) thinking to myself, “I need a break.”
So, as any person lacking logic would do, I beeline for Ireland and roll off a boat into the most social country on planet earth with more iconic pubs, ancient taverns, and hoppin’ bars than one can shake a stick at.
Per usual, I had no game plan, but since I was already in the north, I figured I’d trace the island in a counter-clockwise direction. I’d explore the northern coast and, eventually, cross the non-existent border into the Republic of Ireland. While I will not be going into the fascinating, sometimes violent, history between the two, I will say, I was treated like family (by complete strangers) on both sides of the border and in every corner of the land.
I traced the shore via the “Coastal Causeway Route.” It’s not hard to get away from busy roads and traffic here. The first three hours riding my motorcycle in Ireland, had me smiling so hard inside my helmet, that my cheeks started to hurt. Blue skies somehow make the lush green hills along the coast look like a scene from a Disney fairy tale. There’s no way this is real life!
North of Derry/Londonderry (depends whose map you’re looking at), it was time to get the tires dirty. I headed out on a small dirt road that would take me to Malin Head – Ireland’s northernmost point.
It started off well, but it didn’t take long for Ireland’s wet, soupy, boggy roads to have its way with a heavy ADV bike. At first, the road appeared to be in good shape, and I told myself that if it got bad, I’d turn around. Well, with the assistance of gravity on my side, I made it down the gradually-deteriorating path just fine. It was at the bottom of a hill that I encountered the flooded area. I felt the bike sink like a stone.
The mud yanked my front tire out from under the bike, and over she went. Luckily, it fell to the left and away from a steep embankment. “Not a big deal. I’m pretty well-practiced at picking up this motorcycle,” I thought. This time though, I was battling the suction of mud. As soon as I would pick the bike up, it would slide further into the ditch. I was miles from the nearest paved road.
Eventually, I swallowed my pride and started hiking out to find assistance. It took 5 miles to get to the nearest town when I found two teenage friends on ATVs, who were hearing of the situation, grabbed some rope, and gave me a ride back to the bike on their ATVs. After helping to lift the bike out of the mud pit and push it backward, we determined the best way out was the way I came in. Without the assistance of these guys, I’d have been out of luck. The adventure shall continue.
I’d weave my way down Ireland’s west coast following the absolutely spectacular “Wild Atlantic Way.” The WAW is a 2500km route that passes through 9 counties and countless small villages. Buzzing fishing villages dot the route and hidden, white-sand beaches lie at the bottom of massive cliffs as the road climbs and descends through some of the greatest beauty that Europe has to offer. The Wild Atlantic Way, if planning an Ireland trip, is a sure-fire way to have your jaw on the ground for hours at a time.
South, from Donegal, I traveled to Achill Island. Pin this on your maps, my friends. I had no idea how gorgeous this rugged island would be. The mansion-turned-hostel that I stayed at, the Valley House, is centuries old with riveting history and has its own bar and restaurant. The live music in the smokey bar made for an environment that kept me for two days past schedule. To this day, it easily pushes the Valley House to the top of my “best hostels” list.
It was a Wednesday morning when I was sitting in Galway cafe, hoping that coffee would help take the edge off last night’s hangover when I got a message from Owen Garrigan. Owen, at the time, was a stranger. Now, he’s one of my closest friends.
“Hey, Tim. My girlfriend Laura and I and a group of friends will be on motorcycles passing along some roads on the Connemara Peninsula” and then… “Well, we’ll probably just stop at a pub to drink Guinness. Not sure how much Guinness we’ll drink and I’m not sure how much motorbiking will occur after the Guinness, because last year, people got pretty ‘wobbly’. But if you want to join, we’d love to have ya, lad. Buncha pilots and aviation folk too; Laura and I are pilots on the Boeing 737 and our buddy Damien, he’s a 747 pilot. You’d fit right in. Come drink some Guinness with us!!”… Well, twist my arm.
It didn’t take long before one Guinness turned into two, into three, so on and so forth. We sat around a low-lit, peat-heated pub in Leenaun, County Galway, listening to one of the locals play his fiddle.
I’m not sure how much Guinness was had at this point, but at some point, Owen, Laura, and I started putting together the pieces of who we knew in the aviation industry – it is small after all. Long story short, Owen and Laura were pilots for a low-cost, Dublin-based airline that exclusively flies Boeing 737s around Europe. It turns out that Owen and Laura did their primary flight training at “National Flight Centre” in Dublin, owned and operated by Kieran O’Connor – my former coworker/roommate/close friend Kevin Lyon’s uncle! The world gets smaller when you go to Ireland, apparently!
Another week goes by of exploring Ireland’s rugged coast, coves, and cliffs. My time in Ireland is coming to an end but not before ringing in my birthday in Dublin. As you can probably surmise, my trip to Ireland to “take a break” after whisky tasting in Scotland: A massive failure. I blame the locals.
Fast-forward a year. After traveling through South America, I found myself back in Europe; still, a homeless motorcycler. I just finished riding Sweden and Norway on a Triumph Tiger 800XC (Chasing the Midnight Sun – Issue 27) when I decided that skipping Ireland wasn’t an option. There was a magnetic pull.
I’m on a tram in Amsterdam – My phone chirps – WhatsApp message from Owen: “Hi Tim. I see you’re in Europe. What do you think about passing through Dublin to fly with Laura and me? It’s our last flight together before Laura goes to ‘Airline X’ and I go to ‘Airline Y’”
“What do you mean, ‘fly’ with you? How will that work?”
“Fly with us in the jump seat. We’ll have to do some paperwork, but we can make it happen!”
Sold. I was bound for Dublin. See, Owen and Laura had been working at the aforementioned Dublin-based airline and would bid for the same schedules together. It resulted in them flying as a team, Owen, as a captain. Laura, as a first officer. On their very last flight together, before moving on in their careers, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “jump-seat” with them in the cockpit of a Boeing 737-800.
The alarm went off at about 430am, and we were bound for Dublin airport in Owen’s Toyota. A round-trip flight to Alicante, Spain was on the itinerary.
“RyanAir 385, Winds 310 at 12. Runway 28. Cleared for take-off.”
It was Laura’s leg, so she would be the pilot flying (PF) while Owen would be the pilot monitoring (PM) and would control various autopilot settings, lift the landing gear after take-off, retract the flaps, and handle Air Traffic Control communications. Laura slowly and deliberately pushes the throttles forward to 40% power while Owen “guards” the throttles by the base. Owen announces that the engine thrust is stabilized, and Laura advances the throttles to max take-off power. We start barreling down Runway 28.
Owen starts audibly announcing critical airspeeds to Laura so that she can focus on keeping the aircraft pointed directly down the runway centerline in the gusty Irish winds.
We have now accelerated through the pre-calculated airspeed at which the aircraft, no matter what, can safely be stopped on the runway: Otherwise known as the “accelerate-stop” distance. After V1 airspeed is passed, even if an emergency presents itself, the aircraft will be taken into the air and dealt with accordingly – even if that means declaring an emergency and returning to the airport for an emergency landing.
The engines are now howling as we accelerate through about 140kts (160mph.) “Rotate” Laura now pulls back on the control column or “yoke” and brings the nose of the 737 off the dashed runway centerline. The main wheels follow shortly afterward as she pulls 176,000 lbs (79,900kg) of metal and 189 passengers into the air.
Laura pitches the nose to maintain a particular airspeed that will provide a maximum climb gradient. Laura requests “Gear Up,” and Owen reaches across the throttle quadrant and lifts the gear handle up.
We’re off to Spain!
There’s something really special about seeing close friends, in the professional-workspace, doing what they do best… and I got to see it at 40,000 feet. We flew down to the Spanish coast, dropped off 189 passengers, fueled up, and flew back to Dublin with 189 more. Guess what we drank to celebrate the end of a chapter while raising our pint glasses to new ones?
The morning after, sipping on black coffee in Owen and Laura’s Drimnagh-home, we sit, trying to figure out what to do with the week ahead. A few bad ideas are thrown around until we settle on the fact that renting motorcycles is probably one of the better ones. Within the hour, we’re bound for Celtic Rider, Ireland’s award-winning, motorcycle-rental company.
Located in County Kildare, Ireland, 16 miles west of Dublin, you wouldn’t even suspect business of such caliber to be down such a tiny, stereotypical, one-lane dirt road with stone walls lining both sides. If you could bottle up Ireland’s charm in one small package, the Rawlins family who runs Celtic Rider is it. The business is run from the family home – a house built in 1527. A more modern building houses the company’s offices, moto-gear, and a fleet of 57 motorcycles. Louise Rawlins, her father Paul, and her mom Siobhán are the first faces to greet us when we arrive.
Inside, a massive selection of brand-new Klim gear lines the shop-floor: Badlands, Carlsbad, Artemis jackets, and Krios Helmets everywhere. Photographs of Paul, with every important personality to ever visit Ireland, are pinned to the walls.
Liam, the fleet manager (and seasonal Long Beach BMW Irish-mascot – I don’t know his job title, so I’m calling him their mascot), eventually comes out to greet us. I’m telling you, these three will make you laugh out loud. Louise runs the business side of the operation while Paul and Liam run the technical, mechanical, and motorcycle-side of things. Paul knows every square inch of Ireland. Seriously, every square inch. He was one of the contributing designers of Ireland’s famous “Wild Atlantic Way” (mentioned earlier).
Celtic Rider is one-stop shopping for even those who walk off the airplane in Dublin with nothing but the clothes on their back. If necessary, a shuttle service can pick you up, bring you to the shop, and outfit you head to toe in top-of-the-line Klim gear. Helmets, boots, gloves, and a Gore-Tex suit. It literally doesn’t get easier than this.
The gear is rentable for a daily-fee, and once you’re done with your trip, if you want to buy the gear, they’ll deduct the rental fees from the jacket. It’s a pretty brilliant excuse to show up empty-handed, have the best ride of your life, and leave with new gear!
It’s not long before the Rawlins family gives these three degenerates a couple of brand new R1200GS motorcycles, a detailed list of suggestions (that even GoogleMaps knows nothing about) and sends us on our way into the Irish countryside.
We head off westbound, towards Ireland’s famed coastlines. The first stop takes us through Cork and on into the fishing village of Kinsale on the south coast. Eventually, we make our way over one of Ireland’s epic mountain passes, Healy Pass. Windy, twisty roads only the width of American sidewalks, climb through green pastures on the way to the summit. Having this much fun – scraping footpegs on every hairpin – feels like it should be illegal.
Up next comes one of my favorite Irish cities and areas of the country. We descend out of the mountains and into the bustling city of Killarney. “Gap of Dunloe” road is prime-time Irish riding. It’s your quintessential “used to be a cow path, but now it’s a road” Irish street that songs and poems are written about. It climbs high above Killarney, Ireland, on a sidewalk-width paved path, tracing a dark-watered, peat-stained river with waterfalls around every corner. Just as we made it over the crest Molls Gap, 360-degree view of the mountains, the black clouds rolled in. One thing Celtic Rider does not make promises on is the weather.
Hey… it’s Ireland. Belly up to a bar and get yourself a pint! The weather will change again in about 45 seconds.
Never quite getting over 40 mph, we push on to the north arriving to Dingle. No, that’s not a typo. It’s just Dingle: fresh seafood, pubs, live music, a distillery, and epic cliff-side roads that, in my opinion, are the best “coast roads” in Europe. What more can you want? Dingle is a village not to miss.
Our clock is counting down, and it’s time to start heading back to Dublin with the bikes. We stop in Galway for one more “last stand” before heading east.
“How ya lads keeping?” We’re greeted by Louise as we rumbled back into Celtic Rider. I’m pretty sure they’re used to seeing people return with a grin from here to Donegal.
While COVID19 has most of our plans on the back burner for now, Ireland is something you may want to bump up the ol’ bucket list once normalcy makes a return!