Ten years ago, Ireland's tourist board set out on a mission to attract more people to the island's west coast. The signposted Wild Atlantic Way (one of the world's longest coastal driving routes at 2,600km), and the Irish Greenways (a project to turn abandoned railway lines into car-free tarmac or soft sandy gravel paths for walkers and cyclists), are what they came up with.

Both projects have been hailed a great success. The roadways and paths take in everywhere from the lunar-like limestone landscapes in the west of County Clare to the weather worn stone sites of Burren National Park, and the Gaeltacht (primary Irish speaking areas) of Connemara in Galway. Self guided cyclists, for example, now have safe and well surfaced routes to lead them through a variety of coastal and countryside settings from one warm and welcoming B&B to the next.

John Kennedy is the third generation owner of our cycling tour specialists West Ireland Cycling. He and his family are based in the county of Galway, in the middle of Ireland's west coast. “I’ve got to know some of our B&B owners very well over the years. I’ve known and worked with many of them for decades. They tend to be small, family-run businesses, although often the kids have moved out or gone to university. This usually leaves the mother to look after the business and these women have become great ambassadors for the whole of Ireland, let alone just the west coast.”
However, it's not just the visiting cyclists and B&B owners that have benefitted. Local people living in isolated areas have really seen significant improvements to their lives as well. They now have access to the wider community, which has led to many more opportunities to seek employment and social interaction than ever before. Head northwest of the counties of Cork and Kerry and there's a great deal of unemployment within the rural villages and small towns. The Greenways, especially, have connected these isolated pockets with larger towns where there's work. Local people are now able to commute to work by bike without feeling like they have to leave the area where they grew up.
The railways of Ireland, particularly in the rural regions of the west, ground to a halt over a century ago. There just wasn’t anyone left to use them. At one point, in the mid-1800s, there had been more than eight million people living in Ireland; however, unemployment and impoverished conditions led to mass immigration to the US leaving a population of just three million by the 1920s. The land where the abandoned tracks can be found is still owned by the public, and so the Greenways project was free to continue, full steam ahead, without any opposition. Many of the old stations and railway houses are now county museums. They make interesting places to stop off at as part of a Wild Atlantic Way cycling vacation.
Small businesses in villages based along the route have seen more custom thanks to the resurfacing of the Greenways. Not just the B&Bs, pubs, cafes and restaurants but the pharmacies and dentists, too, are all experiencing improvements in trade. Some of the areas of the west coast, particularly to the north of the more developed regions of Cork and Kerry, are very off the beaten track. By introducing tourists to the area and redeveloping car-free routes, rural communities living around the Burren region in County Clare and Connemara in Galway have received a real shot in the arm.

What can cyclists look forward to?

There’s a real variety of landscapes leading up Ireland’s west coast from Cork and Kerry in the south. Head north, into County Clare, and it will bring you into Burren National Park. This unique and rocky, lunar-like landscape is sheer limestone and covers Clare’s west coast. It’s a fascinating area with numerous endemic plants and flowers, including practically all of Ireland’s species of wild orchids. The Burren is also blessed with an inordinate amount of historic sites, such as early Christian churches and sacred stone tombs, many of which have remained untouched by all but the elements.

Due to the barren nature of the Burren’s rocky landscapes, numerous examples of early human inhabitation remain throughout the area. Some of the sites go back to 3000BC. Invading armies of Vikings and early Christians just couldn’t reach the land and so many of the stone sites remained untouched and are relatively well preserved.
“Our cycling tours are all self guided and lead you through the Burren over rural tarmac roads and paved paths. These are very narrow roads we’re talking here, proper winding country lanes, only a car’s width. Not that you’ll see many cars. Our cyclists really enjoy the good quality road surfaces and being surrounded by countryside. We also direct people over two lane country roads that are, again, very quiet.” - John Kennedy
To the north of County Clare, Galway is sometimes described as the most Irish of Irish counties by local people and visitors alike. This is a significant cultural area where the Irish language and folk traditions are still kept alive and well. Galway City is the headquarters for many of Ireland’s cultural heritage and Irish language organisations. You’ll still hear traditional Irish spoken in the streets and in the schools. In fact, English isn’t taught or spoken in the schools of Galway.
Another region of County Galway that has a rich tradition of Irish culture is Connemara. This is the largest Irish-speaking region in Ireland. Connemara’s landscapes are actually fairly similar to what you’ll find in Kerry and Cork but much, much quieter, with a fraction of the tourists. Some of the beautiful golden beaches are often deserted and look like you could be in the Caribbean, although the water is significantly colder, even in August.
Self guided cycling vacations in Connemara take you through the tiny country lanes and around the mountains. The distances between the villages and towns are perfect for cycling with 20-30km routes making for a very nice afternoon by bike. The seafood that you’ll find in Connemara is fresh out the Atlantic with shellfish, salmon and sea trout all making their way to restaurant and kitchen tables across the county.

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Burren Way cycling tour in West Ireland

Burren Way cycling tour in West Ireland

The Burren, Cliffs of Moher and Aran Islands

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Getting started in Galway

Galway City is the first port of call for cyclists starting a week on the west coast. They’ll be welcomed to Ireland, and the area, by John Kennedy, from our cycling tour specialists West Ireland Cycling, in his bike shop. Bikes will be fitted, itineraries and routes discussed, and maps pored over on the countertop. Cyclists are then given their info pack and route notes before being transferred out of the city and into the countryside by vehicle. Luggage transfers, 24-hour call out service and a network of local bike shops ensure cyclists can pedal with confidence, safe in the knowledge that help is always at hand in the unlikely event of an emergency.
The beauty of a tailor made cycling tour is that mixed ability groups of friends and family members get to go on the same trip. There are often about four or five different ways that you can cycle from one village or town to the next. This is thanks to the seanbhóthar (old road) network that has been in existence long before motorised vehicles were invented. Alongside the Irish Greenways, many of the west coast counties’ seanbhóthar are being converted into cycle friendly tracks. This works out really well for cyclists as you can often choose between 25km, 50km or 70km routes that all lead to the same overnight location, usually a locally owned B&B.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bernd Thaller] [Top box: Paul Bowman] [What can cyclists look forward to? (Burren NP): Fabian Walden] [Getting started in galway: Marcello provenzano]