Having ventured across the Scottish landscape, our Clan riders will travel west to Stage 2: Ireland, the Emerald Isle and the Celtic discoveries that await.
The Ferry Crossing
The Ferry crossing from Cairn Ryan to Belfast will give riders a few hours to rest, recharge and reflect on their journey so far. As they disembark the ferry at Belfast harbour, treading in the footsteps of history, they’ll receive an Irish Gaelic ‘Fáilte’! The harbour dates back to the early 17th century, but ships have been sailing to and from these shores for hundreds of years before, bringing travellers from many lands. The most famous ship in the world – the Titanic, was constructed here.
Full Route Only
As riders head north-east out of Belfast they’ll see Carrickfergus Castle overlooking the harbour. The Irish Gaelic ‘Carraig Fergus’ translates as ‘Cairn of the Strongman’. The castle was built by the invading Normans in the early medieval period and was then used as a naval garrison for over 750 years. From here the route turns north and follows the Causeway Coastal Route, winding along stunning roads that twist and turn, providing epic views out across the north Irish Sea. Along the route, riders will pass Olderfleet and Glenarm. In the 11th century the region was attacked by Viking raiders from Orkney. According to the Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, Connor, King of Ireland, defeated the Vikings at ‘Ulfreksfjord’ in 1018 AD. The name Olderfleet is thought to derive from ‘Ulfrek’s fjord’.
Once riders have reached the north coast, they will be greeted by the seaside town of Ballycastle, with its stunning panoramic vistas and a choice of friendly, traditional inns. Nearby historic sites include Bonamargy Friary, founded in the 15th century, which in the 17th century was occupied by Julie MacQuillen, known as the Black Nun. An old Celtic cross marks her grave at the west end of the church. A few miles west, Perched on the northern cliffs, are the ancient ruins of the 16th century Kinbane Castle. Kinbane means ‘White Head’ in Irish Gaelic, which describes the white limestone on which the castle stands.
Pedalling west along the north coast, Clan riders will encounter the spectacular natural wonder know as ‘The Giant’s Causeway’. Legend tells that an Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant called Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built a causeway across the sea so the giants could do battle. On the Scottish isle of Staffa there are identical basalt columns, so it would seem our ancestors tried to make sense of the relationship between the rock formations. There aren’t any written pre-Christian versions of the story, but in Irish Gaelic ‘Clochán na bh Fomhórach’ means ‘Stepping stones of the Fomhóraigh’ and the Fomhóraigh are a race of supernatural beings in Irish mythology. Riders will be passing in the footsteps of giants!
The route turns south and, heading inland, riders will be able to enjoy the journey through ‘The Dark Hedges’. This 18th century avenue of beech trees was planted by the Stuart family, to create a grand entrance leading up to Gracehill House. A local legend speaks of the Grey Lady who haunts the trees, moving between them…
From here the route continues south through quaint villages and hamlets before arriving in Antrim alongside the largest lake in Britain – Lough Neagh. In Antrim the 17th century Castle ruins and gardens make a nice scenic backdrop whilst riders can take some rest and food. Journeying onward the route runs alongside the lake and there’s the chance to view the vast scale of Lough Neagh – an epic sight to behold. According to Celtic legend, Finn picked up a large piece of ground and hurled it at a Scottish giant, which landed in the Irish Sea to form the Isle of Man. The hole where the ground was removed filled with water and became Lough Neagh.
Shorter Route Only
Riders on the shorter route will make their way alongside the River Lagan, as it winds through the historic city of Belfast. There are many sites to see throughout the city and plenty of traditional inns to eat a hearty meal and enjoy some fine Irish folk music. Continuing along the river, the bustling city will soon change to a more tranquil tree-lined embankment, serving as a guide out of the city and into the countryside.
Continuing south-west along the river, riders will enter the town of Lisburn, originally called ‘Lisnagarvy’ in Irish Gaelic, where scenic Castle Gardens from the 17th century can be explored. Also of note will be riding near Down Royal racecourse – a doff of the cap to the Irish steeds as you pass by! The flat countryside will give riders a chance to keep the pedals turning whilst soaking up expansive views around.
Lurgan road is the junction point where both routes meet and from here they journey together into Ireland’s ancient past. Heading south, riders will go through the city of Newry, which was established in the 12th century at the time when a Cistercian monastery was built. Before this time, there were people living and working in the area and Bronze Age remains of Celtic jewellery have been found, along with evidence of ancient standing stones. From the outskirts of Newry, riders can look west to enjoy views of Slieve Gullion mountain.
A short-sharp climb from Omeath will wake up legs, then the route circles round the Cooley Peninsula to reveal coastline towards Ballymascanlon, before riders enter a landscape of truly ancient monuments. First of these is the Proleek Dolmen. The giant stones date back approximately 5000 years, to the Neolithic era. The cap stone weights about 40 tonnes and a local legend states it was carried to the site by a Scottish giant – Para Buidhe Mór Mhac ‘Great Yellow Para, son of Seoidín’. Para challenged Fionn mac Cumhaill to combat, but Fionn poisoned the nearby river which Para drank from. The Scottish giant then died and was buried at the wedge tomb nearby.
A short distance away are the ruins of the 13th century Roche Castle, with commanding views across the landscape. Also nearby is Cú Chulainn’s Stone, a 3-metre high standing stone from the Bronze Age. According to legend the warrior Cú Chulainn, when mortally wounded, tied himself to this stone so he could remain upright and keep fighting. Something to bear in mind when the going gets tough during the race!
As our clan push on further south, they’ll encounter the stunning monument of Newgrange, a huge Neolithic passage tomb dating back to approximately 3200 BC. This large circular mound, part of a much larger complex, was built from stone, some of which was sourced from the Wicklow Mountains more than 50 miles away. Every year on the Winter Solstice (21st December) the rising sun aligns with the ‘roofbox’ slit in the Newgrange entrance, illuminating an inner chamber. Keep a look out for carvings in the stones, which served as some inspiration for the Pan Celtic Race brand.
Continuing south, riders will see the Hill of Tara and surrounding sites that also date back to the Neolithic era. In the 11th century the Hill was recorded as ‘The Seat of the high-kings of Ireland’, relating back to the mythological Fir Bolg and Tuatha Dé Danann of pre-Christian, Celtic Ireland. The Tuatha Dé Danann means ‘People of the Goddess Danu’ in Irish Gaelic and it’s said they were a supernatural race that lived in Ireland before the ancestors of modern Irish people.
Filled with folklore and legends, riders can take rest and refuel in the medieval town of Naas, before heading into the wilder countryside of county Wicklow. Whilst the profile for most of the Irish route will have been kind on the legs, the next part of the adventure will prove a sterner test. Both sets of riders will climb up into the spectacular Wicklow Mountains National Park, with the Full Route criss-crossing for some additional elevation pains and gains!
With the hills mainly behind them, a short trip west from Laragh to Glendalough, riders will visit the International Hostel and location for Checkpoint 2, offering the chance for some well-earned rest amongst the picturesque landscape. Glendalough in Irish Gaelic ‘Gleann Dá Loch’ means the ‘Valley of two lakes’. Within the valley are the ruins of a large 6th century monastic site with Celtic Crosses in the grounds. Also nearby are a number of Bullaun stones and the 12th century St Saviour’s Priory.
Refreshed, riders will return to the main route and climb once more before the route flattens out with fresh sea air filling lungs and the welcome sight of the east coast. If riders have some time before their ferry crossing, Wexford National Heritage Park is on the route and has a fantastic open-air museum filled with ancient history from the Mesolithic period right up to the Norman Invasion.
Finally Rosslare Harbour will be calling. The legendary journey through east Ireland will be complete and the ferry will take riders on to the next land of Celtic adventure and challenges – Wales.
Words: Pete Borlace, Pan Celtic Race Team
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