Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cycling through Ireland

Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric Newby

I have mentioned before that while I am not a great traveler (or perhaps because I'm not), I enjoy travel narratives, and I have quite a few on my shelves.  Some of them are about places I have been or hope to go to one day, others are about trips that I know I will never take.  Round Ireland in Low Gear is one of the latter. Though I would love to visit Ireland, it certainly won't be on a bike tour in November and December.

This is the first of Eric Newby's books that I have read, and I feel like I have made a fascinating new acquaintance whom I can't wait to meet again.  I'm excited to see how many books he wrote, about such varied journeys.  I already have another of his books, A Traveller's Life, on the TBR pile.  Newby reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor in the breadth of his interests, particularly in this book in the history of Ireland.  But while his prose can't match Leigh Fermor's, he also seems a little less intimidating.  His sense of humor and willingness to risk looking like an idiot remind me of Calvin Trillin and Tony Horwitz (and like Trillin, he always reports on the food).

In the fall of 1985, Newby and his wife Wanda (an interesting person in her own right) decided to take a cycling tour of Ireland.  They chose the fall because it was the dormant season of the apparently demanding garden and orchard at their Dorset home.  After Wanda declined a walking tour, and Newby reluctantly accepted that a balloon tour was impractical, they settled on bicycles.  Their first trip, through County Clare, and their second, along the southern and southwestern coastline, were both gruelling slogs through mud, rain, and snow.  At one point a gale-force wind blew Wanda clean off her bike.  I wasn't surprised that they occasionally gave in and took trains, buses and even taxis.

The third trip, in June of the next year, was more successful.  Not only was the weather much better, but as Newby wrote,
"I had what seemed to me a brilliant idea about how to overcome one of the principal factors that made cycling so unpopular with Wanda, namely, hills. . . My idea was to ride westwards from Dublin . . . along the banks of the Grand Canal, which begins where the River Liffey meets the Irish Sea in Dublin Bay and eventually comes to an end at Shannon Harbor."
I love canals, and I hope someday to take a trip by canal boat.  On this trip they stayed in Banagher, near Shannon Harbor, which is where Anthony Trollope "started work for the Post Office as a surveyor in 1841 and wrote his first two novels . . ."  I had been looking for a mention of Trollope, whose years in Ireland were so formative, though I had forgotten where he had his headquarters.

In addition to Ireland's political and social history, which Newby wrote about with objectivity, he was also interested in its literature and in its religious history (which is of course intertwined with its politics and society).  He and Wanda visited countless shrines, holy wells, and ruined monasteries, and on a later visit on his own, he made the ascent of Croagh Patrick, the Holy Mountain of St. Patrick.  (On a less sanctified visit, he and Wanda raced their bikes up and down the corridors of the dorm at the storied Catholic seminary, St. Patrick's College at Maynooth.)

I learned from this book that Newby met Wanda during World War II, when he was a prisoner in Italy.  He wrote about their experiences in a book called Love and War in the Apennines, and if I had it here right now I think that would be the end of the TBR challenge.  It has gone straight on my post-challenge reading list.


  1. I'm not much of a traveler, either, so I love books like this to provide my adventure for me. I used to read loads of travel narratives, but haven't read anything in a while. I'll have to see if my library has anything by Eric Newby.

  2. I envy you working in a library! I miss having that kind of access to books - it's different when you can only visit once a week (though we're lucky to have two excellent library systems, city & county, here).

  3. I love this type of travel account - a new to me author, too. Heading to my library's website now to see if it's available. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. You're very welcome, I hope you can find a copy! I was almost put off by a very technical section on bicycles (about which I know nothing) - I'm so glad I persevered :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!