02 Oct 2022

Trip to Tipp: Lucille retraces epic cycle of her grandfather Thomas MacDonagh

Trip to Tipp: Lucille retraces epic cycle of her grandfather Thomas MacDonagh

Lucille Redmond poses beside the statue of her grandfather Thomas MacDonagh in Cloughjordan

In 1903, long before the Easter Rising, my grandfather, Thomas MacDonagh, went for a job interview in St Colman’s College in Fermoy on Saturday 28 August.

That night he wrote to his friend Dom Hackett: “…at noon I left Fermoy, cycled from Mitchelstown (where there are no cars - they are nearer to Cahir) through Cahir to Rockwell: dined: thence through Cashel, Thurles, Templemore hither: 60 miles; untired, unpunctured. I went to bed, and, dreaming composed a wonderful mystic poem which I did not understand quite and of which I remember only the first line: ‘I built a wall of brass around my heart’.”

I’ve always wanted to try this cycle. His Munster was different: when he talks about “where there are no cars - they are nearer to Cahir” (apart from parodying his own strong Tipperary accent) he means horse-drawn cars, not motors.

My grandfather was a fit young schoolmaster of 25. But he was probably cycling an elephant of a bicycle with John Dunlop’s new pneumatic tyres, invented 16 years before. He possibly had a freewheel - but certainly no gears. On a secondary teacher’s mingy salary, more likely a fixie. And the roads? If you’d like to see a highway of that time, look at the Pathé film of the 1903 Gordon Bennet race.

In 2018 I’m riding a 9kg Cannondale with easy gears, on some of the best roads in Europe. From Mitchelstown to Templemore, the hard shoulder is bordered by a two-metre strip of herbage that would even make a perfect cycle lane, if the councils would make it.

So I emailed May Casey, of Cloughjordan, who had generously offered a bed for the night. I took train and bus from Dublin to Mitchelstown, bought a lifetime supply of sugary drinks and chocolate and started out.

From Mitchelstown to Cahir is 30.5km, two hours for me, stopping now and again for a shady sit-down. On the hottest day of the year, I was pouring water over my hair and T-shirt to evaporate coolly and having a gaze at the beauty of the mist-drenched mountains.

In Cahir, I rode down to see the town, and to get advice (“Take the New Inn road”). This brought me past Rockwell. I didn’t disturb them in the middle of the Leaving Cert, but took a hot red-faced selfie outside.

In Cashel, 19km on, I went to look at the distant Rock, and was advised to go to Thurles, the next 22km leg, by the high road through Horse and Jockey. I stopped in Thurles to notice a shop with the unusual name of Stakelums - little knowing that half the staff had that day gloriously shared the EuroMillions jackpot.

Templemore was another easy 15km. But the delight of being right beside the target dissipated as I trudged on towards Cloughjordan: only 26km, but my legs were beginning to say: “Ah, here, now!”

Upon which May Casey drew up near Dunkerrin, saying “I don’t want to tempt you…” and myself and my bicycle leapt into her car, giving up like two cowards 15km from Cloughjordan, to a welcome of a cool salad and a gallon of tea, a hot bath, a warm bed and oblivion.

And was the road the same? Not a bit. These wide, beautiful roads bordered by prosperous farms and well-built houses were far from the white twisting roads Thomas MacDonagh rode along in 1903, with their sparse cottages, and big houses where the ascendancy, as described by his contemporary Eamonn Bulfin, shook hands as if over a five-barred gate, saying “Chawming! Chawming!” to each other. Another world altogether.

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