Round Ireland in Low Gear
Eric Newby, veteran travel writer for THE OBSERVER and author of A SHORT WALK IN THE HINDU KUSH and SLOWLY DOWN THE GANGES, tells of his cycling trip in Ireland as though it were through almost as foreign a land as India. Even language occasionally proves confusing: “One of the few major pleasures of travelling is that of hearing what others do to one’s own native tongue, a pleasure equalled by the amusement they get from listening to your version of theirs.” Maps are not quite trustworthy, and signposts are even less so: “We . . . obeyed a crazy signpost and made what proved to be a wide detour before descending to Ballinspittle.” Newby’s pleasures and side tours are the reader’s as well; the result is an interesting, entertaining look at Ireland from the vantage point of a bicycle saddle.
As Newby and his wife cycle to points of interest, he provides brief glimpses of Irish history. Tales of the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent shipwrecks on the Irish shores, stories of “the troubles,” accounts of Ireland’s noble families and of peasants, anecdotes about shrines erected after visions had been seen--all are told with great good humor. For the reader, Newby’s trip becomes a guided tour with a knowledgeable leader; though little is explored in depth, Newby’s accounts nevertheless provide a taste of Ireland’s past.
Newby seldom discusses Ireland’s present problems, though he laments some of the changes: “The road was the site of intensive ribbon development. Along it on either side stood bungalows in an astonishing medley of styles--Spanish hacienda, Dallas ranch house, American Colonial, Teutonic love-nests with stained glass in their front doors, and others in styles difficult to put a name to.” He recognizes, however, that the picturesque is not necessarily practical. Newby’s encounters with the inhabitants of these and other houses are often amusing and occasionally touching--the portrait of a barefoot old man on crutches ascending Croagh Patrick, considered a holy mountain, tells eloquently of the Irish spirit.
ROUND IRELAND IN LOW GEAR is a low-key travel book. Newby writes with humor and grace and has no objective except to entertain and to edify. As he notes in his introduction, he did not want to write a book called WHITHER IRELAND? “We were going there . . . to enjoy ourselves.” One may be thankful that he allows the reader to cycle vicariously along and listen to his tales.