Dad’s Diary

Rory Fitzgerald takes a 2 day cycle trip in Co. Offaly

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. After weeks of working and looking after the kids solo at weekends, evenings, mornings and, indeed, in the middle of the night, the prospect of a day off seemed bright. Imagine my delight when my wife graciously granted me planning permission for a two-day child-free break.

I had a particular expedition in mind: After weeks of solo childcare, two days spent cycling through 100km of mud and rain in Co. Offaly seemed like just the ticket. As I packed my rucksack into the bikeís baby carrier, I thought myself young and free again ñ well, free anyhow. Yet when my four-year-old asked if he could come along, I actually would have loved to say ìyesî. I knew how much he would love to be part of the big adventure. I knew that his presence and curiosity would cause me to see the beauty of everything afresh. In the end, however, we agreed that he could come on a big cycle when he was five and a big boy.

The trek

The only whinging for the next two days would be from James ñ an old friend and fellow electric bike aficionado who had incautiously agreed to undertake a trek along half the length of the Grand Canal. To the uninitiated, electric bikes might sound like cheating, but this is not so. They are more a form of technological encouragement. You must pedal to get electric assistance and you do get a decent amount of exercise.

They make cycling more pleasurable and your range is greatly extended. Instead of being puffed out at 30km, 100km is no bother, despite the vicissitudes of middle age. The extra power would help propel us along the soft and muddy towpaths of the Grand Canal.

We set off on a typical Irish summerís morning: about eight degrees and raining. Soon the rain cleared to more of a drizzle and the temperatures shot up to 10 degrees. The Grand Canal is one of Irelandís forgotten treasures. It stretches from Dublinís Grand Canal Dock 131km to Shannon Harbour where it meets the river Shannon. We would cycle about half that distance, joining the canal in eastern Offaly.

After Tullamore, we passed a few ruined castles and soon the canal soon took on a more forlorn feel. Few think of the midlands as a wilderness, but that it what much of it is. We cycled at times miles without seeing a house. Nature is slowly reclaiming many of the disused peat boglands which are beautiful expanses, in their way. Trees and greenery are thriving all along the silent canal.

We hardly saw a soul in the five hour slog between Tullamore and Shannon Harbour. It was hard to imagine that two centuries ago this canal was the motorway of Ireland, busy with boatfuls of agricultural produce destined for Dublinís docks, and the broad world beyond. For mile after mile along the grassy bank, the silence was only broken by birdsong – and the gentle whirring of electric motors.

In great triumph, we entered Banagher that evening, exhausted and covered in remarkable quantities of mud. Rehydration is of course vital after such sustained exercise, and so we did the sensible thing and headed straight to the local pub. We were somewhat slower home the next day, but we made it nonetheless.

I was urged on by a nagging impulse which seemed to magnetically draw me home to my pregnant wife and our children. The truth was that, after only 24 hours, I missed the kids terribly. I longed for their unreasonable demands, their quirky questions and their beautiful view of the world.

The great truth I learned while traversing Irelandís lonely boglands was this: I will never be young and free again, nor do I wish to be.