Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric Newby (1987)

Two inexperienced cyclists take to Ireland’s roads in the mid-1980s and squeeze juice from a tired concept by dint of the author’s writerly talents

Collins 0 00 217639/4 308pp Octo £12.95

Newby is a titan of travel writing. A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush and The Big Red Train Ride, among many others, are rightly considered classics of the genre. He was in his late 60s, however, when he and his wife Wanda took to these island’s rainiest land mass on heavily-laden mountain bikes.

The Newbys are returners to cycling – having both clocked up a few clicks during the second world war, but few since. Perhaps because of this, their bicycles only play a small part in the narrative. Of course, there are terrible headwinds, unnerving hills and, more than anything, rain (hardly surprising given that they start their tour in December). But Newby is far more interested in, and interesting on, the countryside though which he is passing, rather than his means of transport – and the book is much the better for that.

For years, British visitors to Ireland have found aspects of life preserved there had apparently been consigned to GB’s history books long ago. Perhaps the 1980s was the last point at which this was true. That is certainly Newby’s finding, in the pubs, boarding houses and shops that he visits. Here he is in a pub in Waterford.

“We found it (food and drink) in T and H Doolan’s old snug and dark pub which contained no one but a very old man wearing a huge uniform overcoat who was drinking tea and, a very grown-up young woman who was into the Irish Paddy and hot water, which seemed like a good idea in the circumstances. The old man told us to bang on the bar to summon attention, something that I am always loath to do in case the publican is on the bottle and comes rushing out to hit me over the head with it.”

There is nothing nostalgic about Newby’s book, however. He documents what he sees meticulously and is brilliant at setting it in historical and cultural context. Indeed, it is at doing this that he is almost without peer. Certainly anyone seeking to write a cycling travelogue of this kind would do well to start here.

His skill and care make this a fascinating document of Ireland just before everything changed – before the tide of migration turned, before money flushed though every corner of the country, before the substantial settlement of the ‘constitutional question’. It is an engaging, infuriating, beguiling place – now hard to find. But at least you can reach for Newby and pay it a fond visit from your armchair.

PS August 08

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