Hiring an electric bike on a cycling holiday in Ireland

I was a bit nervous of the potential uncool factor of hiring an electric bike on a cycling holiday in Ireland, until I sped up my first hill on Mayo’s stupendously gorgeous Great Western Greenway and realised I wasn’t even out of breath. In fact, when I first saw the bike, a sophisticated Kalkhoff model, supplied by Electric Escapes, I was relieved that it looked pretty much like any hybrid bike, and that I was actually going to get to pedal, having been naively worried that I might just have to sit on it and be shimmied sloth-like all the way from Westport to Achill. In fact, the opposite is the case – the more you pedal, the more speed you generate from the battery’s power supply, so you can give it as much welly as you can muster basically, and trick those you overtake into thinking you’re  breezing it.

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Storymap – Dublin is all about people

Storymap1A new and completely unique way to explore the city was unveiled today, with the launch of the Storymap App, which lets users tap into the hidden stories of Dublin as they wander around its streets. The app rejuvenates the age old tradition of storytelling –  combining it with the latest technology in film and mobile apps to capture the essence of Dublin life, past and present. Included in the app is a huge library of 80 stories, presented in crisp audio or HD video, each tied to a location in the city and told by a different Dubliner, all with their own unique voices. This opening collection will grow by 4 stories a month, as the Storymap continues expanding.

“For a local, it gives them a chance to see the city with fresh eyes” explains co-founder Tom Rowley “Walking around Dublin I always used to wonder ‘What happened here?’ and the app gives you the answers – you’re walking on layer upon layer of fascinating stories, both personal and historical. On O’Connell Street alone there are riots, risings, nervous dates, and hoax plaques – along with hundreds more we’ve yet to capture. By using the app and seeing a well-told story on the spot, you get to see it in a whole new light, and build a new connection with it”.

The app is the product of two years’ work tracking down the finest stories and storytellers of the city and capturing them on film. Tom Rowley and Andrew Flaherty first launched the project in 2011, with the website Storymap.ie, which showcases the stories online. The project was, in many ways, a reaction to the gloomy mood hanging over Dublin.

‘We both arrived back from working abroad and were really frustrated with the way the city was being represented – bleak, empty and finished’ says Flaherty ‘For us, the things that made Dublin truly special were still there to be celebrated – its people, its stories, its humour and charm. We couldn’t find work and so we began Storymap as a way to use our skills to showcase the real cultural wealth of Dublin, in a way no-one had ever seen before. The support we got from people amazed us – writers, historians, artists, actors, barmen – all gave us their time, their stories, and their support to build this ’.

The wonderful Bernie who  has been working on Dublin's Moore Street market since she was seventeen
The wonderful Bernie who has been working on Dublin’s Moore Street market since she was seventeen

As well as presenting the stories mapped to location for the user to discover, the App includes a series of incredible innovations.

•   Rambles: The stories are collected in eight themed routes across the city, each offering a different flavour of the city’s life and history. It’s the equivalent of eight walking tours in your pocket.

•   The App also has the ability to generate a ‘ramble’ based on any destination and so transform a simple walk across the city into an engaging and entertaining experience.(For example, if  you’re on Henry Street and have to meet someone at the Guinness Storehouse, you can simply tap in your destination and a ramble will be generated which links stories along your route).

The stories on offer are just as diverse as the storytellers.  An exclusive story from Roddy Doyle skillfully brings to life a girl’s anxious wait at The Spire in a wonderfully evocative tale. Doyle said of working with Storymap “I loved the experience, seeing how Storymap took my words – all 155 of them – and, almost literally, built part of O’Connell Street with them.  It was clever and moving and, as I watched, I felt proud – and very grateful.”

There is a treasure trove of historical oddities – from the massive explosion on Wood Quay that killed off one per cent of the population of Dublin to the French gangs of the 18th century, The Liberty Boys, whose violent feud with The Ormond Boys often brought the city to a standstill.

Old memories of Dublin and its characters abound, and the most popular story features two Dublin gents, The O’Neill brothers, recounting their lives and loves in Fallons bar, ending in an impromptu song. The cartoonist Tom Matthews regales the viewer with an hilarious account of his lifelong love of the ‘Why Go Bald?’ sign, and how it’s served him down the years. Comedians, artists, musicians, poets and writers all add to this kaleidoscope of Dublin life, which constantly surprises and entertains.

storymap3The App was developed at the Dublin Institute of Technology by Jamie Osler and Eoin Rogers, and overseen by Bryan Duggan. It is on sale in the Android and iPhone app stores for €2.59. Using their fanbase in Dublin, Storymap crowdfunded the initial funds through the innovative funding website fundit.ie, and then supplemented this with funding from Enterprise Ireland. The resulting App is an invaluable resource for Dubliners who want to explore their city in new ways, and also for tourists hoping to have a genuine and authentically local experience of Dublin. It is also great fun, and will bring a smile to anyone who uses it.

“A lot of the times when you’re traveling as a tourist, it can feel like you’re on the ‘wrong side of the glass’ and not able to access the real life and culture of the city’ explains Rowley “And with our app we wanted to provide a tool that would let a visitor to Dublin to feel a real connection with the city through its people and stories. Tourism research shows a huge desire from modern tourists for an experience that’s authentic, unique and where they have the freedom to explore the city through their own tastes and interests. With the Storymap app we’ve created the ideal product for this new type of tourist.”

The App launch is the start of a busy year for Storymap, with a number of plans for expanding in Dublin and to new cities internationally. Storymap are currently collaborating with Dublin UNESCO City of Literature to build a version of Storymap tailored to showcase the city’s literary heritage in a unique App and website, while they’re also planning to build a Storymap specific to the Dubline, a new walking trail concept,in collaboration with Failte Ireland. With interest from abroad the two filmmakers are aiming to bring the project to new cities, including London, Galway and Derry in the coming year, with further plans to establish the Storymap concept across Europe as a unique and innovative way to engage with a city.

For more information see a short video here and for a quick treat of a clip of the wonderful Bernie mentioned up above, see below










A Hundred Acre Wood, just outside Dublin

One of the yurts by the lake at Mount Druid, Westmeath. Photo: Catherine Mack

‘The Hundred Acre Wood’  is Winnie the Pooh’s home, my younger son reminds me as we start to explore the pathways leading through the 200,000 trees planted by the owners of this extraordinary 100 acre farm in Castletown Geoghegan, County Westmeath. Although Pooh, Tigger and Roo are nowhere to be seen, there are streams and bridges to throw Pooh sticks from, endless spots for Owl to hang out but, happily, nowhere for Eyeore to feel gloomy. In fact, he would be positively jumping for joy if he could take part in the yurt hunt here, with ten of these magnificent Mongolian tents carefully concealed around its 100 acres.

The landscaping here is about as perfect as the famous map of AA Milne’s fantasy world, except this is a reality and certainly not just to be enjoyed by children. Boutique Camping was opened just over a year ago, by owners Adrian and Deirdre Murphy, although they have been developing their dream landscape, called Mount Druid (and yes, it does have a mount with a druid) for the last five years, and the many broadleaf trees which thrive all around us providing evidence of this long term planning. With carefully thought out pathways which follow the natural undulations of their hills and the recently opened up streams and lakes which were concealed underground until the Murphys went a digging, this is definitely not a case of someone just making a quick dash to jump on board an eco bandwagon.

I am a fan of yurts anyway, but have never seen anything as extensive as this in Ireland, and with so much land to explore, everyone has space to themselves. And space was just what the doctor ordered after a week of Christmas cabin fever. ‘Why on earth would you go camping in December?’ one of the curious villagers asked me at the gorgeous local pub, Claffeys, two minutes’ walk away from the farm, and just one of three lovely pubs in this village. I explain that it has a large central, wood burning stove, warm beds raised off the floor, enough insulation to cope with a Mongolian snowstorm, and that it feels lovely waking up in the ‘fresh air’ with a toasty body and a chilly nose peeking out over the top of the winter tog duvets. The only problem, I add, is working out who gets up first to stick some wood or turf on the fire to warm us up in the morning. ‘But where do you make the breakfast?’ he asks, and I reassure him that there is a beautifully restored barn for the use of all guests, with giant stove, comfy sofas, a large communal dining table and cooking facilities.

The communal barn Photo: Catherine Mack

The only thing missing in the yurt  is a kettle, as it would be lovely to stick one on the stove to get your day off to an even cosier start, so bring a camping one with you if you are a ‘tea before you can move a muscle’ sort of a person, like me. And if you travel with a hot water jar, then you’d have something to fill it from, without having to embarrass yourself in the communal barn. Not speaking from experience of course. They also like you to bring towels, although all bed linen is provided.

And then there is the sauna, which would have shed a whole new light on Christopher Robin’s day if he’d have had one, I’m sure. Our kids, who are always banned from such luxuries in leisure centres, were in their element, going from their early morning cycle around the land, on kindly provided high quality mountain bikes, to the sauna. It also gave them a good excuse to use the shower in the barn, rather than running from the yurt to the shower in a ‘shed’ which are scattered in various locations convenient to each accommodation. Albeit fine quality, eco wooden sheds.

I spared my new pal in the pub the details of the compost loos, though, as I thought this might just finish him off altogether, and as he and a few of his welcoming friends, who had joined the chat by now, were full of admiration for what the Murphys had achieved, I didn’t want them to think that we were all just a bunch of hippies hiding up on the hill with the druids. The Murphys live on site, and so are always around to make sure we are warm and comfortable, Adrian popping over to the barn with a freshly made loaf and some of their farm eggs, their boys inviting ours for a game of football, and their daughter keen to show us the recently converted self-catering house. This is a clever addition to their accommodation portfolio, created with the same flair for contemporary design  which the Murphys have applied to their own fine house, once a grey Presbytery, now a magnificent home to six kids, dogs, cats and a stream of visitors enquiring about this and that. The self-catering house, known as Kindalin, was the old school master’s home, and has been refurbished with a green oak frame, has an open plan design, mezzanine walkways and three bedrooms. And a telly, for those people who find it difficult to let the screens go completely. There is a yurt just nearby so if you have friends who want to do the indoors thing, while you do the out, then this is ideal. Or bring the grandparents, who won’t get the ‘yurk’ idea, as my mother in law insists on calling it. And if you have a very special birthday or anniversary coming up, rent out the whole place, putting families in yurts, and feed the gang in the barn or Kindalin. The Murphys are happy to help with catering if there is a crowd in.

Just one of many friendly faces at Mount Druid. Photo: Catherine Mack

We did not explore any further than the Hundred Acres or the village during our brief stay, but there is already pressure to return from our kids, and so I note that for a summer week there is plenty to do in the area, with Lough Ennell on the doorstep, where you can rent a boat and go fishing (www.lilliputboathire.com), the Mullingar Cycle Hub which consists of several looped cycles around the Lough and others nearby (www.irishtrails.ie), walking or cycling along the Royal Canal which goes through nearby Mullingar (www.iwai.ie), or day long summer camps with kayaking, orienteering and gorge walking at the nearby Lilliput Adventure Centre from as little as €30 per day. Oh, and because the Murphy’s don’t do things by halves, they also have a Green Village Music and Arts Festival on 29 September 2012, and they are still basking in the success of its 2011 inauguration. In fact, I think the Murphys, with their dynamic, life loving energy, combined with sustainable awareness must have gathered a little of Winnie the Pooh’s wisdom along their way in life. Among many famous quotes, he said, ‘A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.’ And this pretty much sums up Mount Druid. Thoughtful and making a difference. As my friend from the pub said just before he downed his last, ‘Adrian saved that land from being developed into a housing estate, you know. He just couldn’t stand back and let that happen here’. To which I raised my new Year’s pint, and toasted a year of Pooh-like positivity the likes of which lie on the top of a Westmeath hill.

For more information on the yurts and self-catering at Mount Druid, see www.boutiquecamping.ie. Yurts from
€80 per night for a midweek two night stay, otherwise €100 per night.

This article was first published in The Southern Star, Ireland

Food heroes in Irish tourism

Charlie Brack at Mahon Farmers' Market Credit: www.localmarkets.ie

Food is what brings most of us together at Christmas. You can have the decorated tree and loads of presents under it, but it is the smell of a baked ham, the sharing of some of granny’s Christmas cake, or just the first bite of warm brown bread and smoked salmon which creates a true season of goodwill. Similarly, food is at the core of tourism and a linchpin of making our holidays truly sustainable. And this is why some food producers have realised that the product is a fundamental part of the fáilte and are offering services which enable you to put their fine fare on any self-catering cottage, castle or camping table in the country.

These are my food heroes, and the guys who are going to play a big role in keeping this part of our culture thriving. Localmarkets.ie is a website where you can buy all the produce you drool over at farmers’ markets or simply on their site and have it delivered to any place in Ireland. So, if you or your loved ones are renting a place for a Christmas get-together – whether it is in Fermanagh or Fermoy, Donegal or Down – you can get a great stock of fine Irish goodies in without any of the arguments about who is doing the shopping. And if you own self-catering accommodation, it would be great to let your guests know about this new service too.

The Queen's Hamper at the English Market, Cork. Photo: www.localmarkets.ie

Superb artisan breads from Arbutus Breads, organic chickens from Dan Ahern, vegetarian burgers from Dee’s Eat Well, Be Happy burgers, organic salmon from Old Millbank Smokehouse, fruit and vegetables from Organic Republic, chorizo and cheese from the famous Gubbeen Farmhouse, are just a few things you can pop in your cyber shopping basket, for true farm to front door service.

This is a food delivery scheme for life, not just for Christmas, and will be held up as a sustainable tourism case study by many countries when they hear of it. You just need to order three days in advance for your produce to arrive packed in an expanded polystyrene (EPS) box, fully recyclable and environmentally friendly. You can either time it with your arrival, or ask your accommodation provider to store it for you until you get there as the box temperature is kept at below four degrees until opened. Orders must be a minimum of €30, plus €5 delivery charge. You can even shop a month in advance, and so avoid making it part of your last minute to-do list before you head for the hills.

Another switched on food producer is James Whelan Butchers in Clonmel who also has an online delivery service. With an array of fine meat, this prolific butcher (and concessionary at the new Avoca market in Monkstown, avoca.ie) will have your pans doing plenty of seasonal sizzling. After being custom cut and weighed, the meat is packed into a temperature controlled box in a dedicated packing room and delivered the next day to your holiday hideaway. For orders of more than €100 delivery is free to anywhere in the 32 counties, otherwise delivery is €10. Both sites are worth bookmarking and ‘liking’ on Facebook, and get your orders in, for a delicious start to your holiday.

An edited version of this article was published in The Irish Times, 3 December 2011