Majella O’Sullivan travels the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle route, and goes off the beaten track to meet some of the charities that will benefit from the event.
It’s one of the country’s most iconic tourist routes and on Saturday, July 1, 10,000 people will sample it from the best vantage point — the saddle of a bicycle.
The Ring of Kerry is among the most traversed routes in Europe and a ‘must see’ for visitors to Kerry.
The 180-km circular drive takes in a scenic loop around the Iveragh Peninsula, offering rugged mountain and coastal landscapes, and taking in bustling towns and seaside villages dotted along its route.
It was only going to be a matter of time before someone came up with the bright idea of completing it, in a one-day on a bicycle challenge to raise money for charity.
The idea caught on and 34 years later, the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle is still popular within the Kingdom and with the thousands of cycling enthusiasts who make their way there each year on the first weekend in July.
But along with the rising popularity of cycling as a sport and a pastime, the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle has experienced increased competition in the past few years from other cycling events that have sprung up around the country.
Apart from the physical and mental endurance test of the cycle, it also has been benefitting local charities for over three decades, raising in excess of €1m each year.
Over 90 percent of all the money raised goes directly to the chosen charities that apply to be included as a beneficiary each year.
Travelling the famous route, I veered off the beaten track and visited some of this year’s beneficiary charities and met the people behind them.
Killarney is the starting point for the annual event and boasting more hotel beds than any other Irish town with the exception of Dublin, it’s best placed to cater for the crowds.
My abode for my overnight stay was the five-star Killarney Park Hotel. Owner Padraig Treacy is a member of the voluntary committee that organises the cycle.
This time round, my mode of transport is a mini-bus, driven by Tony Galvin of the Kerry Parents and Friends’ Association, an organisation set up in 1973 to support the parents of people with an intellectual disability, one of the beneficiaries of this year’s cycle.
Tony explained that our chariot was in fact the newest addition to the fleet, bought as part of its ‘Buy a Bus’ campaign.
“The campaign was started by Agnes Casey, the sister of one of our clients, and she raised over €51,000 in a golf classic.
“Our buses are over 10 years old and the hope now is to replace all 17 in the fleet,” Tony said.
No trip around the Ring of Kerry is complete without a trip to the fabulous five-star Parknasilla Resort and Spa in Sneem, a favoured haunt of royalty and famous figures from political and theatrical spheres.
Its guest list once included French president Charles de Gaulle, Princess Grace and Prince Rainer of Monaco, playwright George Bernard Shaw and screen icon Charlie Chaplin. Another regular is former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
Managing director, Tony Daly, is double jobbing these days. Apart from the day job at Parknasilla, Tony is also chairman of the King of Kerry Charity Cycle and heads up the voluntary committee that oversees the smooth running of the event each year.
“This year there has been a huge increase in the number of cycles around the country and while demand has been strong, we still have places available,” he said.
“We don’t want to get to the stage where we have 13,000 or 14,000. We want to get up to 10,000 so that everyone can have a good safe day and that’s what the goal is.”
Leaving the comfort of the mini bus for a while, I travel the next leg of my journey by boat, crossing the stunning Kenmare Harbour – one of the best places along the southwest coast for whale and dolphin spotting – in the company of crew members from the Derrynane Inshore Rescue Team.
The 15km crossing to Derrynane is smooth and the cove is calm.
Helen Wilson is the launching authority or the rescue team, which includes 12 fully trained members and four recruits and deals with about 10 call outs, on average, each year.
It has been a declared resource since 2011 though it was up and running for a number of years before it got official recognition from the coastguard.
“We have one rescue boat and depending how well we do in the cycle, we’re hoping to get a D-class boat to complement this.
“It also costs about €4,000 to kit out each of our volunteers and while we have what we need, we don’t have extras,” she said.
Other items on their wish list include improvements to the slipway and storm doors for the boathouse.
After refreshments in Bridie Keating’s pub, our journey takes us onward to Waterville and then we veer off the Ring of Kerry and make a short pit stop on beautiful Valentia Island to visit the 15 residents of Valentia Hospital.
The island has had a hospital since 1870 but nowadays it serves as a voluntary elderly care facility and is in the process of completing a €1.4m extension, to increase its capacity to 24 and meet HIQA requirements of 80 percent single occupancy rooms. Most of the money has been raised locally.
Being one of the main charities of the cycle in 2014 and 2015 raised over €400,000.
“There’s a huge demand for beds in south Kerry at the moment and we’d fill the 24 beds now and there will be more demand in the future,” said matron, Margaret Daly.
Chairman of the board of directors, PJ O’Sullivan said it’s been a challenge to fill its quota of 1,000 cyclists to complete the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle.
“Unfortunately, for a lot of people, completing the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle is a bucket list item, to be done once and then that box is ticked.
“But at least now that the extension is almost completed, it’s easier to fundraise because people can see it’s a reality and not a pipe dream that’s never going to happen,” he said.
The final leg of our trip, a 22km stretch from Moll’s Gap to Killarney, taking in Ladies’ View and the Killarney National Park, is completed on bicycle of course. But don’t be fooled, it’s not all downhill into Killarney.
Killarney butcher, Denis Cronin, is on hand to offer encouragement over those hills.
Denis has completed the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle 10 times and for the past two years, as head of the team of up to 100 cycle marshals. He is also a committee member of the Kerry branch of Down Syndrome Ireland.
“My daughter Niamh was born with Down syndrome 15 years ago and I’ve been involved in the committee for the last 12 years.
“I’ve also seen the Ring of Kerry grow since 2007 from having about 1,000 cyclists to what it is now,” Denis said.
This year’s 10 chosen charities are spread across the county and one national charity, Temple Street Children’s Foundation, has also been included.
The other beneficiaries are the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, Recovery Haven, Rathmore Social Action Group and Talbot Grove Addiction Centre.
The Kerry Diocesan Youth Service (KDYS), Brú Columbanus in Cork, Breakthrough Cancer Research, Baile Mhuire elderly care centre in Tralee and the Cork-based Community Air Ambulance are designated second tier charities this year, which will also benefit.
And the good news is, there’s still time to register and saddle up for the country’s greatest challenge, where magnificent views and camaraderie more than make up for the saddle sores.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved