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Ireland, on Two Wheels and a Dream

Following the death of her parents and a broken engagement, a woman heads on a soul-scrubbing bike trip. The guidebook? Her father’s 40-year-old journal.

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Ireland, on Two Wheels and a DreamPhoto: Megan Murphy

I was on the move, packing boxes and loading them into my hatchback. It was over. Crying, I gave him back the ring, thanked him for asking me to marry him in the first place and left Aurora, Ont., for my childhood home an hour away.

I was now 35, single and living in Peterborough-alone. My parents were both dead-my dad, Marty, had died 10 years ago from colon cancer, and my mom, Mary Anne, last year from lymphoma. I moved into their place, into my pyjamas and into a deep depression. My sisters, Kate and Kerry, were terrific support but had their own lives and families. So here I was.

My parents were good people. The best, actually. I had suspected this to be true when they were alive and knew it to be true once they were gone. Dad was a criminal lawyer full of blarney and wit, a dreamer, a fighter for the underdog and a champion of whimsy. Mom was a nurse, feisty and fearless, an extrovert with a biting humour that drew people to her. Their experience with cancer was different, but their nobility through their battles was the same. I wish my folks were still here, but my gratitude for the fact that they simply existed outweighs my longing to have them back.

That said, I could’ve used them now. I was becoming unrecognizable to myself. The pilot light that used to live inside me was nearly snuffed out. I had to do something.

And that’s when I found it.

A thin black journal, stuck between the pages of a smoke- and water-damaged Diefenbaker memoir tucked between two hardcover books wrapped in plastic, at the bottom of a box at the back of a closet under the stairs leading to the basement. It was filled with the scrawls of a 26-year-old boy on a journey to become a man. My dad.

In 1973, he, too, had lost his spark. He hadn’t gotten into law school; he was unsure of the next steps in his relationship with his then-girlfriend (Mom!); like me, he had moved back into his parents’ house in Peterborough. He needed to do something bold and brave. So he bought a bike and went in search of himself in the land of his ancestors. Over the course of one month, he rode around southern Ireland and kept a log of his travels. He wrote of the beauty of the countryside, the sacredness of solitude, the sting of loneliness, laughter, joy, the value of his fellow man. Then he headed home.

In 1977, after he and my mom were married, the house they were renting burned to the ground and they lost almost everything, including the journal. Or so they thought. Flipping through the thin, finely lined pages, I felt something shift. This was no accident. It was a message from my dad, from my mom, from the universe, from the pilot light: “Ride!”

The trip couldn’t be done on any old bicycle. No! It had to be done on his-a 1973 cherry-red Peugeot, covered in cobwebs and hanging from the rafters of the garage. I took it down and over to a local shop for repairs. She didn’t know it yet, but that rusted-out beauty was about to travel the same roads she’d clambered up and zipped down some 40 years earlier.

Before he died, my dad gave me his copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. On the inside cover he wrote, “To my darlin’ Meg, I’ll be back this way, but I’m with you always. And remember, always keep a little of the divil in ya!”

I had lost my divil. Call it my mischievousness, my curiosity, my me-ness. Whatever it was, I was going all the way to Ireland to find it-and my dad’s bike, my “Red Divil,” would take me there.

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At the beginning of July, after two months of punishing training, I arrived in Ireland only to discover that the Red Divil was lost in transit. Murphy’s Law, indeed. Five hours later, the Divil and I were reunited, and the expedition was under way. Using Dad’s journal as my guidebook, I followed his lead. From Dublin across the country to Galway, south to Cork, east to Waterford and north, in a loop, back to Dublin. Then once more straight across, to finish the journey on the westernmost tip of mainland Ireland: the Dingle Peninsula.

Dad had me lie on my stomach on a 90-metre-high cliff and hang my head over the edge to peer, wild-eyed, at the sea crashing below. He guided me up the craggy mountains of Kerry with the promise of life-affirming views. He directed me to visit the ruins of an old church and graveyard in silence. (He said it was only  by being silent that the voices of the past could be heard.) He led me to Mount Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery in County Waterford, and to its chapel, where he’d listened to an organist play. I met that same organist, Father Ignatius, now in his late 80s.

While I was there, a Father Denis Luke blessed me and the bike, then took the Red Divil for a spin. Dad tried Guinness for the first time on his trip and described it as “a heady brew.” I tried Guinness for the 1,000th time. He opened himself up to new people and conversed freely with anyone who crossed his path. I did the same-and that’s how I came to dig potatoes on the Aran island of Inishmore with Joe Gill, a 54-year-old farmer and taxi driver. And tag along on a bachelor-party pub-crawl in Galway, and sing and dance in a thatched cottage in the backwoods of County Clare. Dad wrote about missing my mom. I did, too.

My father’s descriptions were so thorough that I often felt I must be looking at a rock he’d spied or cyc­ling a piece of asphalt he’d crossed over. On one uncharacteristically sunny day, I was biking through the Wicklow Mountains, a sweaty journey of 100-odd kilometres. I stopped at the top of one gruelling climb to take in the view and read an excerpt. Dad had been here. Exactly here. He wrote: “A few miles ahead there will be a three-mile freewheel descent. It’s therapeutic for this ailing right knee to look down the road and realize how much gravity will soon do for me.”

I decided to hand this ride over to my dad. I surrendered my legs. I gave him my eyes. The Red Divil was his again. Fly, Dad! Fly, Marty!
And he did. We did. I pedalled faster than I had so far, weeping and laughing, my breath changing as I banked into each corner on that hairpin des­cent. In one of the best moments of my life, my 26-year-old father got to live that stretch of road again. Five kilometres of roadway had bridged the gap between life and death, between being separate and being one.

After 1,500 kilometres and 25 days of Irish road, I made my way back to Canadian soil. Did I find the answers I was looking for? There was no eur­eka moment. But I did find my divil again, realizing, in the process, that it was never really gone. Somehow, slowly, with an unexpected assist from my folks, I pedalled my way back to it-and myself.

The final section in my dad’s journal says, “There will be time to reflect, to consider, to evaluate. There will be time. But for now the feelings are just that, feelings. Elusive in the expression. It is well for these last moments to sav­our the taste of private thought, to be peaceful in my own company, as I have learned to be. The odyssey is finished, the circle is joined.”
It wasn’t, Dad. But it is now.  
 
Megan Murphy is currently working on a documentary about her trip. Find out more at murphyslawfilm.net.