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Cycling the Royal Canal

My first cycling adventure for 2021 begins with the Royal Canal. A 130KM path from Maynooth to Cloondara or Longford*. I kickstarted my journey from Cloondara towards Maynooth, split over five separate days. This direction appears to contradict the common starting point at Maynooth. Perhaps one reason for this is the prevailing wind, which tends to favour an East to West direction. (I learnt that the hard way)

*Warning before setting off from Maynooth one way, aiming to return by train!

  • Train's capacity for bikes is limited usually to just two bikes. I strongly advise pre-booking your ticket. Therefore travelling as a group is problematic so attentive transport is needed unless you intend to cycle back. A.K.A. a 260KM journey, Yikes!

  • The Royal Canal splits between Ballyduff and Killahsee where the main canal continues onto Cloondara with a branch diverting off towards Longford Town.

Technically the Longford route is just a branch of the Royal Canal, not the actual Canal itself.

There may be some confusion on arrival to this point. If you intend to head towards Cloondara follow the canal, but be warned you end up pretty much in the middle of nowhere at the end of the greenway, so if planning on hopping on a train back, you need to aim for Longford.

Otherwise, a U-turn will add 16 kilometres to your Cycle from Cloondara back towards Longford.

If the latter, at least you can say you did all of the canals!

If you are planning to do the whole route in one go, it's pretty easy, identify your starting point (Maynooth, Longford or Cloondara) and just follow the canal, however, if you like me planning on doing it in 'bits n' bobs,' you need to be aware of the different Access points. Access points are also useful even if you are doing the whole route in one go, as you can identify some useful pitstops to take a break and grab lunch a pint or take in the wonderful sights along the way.

Waterways Ireland offer the best guide to the whole greenway, while Westmeath CoCo has an excellent resource for tourists, detailing each point within the Westmeath region. Their map is downloadable below here.

Download PDF • 9.58MB

A brief history of the canal begins in 1755 with a plan to connect Broadstone (Now part of Phibsboro in Dublin) to the Shannon. It was later decided to have a purpose-built canal rather than using existing waterways and work commenced in 1790 from Phibsboro finally reaching Cloondara some 27 years later after several hiccups, deviations from the original route and bankruptcy of the original management company.

The route was extended to terminate at Spencer Dock in Dublin one, giving access to the River Liffey and the Irish Sea, putting it in direct competition with the Grand Canal. By the 1830s 40,000 passengers and 80,000 tonnes of cargo were transported across the canal.

In 1840 the canal was bought by the Midlands Great Western Railway Company with the intention of building a railway line on the bed of the canal (Thus draining it) however plans changed and it runs parallel with the Canal between Dublin and Mullingar. However, the railway line competed with the canal eventual cannibalising it's business and the canal ceased as a functioning transportation route by the late 1800s.

Although the Canal continues from Maynooth to Spencer Dock, the Greenway itself terminates officially at Maynooth as the track becomes less reliable. Turning into a dirt track in some areas (fine in summer) and disappearing entirely for a stretch just after Ashtown.

Day 1: Cloondara to Longford

This route took me on a 32.6KM (return) trip from the scenic bogs of Cloondara towards the Town of Longford. The track isn't tarmacked but pretty easy to cycle.

Some excellent views of boglands

Day 2: Killashee to Abbeyshrule

This 55.2 km (return) journey started just before the Longford junction so repeated track from the previous route was minimal. Parking at Killashee

Day 3 Abbeyshrule to Mullingar

This route has some interesting sights including the Abbeyshrule Aiport (who doesn't like watching planes take off) and the aqueduct, which you won't see from the bike.

Arriving in Mullingar, famous for Joe Dolan. As you approach you will travel along a stretch of parallel greenway known as the Mullingar to Athlone Railway Greenway. More on that in a later Legends. Mullingar has several entry points to the town from the Canal depending on what part of the town you wish to enter. The first brings you close to the Railway station, however, the second may offer a better choice for eating.

Day 4 Mullingar to Hill of the Downs

At this point, I was determined to go all the way to Maynooth... But not today. This route is quite scenic and offers some interesting little pubs and restaurants in random spots that offer a nice rest-byte from the hustle and bustle of towns.

Day 5 Hill of the Downs to Maynooth

I finally reach the end of the greenway, arriving at Maynooth on a fine summers day.

Although the Greenway officially ends here, one can continue on further towards Leixlip and Clonsila and towards Phibsboro/Spencer Dock, however as I previously mentioned the Greenway ends at Maynooth and although it is technically possible to continue on further, towards Leixlip etc, it is a much harder cycle (not suitable for road-bikes) and temporarily disappears at one point, so will involve travelling on roads. I guess it depends on one's level of adventure. Work continues to reopen this section towards the city centre, but it may take a while so let's not make plans just yet.


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