By Mary Conliffe
While viewing the competitors in the recent Tour De France cycle race, I was struck by the sophistication of their clean cut bicycles in sharp contrast to my mother’s High Nelly bike which was used as a means of transport and as a goods carrier.
This was a rural convention in the early 1960’s. Fresh air and fitness rewarded cyclists with a healthier lifestyle. The form of transport was the essential lifeline for people in the country getting about in rural Ireland to local shops, doctor, post offices, farms, fairs and sporting events.
It was not unusual for people to travel over thirty miles at a time to a nearby town on business, or to attend a football or hurling match. Brendan Ó hEithir recalled cycling from Galway to Birr in 1946 with his father to an All-Ireland semi final between Galway and Cork and on the way home their backsides were scalded by wet saddles.
Michael Collins rode around his High Nelly, an anonymous figure to his enemies in the early 1920s. Several bikes featured in the movie The Quite Man, which starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
The safety bike invented by, Ernest Bowden in 1892, was the precursor of all modern-day bikes with two identical sized wheels and a pedal in the middle. Before Bowden’s invention people rode around on a Penny Farthing, which was a lethal contraption. With the introduction of Raleigh to Ireland in 1936 the High Nelly took off on a large scale.
My sister and I lived close to the village of Borris-in-Ossory at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Our family farm was located about two miles distant from our house, so the main form of transport used by my mother and father was the High Nelly bike.
As children my mother relayed us on the back carrier of her big black bicycle where we slipped our feet into the metal racks to support our feet. Few cars on the roads made it safe for us to travel in this unorthodox fashion.
A large flash lamp was used in winter time, not least because at that time a garda was likely to have a cyclist fined for no light visible. We observed the cattle in the fields, neighbours going about their daily farm chores and took special note of the crops developing during the spring to late summer period.
We swished along the country roads with a great sense of freedom appreciating the peace of our rural surrounds and enjoying the many rustling sounds and smells of animal and bird life.
One difficult journey from the farm was the evening walk back home with a can of milk perched precariously in the large wicker basket.
My mother cycled to Egan’s grocery shop in the village conveying her saleable goods of eggs, potatoes, rhubarb, strawberries and homemade jams in her wicker basket.
In return she purchased and carried home the messages required by the household. Her errands sometimes involved a visit to Geogheans Post Office in order to pick up telegrams, collect Children’s Allowance or post letters to England and America. She travelled to ICA meetings and local parish functions, Sunday Mass, funerals and the local mission on her High Nelly.
Frequently we spied our Uncle Bill’s bicycle outside Egan’s shop, and we were in like a flash knowing a bar of chocolate or an ice cream would appear. As we grew older, we cycled to both mass and school. We even travelled to the odd dance in the famous Rock Hall at the top of the village to hear the show bands such as, Dicki Rock’s Miami, and Brendan Boyer and the Royal amongst others.
If a fellow wanted to escort us home from the dance, tough luck! We were independent ladies owning a High Nelly.
Today there are several High Nelly clubs in Ireland collecting funds for deserving charities. Abbeyleix is one such club donating to the hospice in Portlaoise.
The cost of restoring an old bike from scratch can cost up to 500 Euros and a new one will retail for about 1,200 Euros according to Martin Mannering, a vintage cycling enthusiast from Limerick who restores High Nelly bikes from scratch.
I am proud to own my mother’s old bicycle and I gave that of my father’s to a farming neighbour, Harry Lupton, who is a member of a local High Nelly club in Laois.