The High Nelly bicycle takes off in Ireland

1892
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Ireland's sentimental attachment to the "High Nelly" bicycle which, up until the 1950s, was a lifeline for most families, began here in the early 1890s.

The High Nelly (which Michael Collins famously used to get around unmolested during the War of Independence while there was a £10,000 bounty on his head) has been a favoured mode of transport for generations of Irish. 

Up until Bowden's invention of the safety bike in 1892, people rode around on the precarious Penny Farthing (which was somewhat restricted to the elite who could afford one). The Rover bicycle combined with Dunlop's newly invented pneumatic tyre, changed everything because it "costs less than a horse and gets over ground quickly".  

Safety Bike: As the name implies the safety bike is safer than the ordinary. The further improvement of metallurgy sparked the next innovation, or rather return to the previous design. With metal that was now strong enough to make a fine chain and sprocket small and light enough for a human being to power, the next design was a return to the original configuration of two same-size wheels, only now, instead of just one wheel circumference for every pedal turn, you could, through the gear ratios, have a speed the same as the huge high-wheel. Initially, the bicycles still had the hard rubber tires, and in the absence of the long, shock-absorbing spokes, the ride they provided was much more uncomfortable than any of the high-wheel designs.

Dunlop's pneumatic tires innovation tolled the death of the high-wheel design. This was basically the same design as standard contemporary bikes.

The safety bike allowed large numbers of people to take up cycling when mass production was introduced in 1890.  The bicycle helped make the Gay Nineties what they were. It was a practical investment for the working man as transportation and gave him much greater flexibility for leisure. Women would also start riding bicycles in much larger numbers and Betty Bloomer's bloomers became popular. The bicycle craze killed the bustle and the corset, instituted "common-sense dressing" for women and increased their mobility considerably.

PHOTO: © NLI

Today, the High Nelly Bike Company, which is based in Cappamore, Co Limerick (civil parish of Doon) is the only one of its kind in the country restoring these lovely old bikes. The company also produces vintage, 1920s-style ice-cream vendor bicycles, and provided 36 High Nellies in 2013 for the filming of Ken Loach’s movie, Jimmy’s Hall.