The High Nelly

The "High Nelly" was a slang name given to the upright bike.

Gerry Costello

Michael Collins with his custom built High Nelly

The High Nelly is a symbol of former times in Ireland.  In a general sense “High Nelly” describes upright bikes. More often than not, the term refers specifically to women’s bikes, and particularly to vintage ones. So, for instance, an old fashioned loop frame with swept-back handlebars up higher than the saddle might be called a High Nelly. It revolutionised life not just in rural areas but also in towns and on city streets. It was used by everyone from our grandparents to our parents and even some of ourselves. Perhaps the most important High Nelly bicycle in Irish history was used by Michael Collins during the War of Independence. The custom made bike, which had two crossbars, was built for the Irish revolutionary leader in 1919, by Rudge-Whitworth, a British bicycle manufacturer.


The High Nelly bike was a fixture on the local roads here up until just a few decades ago. It was a means of transport to secondary school and to work, to sporting fixtures and to dances, to Sunday Mass and to romantic liaisons. For someone living in the 1960s, buying a new bike was like buying a new car today and if, as a young lad, you acquired a bike of your own independent from your parents, then you felt like a millionaire, and indeed, you would be the envy of your friends. In many houses there were two bikes, a man’s bike with its crossbar and a woman’s bike without a crossbar. It was not unusual to see a man and woman travelling the road together with a child sitting on the carrier of her bike and another on his carrier and one on his crossbar also. The crossbar was “magic” to any child. Even though a little uncomfortable, you could see straight ahead and you were not looking at someone’s back like you would be if you were on the carrier. Most of all though, you got the feeling that you were in the “driving seat”.

Because Health and Safety was not yet invented in Ireland and cycle helmets were never used as they were not even available. High Visibility jackets were as yet light years away. The biggest crime of the area was cycling at night without a front and rear light on your bicycle. This law alone occupied much of the District Court’s time. . Then the bell law came into force. A bicycle had to have a bell. All bikes had to be retrofitted with a bell and the Gardai went out of their way to enforce the law.

One young, small, weedy garda with few front teeth arrived in Menlough in the mid-1960s in his dark blue fiat 500 car and proceeded to terrorise young lads of the area. We were about ten or eleven then and we were continuously stopped and questioned on the roadside each time we met him, particularly if we were in groups of about three or four. He was particularly strict on those whose bikes didn’t have bells and quite a few of children were summoned to Mountbellew Court by him for not having bells on their bicycles. Everybody was on edge by his presence and in those days a Fiat 500 car had a very distinctive engine sound that could be heard far in the distance. He was always sure to do the circuit every night at closing time so a few of the local lads decided one night when they heard the sound in the distance to fake a fist fight at Garbally crossroads. He stopped and got out and they turned on him. He left the area shortly after that and was not missed.

It was not unusual and was quite common to see 50 or 60 bicycles heading to a dance in Menlough Hall on a Sunday night in summer. There was usually more than one person on each bike and sometimes two would cycle beside each other and you would see a guy with a foot on each carrier and a hand on each of the cyclists shoulders. I always heard that Carty’s hill, in Ballinamona, was a bit of a struggle for the two cyclists, however, no accidents were ever recorded.

Harry Mellody in Guilka was the main agent for Raleigh and Humber bikes in those days but repairs were usually DIY or Paddy Forde, Carrowmore, was very good at rebuilding and repairing bicycles. Bannertons in Mountbellew also had a bicycle repair shop up until the 1970s. With the advent of mass-produced motorised transport, the bicycle fell out of favour, but there are still thousands of trusty High Nelly bikes thought to be rusting away in sheds and attics around the country. Modern bicycles have attained a high degree of sophistication but very few will give the long years of service that the High Nelly bicycles have given.



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This page was added on 14/01/2015.

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