There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 29 July 2016

The Dingle Peninsula: Part 6 of the West of Ireland

We awoke to another dull, drizzly day, but fortified with a ‘full Irish’ - bacon, mushrooms, black pudding, white pudding and a fried egg – we set off to explore the Dingle Peninsula, the northernmost of the fingers of land that make up Ireland’s southwest corner.

Driving out of Tralee we rounded Tralee Bay and headed down the northern coast of the peninsula. When the N86 swung south towards the town of Dingle we continued on the minor road which eventually also turns south, approaching Dingle via the Conor Pass.
 
The Dingle Peninsula
The high ground down the centre of peninsula is rugged and remote, feeling more like mountains than hills. Winding our way upwards we paused at a pull-off beside a small waterfall. Above us, according to the Heritage Council’s informative signboard was a corrie known as Pedlar’s Lake.
 
Small waterfall below Pedlar's Lake
We set off scrambling up the rocks. Lynne was unimpressed and complained mightily, but it was hardly a difficult climb. A minibus drew into the pull-off and disgorged an American family, parents and three sons in their late teens/early twenties. The young men ran up the hillside, demonstrated just how easy a climb it was. Lynne snarled at their youth.
Pedlar's Lake, Dingle Peninsula
Reaching the top she moaned that there was nothing but a lake tucked into a hillside - well that is what a glacial corrie is. There were some good views though. When the American parents arrived, at a pace more like ours, we took their photograph and they took ours, so we can block out the view.
Blocking out the view, Pedlar's lake, Dingle Peninsula
We descended and drove the short distance to the top of the pass at 456m (1,496ft) from where we could see Dingle.

Dingle from Conor Pass
Down in the town we parked and walked up the main street. Though small - under 2,000 inhabitants – Dingle is the urban centre for a large area and has more facilities than most towns its size.
 
Main Street, Dingle
We followed one of the colourful side streets towards the harbour, pausing en route for a morning cappuccino. Father Tom, a retired Catholic priest and therefore inevitably an Irishman, is a member of the same book group as us. He spent his childhood summers on the Dingle peninsula and recommended our group read ‘Twenty Years A-Growing’ by Maurice O’Sullivan, a memoir of growing up on Great Blasket Island off the tip of the peninsula (of which more later). It was largely because of Fr Tom (and Maurice O’Sullivan) that we were here.

Dingle’s altered a lot since the 1950s Father Tom told us, and no doubt he is right, but Dingle today looks cheerful, well maintained and prosperous, and if that is a change it is for the good. Like Connemara, Dingle is a Gaeltacht area, and the language we heard most as we walked to the harbour was Irish – so not everything changes.
 
Down to the harbour, Dingle
Dingle harbour sits at the end of large sheltering inlet and has ample room for working boats….
 
Dingle Harbour, working boats
….and pleasure craft.
 
Dingle Harbour, Pleasure craft
The tiny village of Ventry is seven kilometres further west, the beach hiding behind a substantial caravan park. Drizzle had fallen at Pedlar’s Lake, but at Dingle the sun had emerged and the peninsula was looking its beautiful best. Even so Ventry’s climate would put it a long way down my list of desirable beach holiday locations.

Ventry Beach, Dingle Peninsula

The young Maurice O’Sullivan visited Ventry in the early years of last century, stowing away to join the adults for Ventry Races, competitions between boats from the local villages, and a great social occasion with much drinking and some fighting. The event has now grown into Ventry Regatta, a two day sporting and cultural festival, though racing curraghs, the traditional local fishing boats rowed by teams of four, is still a major part. I think beer is still involved, too, but fighting is disapproved of these days. We were ten days late for the 2016 version.

I remarked in the Connemara post that the hedgerows were full of wild fuchsias. Fuchsias are also common on the Dingle peninsula -  and so are irises.
Roadside irises, near Ventry
We followed the Slea Head Drive which would take us round the tip of the peninsula. We missed Dunbeg Promontory Fort which is off the road – and much of it has fallen into the sea – but did stumble across a group of clocháns, or beehive huts, a couple of hundred metres further on at Fahan.

The huts were a short walk up the hill from where we could look back down the peninsula.

Looing back down the Dingle Peninsula from Fahan

They are undateable, but could have been built any time between the Neolithic period and the 12th century. It is difficult to imagine how they were used; were they constructed for animals, humans or both and as homes, or merely refuges? Whatever their function they were certainly robustly built.
 
Clochán, Fahan
Fr Tom says you could once just walk up and have a look (I can remember when you could do that with the Pyramids and Sphinx) but now the farmer collects a fee. He looks after the site too, so it would be churlish to begrudge him a modest recompense.
 
Clochán, Fahan
Dunquin, at the tip of the peninsula, is more a scattering of houses over a large area than a village. We passed the nearest point to Great Blasket Island and continued to the visitor centre, a little further on but built where the view of the island is best.

After a light lunch we visited the Great Blasket exhibition. The island was abandoned in 1953 and the islanders ruined dwellings can be seen below and to the left of the newer white constructions. To the right of the houses are their few usable fields. Apart from the meagre products of their agriculture they lived by fishing, trading their surplus with the mainland, and were also happy to dine on puffins which they caught along the cliffs.
 
Great Blasket Island
The island had a school, off and on, but surprisingly in this most Catholic of countries, no church or priest. Attending Mass required a 2km row to Dunquin followed by a 3km walk to the church. They returned laden with the supplies they had ordered the previous Sunday.

It looks idyllic on a fine day, but it was a hard life. The population peaked at 160 in 1911, but by 1951 had dwindled to a couple of dozen and ultimately everyone was gone, some to the mainland, many to America.

The later years of Great Blasket were marked by a Gallic literary flowering. Encouraged by visitors from the mainland not only Maurice O’Sullivan (Muiris Ó Súilleabháin) but also Thomas O’Crohan (Tomás Ó Criomhthain) and Peig Sayers published memoirs and stories.
 
Maurice O'Sullivan in Garda Siochana Uniform
He joined the Guards when he left the island in 1927
Picture borrowed from First Stop County Kerry 

‘Twenty Years a-Growing’ was published in 1933 to critical acclaim, though given O’Sullivan’s background and sketchy education it was perhaps inevitable that some of the acclaim was distinctly patronising. It should not have been, O’Sullivan saw life through the eyes of a poet and in a translation which carefully retains his Gallic rhythms he places the reader in the heart of island life. ‘Twenty Years a-Growing’ is well worth reading.

We continued round the end of the peninsula through Ballyferriter, a village with a wonderful name, though as 75% of the population is Irish speaking it should properly be called Baile an Fheirtéaraigh. By the coast here are three small peaks like waves on the land known as The Three Sisters.

The Three Sisters, Ballyferriter
Through a maze of minor roads – we did not pick the easiest route – we found our way to the Gallarus Oratory.

You may park at the visitor centre, pay their fee, watch their film and spend money in their gift shop or you can drive up what the Rough Guide calls a ‘fuchsia lined one-track road’ park in the lay-by and walk in for nothing, which is what we did.

Fuchsia lined one-track road, Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula
The oratory, a beautiful little gritstone building like an up-turned boat, is a mystery. It was ‘discovered’ in 1756 by an antiquary called Charles Smith. He decided, without any evidence, that it was a 6th century church. Later archaeologists have conjectured that it may be 12th century Romanesque Church or a shelter for pilgrims. Local tradition says it is the funerary chapel of the giant Griffith More, whose grave is nearby.
 
Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula
Whatever its purpose, it was built with great care a precision sometime between the 6th and 12th century, the later date based on the carved rounded stones that make the top of the single window. After the 12th century a proper arch would have been used.
 
Lynne and the tell-tale window, Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula

We had the oratory to ourselves until a minibus load of American tourists arrived. They were on a tight schedule and ran briskly round the site for five minutes before being herded back onto their vehicle. Some had seen Gallarus only through a viewfinder. That is why we do not do group tours.

We returned to Dingle by the direct route and headed back to Tralee along the main road which starts along the southern coast of the peninsula. We stopped to look at the spit which almost cuts Castlemaine Harbour from the sea. It is a strange feature with a windswept beach ideal for exercising horses….
 
Castlemaine Spit, Dingle Peninsula
 …but was less impressive than the view back up the coast of the peninsula.
 
Looking out to sea along the south coast of the Dingle Peninsula
We returned to Tralee and later found our way to a large pub called The Brogue. As always in Irish pubs we were greeted if not like old friends, at least like new ones and were installed in a booth where we could observe all the happenings in the bar without being seen ourselves. From such a privileged position it is disappointing that we can report nothing scandalous or exciting.

I like a good thick pub steak now and again, and if they can cook it rare – which does not always happen – so much the better. I have nothing but praise for The Brogue’s steak from which blood ran freely. Lynne enjoyed her hake garnished with tiger prawns and for some reason we received a free dish of potato gratin. Whether everyone gets this, or the chef had made one by error and needed to get rid of it I have no idea. As we both had chips, extra potato was not what we needed, but it was surprisingly tasty.

We washed it all down with a couple of pints of Guinness and by the time we were finished we were pleasantly stuffed. Fortunately we had just enough room left to continue our organoleptic examination of Irish whiskey. I am getting to like that, too.

The West of Ireland

Part 1: Galway

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