Travelling along Ireland's Dingle Peninsula

Join Paul Morrison as he explores Ireland's Dingle Peninsula

6 mins

These days everyone wants to be Irish – Oscar-winning film stars, half the Irish football team, and a good proportion of the visitors who come to a land where people have been the major export for centuries.

In the Spring a seasonal tide sweeps eastward across the Atlantic signalling a rather ironic reversal of the historic migration. Americans searching for roots join a mixed bag of nationalities who come to Ireland with images of a rural idyll gleaned from a culture that has permeated the bookshelves and jukeboxes of the world.

But though illusions may be shattered, there are few who regret the journey. The west coast, in particular, has a power to charm visitors that soon makes you realise why expatriate balladeers devote their careers to crooning about their lost homeland. The mountains of Kerry and the Atlantic shoreline offer a gentle beauty that stays in the mind. Before you know it you’ll be whistling a jig and feeling the urge to wear an Aran jumper.

Kerry lures visitor’s aplenty with its accessible natural splendours, but few make the effort to venture out to its westernmost fringes. The Dingle Peninsula has always been apart. Jutting out like a big toe from the Irish mainland, to the west there is nothing but ocean; the next stop is the New World.

Out there, on the extremities, Dingle has been spared many of the changes that have affected the rest of the country. So while tourist coaches turn the Ring of Kerry into a Grand Prix circuit for the summer, around Dingle you can lose your way with satisfying ease. In fact, you may as well resign yourself to the inevitability of it.

It was the isolation that attracted Lyn and I to Dingle, though getting lost every few miles made it seem even more remote. Would we ever find our way back?

We learnt not to be fooled by a promise of a clearly painted signpost, for you can guarantee that a mile further on you’ll be scratching your head at a fork in the road. Or worse, it will have four place names in Gaelic (I mean, would you have guessed that An Daingean means ‘Dingle’?).

Like it or not, the Dingle Peninsula, for all its absence of scale, is designed to bring out the explorer in you. I prefer to think of it as a conscious decision to encourage visitors to talk to the residents – indeed, a polite request for directions is likely to lead to a prolonged conversation about everything under the sun.

A token gesture

Gaelic road signs are more than a token gesture in this part of Ireland. In a nation struggling to revive a native tongue that was almost lost after centuries of English domination, around Dingle the language is alive for the simple reason that it never died out. This part of Ireland is a Gaeltacht, a region when Gaelic is the first language. It is taught in schools all across the land, but here it is the language that all the lessons are taught in.

Irish Gaelic is a strange, cryptic language to the untutored ear, bearing scant similarity to English, though close to the Gaelic spoken in other former Celtic strongholds in Scotland, Wales and Brittany. The dialects differ, and even in Ireland a native-speaker from Dingle can distinguish another from Galway, but the language is a legacy of a common Celtic ancestry and engenders a pride and identity that makes it a popular choice for a people with a culture worth savouring.

The culture of western Ireland is a rich and complex product of native Celtic roots mingled with the traders, raiders and invaders that came here across sea and land. Vikings, Normans, British and Spanish have all played their part in the history of the Peninsula. Some left their traces in the language, others just marks in the ground.

Around Dingle the past lies scattered in the fields and hillsides, hundreds of archeological treasures, most of them untouched, just waiting to be rediscovered. They peak out from the peat and heather, each with its clues to the past. The settings, on headland and hilltop, are so evocative it would need a dull mind not to wonder about the people that made them and the lives that they lived. Celtic crosses tell of a pre-Catholic Ireland where priests could marry, women joined the clergy, and people lived in ‘beehive-huts’ of stone. Crumbling Norman castles on rocky headlands hint at a later civilisation, whilst nearby iron age ring forts date back to an earlier age.

In much of the western world the historic sites of Dingle would be repackaged into a sterile presentation of the past, but here they lie raw and natural, and long may they stay that way.

I wanted to learn more about these clues from the past, so we headed out one afternoon with Pádraig, an archeology graduate who runs tours around the peninsula.

The Gallarus Oratory

The first site we came to has never needed excavation. The Gallarus Oratory is a sandstone house shaped like an upturned boat. Built with an uncanny skill, without mortar of any kind, it remains intact and completely watertight a thousand years later.

There were once about 30 buildings like this on the peninsula, with others scattered across Europe. But most have been damaged or dismantled, leaving the Gallarus Oratory the finest remaining example. Pádraig offered an explanation to its survival:

“There’s a curse on anyone taking a stone from the Oratory: it’s said that you won’t be able to sleep until the stone is returned. Superstition is very strong here in Ireland – to destroy a ring fort is supposed to bring bad luck. In Dingle a football field was built over the site of a ring fort, with the backing of a local priest – soon after he died from arthritis.”

With an ambiguous smile Pádraig led us away from the Oratory and on to Reask, where low stone walls hinted at a settlement that dates back to the 4th century. At one time it was inhabited by monks, but this was no austere refuge for pious men. The monks were kingpins in their day, keeping a tight hold over the community with their monopoly of technology, such as the millstones for grinding corn. If word got out that a farmer had his own millstone, the monks would raid his homestead, smash his stone and possibly his head.

The methods might have changed, but one way or another the church has had a grip on this land for a very long time.

Not surprisingly, most of the early Christian settlements were built with defence in mind. Stone walls encircled the homes, with an underground bolt-hole to use in emergencies (like raiding monks), and low doorways so that anyone entering had to stoop, in a prone position, in order to enter. At night they would also bring their cattle inside the walls, to guard against another peril.

“Today the Irish are great footballers,” explained Pádraig, smugly, “But in the old days the popular pastime was stealing cattle.”

One site is likely to puzzle the archeologists of the future. On a bright, blustery evening we rode off on horseback up the hillside above Slea Head. There, amongst the heather and gorse lies a short, cobbled street alongside a pattern of stones that marks out a row of buildings, now razed to the ground. An odd place for a settlement, up here on the windswept hillside, no road leading to or from it.

But a different set of logic chose to build at this point, and when its purpose was served, the walls were taken down and the set for Ryan’s Daughter left to merge into the heather.

David Lean’s film put Dingle on the map, and even today, some 25 years later, people come searching for the pub where John Mills earned his Oscar and Robert Mitchum drank with Trevor Howard. They have to be content with the photos on the wall of Kruger’s bar, though the magical backdrop remains. More recent cinematic fame has come from the rather less memorable Far And Away, starring Tom Cruise, though once again there was little left behind for the film buffs to savour.

“They built a house down there,” said Mary Houlihan, pointing to the field across the road from her home. “We wanted to keep it for the tourists, but they knocked it down.”

Mary is the genuine article – a local resident who landed a part in Far And Away – a rather ironic theme for her, since she now lives alone in her family home, with her children and 13 grandchildren scattered around the globe.

We had come to Mary’s house to view the remarkable beehive huts on her land, but spent more time chatting about the movie world. We flicked through Mary’s photo album that shows her cavorting with the stars, an arm wrapped tightly around a smiling Tom Cruise.

“He’s a lovely man,” exclaims Mary, a twinkle in her eye.

The masses

Then as we sat talking a cruising coach pulled in to the lay-by opposite. Through the windows we could make out the dim images of dozens of faces straining to make out the view. On one side they had the breathtaking view across the Dingle Bay; on the other the peculiar shapes of the beehives.

A solitary passenger strayed from the coach and came over towards us, but smiled politely at Mary’s suggestion that she should part with a pound for a closer look. She took a quick snap from the lay-by and returned to her space capsule. Beehives done, the craft took off for Slea Head, and another brief encounter through the glass.

Kerry, alas, is starting to succumb to the universal disease of the tour-coach. 150 years after famine drove the people from the land, a fresh blight of package-tourism is bringing them back, sealed in air-conditioned units that charge through the lanes on their 7-day ‘Irish Experience’.

Unfortunately a growing number of operators are adding a daytrip of the peninsula to their Ireland itinerary. Totally unsuited to the narrow lanes and coastal roads, the coaches bring nothing but nuisance and congestion.

The worst of these are totally self-contained units, bearing their own food and refreshments, so even the benefit of income is denied the local residents who are demoted to spectacles to be gawped at through tinted glass.

As the coach disappears around the headland, Mary just smiles an ironic smile, and takes her photo album back indoors, leaving me to hope that someone, somewhere will have the sense to ban these ridiculous intrusions from this beautiful landscape.

But when the roads get too much, there is always the sea. For centuries the sea was the peninsula’s major link to the rest of the world. Traders came from Spain and France long before regular links with Britain were established. So sooner or later, to appreciate the scenery in full, you just have to get out onto the water. And then you are bound to meet the most famous Dingle resident of all. Fungie the dolphin.

Fungie, Dingle's dolphin

Celebrities may come and go in Dingle, but the real star remains year-round. Fungie the dolphin made Dingle harbour his home some ten years ago, and ever since has been entertaining visitors and befriending residents. People have written poems, composed symphonies and made films about Fungie. He delights without fail, greeting every boat that passes through, and, when the mood takes him, he frolics with the wet-suited snorkellers that wait for him every morning and evening. Watching the shivering swimmers take to the cold Atlantic waters we decided that a boatride was preferable.

Michael O’Connor is one of those Irish Americans who took the old country as his new home. In Dingle he runs a small tour company with his wife, Becky, but is never happier than when out on the water in his 41-ft yacht which he sailed here across the Atlantic. One bright afternoon, with just enough puff in the wind to take us away, we headed out from the harbour – and it didn’t take long before we came across Fungie.

“He’s an ambassador,” exclaimed Michael, “Fungie’s dance card is always full, with the swimmers, the snorkellers and the Fungie boats.”

We were next on his list, and it seemed as though dancing was what Fungie had in mind. He leapt clear of the water ahead of us and put on a display of acrobatics that had everyone cheering in appreciation. Away from the shameful spectacles in concrete-walled dolphinariums, it’s clear that wild dolphins have a sense of fun – Fungie larked around, showing off, and the people loved it. Every leap brought a whoop and every splash a cheer.

Basking in his celebrity status, he’s a cetacean superstar who even merited a mention in the credits at the end of Far And Away. Clearly he entertained a few members of the team when Hollywood came to town.

Film crews aren’t the only ones charmed by Dingle and it’s easy to see what draws people to the peninsula. For the numerous visitors who come out for a day-trip from central Kerry, the sentiment is invariably the same. “If only we’d known,” is the usual cry, “we’d have stayed much longer.”

They plan to return and quite often do, or tip off their friends to the lure of a part of Ireland that is quite exceptional. On a bright, sunny day there are few places on the planet more beautiful than the mountains and coastline of Dingle. The views from the heights of Conor Pass, or the coastal road to Slea Head rival anywhere you can name. Even on the more numerous ‘softer’ days, the landscape takes on an evocative atmosphere well suited to its mysterious past, and the beauty takes on a still, moody quality.

The attractions of Dingle don’t rely on a cloudless day – which is just as well for the first piece of land reached by the prevailing winds across the Atlantic. Even in the most hostile weather there’s no shortage of things to do, for if the outdoors doesn’t appeal, then there’s plenty to do inside.

In a town of some 1,500 people, Dingle is blessed with 52 pubs.

“52 official pubs,” I was corrected when checking this statistic in the comfort of Dick Mack’s. “58 if you include the others.”

I was not really sure what constituted one of the “others”. Pubs in Dingle are not as obvious as you may think. Sure, there are the big bars with swinging signs outside and Guinness plaques by the door. But there are many that seem more like shops or people’s front rooms. Some of them are – if Dick Mack’s looks more like a cobbler’s from the outside, it’s because that is what it is – it just so happens that you can sup a glass of stout while waiting for your shoes to be soled.

Whatever your preference in pubs, you’ll be sure to find one to your liking in Dingle. For many visitors the appeal of pubs is as music venues. These again can vary from a spontaneous outburst from the regulars to the well rehearsed ‘traditional Irish music’ heard nightly in the tourist bars by the harbour. In these, by the time the musicians set up you’ll be hard-pushed to hear an Irish accent this side of the bar, but the music is good and the Guinness better. As tourist ghettos go, they could be a lot worse.

Other, less suitably located hostelries try the same formula with lesser musicians. Here the Irish balladeers murder the occasional Christy Moore song in between their preferred repertoire of American folk and country. One evening we paused in one, enticed by a dreadful rendition of Sound of Silence. Excluding the barman and ourselves, the audience consisted solely of a couple from the States, who sat next to the two guitarists in reverent poses. You could tell they were tourists, since they dressed like the Irish are supposed to dress, sweating in their Aran jumpers.

Just act American

The singers, meanwhile, were doing there best to look American in their checked shirts and faded denims. They feigned American accents to country and western tunes, interspersed by the occasional traditional ballad, whilst the devoted admirers closed their eyes, swayed along and mouthed words to songs that they didn’t know. Irony was as thick as the head on a pint of Guinness.

“The more you drink the better you sound,” said the bearded visitor, trying to loosen the neck of his new pullover.

“No,” came the honest reply, “The more you drink the better we sound.”

There is good music in Dingle. And plenty of it. Often it’s spontaneous, sometimes the groups in the tourist pubs are as good as they claim.It’s a rare night when you can walk the streets without catching the sound of live music from a doorway.

But we had heard of another way of hearing the authentic tunes of Kerry from first-class musicians. Most Irish music is meant to be danced to, and Dingle is renowned for its set dances – the forerunner of American square dances. This seemed the perfect place to see and hear Irish music in action. So one rain-soaked evening we trudged out to the edge of town to the weekly set-dance at the Hillgrove Hotel.

I thought hurling was the most dangerous past-time in Ireland till I came across set-dancing. You can forget any notions of similarity to the tame barn-dancing preferred by the British. Encouraged by distant memories of do-se-dohing at a wedding, I figured I’d be game for anything, and made the near-fatal decision to take the floor. And then as the caller rehearsed the dance I stared in bewilderment at the steps and turns I was expected to mimic.

“Try not to injure anybody and don’t leave teethmarks on the floorboards!” came the caller’s exhortation as the music started up. I waited in dread for my turn to come, trying to hide the panic in my eyes as I smiled politely at the local girl who had volunteered to partner me. Then, amidst a flurry of tapping feet, this slender teenager spun me around and threw me in the right direction as I struggled to avoid the path of oncoming couples. If I was a hedgehog I’d have curled up.

“Chain – house – polka!”

Came the screaming liturgies from the caller, who counted time in Gaelic.

“Leath, aon, dó!” was the battle cry, as the music got faster, the feet became a blur, and I concentrated on survival. The floor was alive with clomping, stomping heels and toes, closely followed by the echoes of my own mistimed efforts.

“Cross – swing – house – come home – repeat!” I was trapped in a choreo-graphic terror-go-round with no way off.

“Square – house and FINISH!” came the final call, and at last, after the third “just one more time”, I retired to the safety of the bar, nursing a bruised ego to match the bruises I had doubtless inflicted. From there, revived by a pint of the black stuff, I could admire the skill and flair of these dancefloor gymnasts as they chased the tune on the button accordion.

The Irish dance from the hip down, their torso’s as stiff as tailor’s dummies, but with toes that tap, knees that jerk and feet that spin in a magical confusion of footsteps and shuffles that leaves the battle-scarred spectator (that’s me) agog. Their hearts may be Catholic, but there seems little doubt that the devil has a hold below the waist. No wonder they make such good footballers.

Still aching from my foray on the dancefloor, the next evening found us undertaking the more sedate pastime of getting lost in the country lanes. Then, by a stroke of (mis)fortune we suddenly found out where we were, and decided to finish off the day with a view of the nearby ruins at Ballintaggart, described in our leaflet as an ancient burial site with “the largest Ogham stone collection in Kerry”. Who could resist? Having arrived at the place where they should have been, we called out for directions from a man working in his garden.

A gentle stroll

“Through the gate and up the field to the top of the hill,” came the reply.

A gentle slope and an easy stroll we thought. So we thanked him and headed off as he offered a gentle piece of advice as an afterthought.

“Oh, and there’s a bull in the field, but you should be alright.”

We looked first at each other and then over the gate. On the far right of the field a solid black shape stood motionless. The bull was making eyes at the cows in the next field. He seemed harmless enough, so we headed off, hugging the hedgerow on the left.

At the top we gazed across the fields to Dingle Bay, and tried hard to appreciate the rather unimpressive circle of stones. But it was hard to keep our minds on the beautiful scenery and archeological wonders when the bovine beast was lurking in the distance.

Appreciation done, we snuck off down the field, heads low, trying to merge into the old stone wall along the border. It was just a couple of hundred yards to the gate, soon we were half way there...and then we heard the sound we had been dreading: the de-de-de-dum, de-de-de-dum of galloping hooves. I reckoned the bull had been watching us all along, lulling us into a false sense of security, until prone in the middle of the field, his victims awaited.

After a torrent of expletives Lyn looked up at the high stone wall, topped by a barbed-wire fence.

“I can’t get up there!” came the desperate cry.

De-de-de-dum, de-de-de-DUM! came the fast approaching menace.

Lyn sprang over the top like a gazelle, whilst I gingerly tried to keep my vulnerable parts from the vicious spikes of the barbed wire. We jumped down on the other side as the demon at our tails thumped to a halt behind us, and turned around to pull faces at the snorting, salivating bull who stomped the ground in frustration at having been cheated of his prey.

“Perhaps he just wanted to be friendly,” I offered in consolation to the white-faced Lyn.

The bull bellowed a suitable comment and Lyn gave me an appropriate stare. There was only one thing to do next – it was time for a pint of the black stuff.

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