Ireland: Dingle, Day 1

Thursday, Nov 21, 2002

Ventry cove as seen from our room at Ballymore House.
Nov. 21, 2002

After a quick breakfast we set out on Dingle’s main attraction, the drive around the peninsula. Following the route outlined in our Rick Steves’ Ireland guidebook, we set out to see the wonders Dingle has to offer.

Yvette & Danny in Dingle.
Nov. 21, 2002

There are way too many interesting things in Dingle to point them out here; the landscape itself becomes your first must-see sight, so barely out of the town proper we pulled over to the side of the road (quite a feat, considering how small the road is) to drink in the beauty.

The fields of Dingle provide a great contrast to the vast sea.
Nov. 21, 2002

Danny surveys a “fairy mound” (off to the left) standing by the side
of the road. Behind, the Dingle Peninsula shows off her landscape.
Nov. 21, 2002

A “fairy mound” (the buried remains of a small Celtic ring fort) provided our first stop. From here we could survey the mound, the land and the sea. Since it was November, Dingle had a quiet starkness to it. Flanking the road on both sides are fuscia bushes that burst to life in the summer; in winter, they stand as silent sentinels of the main road.

Our next stop was Dun Beg (literally “Small Fort”: Dun=fort, Beg=small), a Celtic ring fort from around 500 B.C.E. that had been excavated due to the fact it would imminently be falling into the sea, give our take some centuries. Dun Beg consists of various concentric stone walls encircling a massive clochan (stone igloos, more on this a bit later) with only the cliff and the sea as a back door. The cliff has been eroding over time (not hard to imagine when you see the massive waves that break against the rocks every two seconds) and some day it will take the fort with it into the sea. Sad, but it provides us all an opportunity to see up close this amazing feat of ancient engineering.

Entryway into Dun Beg fort. The ancient Celts
were small people (the door is only about 5 1/2 feet tall).
Nov. 21, 2002

Celtic construction features no mortar. So pay close attention to those stones, because they have stuck together like that for some 2500 years only because of creative fitting and gravity. It really makes you realize that “ancient” does not mean “simple”; the techniques were different, but how many of our modern buildings will survive 2500 years from now?

Den Beg from the outside, looking in (that’s the entrance to the left and back).
Nov. 21, 2002

Dun Beg was astounding and humbling, and it was only one of the stops on our tour of the peninsula, so with one last look around the whole area (during which Danny managed to slip on the mud and fall down–you’ll see further on), we got back into our car and drove on, but not before capturing a vision of Ireland.

The rain comes and goes like fleeting thoughts,
leaving amazing rainbows behind as mementos of their visit.
Nov. 21, 2002

The rugged Dingle coastline.
The west of Ireland, so marked by cliffs like the ones above, seems to be proclaiming,
 “Ireland ends here, not in a submissive slope, but in a defiant and sharp precipice.”
Nov. 21, 2002

From Dun Beg our next stop was the clochans. Scattered all round Dingle, clochans were little stone dwellings that looked like igloos, round and tapered on the outside and square on the inside, that served as houses for inhabitants of the peninsula, from the Celts to the Christian monks who found in Dingle a remote-enough place to live.

This particular group consisted of five clochans, including a double one, in various states of preservation. Two still had their roofs, and we were able to test their effectiveness as rain started to fall and we ran into one of them. While the wind blew outside, inside the clochan only the hint of a breeze was felt, water did not seep in except whatever blew in through the door (which would have been covered with a skin or something, and the temperature was noticeably warmer than outside; a cap stone and a small fire, and this clochan could go on the market as a “rustic” dwelling.

Yvette inside a clochan. Yvette is in the back room of
 the clochan, while Danny took the picture from the front room.
Nov. 21, 2002

Danny inside a clochan (note the mud
stain on the left leg from when he fell back in Dun Beg).
Nov. 21, 2002

We continued with our trip, headed towards Slea Head, but we had to stop for this shot. Dingle, and the area of Kerry in general, was one of the hardest hit areas during the famine. Dozens of ruined “famine” cottages dot the fields, mute witnesses to a horrible time in the history of this beautiful land. Note in the picture below the small size of the windows (mostly boarded) for the house; families during this time were taxed based on the size of their windows, so that families reduced them to the smallest possible size in order to conserve what little money they had. The ruins provide yet one more piece to the tapestry of great highs and great lows that is Ireland.

The ruins of a famine house. The barren hill behind has
been like that since the potato crop failed and the famine began;
up close one can see the rows of rotted potatoes still in the ground.
Nov. 21, 2002

We finally arrived at Slea Head, an observation point marked by a pullout, a giant crucifix (right behind us in the picture below) and a great view of the coast and Blasket Islands. Not quite the westernmost point in Dingle, it is nonetheless impressive. The waves were pounding in with amazing force, leaving a white foam that lingered, solidified, like a welcoming carpet. The mist shoots up like from a volcano, giving the whole area a hazy quality that makes you not doubt any story of faeries or selkies you may hear.

Yvette at the observation point at Slea Head
(yes, it was that cold and windy!). The Great Blasket Island looms in the back.
Nov. 21, 2002

The Blasket Islands are the last refuge of a traditional way of life virtually unknown in Ireland today. While the inhabitants were expelled from the island in the early part of the 20th century, some have returned and currently seek to go back to their traditional way of life. While in Dingle, be sure to pick up some of the books on stories from the Blasket Islands; it is Irish storytelling at its finest (see the Links section for more info).

A reflected rainbow at Dunquin Harbor.
Nov. 21, 2002

From Slea Head we continued on our tour, passing by Dunquin Harbor and Dunmore Head (the actual westernmost point in Ireland, and Europe), and snapping the picture above. Rainbows in Dingle are free and come by the dozens, appearing all around as if playing “peek-a-boo” with you. Once in a while, however, you’ll manage to catch one nice enough to let itself be photographed.

I can certainly see how this land snatched so many traveler’s hearts, and keeps them coming back for more.

Our tour took us next deeper into the peninsula (we had been skirting the coast up to now) to yet another archeological site, this one dating from (in different parts) the 6th-12th century, the Reasc Monastery. Once an ancient Celtic sacred place, the area was turned into a monastery in the early middle ages. Characteristically of Celtic Catholicism (as opposed to Roman Catholicism), there was no attempt here to subjugate or eliminate the earlier culture; instead the focus turns to synthesis, a combination of the two traditions, the newer Catholic one using the older Celtic elements to explain itself. This has given Ireland a unique flavor in world Catholicism, one Rome was not entirely happy with for centuries, in which Celtic legend melds with Christian belief in ways that preserve the ancient legacy without relegating it to the realm of stories of devils and demons, a boon when you consider the other option was Roman Catholicism, which tended to impose itself and eradicate any prior belief system.

This pillar stone at the Reasc Monastery shows an ancient Celtic
design capped by a Maltese-type cross, a perfect example of the
synthesis of Christian and pagan traditions characteristic of Irish Catholicism.
Nov. 21, 2002

From the Reasc Monastery our tour kept the “ancient Christianity” theme as we drove to the Gallarus Oratory. Built some 1300 years ago, this is one of Ireland’s best-preserved early-Christian churches. With your ticket you get a short history lesson on the church, enough to know what you are looking at. Note that it is made in the same way as Dun Beg was, meaning only well-fitted stones and no mortar. Gallarus is completely waterproof, a fact we got to corroborate while visiting (did we say it rains a lot in Ireland?), with only a little water getting in through the door and little window at the back, both of which would have been covered with skins or wood. The inside is spacious yet small, large enough for about 15 people perhaps; it is easy to imagine a monk or priest giving mass in this small, stone upturned boat, his few congregants huddled together in faithful reverence, asking God to protect them in this isolated corner of the known world. Truly a magnificent site to visit.

The Gallarus Oratory.
Nov. 21, 2002

From Gallarus we went to the last stop in our tour, Kilmarkedar Church, the old Norman center of worship for this part of the peninsula. Built around the 12th century, a great example of Irish Romanesque architecture, it sits in the middle of a still-in-use graveyard that has risen considerably in the last few centuries. While trying to find our way into the church yard, we stumbled upon an abandoned house just next to Kilmarkedar, but we didn’t take any pictures of it. It seemed to be from about the same time as the church, perhaps a house for the priest and other church staff.

Ogham stone at Kilmarkedar Church. Stories say that locals
would seal pacts by touching fingers through the hole on the stone,
while standing on the bones of their ancestors.
Nov. 21, 2002

In all honesty, with the sun falling, and the bright orange light of the late afternoon casting strange shadows, Kilmarkedar was creepy. We went inside but there was a strange vibe in the air, and after feeling a few tingles that one definitely does not want to feel while in a graveyard (oh, like fingers crawling down your back), we bid Kilmarkedar adieu and got back to town before night fell (at 4:30 pm!!!). That night we went out to eat something in Dingle, and to talk about our wonderful tour. So far we had spent one full day in Dingle, and we would have been happy to move into a house and call this corner of Ireland home.

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