Dingle peninsula is located in County Kerry in the west of Ireland and its tip is the most westerly point of Ireland. The main settlement of the peninsula is the town of Dingle, a picturesque fishing port and a centre of tourist trade for the whole region.
We spend a pleasant couple of hours walking around Dingle's harbour and nearby streets: there are prettily painted cottages, gift and craft shops, pubs and fish and chip places galore; and the seafront boasts a brass statue of dolphin Fungie: a Bottlenose Dolphin which choose to make Dingle Harbour his home. He is possibly the most famous inhabitant of Dingle and boating trips are organised to see him - as some dolphins are apparently wont to do, he likes playing around with the boats and swimmers who participate in the boat trips.
Despite it being June, the weather isn't very conducive to swimming or taking small boats out, and we set off on what is known as a Slea Head drive, Dingle's answer to the Ring of Kerry, a circular drive around the most dramatic, picturesque and attractive part of the peninsula.
I have to admit that for somebody coming from Scotland, the attraction of the western coast of Ireland is not as overwhelming as it might be for people coming from other locations. Yes, it's very beautiful, and in places quite dramatic - and facing the open Atlantic is rather bracing - but it's not really any more impressive that the western coast of Scotland, or even some parts of Wales. I suspect a lot of the fame of western Ireland is a result of tourist trade catering for Americans (the area suffered a very heavily during the Famine and the emigration was huge) visiting looking for their roots, romance of Ireland and generally quaintness of rural Europe. Multiple references in tourist information to films like "Far and Away" (the insufferable Tom Cruise epic) and similar productions seem to confirm my intuitions.
Still, it IS a beautiful area, and what makes it more interesting is the wealth of historical and prehistoric remains in which it abounds.
We took the drive in the clockwise direction, starting at Dingle and moving west towards the Slea Head. It was the first (and only) almost entirely sunny day of our trip and, as the road runs very near the sea, the views we had were spectacular: sheer drop of the cliff to the left, and the green, green hills of Dingle to the right. The air is fresh, the wind bracing, and the sun makes the ocean gleam silver and pale blue, with waves crashing against the rocks in the furry of white froth.
We stop at several places on the way before we reach the Slea Head itself.
The weird and wonderful Celtic and Prehistoric Museum at Kilvicadownig is the first private museum I have ever been to, and a quirky and rather delightful one at that.
The little museum houses a private collection of Harris Moore which comprises a rather motley but fascinating gathering of objects: from the piece de resistance of of the collection, a 40,000 year old and pretty intact mammoth skull to a good selection of other fossils, cases full of flint tools, numerous bronze ornaments, weapons and similar objects, mostly from Europe (and many of Celtic origins).
The presentation is pretty good, in attractive rooms and carefully lit presentation cases, but as a whole it reminded me of a collection a Victorian dilettante gentleman explorer might have gathered in his travels.
It's not a major attraction and probably not worth any detours, but if you are travelling this way, pop in for a look around - the mammoth itself is probably worth the entry fee.
The Dunbeg Promontory Fort and Visitor Centre, is located at a spectacular site near Fahan, metres away from the sheer drop of the cliff. The fort dates as far back as the late Bronze Age, around 800 BC, but the site was used up to the 10th century. Surprisingly, even extensive excavations did not make it clear what the fort was used for: defensive construction or look-out is an obvious possibility, but it may have been simply a fortified village where people lived.
There are earthworks and stone walls to explore, as well as some small stone and earth chambers - the entrance is through a short, low corridor (most adults would need to duck) and the site has a strong atmosphere of ancient, possibly scared location.
There is a small visitors' centre, where a (not very informative) film about the excavations and the possible history of the fort is shown.
The Famine Cottages are just up the hill from the Dunbeg fort and are a poignant reminder of much more recent part of Irish history. Essentially, several ramshackle buildings kept in a state similar to what it would be like in the 19th century, the exhibition has a few original objects that would have been used by the family trying to eke out the living at this rocky mountainside, several life-size figures depicting how the original inhabitants might have looked like and printed information on life in Dingle during and around the time of Famine. There are also family records which make you realise the true toll of the living conditions (and the impact of the famine itself). Most children died in infancy, and many people emigrated. The squalor and extreme poverty is evident in the displays, and the descriptions of the famine years are heart wrenching.
The whole exhibition has a distinctly amateurish feel to it, but for some reason it doesn't matter - perhaps it fist the subject better than a high-tech, high gloss displays would.
Thus educated and amused, we continue along the Dingle coastal road towards the Slea Head itself. As we approach the turn of the road, the view opens towards the treacherous Blasket Sound and the Blasket Islands. There are boat trips to the islands, but we don't have time for a trip as it's getting towards the late afternoon now.
We park at what seems to be the very end of the road, or rather where it curves around an exposed headland. The hillside rises above us, a white house higher up gleaming in the sun on the green background. Below is a small beach, battered by huge Atlantic waves, their force filling ears with a continuous roaring sound, and from the beach a steep path leads - we hope - to the very end of the headland. We trundle up, on slippery grass and then along the cliff-side path, occasionally having to hug the rock in a rather precarious way. At some point, I give up and stay on the path while DH continues in what seems to be a gale-force wind now, along not-a-path leading down to the very edge of the land, where white water is boiling around the rocks below.
DH survives and we have a little picnic among the rocks, the grass (and a lot of sheep poo) while listening to the roar of the sea and looking at the Blaskets in the distance, glimmering in the sun and wind, unreal, magical. No wonder they thought up the legend of St Brendan here.
Aside from being a source of great amusement to anyone with half a shandy inside them, due it's great rhyming potential, Dingle is yet another stunning spot on the west coast of Ireland, this time being a south-westerly coastal town belonging to the beautiful County Kerry. Dingle is a small town which you can get to fairly easily from Tralee. Although it is in the south west, it is the most northern coastal town in Kerry, being the main town of the Dingle Peninsula (not nearly so amusing once you discover that the bit sticking out just a few miles south is called "The Ring of Kerry"). I spent some five hours on buses travelling South to Dingle in order to meet my sister and her friend, after travelling alone in Counties Dublin and Galway. I arrived about three o'clock, and was immediately whisked into a hired Fiat Tiny (or whatever they're called) and driven around Slea Head, the stunning road which takes people right around the lower edge of the Dingle Peninsula and back into town. Although it is only about 15 miles around, the winding road is exceptionally and terrifyingly narrow, and whether you are driving, cycling or walking, you will definitely want to spend some time just standing and staring at the dramatic views. There are very few places on this side of the earth where hills, cliffs and water congregate so closely, creating such magnificent scenery. I couldn't do justice to Slea Head as a whole, but as an example, at one point we turned a bend and were hit by the following scene. On the left, at the foot of the steep green hills, a life size whitewashed statue of Jesus on the cross, with three or four more statues praying at his feet. On the right, beyond a short stone wall designed to stop I'm not sure what exactly, there is a steep drop of about two hundred feet. Between the base of the cliff and the low sun on the horizon lies an expanse of topaz blue water, fiercely heaving agai
nst a number of large dark rocks jutting out from the water. The whole experience was breathtaking in its most literal sense, and I was more than a little sorry that we would be back in town in less than an hour. If you have the time, take a day or two to walk around Slea Head at your leisure - the lack of pubs etc is certainly compensated by the views which seem to become more impressive with every turn. If you're feeling exceptionally fit, you could even have a shot of hiking the 200 mile Dingle Way, which covers the whole of the Dingle Peninsula. The Saturday I arrived just happened to be the weekend of some famous Car Raleigh, so there were hundreds of Noisy Car enthusiasts (apply the adjective wherever you like) swarming around town. I was surprised, therefore, that we had no trouble finding a B&B, and were even able to haggle a little, eventually settling on 20 Euros a night - even cheaper than some of the Dublin Youth Hostels. B&B's and the odd Hotel line the street along the Harbour where the bus into town drops you off. There are also two or three minibuses waiting to take you to Dingle's local travellers' hostels, and all provide a regular minibus service to and from Town. In between the places of accomodation (and sometimes located above, beneath or within them) sit a good many pubs and eateries. In fact there seemed to be more pubs than locals. Lucky then, that so many out-of-towners, both Irish and foreigners, flock to Dingle for the scenery, the music scene and the craic (I know, it's just not the same when someone non-Irish uses it, but what the hell). Oh, and they also flock for the Dolphin, but I'll tell you a bit about Fungi later... Back to the pubs. Apparently there are enough of them for every Dingle resident to have a seat and a pint of Guinness at the same time, and still have room for a couple of Raleigh Drivers in each of them. I had the best time in An Co
nnair, where a spontaneous folk session sprung up in a corner, and a handsome drunken young visitor from Cork spent much of the night entertaining everyone with his improvised folk ballads. Of course, pubs like this will always seem different depending on the crowd, so take a walk around and see which one looks like the most fun! An Droichead Beag and O'Flaherty's are popular places to catch traditional live music, but since there are over 50 pubs it would be impossible to review them all here. Have a wander and find the pub that best suits your needs - you're surely bound to find one (or fifty-two, if your "needs" are several pints of the black stuff). Finally, the lowdown on Fungi, the famous Dingle Dolphin. Fungi swam into Dingle Bay with his mother many years ago, and loved the company of people so much that he stayed. His mother is now long dead, and Fungi has been there so long that there is a whispered rumour among local people of someone out there with a cattle prod who resucitates Fungi every time the tourists pass by, then he sinks back down until the next boat tour. Whatever the reality, there is no question that Fungi adores humans - if you take a boat trip out of the Bay you are actually guaranteed to see Fungi, although staying by the water's edge is almost as good. When people shout his name he jumps out of the water, and is well known for playing around the boats that cross his wake. So that's Dingle, in a oystershell. Highly recommended whether it's an overnight stay, or a week or two. A final recommendation is that you leave Dingle via the Conor Pass. It takes you a little out of the way, but is worth it for yet more stunning scenery. Only try not to leave on the day of the Raleigh, fifteen minutes before the starting pistol like we did...