Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Killorglin, Co. Kerry – Tralee, Co. Kerry
From there it was off to the Dingle Peninsula; it’s a Gaeltacht region, which makes sign-reading even more of an adventure. The term Gaeltacht refers to Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland. “Up to the 16th century,” the D-K Eyewitness Travel Guide says, “virtually the entire population spoke the native tongue. British rule, however, undermined Irish culture, and the Famine drained the country of many of its Gaelic-speakers. The use of the local language has fallen steadily since. Even so, in the Gaeltachts 75 percent of the people still speak it, and road signs are exclusively in Irish—unlike most other parts of Ireland.” There are three principal Gaeltacht regions in the Republic: in Kerry, Galway, and Donegal (which is the largest). And in Ireland, you’d say they are speaking Irish.
So: off to Dingle of the breathtaking views, right on the edge of the world, or so it seemed. The roads were tighter, smaller, the sea so very blue. It was windy, and cooler, more like what I’d been expecting. And the houses were of every hue imaginable!
The R561 hugs the coastline all along the peninsula and offers spectacular views. And the strand (beach) at Inch is very fine.
I wanted to come here for the antiquities, so our first stop was the Dunbeg Stone Fort. Dating from the Iron Age (500 BC to 500 AD), this is one of the best-preserved promontory forts in Ireland.
Just a two-minute walk down a deceptively steep incline (it took me more than two minutes to get back up!), the small fort is situated on a sheer cliff that projects into Dingle Bay.
Stone forts usually had a large stone wall enclosing a considerable area of a cliff edge, and were primarily defensive structures, refuges of last resort during the Celtic invasion of the country.
From there, we drove the Slea Head Road around the southern end of the peninsula, the sea almost constantly in sight. As the road rounded the promontory, we came upon a roadside shrine, a sculpture of the crucifixion in stunning white, known locally as “An Cros,” which is, simply, “The Cross” in Irish. At this spot the Blasket Islands came into full view, and there were lots of eager photographers, including me.
This was also the spot at which we blew the front left tire. I’m told you haven’t really experienced a driving trip in Ireland unless you’ve had a flat, so—aha!—this was the day for that. We emptied the trunk of all our luggage, pulled out the spare, and then I couldn’t figure out the jack to save my life! Never one to agonize (or stand shivering in a gale), I marched up to the nearest male driver and asked for help. He and his wife were British, wearing sandals and shirtsleeves on a day when I was bundled in my fleece jacket. He very kindly helped us change the tire, and pointed out that our left rear tire also appeared to be going flat (it was).
Jamie’s Eighth and Ninth Travel Tips: When renting cars abroad, before you purchase the often-pricey insurance offered by the rental company, check your own auto insurance to see if you are insured. You might well be! Also check with your credit card company, since many of them insure you if you rent the car using their card. I was covered under both these situations—except in Israel, Jamaica, and—you guessed it—Ireland. So, in the event you are not covered, do purchase insurance. Once back on the road, we called Avis, and they simply told us to purchase a new tire, for which they’d reimburse us. It was all very easy, and we were glad we’d opted for the insurance.
Lying 5 kilometers off the west coast of Kerry, the largest of these, the Great Blasket Island, was inhabited continuously for at least 300 years. It was a hard life—no electricity, no running water, a three-mile crossing to the mainland, weather permitting, followed by a five-mile walk by road for a priest, or a twelve-mile walk to reach a doctor—but in this isolated location, the Blasket islanders retained their own culture and tradition, at the very heart of which lay their continuing use of the Irish language. ‘Discovered’ in the early 1900s by scholars who were delighted to find perhaps the only outpost of Irish speakers who could not speak English, and who had, not coincidentally, a rich storytelling tradition, the islanders were encouraged to write their life stories in their native tongue. This experiment yielded a priceless literary legacy, dozens of books that are still in print.
Sadly, the population began to fall as emigration stole the young islanders away to America, leaving the old and infirm, and in 1953 the government decided that the island should be abandoned after the tragic death of a man who fell ill but could not be visited by a doctor for three days, due to inclement weather.
Although in researching this part of the story I ran across a twelve-year-old published rant damning the (then) proposed Blasket Centre (the author called it Dingle Disneyland), I found the building and its exhibits to be respectful and enormously moving. And of course I bought books there!
Finally rounding the tip of the peninsula, we then found our way to the Gallarus Oratory, one of the most famous sights in Ireland. “This stone building,” the ticket stub says, “is about 1300 years old. It is a perfect specimen of dry rubble masonry …”
Shaped like an upturned boat, this miniature church is probably the best preserved early Christian church in Ireland—and after centuries of buffeting by Atlantic gales, the building is still completely waterproof! This is due to the technique called dry-stone corbelling, in which the stones were laid at a slight angle, lower on the outside than on the inside, allowing water to run off. I found this … just astonishing.
Those narrow roads on the Dingle Peninsula served to make me a more assured driver. Earlier in the trip, every approaching car caused me to begin muttering “Move over, move over, move over already!” as I myself scooted to the far left, scraping trees and brush in the process. Then it began to dawn on me that driving in Ireland was just a gentle game of chicken—the other driver was going to move over, of course he was going to!—but just not until the last possible moment, to avoid inflicting on his own car the pain I was inflicting on mine.
We ended our day in Tralee. Our B&B, the Tralee Townhouse, was in the town center, so we strolled around until we found a pub—the Abbey—with a television tuned to the Manchester United game (must-see TV for my traveling companion), and settled in with hearty pub food and a hearty crowd around us. Once the men at the table next to us heard my accent, they were full of questions, where was I from, and so forth. And once the word Nashville was spoken, we had to raise our glasses to the recently deceased Johnny Cash. As I recall, there were a few country songs sung that night too. 🙂
One last story, before I leave you with this day: the pub across the street from the Abbey—called Seán Óg’s (or Little John’s, for us non-Irish speakers)—had an amusing slogan across its front facade, which read “Drinking Consultants.”
Next: the little Ford gets a new tire!