Day 15 / Tuesday, 25 September 2012
It’s a gorgeous view from the dining room at Tower View B&B, don’t you think? If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it here: eat your breakfast! Even if you don’t normally eat a big breakfast at home, you should have something substantial (not least because it’s a part of your cost of lodging at a B&B) to get you going. Once you’re on the road you don’t really know when your opportunity for a coffee break … or lunch … will come. You might get peckish if you haven’t had a good breakfast.
After breakfast, we said good-bye to all the animals—especially Benji—and got right on the Slea Head drive; the B&B sits right at the “entrance” to this scenic route.
It was windy and cold, but we followed the road—it’s very narrow—along the coast. Our first stop was the lookout at the Dunbeg promontory fort, just a couple miles past Ventry (pop. 405) on the southern side of the peninsula.
Promontory forts were built by the ancients as a defense for both animals and humans (the tribal family). Animals were kept within outer walls but in times of attack the tribe could retreat to inner walls; with the sea behind them on three sides, there was less to defend against intruders. Parts of this particular structure date to the late Bronze Age (800 BC), though it also has a crumbled beehive hut, which means it was used as recently as the tenth century.
I am really fascinated by this sort of history, and in 2003 Gerry and I visited Dingle and took the walk down the hill to the fort. It’s an important site, well worth seeing (when you stoop under the lintel, you think, Boy, they were really short), but while the photos I have here don’t really show it, it’s a not-insignificant hill to climb back up when you’re (ahem) older and not a hiker. It would’ve taken pneumonia-me awhile to get back to the car.
On this trip, we were squeezing the drive onto an already full day, so we had to make choices, and here we chose not to walk down to the fort. We did commune with the donkey, however. 🙂
The thing about the Slea Head drive is the views are so spectacular you want to stop every few feet. Fortunately, there are turnouts all along the road to facilitate this. (Also to facilitate two vehicles’ passing, should you encounter oncoming traffic. Most people tend to drive in the direction we did, though: clockwise.)
The rain kept quite a few away, I’m sure. And by this time in September we’d reached the “off season,” although I personally love September in Ireland for that very reason. (February is even more off—and also colder.) I’ve read that in July and August, these roads are practically impassable, there are so many tourists, which is why I’ll probably never visit then. This is also why the drive is traditionally driven clockwise, though there are no posted signs requiring you do so.
As noted, this particular point—the titular Slea Head—was packed when Gerry and I were here in 2003 (perhaps about a week earlier in the year). Today it was just three vehicles, some sheep, and that crucifix. I searched and searched and finally found some information about the statuary. The locals call it, simply, the Cross, and because we’re in the Gaeltacht, that’s An Cros to you. It was put up sometime before the 1960s—funded by an Irish-American lawyer who was a relative of a local priest—to mark the boundary between Dingle Town parish and the parish of Ballyferriter. And, of course, to dazzle the tourists. 🙂
So we parked, got out. There were a couple of guys with a camera on a tripod and an enormous zoom lens … whale-watching. Alli made friends immediately. She’s good at that. 🙂
Back in the car, drive a little further, probably to the Ballinglanna area.
At last we were at the Blasket Centre in Dunquin (pop. 74). This lovely heritage museum opened in 1993, forty years after the last group of islanders—the Great Blasket had been inhabited for at least three hundred years—was relocated to the mainland. It was a harsh life, made more so because there was no shop, no doctor, no priest. There had been no school since 1941. The crossing to the mainland was dependent on the weather, and once there, it was still a twelve-mile walk to the nearest doctor.
Still, they stayed. In the 1920s folklore scholars were delighted to find these people were perhaps the only group of Irish speakers who could not also speak English. These people were encouraged to write their life stories in their native tongue, and several of those books have become celebrated classics.
While Jill and Alli enjoyed a cup of tea and a bowl of soup in the snack shop, Margaret and I browsed through the exhibits and watched a moving documentary about life on the Great Blasket. (And also shopped in the bookstore, of course!) And then … back in the car!
We were on our way to see Gallarus Oratory, I for the second time. Again, I can’t tell you how excited I get over old piles of rock; this one is reputed to have been built in the 700s. Or 800s. They’re not really sure, frankly. They’re not sure about a lot of things. Was it an early Christian church? Or a gravesite? What they do know is it is an almost perfect example dry rubble masonry (that is, no mortar); each slab laid at a tilt so that water runs off, rather than inside. (Rick Steves claims he’s gotten wet inside it on a very rainy day, but others claim not to have, so I don’t know whom to believe. But I’ve seen the thing up close, and it looks pretty snug to me.) Margaret and I undertook the hike up the hill (not that difficult, really, unless you’re unwell). Wow.
And that was it. It was lunchtime and we still had a four-hour drive to our next B&B in Lahinch (pop. 600), so we needed to get off the peninsula. Naturally, that’s when we got a little turned around. Emily (GPS) finally put us to rights, though not before she took us up a one-lane horse-cart track. Pretty exciting, I must say.
On the peninsula, all roads lead back to Dingle town, where we caught the N86 to Tralee (pop. 23,693) and the N69 through Listowel (pop. 4,338) to Tarbert (pop. 805), where we would catch the Kilrush Ferry. This was a mad dash, because crossing the Shannon here would save quite a bit of time; we just weren’t certain how long we might have to wait for the next ferry.
Fortunately, the wait was mere minutes. We had a few nervous moments looking at the price schedule while we were in line to pay; it’s very confusing and slightly alarming. As it turns out, it was twenty euro (I think) for our car and passengers to cross.
From Killimer (pop. 482) on the other side we called Edel Kenny, our B&B hostess, to let her know we were on the way. We were all pretty hungry and were considering stopping for a pub meal somewhere along the road. “Oh, you’re close,” she said. “You can eat when you get here. Take the N67.” This was counterintuitive, but it turned out to be a great choice of route. So off we went through Kilrush (pop. 2,694), Kilkee (pop. 1,024), Doonbeg (pop. 206), Quilty (pop. 194), and Milltown Malbay (pop. 1,580), and finally we were in Lahinch.
Edel had given us directions to the Craglea Lodge B&B, “but if you pass it, just go on in to Kenny’s Bar and they’ll help you.” Because, it turns out, Edel is a Kenny. The bar is owned by her brother, the shop across the street (Kenny’s Woolen Mills & Gifts) by her sister. All of this is at the top of Main Street, where it ends at Church Street; and they all live in a group of homes just behind that (frankly, I’m surprised the Kenny compound isn’t on the map!). We easily found the B&B but Edel, a nurse, had to work until eight o’clock, so we went into town for some supper.
I loved Lahinch the last time I was here and thought it was a great, central location (in spite of our lodging in the Village of the Damned, which is a story not yet published in the 2006 travelogue). I’d been sick that time, too (flying on airplanes is apparently hazardous to my health), and had a wonderful Guinness beef stew at Kenny’s Bar that I am certain was instrumental in my recovery. The seating arrangement is different, and for a while I wondered if I’d remembered wrong … but I’ve since found a video taken there with the old arrangement I remember.
We were there about 5:45 and had to wait for the kitchen to open; in the meantime shops on the street were closing up, although Jill and Alli went out for a quick look around. I was exhausted from the drive, so I stayed put and had my first Guinness of the trip. Kenny’s is quite cozy and snug, the waitress (not a member of the fam but a longtime employee nonetheless) was friendly and attentive, and the barman was, too, talking to us from behind the counter as he rinsed and dried glasses one by one. (Later no one believed me when I said he was British, not Irish … but I was right. Ha! There are a lot of not-Irish folk waiting tables in Ireland, including an American girl at the Shelbourne and Germans at the Pearl Brasserie.)
Eventually the kitchen opened, food was served, and it was good. I had the beef and Guinness pie with a salad and veg.
Afterward—we were still waiting for Edel to return—Jill walked down to the little Spar (like a convenience store in the States, but in Ireland conveniently located in the middle of town) for bottled water and some fresh fruit. Nothing fresh available, and the proprietor told her she’d have to drive into Ennistymon (pop. 881) for a grocery store. What? I was pretty sure there was a Centra grocery store in the next block—and there was. Why did the guy tell her there wasn’t another grocery in town? Maybe because she was American and he could have a bit of sport with her? Who knows!
Then I drove everyone to the pier to have a look at the sea and to get a layout of the land. If I hadn’t been sick, this would have been an after-dinner stroll, of course. I also drove them to have a look at the Village of the Damned. It’s not Pepto-Bismol pink anymore—it’s been painted white—which improves its ambience not one whit.
By this time we were tired, so we checked at the B&B and caught Edel’s teenaged daughter returning home from a music theory lesson, so she let us in. And all was well until I learned there was no wi-fi. I’d been very frustrated with the trouble I’d had getting online, particularly at places whose websites had declared the availability of it when I was making reservations. “You can go down to Kenny’s,” I was told. (Not what I had in mind, but it ended up being a minor inconvenience.) Edel returned from work and came around to introduce herself. She’s chatty and friendly. (In the Small World Department, Edel works at the nursing home where I went to the Sunday walk-in clinic back in 2006.) And then I was really ready for bed!
I know I keep going back to the cultural differences in table service, but here’s another one: it’s a problem, in Ireland, in my experience, to split tickets at a table. Here in the States, the server often asks, “Will this be one ticket or separate tickets?” In fact, servers tend to assume separate tickets. This seems reasonable to me, but everywhere we went, if we asked—always ahead of time—to have separate billing, it seemed as if we were asking for something unusual and difficult. Some places really weren’t happy about it. At Kenny’s they were nice enough about it, but it was clearly out of the ordinary, and I’m not the sort of person who likes to ask for special favors.