The Edge of the World
In Ireland’s southwestern corner, the Dingle Peninsula holds all of Ireland in its elongated finger. From ancient history to spell-binding scenery it’s all here, along with music and beer.
Beyond the patchwork of dairy farms and fertile fields of counties Limerick and Tipperary lies the very edge of Western Europe. The crenellated coastline of dramatic cliffs, white crescent beaches and sheltered coves of County Kerry – in Ireland’s southwestern corner - tumble and slide into the vast Atlantic Ocean, whose mercurial mood dictates so much of life here. This is the Ireland of the postcard, where the landscape is a theatre of wild and stirring beauty.
None more than the Dingle Peninsula, a mountainous finger of fuchsia-lined country roads, whose every turn reveals scenery with dramatic flair, and extends outward into the mainland’s westernmost point. “Next stop, America!” is an old, half-hearted joke round here, mostly because it is literally – and tragically – true, as over the last two centuries so many of its children crossed the Atlantic to rekindle flickering hopes in the New World.
I’m making my way westward toward Dingle town. The narrow roads are busy today, mostly with tourists, but ahead I see a farmer trundling along in a tractor, forcing us all to slow down and take in the spectacular views. On either side of the road are the stone-walled fields laid out like a quilt of green across the rising hills. To my right, in the distance, is sacred Mt Brandon, the tallest peak in the area, named after St Brendan and the last stop on an ancient Christian pilgrimage known as the Cosán na Naomh – the Saints’ Road. To my left I can glimpse the dark waters of the bay, for the ocean is never far away.
Above me the clouds dart across the sky, playing peek-a-boo with the pale sun, while the grey Atlantic swells lick the grey stones streaked with rock samphire. There’s a shine on the ground, the gift of a recently departed soft summer shower. It brings to mind Seamus Heaney’s poem, Postcript: “…the wind/And the light are working off each other/So that the ocean on one side is wild/With foam and glitter.”
Dingle town doesn’t look like much at first, but beyond the bulge of uninspiring holiday homes is a bustling harbour town where fishing boats unload today’s catch,
much as they have done since medieval times, when Dingle was Kerry’s most important port. From the quays, a maze of narrow streets lined with colourfully painted stone houses climbs the sloping hill on which the town is built. Everywhere is a hum of activity, for despite its size this is a cosmopolitan hub that has long attracted wayfarers, many of whom choose to drop anchor and stay. I’ll be back to explore it later, but first, I’m going ‘back west.’
‘Back west’ is what locals call Slea Head, the tip of the peninsula immediately west of town, but it’s a nickname that offers no clue as to what is waiting. The loop around the head is only 31 miles long, but it’s a journey into Ireland’s ancient past. Scattered across the headland are the ruins of early Christian monastic settlements, Iron Age forts and inscribed stones, all framed against stunning coastal scenery that has made the peninsula one of Ireland’s most beautiful destinations.
There’s evidence of the more recent past too, including a restored cottage from the Great Famine of 1845-9, when over a million Irish died of starvation and millions more left Ireland for America and beyond, especially from western counties like Kerry, where life was harsh for those looking to eke out a living on the land.
Other monuments testify to a time when this unforgiving landscape was at the very edge of the known world, ideal for early Christian monks looking for secluded, challenging locations to build their settlements and test their rugged faith. On Mt Eagle near Fahan are five stone wall beehive huts known as clochán, of which two are almost perfectly intact. Built around the 5th century AD, they’re just some of more than 400 ruined huts scattered about the mountain, evidence of a once-thriving community.
Even more impressive is the Gallurus Oratory, one of the most beautiful ancient buildings in all of Ireland. It’s unclear when this intact stone church (it looks like an overturned boat) on the lonely hillside was built, only that it has withstood everything Mother Nature has to give for more than 1000 years.
Gallurus is near the end of the loop and soon I’m back in Dingle. It’s evening time, and as the sun sets the lights of the town begin to flicker. The town is famous for its traditional pubs, some of which once doubled up as general stores. My favourite is Curran’s, where should I need a pair of wellingtons or a sack of potatoes the bartender can oblige. But this evening I’m here for the Guinness, which is reputedly the best in town – and there’s plenty of fierce competition.
The beer flows freely and the chat gets livelier, until at one point somewhere in the bar I hear a bow dragged across a fiddle. “Ciúnas, please! A bit of whist!” The call for silence stills the drinkers as the fiddler begins to play. Behind him, another taps out a steady rhythm on the bodhrán, the goatskin frame drum that is ubiquitous to traditional Irish music. Another sound, this time of a guitar, strumming chords in support of the tune. And finally the sound of a voice, a song of such doleful beauty that we all lower our heads as if to show appropriate respect to the emotional strength of the music. A few approving murmurs are heard, and then, the tapping of feet. It’s going to be a long night.