Thursday, March 20, 2008

More about the Dingle Peninsula

Special thanks to Steve MacDonogh for contributing
this extract from "The Dingle Peninsula"
Travel/Local History; ISBN 0 86322 269 2

Dingle is one of the most favoured spots in Ireland for the independently minded visitor. The National Geographic Traveler has described it as "the most beautiful place on earth". Bounded on three sides by the sea, it combines in its landscape the ruggedness of rocky outcrops and cliffs with the soft shapes of hills and mountains, skirted by coastal lowlands. For those who stay only briefly the scenery is what the Dingle experience is all about: the view of the Blasket Islands from Slea Head; the harbours, mountains, cliffs and strands; the view from the Connor Pass. Indeed, every part of the peninsula offers attractive and often dramatic views.

Roads lead over the mountains and along the coasts between irregular grids of mortarless stone walls surrounding small fields. The main road from Tralee divides at Camp: one route continues along the northern coast to Castlegregory, dividing again when one road turns towards Cloghane and another rises high to the Connor Pass over the mountains to Dingle. The other route from Camp rises to a mountain pass above Gleann na nGealt, the beautiful "valley of the mad", and descends to Anascaul and thence, after a series of hairpin bends, to Lispole and a long straight road to Dingle. From the direction of Killarney and Castlemaine another road enters the peninsula along a narrow coastal strip beneath the Slieve Mish mountains past the beautiful long strand at Inch and turns inland through a pass to Anascaul.

The Connor Pass road is undoubtedly the most dramatic route to take, though it is not suitable for heavy vehicles or caravans. As it swings towards the south it rises at the side of a large valley formed by glaciers that came from a semi-circle of coums or corries in the surrounding mountains. From the top of the pass there are breathtaking views in fine weather of lowlands, mountains and sea.

High vantage points provide the best position from which to take in the sweep of the landscape, and most of the main roads on the peninsula cross mountains at passes. The road to Dingle via Anascaul does not rise as high as the Connor Pass, but it is high enough to provide magnificent views of the coast of Tralee and Brandon Bays, of the landscape on the southern side of the mountain range, and of the Iveragh Peninsula across Dingle Bay.

To the west of Dingle the most scenic route winds around the coast via Ventry to Slea Head, from which the view of the Blasket Islands is a sight that stops many visitors in their tracks. From Slea Head the road continues along the coast to Dunquin, thence to Ballyferriter, from which one road crosses by Mám na Goaithe, the windy pass, to Ventry; another goes further north to themám at Baile na nÁth (Ballynana), the townland of the height. From this pass one road drops down to Milltown and Dingle while another continues north to Kilmalkedar, Ballydavid and Feohanagh, and meets a road which leads along the foot of Mount Brandon to a low pass back to Dingle.

From Dingle the Connor Pass road rises steeply, and in its higher reaches rocky mountain slopes and cliffs ­ at one point named Faill na Seamróg, the shamrock cliff ­ tower above to the left. At the bottom of the descent from Connor Pass to the north the road swings right to Castlegregory and Camp, and turns left to Cloghane and Brandon, finally coming to a halt on the cliffs at Brandon Point. From here there is a fine view of Brandon and Tralee Bays, the spit of sand out to the Maharees, and the whole northern side of the peninsula, while above and behind stands the imposing mass of Mount Brandon.

These are the main routes through the peninsula, each of them opening up a landscape rich in visual variety and interest. But there are also countless roads off the main routes and countless narrow bohareens, or country lanes, and for visitors who have time to do more than drive once through the peninsula, getting off the beaten track is the best way to explore the area.

The hills, coastline and countryside yield their qualities most readily to the walker. There is a depth in the appeal of the landscape which goes beyond the contemplation of beautiful scenery, for the countryside is dotted with the historical remains and artefacts of past centuries. The Dingle Peninsula possesses a quite extraordinary concentration of archaeological sites. These are not massive structures of great splendour, such as Newgrange or Stonehenge; but they are in their modesty more characteristic of the ages from which they survive. In the number that have survived in this small area lies a magnificence and splendour of its own.

The archaeological remains testify physically to the rich culture of the past, and the peninsula is also an exceptionally rich repository of folklore and of Irish traditional culture. Largely isolated in recent centuries from the mainstream of European and Irish economic, social and cultural change, Dingle, in common with other parts of the west of Ireland, long maintained traditional values and customs. Today in the area to the west of Dingle town Irish is very much the first language; many of the ancient customs which were observed for many centuries and had their origins before the advent of Christianity have died out in the last sixty years, but some survive. Some holy wells are still visited for annual devotions, and the day after Christmas Day is celebrated with the festival of "hunting the wren". Traditional music and dance play an important part in many people's lives, despite the counter-attractions of multinational pop culture, and the traditional small boats of ancient design, the naomhóga or curraghs, are still built and used.

For many people the most abiding impression, and one which has drawn visitors back year after year, is perhaps the most difficult to define. It has to do with the pace and rhythm of life, about which there is a subtle joke to the effect that the Irish language lacks a word that conveys the same sense of urgency as the Spanish mañana. It has to do with lifestyle, with a certain sense of ease, calm and relaxation. There is no one word that adequately describes it, but it is expressed in chance encounters. Visitors stop to ask for directions and find themselves drawn into conversations which are long, fascinating and charming. People used to the coldness of New York, Frankfurt or London are surprised to find the person next to them at the counter of a Dingle pub commenting upon the weather and wondering if they are enjoying their visit, where they have come from, how long they are staying and what they think of the present state of the world. However, a great deal of change occurred during the 1990s. Tourist numbers and facilities increased and prosperity grew substantially, and those involved in tourism increasingly spoke in terms of Dingle as a product to be promoted, adopting the full panoply of modern marketing perspectives. Partly the change was generational, with more young people happily able to remain living in the area. Nevertheless, there remains a certain laid-back informality, which visitors who stay for a while soon find is part of the experience, part of the attraction of the place .....

Inevitably, the visitor¹s response to Dingle is an individual one. Many visit for the contact with Irish spoken in a natural, native way and for the insight that offers them into Irish life and culture. Others visit because it can be a kind of paradise for the hill walker; others to observe sea-birds or the arctic alpine flora. For many the atmosphere of simply being there, of impromptu meetings or musical sessions in pubs, is like a restoring breath of fresh air to which they will wish constantly to return.

There must be few for whom the surrounding presence of the sea does not provide abiding images: the fishing boats in Dingle Harbour, the long sweeps of strand on the northern coastline, at Inch, Ventry and Smerwick; the sound between the Blasket Islands and Dunmore Head; the black naomhóga at Dunquin Harbour; the power of sea against rocks at Clogher and Brandon Creek.

The peninsula¹s position at the extreme western edge of Europe gives it a dramatic setting as it faces into the vastness of the Atlantic. It has also meant that its history has been shaped both by isolation from the more developed countries of Europe and by periods of close trading contact with Europe. What attracts many visitors to the area has much to do with the comparative isolation ­ from intensive economic development, from the central political, social and cultural concerns of the industrialised nations. Elements of the ancient cultural well-spring of Indo-European civilisation survived here long after they had been obliterated elsewhere; in terms of physical remains, the lack of economic development and the prevalence of superstitious inhibitions have meant that a great number of archaeological sites are still intact.

More recently many of the elements that give the Dingle Peninsula its particular character have been under heavy attack from modernising influences. Physically an enormous change in the very scenery of the peninsula has been taking place, and continues, as spruce trees march in ever more massive battalions across the landscape, which used to be characterised by long, uninterrupted stretches of blanket bog. The comparative prosperity of recent decades has enabled people to build new homes, and many have opted for singly sited white bungalows, which are now scattered over the countryside, with particular concentrations in strip developments along the roadsides. The strongest influence on the area is no longer farming or fishing; rather, it is tourism, and there has been debate in recent years, with some believing that the more tourists and the more tourist developments of any kind the better, while others have questioned how much tourism and of what kind is appropriate. Modernisation and prosperity are very welcome in themselves, but they do bring changes which place both old virtues and old vices under threat, and different people view such changes differently. However, it is still true to say that the life of the area possesses distinctive characteristics; that there is an elaborative and imaginative quality to local speech ­ most marked in Irish but also present in English. But these are qualities which reveal themselves to visitors who stay for a while and who have an ear for such things.

In what follows the attempt is to convey, in moving through the peninsula, examples of the elements that are characteristic of the area. It is not possible to provide information about everything; nor would one wish to. After all, the best kind of exploration is the kind you do yourself. There are many archaeological remains on the peninsula: there are fine megalithic graves, standing stones and early Christian settlements, not to mention ringforts, ogham stones and castles. The archaeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula, published in 1986, proved a four-year task for a team of archaeologists.

And so, in this book, I have given detailed background in relation to just one example of each kind of archaeological site, while others are mentioned more briefly. To be comprehensive about the archaeology, folklore and history of the area would require many books: quite apart from archaeology, some sixty books have come out of the Blasket Islands, Dunquin and Ballyferriter alone; and the archives in the Department of Folklore in University College Dublin include some 100,000 pages of material from the Dingle Peninsula.

There is a luxury of material and of choice. The choices taken in this book of where to stop on the road and look in some detail would certainly not be everyone¹s choices; there are things and places described which other observers would consider insignificant, just as there are places and things not described which perhaps should have been. But the area is genuinely rich in all kinds of interest, and if this book succeeds in providing some information about every part of the peninsula while leaving an appetite for more, then it will have succeeded in its purpose.

The Dingle Peninsula by Steve MacDonogh

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