Local politics

One of the frequently remarked-upon features of Dingle is its collection of hybrid pubs that also sell hardware, rubber boots, or other useful items. One suspects that nowadays these places maintain their inventory more to add “authentic atmosphere” than in expectation of local people actually buying anything, but still, who can resist a bar with a window display of a pink child’s bicycle?

At Foxy John’s we barged in on a group of flannel-clad guys intensely discussing the game on the TV set: the Masters golf tournament. I had a moment of worry that we might face hostility from this gang of golf hooligans, but as it turned out they were quite civil. Among them was a young emigrant who had recently returned with a foxy American girlfriend. Girlfriend: “I’m a media buyer.” Guy at bar: “I don’t think we have those here.”

On the bar was a copy of the Independent carrying headlines about the funeral of the Catholic policeman in County Tyrone who’d been blown up by dissident Republicans. I started to look at the cover story, but the guy next to me flipped the paper over. “I think people are making too much of that,” he said. Everybody continued talking about Rory McIlroy. I stared at the sign behind the bar advertising Cheese Flavoured Moments, and the handwritten one on the wall advertising 18 MONTHS OLD SHEEPDOG BICH / ANXIOUS FOR WORK / EXCELLENT TEMPERMENT / EXELLENT BREEDING / NEGOTIABLE.

The next evening we went to Dick Mack’s pub-slash-haberdashers, where I doubt any hankies have been sold in many a year. They have stars on the sidewalk celebrating famous customers including Robert Mitchum and “Julie Roberts,” who must have come here while researching her role as what was really at stake in the Irish Civil War.

Business was slow so we started chatting with the bartender. R. eventually worked up the courage to ask her was was up with the signs we’d been seeing around town that said “DINGLE / DAINGEAN UI CHUIS: A TOWN DENIED DEMOCRACY.” She explained that this was a response to the national government’s insistence on naming the town An Daingean despite a referendum in which residents voted for the town to keep the name Dingle in parallel with the locally accepted Irish name, which is not An Daingean but Daingean Uí Chúis. Because Dingle is in a Gaeltacht (officially Irish-speaking) region, all road signs are required to identify it by the official Irish name, which in this case seems to be about as relevant as the Haberdashery sign on the front of Dick Mack’s.

This topic segued into a thoroughly depressing anecdote about the bartender’s sister dropping out of high school when it was announced that the leaving certificate exams in the Gaeltacht areas would henceforth be held exclusively in Irish, in which many locals are far from fluent.

We could have spent more time discussing the mysteries of cultural policy, but eventually the conversation turned toward a more urgent nomenclature issue: whether the tuniclike garment the bartender had on should be considered a “dress” or a “top.” Either way, she said, “I won’t be goin’ up that ladder.”

Twice around Slea Head

Our experience of the famed Slea Head Drive started in the middle. When we set out in the morning the mist appeared to be dissipating over Dingle harbor, but driving along the coastal road turned out to be like tunneling through meringue. The various monuments along the road are all monitored by guys in little huts demanding money, which I refused to pay when it was unlikely that the monuments would be visible from more than a foot away, so we pressed on toward the tip of the peninsula. Around Dunquin the fog finally started to creep up the hill, revealing this:

We pulled off the road just in time to avoid being run down by the Paddy Wagon, a screaming-green tour bus adorned with cartoons of (and seemingly driven by) manic leprechauns. To kill some time while waiting for the leprechauns to get as far away as possible, we visited the Blasket Centre, an unusually decent example of the usually disappointing multimedia-cultural-interpretation-center genre. Maybe it helped that the culture being interpreted was so small — practically every person who lived on the Blasket Islands in the 20th century seemed to be represented by a picture, recording, or written anecdote.

Next we headed inland toward Gallarus Oratory, an impressive dry-stone structure built, the back of the ticket tells us, “by early Christians who loved their trade. Life was much simpler then, and men understood God and His ways much better than they do now.” Ah, the simple life, with nothing to do but worship God, work from dawn till dusk in the mud-fields, try to keep warm and dry by huddling under a pile of rocks, and wait for the Vikings to kill you.

Nearby is this signpost, apparently indicating that the trail is for saints only.

Next stop on the peninsular tour is Kilmalkedar Church, which sports some nice Romanesque ripoffs of the sculptures in Cormac’s Chapel.

When we got there the church was hosting a school group, kids spilling everywhere. Ever disloyal to my own species, I went and hung out with some lambs until the humans were gone.

By now the sky was clear, so we decided to head back over to the part of the coast that had earlier been clotted with fog. We did not visit the signposted Prehistoric Dunbeag Fort, which was guarded by a ferocious beast:

However, we did poke around the Fahan beehive huts, which were last occupied either in ultra-ancient times or sometime before, oh, 1950, depending on whom you ask.

After Gallarus Oratory the beehive huts were a bit of an anticlimax. Maybe the hut-builders didn’t share the Gallarus architects’ great love of their trade.

They can pass off just about anything as a prehistoric ruin around here, it seems.

The pleasantest way back to town was to follow the loop around Slea Head again, so here we are back where we started, in the middle, which is to say the end.

The Big House in Ireland

Pax House in Dingle is a fine place to stay. First things being first, there’s the tea:

And then the view:

And the neighbors:

And, especially, the hostess, who showed us to our room and never failed to provide service with a smile:

(The behavior that may here look like skulking is in fact a game of Ambush.)

Another unexpected attraction of Pax House was its unusually entertaining assortment of random books. What appeared to be a typical B&B-coffee-table tome, The Big House in Ireland, turned out to be crammed with wonderful archival material illustrating from many angles just how crazy and stupid the owners of historic Irish mansions could be. It inspired this noble portrait:

Given all the entertainments on offer at the house, Dingle town itself seemed almost irrelevant, but we did eventually venture down the hill.

We also walked out to the mouth of the harbor, past Hussey’s Folly. (Apparently the construction of architectural follies was a popular way for residents of the Big Houses to provide famine relief; employing people and land to some more obviously useful end — such as, say, food production — would have been undignified.)

Some sheep had been there before us.

Kerin Quest, kind of

After our cursory Killarney visit there was plenty of time left to get to Dingle, so we made a slight detour through Castleisland parish, whence a couple of my grandmother’s grandparents came. I have mixed feelings about the Irish “heritage tourism” industry — I can understand visiting former homes of family members you actually know, but seeking out the birthplace of ancestors you’ve never met seems awfully abstract. However, it was almost on the way, so we made a quick stop to behold the glories of downtown Castleisland, chief among them the Livestock Mart:

Life in those apartments next to the Cattle Intake driveway must be exciting on market day.

Then it was on to Scartaglen, another Kerin-connected locale. The town consists of three pubs, a small newish church, and a Texaco station. The view past the Texaco is not unattractive:

We didn’t attempt to chat up any of the locals and ask them about the notorious Kerin family, because (a) people in Castleisland seemed busy in a not particularly friendly way, (b) people in Scartaglen seemed not to exist, and (c) I am reluctant to talk to people unless I know they want to talk to me, and often I avoid it even then.

(On the other hand, a couple of days later we visited a Kerin’s Bar in the pleasant town of Ennis; there were no Kerins around, but we were drawn into a lively chat with a non-Kerin who was a big fan of the Clare hurling team, Ian McEwan, and Al Pacino, not necessarily in that order.)

Nearby Castlemaine was marked with a huge highway sign declaring it “Home of the Original Wild Colonial Boy.” Beyond that there were few sights of note until we got to Inch Strand, the beachiest beach we encountered in Ireland and one of the locations for Ryan’s Daughter. Like the movie and this blog, it seemed to go on and on.

Ain’t no lady

Heading up the N71 from Kenmare we passed through Killarney National Park, beloved of Victorians and elderly American tourists. We made the obligatory stop at Ladies View:

And a non-obligatory stop at an unnamed pullout by a glassy lake:

We walked around Torc Waterfall:

And strolled through the gardens around Muckross House, where little patches of Picturesque Nature are tidily corralled between expanses of formal park.

Then we fended off the circling jarveys and hoofed it over to Muckross Abbey, Thackeray’s “bijou”:

Somehow I felt that I didn’t admire the Killarney sights quite as much as I should, but I appreciated these not particularly wild wildflowers.

And yes, we also ate food

It’s a little misleading that I’ve gone on this long without mentioning food, since the subject is pretty much always first in my mind, on vacation or at any other time.

Our very first meal in Ireland was at Govinda’s, a vegetarian Indian minichain with an outlet near where we were staying. The Hare Krishna Muzak drifting over the steam table was disconcerting but the potatoes were abundant.

Thereafter we had a few good restaurant experiences — at the Winding Stair (as R mentioned) in Dublin, Cafe Sol in Kilkenny, Ard Bia in Galway, and especially Out of the Blue in Dingle — but in my opinion our best eating overall consisted of various configurations of CHEESE. Durrus, Gubbeen, Ardrahan, many others enjoyed and their names forgotten. The happily ubiquitous brown bread is a perfect delivery system for these delights (when it’s not busy with large amounts of butter).

In Dublin our room had a wee kitchenette and a tiny table on which to spread things procured from Sheridan’s and Fallon & Byrne, but in Kenmare we had a real kitchen. This meant we could do laundry and spend days wondering whether it would ever dry; it (and the local SuperValu and the bakery and Truffle Pig and the Jam takeaway case) also allowed for happy scenes such as this:

Preparing cheesy meals meant there were dishes to do, but guess what? There really are fairies in Ireland, and they help with the washing up.

Partway around the Ring of Beara

The morning we drove out to the Beara Peninsula the weather suddenly turned almost Californian. Maybe that’s why so much of the scenery reminded me of West Marin.

The coastal road could be generously described as a single lane, so the driving was not exactly relaxing, but most people are polite about pulling out to let oncoming traffic pass.

Although the towns of Eyeries and Allihies showed few signs of life, it was a relief to see some houses that didn’t look like they were all carved from the same stick of margarine.

Eventually we pulled into bustling Castletownbere and ate a lunch that seemed authentically local in its mediocrity, then headed up the Healy Pass, which straddles Cork and Kerry. The Cork side looks like this:

Then you pass by a giant plaster Jesus and arrive in Kerry:

You can see a lot of it from here.

When we got back to town there was still enough light to stroll through Reenagross Park and say hello to the joggers and dog walkers and dogs and birds.

I’m sure there’s a story behind this feature of the park, but I don’t know what it is.