I love the west of Ireland. It’s the place part of my soul dwells. The first time I arrived at Shannon Airport almost 20 years ago I felt like I’d come home. From Cork at the southern end to the reaches of Mayo in the north (the farthest we’ve been), this magical island calls to me and to my husband, Steve. Steve has Irish roots, I don’t have an Irish bone in my body. My connection to the west of Ireland is mysterious but strong. I have gone places and began to spontaneously weep. Strange sense memories have been triggered in places I’ve visited. They have no logical explanation. It’s just part of Ireland’s magic. One of our favorite places is the historic Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Joins us for a brief tour of historic Dingle
Discovering historic Dingle
The historic Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne) offers an abundance of ancient sites; some with signs of habitation as far back as the Mesolithic Age (about 8,000 to 4,000 BC). Here are five places we think are “musts” for any Dingle itinerary. The landscape is a bit wild and hilly, stone walls enclose the ever-present fields, narrow country roads pass old stone farmhouses, and the rocky coastline is magnificent, The scenery is green and spectacular. Join us for a nostalgic tour to five places we think are must-sees for any Dingle visit.
Dunbeg Fort and the Beehive Huts
Drive Slea Head Drive, a coastal route with spectacular ocean views. Two of the ancient sites on the peninsula are directly across the road from each other.
Archeologists believe that Dún Beag (the Irish for Dunbeg), an Iron Age “promontory fort,” dates to about the 8th century AD. The site, at the edge of the cliff, provided great visibility, defensibility and even escape through an underground passage. These features were important in a time of warring and marauding tribes. Some believe that it was home to a local lord, but Michelle Long, whose family owns the fort and the Stonehouse Café and Restaurant across the road from it, has another explanation. She said it was never inhabited and was for defense of the Beehive Huts that today stand across the road. Whatever the story, Dunbeg is worth a visit. Sadly, a violent storm in January 2014 caused part of the fort to fall into the sea.
The Beehive Huts (Caher Conor) along the ocean in the small village of Fahan. These rounded structures, known as clochans, are believed to date from 500 AD. A southiain (underground passage) runs between the fort and the settlement. Long says it was either an escape route or used for weapons storage. She adds that the remains of about 500 beehive huts are scattered throughout the area. If you have time, watch their 10-minute video on the history of the fort and the area going back to the Iron Age. They are closed annually from mid-December to end of January.
Both these sites have a small admission charge.
The Blasket Islands
Weather permitting you can visit Great Blasket Island off the Dingle coast near the small village of Dunquin (Dún Chaoin) via boat. It’s the only island in this small chain that was ever inhabited. The island has a long history of habituation; remnants of beehive date to the 7th or 8th century. The desolate island has an interesting history. A visit The Blasket Centre in Dunquin, open mid-April through October, is a great resource for learning about the island’s rich history and offers a glimpse into the hard life these rugged islanders led. While a stone fort on the north end of the island goes back 2,000 years, the beginning of “modern” settlement was 1588 when five families moved to the island. Because of tough living conditions and a changing world young people began to leave the island during the first half of the 20th century. The last inhabitants left in 1953. You can still find descendants of the donkeys that the islanders used to carry turf and kelp running wild on the island. A ferry runs, weather and seas permitting, April through September. Reservations are highly recommended.
Reasc Monastery (An Riasc), an early Christian monastery is off the beaten track and hard to find, but well-worth the effort. The site, believed to date from around the 600 AD, has the remains of six beehive huts and a square building, believed to have been the oratory. In addition, there’s an old burial ground with 42 grave sites. The site is also home to the Reask Stone, a unique standing slab carved with spiral designs and the initials DNE, the Latin abbreviation for Domine (The Lord). The site is open all year and admission is free.
Gallarus Oratory (Séipéilín Ghallarais), is an early Christian stone church that resembles an upside-down boat. It may be as old as the 6th century AD or as new as the 12th. The all-rock structure is in perfect, unrestored condition due to the “beehive construction,” a graduated rock design that has kept rain out of the structure since it was built. A local told us to avoid the visitor’s center located on private land and head for the car park on the country lane past the sign for the Visitor’s Centre. The site is open all year.
Kilmalkedar (Cill Mhaoilcéadair) Church and Monastery, believed to have been founded in the 7th century by Saint Maolcethair, son of the King of Ulster, was named for St. Brendan the Navigator. Both the standing church, dating to the 12th century, and the churchyard have notable relics. You can find an ogham stones (inscribed with the letters are from the early Irish alphabet, ogham and pronounced O-em) a with hole at the top of the stone in the churchyard Some say that in pre-Christian times, holed stones were believed to have healing properties. Another belief is that joining fingers through the hole signed a deal or a marriage. Inside the church there’s another ogham stone. The site also has an ancient sundial, and a large stone cross,. The church’s east window called Cró na Snáthaide (Eye of the Needle) was used on Easter Sunday. According to folklore tradition, passing through the eye nine times would assure admittance to heaven. The church is open all year. Admission is free.
Dingle in the 21st century
When you’ve had your fill of these ancient sites of historic Dingle come back to 21st century Dingle. We love the availablity of fresh food if you have a place to cook. Fish fresh from the ocean, meat raised on local farms, fresh local cheeses and vegitables raised by local farmers. Or dine out on fresh seafood and other local bounty at restaurants such as the farm to table cuisine at The Chart House and Global Village or grab fish and chips or a bowl of the ubiquitous vegetable soup that you find at every pub paired with a Guinness or Harp or a bracing shot of Irish whiskey.
The traditional music scene is alive and well in Dingle. The best place to hear a session is a local pub. An Droicead Beag on Lower High Street has nightly sessions. If you’re lucky, you might catch singer Éilís Kennedy performing at Jack Benny’s Pub which she owns with her husband. The pub is named for him. She has a glorious voice and we were lucky to get an almost private concert one night,
We were wowed by the magic historic Dingle has to offer. Perhaps you will be, too.