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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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An Corca Dhuibhne: The Dingle Peninsula

dingle panorama

Photo courtesy Joan Colby

by Suzanne Barrett

Some have called it the most beautiful place on earth, this spit of land bounded on three sides by the sea, its rocky outcrops and steep cliffs the stuff of which dreams are made. Inland, the views are as spectacular. Experience the vista from Connor Pass on a clear day or scanning the misty Blaskets from Slea Head. No matter where you travel on the Dingle Peninsula, the views of hills and mountains, cliffs, strands, blue harbors, and the ever-present mortarless stone walls range from merely attractive to dramatic.

A national secondary road (N86) extends from Tralee to Camp, then angles in a southwesterly direction to Dingle Town where travelers can access the regional R559 for a circuitous jog around the tip of the peninsula. There are no roads across the Brandon Mountains, however, a network of third class roads meander from Dingle Town to Feohanagh and from Dingle over the Connor Pass to Kilcummim, and from Kilcummin west around Brandon Bay up to Brandon Point; east to Castlegregory and Fahamore. A regional road (the R561) skirts the southern coastline from Anascaul to Inch and below the Slieve Mish Mountains, on to Castlemaine, a few miles inland from the harbor.

The Connor Pass road is dramatic but not suitable for trailers. The road to Dingle by way of Anascaul contains a number of hairpin turns. While not as high as the Connor Pass road, the elevation provides excellent views of Tralee Bay and Brandon Bays on the north and the Iveragh peninsula looking south across Dingle Bay.

Perhaps the most scenic route lies to the west of Dingle, winding around the coast by way of Ventry to Slea Head. If pressed for time (and wouldn't that be a shame in surroundings like these?), my recommendation would be the Tralee to Dingle to Slea Head route which could be traversed in a day.

A number of archaeological remains exist on the peninsula and testify to a rich cultural past. Dingle, long an isolated region, retaains much of its tradition and, to a degree, has resisted economic and cultural change. West of Dingle Town, Irish is still the first language. Holy wells exist here and are visited regularly. Traditional music and dance play an important part in the lives of the residents. If you visit Dingle with the thought of capturing a taste of traditional music, do not expect it to be served up regularly, as in a nightclub. Irish music "happens" and timetables are not adhered to with any consistency. Let the informality become part of the Irish experience and you won't be disappointed.

In early times, the peninsula saw many invasions. The Milesian invasion began around 1700 BC and the first battle took place in the Slieve Mish mountains Tradition has it that the people of the vanquished Tuatha Dé Danainn disappeared into forts and mounds and became the fairies. Traveling west from Tralee, the full beauty of Tralee Bay and its endless miles of sandy beaches can be seen as one approaches Derrymore (An Doire Mhór - the large oak wood). In Derrymore are seven ringforts, one of which has double banks and fosses (Derrymore East). In addition, the area contains some stone hut ruins, however, the area is very much overgrown, and the latter visible only to the intrepid observer.

The mountain range which includes Mount Brandon and known as Letteragh (Leith-triúch - half a barony) has for centuries been a natural barrier. Considerable differences exist between Letterach and the rest of the peninsula. Letterach was settled long before Christianity by a people known as Uí Fhearba, while the rest of the peninsula was settled by those that gave it its name, the Corca Dhuibhne.

Other signs of antiquity can be found along the way. Near the town of Camp is the ruined village of Killeton where families were evicted during the late nineteench century. Just west of the village lie the ruins of an early oratory, one of several along the peninsula, Gallerus being the best preserved.

The Dingle Way has absorbed a portion of the old Tralee-Dingle Road as well as a green track just outside Killeton. The Way is a walkers' paradise with many interesting sights. Near Camp, and by the metal railway bridge, is a fallen gallán or megalithic standing stone, inscribed in ogham, an early form of writing. At least five other standing stones may be found in the Anascaul region.

Continuing on the main road to Anascaul one finds stones of megalithic graves. These tombs are from the Late Stone Age period; a particular feature of these cairns is their wedge shape, with one end wider than the other.

Towns of Dingle
Anascaul boasts a large number of pubs and has undergone some renovation in recent years. Once its fairs were the vital focus for people all over the peninsula, but these have given way to the tourist trade.

One passes through Lispole to reach Dingle Town. In the area and to the south along the coast are ogham stones, two promontory forts and John the Baptist's holy well. Megalithic remains are liberally sprinkled over this portion of the peninsula, many of them visible to the tourist. At Kinard is the birthplace of Thomas Ashe, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who died on hunger strike in 1917.

Dingle Town is situated on a sheltered harbor with mountains at its back and is the most westerly town in Europe. Fishing and farming were the main industries, but since the making of the movie Ryan's Daughter thirty years ago, tourism has become an important business for the town. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to the area each sumer. No fewer than fifty-two pubs pepper the area with much of the town's social life revolving around them. Crafts shops may readily be found, also many artisans live nearby. The area is noted for a variety of interesting walking trails. Good food abounds in Dingle

Ventry, with its long, sweeping beach and interesting sand dunes, is another excellent overnight spot for tourists with welcoming pubs, cozy bed & breakfast establishments and charming restaurants. Smaller than Dingle Town, Ventry offers excellent walking trails and fine sandy strands and an uncluttered place to relax.

Dingle Town is by far the best known and the most historic of the towns and villages sparsely dotting the Dingle Peninsula. What is not known is the date it came into existence, however, it should be noted that as early as 1585 Queen Elizabeth I announced her intent to grant the town a charter, and it was known to be populated at least four hundred years prior to that.

The Irish name for Dingle is Daingean Uí Chúis, which means O' Cush's fortress. No record exists of the name O' Cush, so it is probably a corruption of another name, possibly the Flemish Huysse. A document dated 1290 gives the name of the town as Dengynhuysse.

Dingle began as a trading port with butter, hides, wool, fish and meat as the principal exports. Merchants' houses sprang up in the Middle Ages, largely of French and Spanish influence. When the town charter was finally granted in 1607, the peninsula had already suffered major rebellion and massacre through the Desmond Wars. But in spite of massive destruction, Dingle remained an important port and trading center, though the Wars had taken their toll. The linen industry brought a measure of prosperity back to the area in the mid-eighteenth century, but a crisis in the industry brought a collapse to the area's industry early in the nineteenth century whenIreland'ss population was rising rapidly. The Dingle population was about 5,000 at the outset of the famine. The people suffered terribly during the years of 1845 to 1848 and emigration became a way of life for those and succeeding generations.

The Easter Rising was largely a Dublin affair, though there was an unsuccessful attempt to land arms for the Volunteers. During the Civil War, Dingle remained largely Republican, however, at the close of the war, Free State troops took over the town. Following the war, Dingle remained a poverty level area, and it was not until 1969 when the filming of Ryan's daughter brought a huge infusion of money into the area that Dingle began to prosper with a new-found tourism industry. By this time, much of the Western world had increased income for leisure activities. Tourism is never a stable market, and the area continues to have times of prosperity and leaner periods. Still, Dingle remains a popular venue, the town a vibrant social gathering place where customs inspire visitors and locals alike. The Blessing of the Boats, Wren's day, the Dingle races, St. Brendan's festival, and the West Kerry Agricultural Show all bring throngs of people in search of fun, culture, and excitement.

What can one expect to see on visiting Dingle Town? Main Street is the commercial sector of the town with St. James's, a Church of Ireland building, on the north side. Built in 1807, it was said to have been built by Spaniards. In medieval times, Dingle was a port of pilgrimage embarkation to the Spanish shrine of St.James of Compostella.

In upper Main Street is the convent of the Presentation order founded in 1829, while further down stands Temperance Hall, once used as a presbytery. A large boulder lies near the corner of Chapel Lane with several cup-shaped pits of Bronze Age decoration. It is traditionally thought these played a part in ancient pagan worship.

St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church lies in Green Street. Completed in 1865, it is built of stone quarried from Kilmurry. Beneath a memorial tablet lies the remains of one Clarissa Hussey, a benefactress of the church who bequeathed her estate thusly. A sister of the infamous landlord's agent, Sam Hussey, it is noted that her generosity to the church did not extend to her tenants. Patrick Foley noted in his 1907 History that "There is no doubt that this landlady ranked among the worst landowners in the country."

The public library contains a display of material relating to Thomas Ashe. In The Mall, situated beside the Dingle River, is St. John's Holy Well, once a scene of regular visits. Some of the busier streets of today are relatively new, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. Shops and pubs dot the streets, and music is heard in many establishments. Travelers enjoy the laid back nature of Dingle Town, an ideal base for touring or just relaxing.

Fahan is an area with many historic remains, notably clochans, the unmortared beehive huts, standing stones, sculptured crosses, fortified headlands, and ring forts. A cluster of houses, some ruined, comprises the main portion of Fahan, but of primary interest are the ancient structures such as the promontory fort of Dún Beag - the small fort. It is one of the more elaborate promontory forts in Ireland, defended by five lines of fosses, four lines of banks, and a dry stone rampart. It dates from the Iron Age but continued to be inhabited until the late Medieval period.

Continuing from Fahan, past the glen of Glanfahan, is Slea Head where a full view of the Blaskets can be seen. A lovely, sheltered beach is fine for sunning but dangerous for swimming. Continuing west one comes to the headland of Dún Mór (the big fort). All that remains is a ditch and a wall.

The Blasket Islands were evacuated in 1953. Much knowledge of Blasket life comes from the books written by islanders Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, and Peig Sayers. Their books, translated into English have achieved an important place in the national culture.

Heading toward Ballyferriter, the visitor comes upon a volcanic mass called Clougher Head, a place of often violent sea activity. The strand is best viewed toward dusk when storms are approaching, but the area is not suitable for swimming at any time.

Ballyferriter is another lively holiday center with a number of chalets for rent as well as bed and breakfast and hotel accommodations. Conditions here are delightful for the walker. Be sure to visit Dún an Óir, the fort of gold. A massacre took place here in 1580 when the Irish backed by Spanish soldiers were defeated by the English under Lord Grey. He apprised Queen Elizabeth I of his victory and received back congratulations on his being chosen as an "instrument of God's glory" and criticism that he allowed some to remain alive.

There are many more sight to see in the trek around Dingle. Suffice it to say that this area holds many ancient sites and ruins that show evidence of a place of pilgrimage, chiefly Mt. Brandon and the Gallarus Oratory along the saints road. In Kilmalkedar, a center of early Christianity, one may see the signs of earlier pagan worship mingling with the Christian symbols, a sign that pagan worship was never wholly suppressed but continued in Christianized forms. Author Steve MacDonogh covers this thoroughly in his book The Dingle Peninsula: History, Folklore, Archaeology.

Until next time.

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the dingle peninsula

The Dingle Peninsula courtesy Carol Kane

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