I had been most looking forward to the Dingle Peninsula. This was supposed to be the most beautiful part of Ireland, and, judging by the view I was treated with when sticking my head out the door in the morning, the rumors were true.
Of course, it wasn’t raining, which made everything look better. André and I have formulated a theory that, in fact, Ireland isn’t so very much more beautiful than other places in the world (although it certainly is very beautiful). The reason people think it is the most beautiful is that it is usually raining and gloomy, and when, for a few brief and shining moments, the sun appears, bathing you in golden light, you can truly see the beauty all around you. You feel happy and also, strangely, full of gratitude that you have been given a chance to appreciate this without rain pouring on your head. Also, Irish weather has impeccable timing. We had absolutely gorgeous sunrise and sunset every single day – and everything looks more beautiful in the sunset, right?
No rain this day though. On this day, the weather was perfect. We got kicked out of our sleeping spot by the trucker, who claimed more trucks would be coming along soon – but, luckily there was a pull over another 100 yards up and we ate porridge – it got a bit burnt but it was good for a first try. The kids had fun trying to make their way down to the beach – but this proved impossible and Zander fell off a small cliff. We took that as a sign it was time to move on.
Driving about 15 minutes further, we were pleased to find the Inch Strand – another unique beach – all the beaches in Ireland are different and it is fun to discover each one. There was another family parked there with a camper van – about twice the size of ours! I can’t imagine trying to drive that monster. They were complaining about the weather, and, when we told them we thought that was the way Ireland was supposed to be, they assured us we were wrong. Well, I guess, being Irish, they would know the truth – but, in our case, lower expectations led to greater happiness. Zander and Callie love to play tag with the waves but Griffin prefers looking for treasures. Lately, all his treasures remind him of numbers or letters – can you guess what these two are? This was the most amazingly flat beach I have ever been on and it seemed to go on for miles. There really were very few shells or seaweed and the waves were mild compared to those at Courtown. We did discover, however, a new specimen. I can only refer to it as a some kind of oceanic tumbleweed. They were ball shaped collections of mud and seagrass and were quite durable – Griffin, Daddie and I had fun kicking them around the beach.
Then it was on to explore Dingle. We drove almost all the way through the town on our way to Slea Head Drive. This is a ring road that runs right along the westernmost edge of the peninsula. In fact, this is the Western edge of Europe. I have no idea what the northern, southern, and eastern edges are, so don’t ask. But, by golly, I’ve now seen the western! We did stop briefly at a Celtic jewelry maker I had read about and I picked out a new ring for my right hand ring finger. For 10 years or more I have been wearing a 4 circuit puzzle ring I picked up in Paddington Station, London. I got it because it reminded me of my fencing coach, Nikki, whose wedding ring is a 10 or 12 circuit puzzle ring. I remember, on one long bus ride, I asked her about the ring and she told me that, in Africa, it was common for husbands to give their wives these very complicated rings. The theory was, it prevented adultery. The cheating woman, husbands thought, would pretend to be single in order to more easily get laid. (I’m sure Nikki didn’t use those words, but I don’t have her gift for subtlety) So, to appear alluring and single, they would take their ring off. BUT, you see, if you take a puzzle ring off – it falls apart – and with 10 or 12 interlocking rings, such a ring would not be able to be reassembled before their husband came home. She even took off the ring for us to try to put it back together. Debbie and I worked on it for about an hour, until our destination was near – and then, exasperated, handed it back to Nikki. She had it reassembled and on her finger again in about 30 seconds…. Even with four rings, if I happened to take mine off, it would take me forever to figure it out. In fact, one of the rings had broken about 3 years before and it was also too small for my mommie hands. Nikki, you will always be one of my heroes, but it was time for a new look! I found a beautiful one on clearance and just had to have it resized – which they would do while I went around Slea Head – perfect!
I was a bit sad to see that we weren’t going to get the opportunity to go out on the Great Blasket Island, but I was still determined to enjoy the sights of the Dingle. Our first stop was an ancient ring fort called the Dunbeg Promontory Fort. It was actually built in the Iron Age which ran from about 500 BC to 500 AD in Ireland. These forts were used as defensive structures, but also as a refuge of last resort from invading Celts. They are called Promontory forts because they are located at the edge of spits of land surrounded by cliffs on three sides, this makes defense much easier to accomplish. Around here, the ancient structures and stone walls are made by just carefully placing the stones on top of each other – no mortar, no framing – only the weight of the rocks holding it together. We got to crawl into a beehive-shaped guard house that was still standing, amazing. But the best part of this stop, by far, was the view over the cliffs.
Hello, beauty of Ireland!!!! The photo above right is a small stream that ran down the hill right to the sea. Ireland is overrun with puddles, streams and squishiness. I was very grateful for our new boots! Callie loves animals and was thrilled when she got to pet this horse that came right over to the fence to see her.
After the fort, we went across the street to see some genuine Irish famine houses. We had to pay 8 Euros to see the fort on the cliffs and 12 Euros for the famine houses. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it but this stop was very interesting and genuinely heart breaking. During the great potato famine of the 1840’s Ireland lost 2 million people – either from starvation or because they emigrated to America. The place was not very well maintained but they did have some information placards up that I read out loud to Zander. All the facts below come from my memory of what I read, so may not be perfectly accurate. It seems that, in general, peasants had it pretty rough in Ireland until potatoes came around. Then, with very small patches of land, they could raise enough to eat. In fact, it said that between 90 and 100% of the average diet of the peasant was only potato. Can you imagine – potato for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, your entire life? When the famine hit it devastated the poor. Most of them did not have their own land – they lived and worked on the land of the more wealthy, not for money or even for food, but only to have permission to use a small patch of the land for themselves, to grow their own food, on their own (extremely limited) time. The potato famine was caused by an airborne fungus so it was impossible to protect the crop – it also rotted the entire plant, making an awful stench.
Of course, the land owners did not want to have to take care of all the starving peasants, so they dealt with this in different ways. Sometimes they simply kicked the peasants off the land. They had no food, no shelter and no work. They wandered, in rags, along the side of the roads, hoping for work or food until they simply died. Other landlords were a bit kinder and paid to have their peasants evicted completely from the country - to America! They were transported in conditions quite similar to the slave ships that carried blacks from Africa – in fact using the same legal size requirements from that time. They were packed in like sardines in the bottom of boats and many of them died on the journey – to be tossed overboard into the sea. In fact, many of the sick were tossed over because the others feared they would catch their disease. The third kind of land owner was the most kind, he opened up his estate to the wandering peasants and let them try to eke out a living on his farm – entire families would live in small one room cottages. They would pool their resources, cutting turf for use as fuel, gathering and boiling nettles to eat or attempt to fish from the cliffs. They were also continually combing the cliffs for pieces of shipwrecked boats to use in building their humble cottages. Many died from falling from the cliffs. The Dingle peninsula was particularly hard hit by the plague because the nearest government run poor house was in Tralee – over 40 kilometers away. So, although woefully inadequate, the famine cottage was better than death on the roadside.
In America, we sold corn at a very reduced rate to the Irish government to distribute to the starving masses. They did not know how to prepare or eat it – so it ended up making many people even sicker. This famine was truly focused on the poorest levels of society. In fact, during this time, Ireland was prospering enough to be exporting milk, beef, and wheat for sale all over Europe. It is theorized there was, in fact, enough food in Ireland at the time of the plague to save all the people. It’s just that they chose not to share with the insignificant peasant.
There were so many deaths by this time they stopped making individual coffins, replacing them with hinged bottom coffins that could be reused – and ultimately they started using mass graves. Often, if the people were the last of a family to die, their bodies would be abandoned in their cottage to decompose since others feared to be near them.
After touring the houses, we got a chance to see some of the indigenous animals of Ireland they had grazing. There were deer, cows and sheep but I was most enamored of the little ponies, especially this little guy. He is a Kerry Bog Pony. They had a faded sign nearby that informed us that Kerry Bog Ponies are unique to Ireland and are known as Ireland’s Heritage Pony or, more colloquially, as Hobbies. It seems that they evolved to work in the bogs – hauling out the turf. Although they are very small and almost delicate seeming (essential for working in the soggy Irish soil), they are very strong and intelligent and can carry great loads. They were also used to haul seaweed up from the ocean and even pulled the whole family to church on Sunday. They are known for their courage and extreme toughness to easily withstand the harsh winters found in the west of Ireland. Despite this great history and the love the people of the county have for the horse, they almost became extinct. In 1994, there were only 20 left – but now the population is up over 200 again.
We wandered on, searching for a burial mound mentioned on the map we received upon entering the farm. It was fun to go for a walk and climbing higher afforded us amazing views of the shoreline we had been standing on only an hour before. The burial mound most resembled a pile of rocks buried under the grass – but hey, I’m no archeologist…. (It seems like this land would be heaven for those who are, though and it amazes me there is so much that has obviously never been excavated)
We tried to go back a different way than we came and ended up having to walk on the road to get back to the car. Now, this may not merit mention in the US, but in Ireland, walking on the road means risking your life. Not that that means people don’t do it, in fact, a shocking number of people walk along these roads – we especially noticed kids on bikes, teens and old people. I can not imagine ever allowing a child of mine to walk or bike along one of these roads. I was terrified when we were walking the 300 meters from the turn to the parking lot. We urged the children along as quickly as possible and were happy to see the cars slowing, giving us what I came to think of as the Irish wave. In this version, they seem to raise their hands with the first two fingers only sticking up.
Finally it was time to head on, to the west of the west – where the Great Blasket Island lives! I had read about the Blaskets and had wanted to take a ferry out there for this day, but time constraints made that impossible. We ended up just doing the scenic drive bay – and how very amazingly scenic it was. In fact, it is so amazingly beautiful – it made the cover of the road atlas (as you can see, right). Of all the places in Ireland they could have chosen, they chose this view. Yes, getting here was not easy – but seeing this view was worth it. At least, it feels worth it when you are standing there and your kids, for the moment, are spellbound and blessedly silent. As you can plainly see, this moment doesn’t last long – but, as Rose Kennedy said, “Life is not made up of milestones, but of moments.”
Starving, we stopped at the beach for lunch. André ran up to the top of the hill to see the standing stone and the kids played around at the edge of the cliffs while I made lunch. The wind was so strong we could barely communicate. There I was, in the camper, making ham and cheese sandwiches and hoping my kids wouldn’t be the reason they needed to make more of my new favorite warning sign. The kids were very careful though, in fact, they felt more comfortable playing in the parking lot than on the grass. Hmm….. what is more dangerous, falling off a cliff or getting hit by a car? I’ll let you decide. André returned and, lunches in hand, we headed down to the beach and watched in amazement as a local tried (and failed) to surf the pounding waves.
Before we left, I marked our name on the sand. I have always loved writing huge letters and thought this might make a cool holiday card. I have done this for years and I’ve always liked how you make this giant impact and then, whether it be snow that melts or a wave that washes over your work, it disappears. It’s like embodiment of that ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’ Native American saying. I mean, let’s face it, graffiti is fun, but ephemeral graffiti is fun and environmentally acceptable. OK, I know I am telling way too many stories in this blog, but I can’t go on without mentioning my magnum opus of ephemeral graffiti. It was when I was a sophomore in college, living in the dorms. My friend Deb’s birthday was coming up and I got the maintenance guy to let me into the enclosed courtyard of the building. It was kind of like a cloister – we could see the lawn but no one from outside the dorm could and it was locked in the winter so no footprints ever marred it. Well, I got out there, on totally virgin snow, and made Happy B-Day Deb! in giant letters over the entire courtyard. Door was re-locked and surprise was ready. I think she liked it. It’s actually highly likely she was totally embarrassed and humored me – not being the demonstrative type herself - but that’s what makes her such a great friend, right? But the story gets better! For whatever reason, this snow sign lasted. First off, it was protected from the mean destroyer of signs who lives to kill my art (yes, I’m bitter) and secondly, the snow started to melt and, then, before disappearing, froze again. The result of this was that where the letters were you could see the grass, but everywhere else it was still white-stood out like crazy! I don’t know if it was weeks it lasted or only a few days – but it was awesome. I think I took a photo – I wonder whatever happened to it?
We had some delicious soft serve from the Irish ice cream truck and headed onward. In typical us-like fashion we got a bit lost and went into a cliff laden area of the country simply littered with warning signs. We were trying to find the visitor center for the Blasket Islands, but, after going down this road and finding a dead end, decided to press onward. We did pull over to investigate this mysterious standing stone and ring of smaller stones around it. It was raining a bit again, and walking over, I was once again struck by the unique nature of the ground. There is mud and muck, but mostly the water is contained in the turf. When you walked, your feet sunk, but there was no trace left behind. In all, I’d say the green of Ireland reminds me most of a giant sponge, soaking up more and more with each passing storm – and staying damp for days after moisture has come and gone.
Our last stop on Slea Head Drive was the Gallarus Oratory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallarus_Oratory). It is about 1300 years old and the most perfect Irish specimen of dry rubble masonry. It is also the earliest surviving Christian church in Ireland and local legend has it that, if you climb out the window, your soul will be cleansed. (Too bad I didn’t know about this legend until I got home and did research – I could have been clean, people, clean!) Next to the oratory was a large bed of rocks that featured a small standing cross slab that is inscribed with an equal armed cross in a circle and some other designs. The level of ignorance we have about all these things is amazing to me – no written language, no written record, no freaking clue what it meant, just that it was made to last, as was the oratory itself. Though it was built hundreds of years after the fort we saw, the beehive technology must have been passed down since it uses corbel vaulting to create the overlying layers of stone. The walls are over a yard thick and, even with no mortar, and the passage of time, it is completely dry inside. Incredible!
Finally, we stopped to picked up my ring and visit the Dingle Bay. There is a famous dolphin, Fungi, who is supposed to hang out there. Unfortunately it turns out you have to pay to go on a special tour boat to meet Fungi – and we had missed the chance for the day. We still had fun playing on the fake Fungi! We headed for Tralee – and a real campground (with electricity, and showers!) for the night.