Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dingle Trip July 2008

It’s not often that we get a chance to escape the Australian winter and get back to a northern hemisphere summer, but July saw Orlando and me flying off to Europe to the wedding in France of our friends Ariane and Igor. To make the most of our time, Orlando headed back to his beloved hometown while I went to Ireland to catch up with family. The summer had been a changeable one so we were not expecting great weather. After a hectic weekend trying to keep up with my alcoholic brother and sister on the red wine front, Mum and I jumped into the car with Bernard’s children Ashling and Connor for a road trip to Dingle. I had not been to Dingle in about eleven years.

Strangely for this summer, as soon as I arrived in Dublin the weather changed and we had nothing but sunshine most days. This happens quite frequently: Mena went home a couple of years ago for Annette’s birthday in May, and ended up in a heat wave. And I have been pictured in these pages sunbathing on the Antrim coast in April.Late departing Dublin, we headed out the Limerick road, which is motorway as far as Portlaoise these days. When I worked in Cork twenty years ago the good road stopped in Newbridge and it was country roads the rest of the way. The original two-hour drive to Portlaoise was completed in just under an hour.

With my obsession with Irish ham at its zenith, the family had eaten half a pig the day before, and we had the leftovers with us for a picnic. Mountrath (Maighean Ratha – the fort in the bog) is almost exactly halfway to Limerick from Dublin, and we found a lovely picnic area beside the River Whitehorse and the imposing church of St. Fintan. We ate and drank; the kids played a game of football and checked out the playground while Mum and I rambled across a little footbridge to see the old church. They don’t make them like this anymore: high arches, imposing altar, plenty of God and gold on show. Peaceful, though.

Down through Munster we went, tripping past Limerick on the ring road like lightning, and stopping in Tralee for an ice cream. Blennerville’s windmill also warranted a stop: it is the biggest working windmill in the British Isles. During the Great Famine, the pier beside the Blennerville windmill was a major point of emigration for thousands of Kerry and Munster people. Thousands of people were carried on “coffin ships” to the east cost of the USA and Canada. Many did not survive the journey. Now, the coast of Tralee Bay boasts only beautiful views and seafood restaurants to serve the twenty-first tastes of sophisticated residents and tourists. Who’d have thought.

By late afternoon we were approaching Dingle via the Connor Pass – well, what other route do you take if Connor is in the car? This was the only patch of bad weather we encountered. The mists and clouds descended in true Kerry fashion, and we could hardly see the amazing view back west across Brandon Bay.

We scrambled on rocks above a small waterfall, saw a heart-shaped kettle lake and a couple of text-book corrie lakes almost hidden on the side of the valley. Through the thickening fog we saw some old ruins, of which later we were told the legend.

Apparently these had originally been the simple farm buildings of the O’Donnell Brothers, who had travelled south in 1601, like many Ulstermen, to join the Siege of Kinsale. They somehow decided to farm rather than fight, settled in the valley and led a quiet life. Until one of them killed the other with a shovel!

Our B&B was simple but welcoming. Tom (the archaeologist who told us the above story) was a little hesitant but a lovely man, always ready with local information or help with our Irish vocabulary. I insisted that we all spoke as much Irish as possible as soon as we passed the Gaeltacht sign, and we didn’t do too badly.

We had dinner in John Benny Moriarty’s, a famous bar on the harbour front. John Benny is a well-known local accordion player, and his wife a renowned singer. The bar food was simple but delicious, and the live music when it started was excellent.

We wandered down to the pier after dinner, taking photos at 10.30pm in broad daylight. Love it.

Next morning I had a date with the local scuba diving shop, so I was up and out by nine. Eric runs a friendly dive shop, helped by two English girls. I kitted myself out and chatted to the other divers. Padraig was a young local lad who had just qualified as a teacher, and was off bungee jumping the following week.

May (second from right) was a Cork woman about my own age, who had learned to dive with her three children the previous year, and they were all there for the dive: Matthew who was working as an intern in the shop, Caoimhe, a chatty young teenage girl, and Ruairi, the youngest at twelve. What a great thing to do as a family. Two of Eric’s friends from Belgium made up the boatload.

We hopped in the rubber dinghy and set off at alarming speed out of the harbour and into the bay. I was sat up the bow, hanging on for dear life like it was an episode of Miami Vice. It was sensational. We sped along the rugged coastline as if on a roller-coaster for what seems like ages until we stopped at a small headland called Parkmore Point. We broke up into smaller groups and backflipped into the water.Sadly, visibility was not great, but I had an enjoyable dive with Padraig and Sophie our dive master. No great marine life to speak of, but a good wall and lots of sea grasses. And after all my worry about the cold, I was a lot warmer in my double wetsuit than I had been in the dry suit in Melbourne!

The second dive was back in Dingle Harbour itself, an incredibly shallow dive but worth it nonetheless. We anchored up and the first person to backflip in simply stood up to talk to us – we were in about five feet of water. Then almost immediately, Fungie, the local dolphin, arched up out of the water not twenty feet away. We all squealed with delight, and those in the water tried snorkelling to catch a better glimpse.I don’t think I could have done a better dive in such shallow waters. The official name for the area was the Gravelly, but it was better known locally as Thornback Alley. I soon found out why. I must have seen over fifty thornback ray on that dive. They were simply everywhere – floating past one minute, rising suddenly out of the sand below you the next. They were all sizes, up to about a metre wingspan, with the long, thorny tail that gives them their name. Between that and the forest of seagrass we found ourselves in, it was one of the most fun dives I have ever done.Turns out that despite the overcast day, I got seriously sunburnt on my face! So much for Australian education on the dangers of the sun.

Back at shore I was so uplifted and excited by my dives. The rest of the family was at the harbour to welcome us home, and as soon as the paperwork and chores were done we headed off to explore the rest of the peninsula. By this time the sun was out and it was a really lovely day.
We meandered along, down to Ventry Harbour where a small caravan park seemed an idyllic place for summer holiday – as long as the weather was good!

Out further along the coast road, every turn in the road gave us another spectacular view. Slea Head, one of the most western points in Ireland, presented a panoramic view of the Blasket Islands, with a glimpse of the craggy Skelligs away on the horizon. Further along towards Dunquin, the dry stone walls and tiny houses spoke of earlier, poorer, simpler days. And still the sun shone.

A pilgrimage to Louis Mulcahy’s pottery shop was a must. Years ago as a young engineer I visited Louis with a colleague: his kilns used a lot of our gas. I was struck by his unique style even then, and bought myself a small vase. We wandered around the shop twenty years later, Mum and I trying in vain not to buy any jugs...
I gave in, buying a beautiful little white jug in Louis’ new Japanese-influenced style, and Mum bought me a lovely little bowl to match. I was happy. Later in town I bought a beautiful orange-red shawl from his weaver wife, Lisbeth.

Stopping off in Tig Áine, a quaint café near Ballyferriter on the Atlantic coast, we watched as the sea mists rolled in and just as quickly disappeared. It seemed the weather was going to last.
Back across the peninsula on the Bothar Fada, the rear-view mirror now offering spectacular Atlantic views, it was hard not to stop every few hundred yards to take another look. Truly, this country (and I know I am biased) is one of the most beautiful in the world, and even more so when the sun shines.

Dinner this evening was further along the harbour-side, in Paudie’s Bar. Again, the place was thronged with locals and visitors alike. Again, the food was fresh, simple and delicious. My mackerel was to die for. I ate slowly. Again, the live music when it started, was skilled, casual and entertaining. Makes you proud to be Irish.

Next morning the day was even more sunny and warm than before. We took another trip around the peninsula, anti-clockwise this time to pick up Ashling’s sweater she’d left in the café. If it were possible, the views were even more spectacular, the waters bluer, the countryside more rugged. We drove slowly, savouring our last hours in Kerry.

Back through Anascaul along the coast of Dingle Bay this time, we could not help but stop at the spectacular Inch Strand (what is the difference between a strand and a beach? The Irish would tend to use the former).

Three miles long, this beach was used for the filming of “Ryan’s Daughter” years ago. Now, in summer, it is a holiday place, with surfing lessons, cars on the beach, lifeguards perched ridiculously far from the water’s edge, kids in wetsuits, and a little café you can sit outside and watch it all happen.

Ashling and Connor had to go in for a swim. Mum and I ate lunch and watched them from afar. It was after three o’clock. It was a sunny 26C - a rarity in Ireland. It would take seven hours to get home. I needed to be up at four in the morning for my flight to Paris. Do I leave them in the water on the one tropical summer’s day of the year, or do I cut the day short and get us back on the road again? .... No contest. We sat back, relaxed and didn’t leave till after four.

Almost back in Limerick I was flagging. We had just spent half an hour trying to find Matrix Castle (Connor reckoned it was an interesting name) to no avail. I spied a sign for Adare, and turned into Adare Castle instead. At least we could see inside this castle. The gateman let us in and we parked outside one of the most spectacular buildings in Ireland.

Built in the 1830s, Adare Manor has 53 chimneys, 75 fireplaces, a minstrel’s gallery inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, 850 acres of garden, one 350-year-old cedar of Lebanon… and a championship golf course on the other side of the river.

We sat in the lounge overlooking the manicured gardens, drinking coffee while Ashling and Connor explored. The bar menu was pretty good value – actually not much more expensive than the little beach café we’d eaten at on Inch strand. We will definitely come back another day for high tea, which looks particularly appetising.

Stopping off in Portlaoise for a late dinner, it was almost midnight when we finally got back to Dublin. A pit stop for me: the children helped me unpack and re-pack for the trip to France next morning, before I fell into bed for the three hours sleep I hoped would revive me for a few more hectic days ahead.