Saturday, November 3, 2012


The thing to do from Killarney is to drive around the Ring of Kerry. But the truth is, the Kerry peninsula drive is scenic on a large scale, in every sense. You need clear skies to see far to get the most of the long drives whose main purpose is the view. So instead, we do the Dingle drive. First of all, I love the name. Any place named Dingle already has points in my book.

Also, the Dingle Peninsula is more compact so it's quicker, even though it's further from Killarney. The scenic aspects are close in, and there are more places to stop, see specific sites (and sights), and get out and stretch. Dingle does not disappoint. I don't know if Anthony or the kids feels it, but there is something magical about this place to me.


We get down from the cliffs to sea level so the girls can touch the Atlantic, their first time from this continent.

The peninsula is filled with antiquities, more even than the Ring of Kerry. One of the greatest things about this place is that it is a treasure trove of ancient sites. The ancients used what they had -- stones -- and some of the excellent and enduring stonework (corbelling, tilting down and out for rain runoff but stacked without mortar) reminds us a little of of the mastery you see in Peru. The first place we visit is Dunbeg (Dún Beag) Promontory Fort. Through carbon dating, the experts estimate use of this site as early as the 5th century, being regularly inhabited by the 10th century. It's hard even to put that in context for the kids, but all we can tell them is to go by our family benchmark: "It's about twice as old as Notre Dame Cathedral." Anthony is often our source of information; he likes to read all the placards, even as the rest of us are running for shelter.
Our second stop is one of the many famous beehive huts that dot the coastline. This one, specifically, is called Cathair na gConchúireach. And no, I can't tell you how to pronounce that. It was said to have been built and inhabited somewhere up to 1200 AD, so somewhere around 1000 years old, or more.


Taking a break from the on-and-off rain, on-and-more-on wind, car, and ancient buildings, we stop at Louis Mulcahey pottery shop and café, where we have delicious warm soup (the girls say -- correctly? -- that the various Irish soups we've eaten are, on the whole, the best they've ever tasted), hearty brown bread, hot chocolate with marshmallows, and a chance to relax. We buy some books, and the girls read up on their Irish tales. Also, before Anthony or I can exactly realize what's going on and stop them, they manage to yell out some dirty Irish limericks from across the room.


This is where I buy my new cheese tray, a platter-sized version of the bread plate above. Luckily, it survives the trip better than the stone cheese platter I bought in Morocco. Here's a sneak peak (flash forward to Paris) at how amazing my Louis Mulcahey pottery looks hosting a bunch of French cheeses:

And back to ancient Ireland. Now warm and well fed, with a few fun souvenirs in the car, we head out to visit the virtually perfectly preserved Gallarus Oratory; that's preservation, not renovation. It has looked like that, if you believe the official information, for the past 1300 years. As a sudden, brief downpour hits while we're there, I can tell you form experience that it is, in fact, still completely water-tight. There are two stone loops to tie up a curtain of some sort over the door, and while the wind and rain rage outside, we imagine how cozy it would have been with a fur or wool curtain, and perhaps a small fire inside (would they have had fires inside? Or would that be too smoky? In my clearly romanticized view of the ancients, there's a fire to keep us warm, but it ventilates well. Oh, and we have modern clothing, shoes, food, shampoo, and medicine).

One small detour to see Kilmalkeader, a 12th century church.

Woman of letters that I am, I absolutely love the two ancient language stones here. On the stone pictured below, called an Ogham pillar, the notches are actually an ancient form of phonetic writing, used to write Archaic Irish, Old Welsh and Latin between the 4th and 7th century AD. This one says "ANM MAILE-INBIR MACI BROCANN" ("the name Mael Inbir, son of Brocan"). Do you notice the "Maci" in there that means "son of"? As in MacDonald, McNeill, etc. The system itself looks like chicken scratches, and is way too complicated for me to absorb and explain. If you're really curious, check out this explanation.

The American part of me that's used to everything of historical value being roped and sealed off feels a little bad that Pippa is leaning against the pillar. On the other hand, it's been sitting in a still-used cemetery in the open, under the Irish rain, for nearly two thousand years, so perhaps this is really the least of it.

Another pillar in the churchyard contains the Roman alphabet, and is said to be from the 6th century or earlier. The assumption is that it was used as a teaching tablet. It stands vertically, but I've put it on the horizontal and enhanced the contrast it to try to make the letters more visible.


Anthony, man of science that he is, prefers the following stone, which is an ancient sundial. Yes, we see the irony in this, too, given we are in Ireland and on a very typically overcast, rainy day. More than that, the hole in the rock is not carved all the way through, as you can see from the backside. So it does beg the question, how could it have worked? We can't interpret the carvings, but find them lovely nonetheless.

It's too cloudy, and we will be too carsick, to go over the famous Conor pass, so instead we retrace our steps along the officially less scenic (but still spectacular) and drastically more efficient road back to Killarney, where we're staying for a couple nights. Along the way, we stop at a little aquarium in the town of Dingle for what will be our last hoorah for the day. With very low expectations, we are, frankly, pleasantly surprised. It's a great way to give the girls something that's a little more kid-friendly. It's actually quite an impressive aquarium, out here in a tiny town, on a tiny peninsula, in a tiny country. 

There are a couple signs that tickle my fancy here. One, on the piranha tank:


But my favorite is the sign on the petting tank. Check out rule #4: "Avoid the Thornback Ray's Spine. It has THORNS on it's back." Woman of letters that I am, my pet peeve is not that they unwisely stuck a thornback spine into a children's petting tank, but rather that they incorrectly stuck an apostrophe into the "it's".

The one thing we don't stop for on our tour is "world-famous" home-made Dingle ice cream. Mostly because we are too cold, and partly because living on Ile St. Louis, near "world-famous" Berthillon, we get a whole lot of ice cream in our lives already. When I wonder aloud what the local specialty flavor might be, Anthony answers, "Of's Dingleberry!" Really, I just walked right into that one.


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