It’s never fun to head out for a light day of sightseeing into a rain driven by gale force winds but when you’re on vacation and a fixed schedule you do what you have to do. At breakfast a young man sitting across from us had said he was heading to the cinema instead of the Ring of Kerry, but we’re made of tougher stuff and I had objectives in mind – the Neolithic treasures of Dingle.
This area has seen human inhabitation for at least the last 7000 years and is considered by many an enormous open air archeology museum. Unlike many places much of the ancient past remains in decent shape, ignored by subsequent generations through fear (believing the sites to be in some way cursed or haunted) or through the simple fact that the natural resources of the region did not force people to recycle. I remember the story of Fort Union in New Mexico, plundered for its tin ceilings and wooden beams after its abandonment at the closure of the Santa Fe Trail by those carving a life out of the wilderness. Here though old things were built of rock and there is no shortage of that on Dingle – you can’t walk a foot without stubbing your toe. And so these old, old rock structures remain larger as they were left by both the Iron Age people and the Christian missionaries who followed.
The roads were typically rural Irish, 1.5 cars wide and posted at 60 MPH. Gratefully on this day I had to worry neither about backing people up behind me nor an unexpected head on collision. There simply weren’t that many people on the road and those that were seemed to be following the same guidebook that we had.
Our first stop was Dunbeg, a classic ring fort from about 2000 years ago. One step out of the car and I knew I was going alone – the wind was howling and the rain was not only strong but horizontal. I made my way across the street and paid my 3 Euros to a young woman watching television in a shack. I joked about the weather and instantly felt like a dope, realizing that she must hear that same stupid line 100 times a day. Walking down the hill into the storm the view was spectacular – tall stark cliffs with the surf crashing on boulders below, a waterfall formed from the run-off of the fields above. The fort stood on the very edge of the cliff, two concentric rings of cold gray stone providing some protection to these ancient people in an incredibly inhospitable place. I stood there as my jeans got soaked thinking about what this must have been like then, without the benefit of a rain-proof Mountain Hardware parka drenched to the skin in whatever clothes they might have worn, wondering when the next attack was coming.
I wandered around a bit before heading back to the car, my camera lens covered with sea spray. A single black-faced sheep along the path stood butt to the wind munching on the grass while two burros were hunkered up against a rock wall in order to stay as much out of the rain as possible. I took off my coat and got back in the car, the back seat now covered with water.
At the next stop, the fee collector welcomed me as “brave person” and after paying I realized why – here the path headed uphill along a path eroded down the center by a river of runoff. It was muddy and slippery and the wind didn’t help as I scrambled up managing to avoid a facedown slip in the mud. At the top of the hill stood three clochans, or stone beehive-shaped huts that once provided shelter and storage for an Iron Age family. Not quite so fortified as the ring forts, these may have been used during more peaceful times or were used until the shelter of the fort was needed. Aside from the horrible weather, the most incredible thing was their condition – still standing and barely leaking in the torrential downpour despite standing out in this exposed field for centuries.
We continued on around the headlands, now at the westernmost point of Europe. This factoid caused a bit of discussion as in our mind’s eye Spain and Portugal stuck out further. A brief look at Nüvi though showed it to be true – Ireland is considerably to the west and it confirmed what we had learned yesterday in Dingle town – Christian pilgrims once used that seaport for a three day sail straight south to the Shrine to Saint James at Santiago de Compostelo in Spain as it provided the most direct route.
The Blasket Islands lie offshore here and I bet on a clear day one can actually see them - but not today, too much fog and too much rain. We stopped at the interpretive center for coffee and a break from the weather before continuing on.
Two more stops proved interesting and soaking, one at a 8th century Oratory or small church that today stands intact and just as watertight as the day it was built. Looking like and upside down boat and constructed with flat stones and no mortar, each layer successively trends inward until the thing is finally capped with a line of flat rocks. Inside it was dry and dark, and so small that it made me wonder how many people might have squeezed inside to hear the gospel of some monk sent here to spread the word. My Lovely Wife sacrificed her umbrella here to the west wind as its spindly little metal arms were ripped to shreds.
At Kilmalkedar we stopped to have a look at a Norman church built in the 12th century. There was nothing spectacular about it but the two Ogham stones standing one inside and one in the churchyard were very cool. The latter had a hole drilled through the top and in the past two people seeking to close a deal with a bond would insert a thumb into each side to swear their word. I stopped to put my thumb through, just to do something that had been done by people so long ago. Both stones had Celtic carvings and one had a fanciful cross on one side, no doubt to Christianize it.
The route took us back through Dingle town and we went on our way towards Tralee and our next destination, The Burren and Galway. Looking at the map we found a ferry at Tarbert and decided to take it as it cut off probably a solid 100 miles of driving. The weather was clearing and the rain had stopped and so we allowed ourselves the thought that the rest of the day might not be so bleak. We managed to hit the ferry dock precisely 10 minutes before departure and we were loaded up and ready to go before we knew it. On board and underway, we had a brief conversation with a middle-aged pony-tailed man who was interested in our impression of our Volvo rental car, as he had just bought one back home in Tucson where he was building a house. Another small world moment.
Twenty minutes later and across Shannon Bay we were once again on our way. The weather was going downhill despite the occasional sun break. We’d hoped to stop at the Cliffs of Moher but the wind and the rain said “why bother?” I had one more place to go and if I was going to get soaked a second time, I wanted it to be there.
On a previous trip I had become hopelessly lost in The Burren. It’s a very strange place – miles and miles of rock strewn fields with little vegetation and no sense of direction no matter where you are. I had a plan on that last trip to drive a coastal road but ended up instead in this warren of unnamed country lanes hemmed in by endless rock walls and no idea where the heck I was. This time I swore it would be different and it was until we got past the village of Kilfenora and it no longer made sense. A quick stop and a brief analysis suggested that we were on the right track and so we motored on passing by a ruin I had passed on my last voyage. Eventually though we found the correct road and we were on our way to Poulnabrone Dolmen, a 5000 year old megalithic tomb that I hoped to see.
By the time it came into view, the rain was once again pounding on the car. It was sad that my jeans had dried out but I was willing to take another soaking if it meant a close up viewing. I parked and got out into the wind, keeping my camera inside my jacket. A few other people were there doing the same thing.
The surface of the Burren is very odd indeed – weathered limestone broken into the strangest shapes with tough grasses and weeds growing up between the patched of rock. It’s tough going to cut across it, and I imagine lots of ankles have been turned here. But the dolmen was incredible despite the weather and the footing, standing stark against the sky just as it had when its contents had been laid to rest. The only sad thing for me was that the rain and the wind made it pretty much impossible to simply stand and soak in the history and the energy. On a clear day I think I could have done that for an hour, today though it was simply too harsh. I took my photos and went back to the car, arriving there just as a tour bus did. I was grateful that I was able to visit here alone, and not in the company of a bunch of day trippers.
The day was winding down and so we took off in search of Galway and our next night’s lodging. I made a bunch of guesses on what roads to take and miraculously ended up in front of the hotel, so fast that we had to go around the block to figure out how to get into the car park. The girl at the desk told us not to park there as the gates were not working and she was pretty amazed to hear of our good luck in getting in there. The car was secure, we were dry and an evening in Ireland’s most famous medieval seaport awaited.