Before visiting Ireland, I had always heard of its western coast famed for its rugged beauty; of wind and clouds, mist and craggy stone shores, a landscape absent of trees, endless green hills and hedgerows. I don’t know if this is universally true of the entire western coast, but I found it to be true of the Dingle Peninsula.
We loaded the tour bus just after breakfast on a cloudy, misty morning which perfectly suited me. For all the reputation of Ireland’s wet and cool climate, this was to be the only day on our trip where it was in fact cloudy and a light jacket required.
The drive took us along a 32 mile loop of the peninsula’s perimeter, heading west on the southern side, then out to the western edge and the Blasket Island Center, and then back along the northern road.
As we drove along I was transfixed by the expansive, grey Atlantic to our left and the sometimes concerning sheer drop off hundreds of feet as the road ran right along the edge.
To the right was climbing green hills wrapped in misty wonder with segmented patches of hedgerows. It was at once overwhelmingly wondrous to see yet a little disappointing as it is so hard to know a place without putting your feet on the ground and walking around a bit.
What visit to a country where sheep are raised would be complete without stopping by a farm to hold a baby lamb? I have to say, I was skeptical about the addition of this brief feature of the excursion, but one moment of holding a baby lamb and those silly pretensions melt away as evidenced by the ridiculously happy look on my face.
Back on the bus, my face was glued to the window watching the coast go by. All around were isolated, rocky beaches and alcoves, hillsides to be traversed, and islands to sit and watch. But soon we arrived at the Blasket Island Centre, a place preserving the history of a fascinating people.
Just off the western coast of the peninsula sits a number of uninhabited islands known as the Blasket Islands. Once populated with Irish speaking peoples, the last of the island’s inhabitants, who at the time numbered 22, were evacuated by the Irish government in 1953 due to the remote and harsh nature of the islands and declining population; simply, the government was no longer able to provide service its people, and so ended an entirely unique culture. There was a great deal of interest in the inhabitants of the island and in the early 20th century many were encouraged to write of their experiences providing a rich history of life on the island.
The center provided wonderful information about the island and the people who once populated it and had many artifacts. We were to watch an informational film about the people, but as we only had an hour remaining, I chose to skip it. The ocean was calling to me and I figured this would be my only opportunity to experience the landscape.
I ventured down an asphalt road that ran alongside the center, which soon became dirt, taking pictures all along the way of wildflowers growing in the adjacent wall.
About a quarter mile later, I reached the coast, a rocky beach which was thankfully absent of any other people. I stood and smelled the ocean water, walked along the slick, rounded rocks and gazed out into the rough sea. I found refuge from the wind and mist below an outcropping and listened to the ancient conversation between water and land.
This was the Ireland I came to experience, here under a grey sky on this stony shore, on the edge of what seemed everything, green hillsides behind me whipped by wind, misty droplets slowly coating my glasses lenses, the elemental joy of nature unrefined.
I could have stayed for hours, thinking about the end of the Blasket culture, what it took to survive, watching hard waves crash against rough stone, gulls gliding to shore to dig between rocks for a meal, and imagining myself living here in a small cottage; what a beautiful community it would be, a beautifully rich life.
After 30 minutes or so, it was a quarter-mile back for a delicious fish and chips lunch at the center’s restaurant before we once again boarded the bus. We continued on watching the coast on one side and hedgerows on the other go by in the mid-morning mist.
There are very few trees on the western coast of Ireland. I assume this is because of the wind and shallow soil. What few trees there are, they are permanently bent in the direction of the prevailing winds. Very little can be farmed as just below the thin soil is rock, and so really the only crop produced is grass which is harvested to feed the sheep and cattle. What is left are the iconic hedgerows and stone walls that separate farmland. Some of these can be very small, less than an acre, but it is illegal in Ireland to destroy hedgerows even if you own the land adjacent, which many do. The hedgerows house important nesting birds, foxes, badgers and other creatures/biodiversity, and so their destruction would be in many ways the destruction of nature. Oddly, what does grow profusely on the peninsula is the non-native fuchsia bush which originated in Chile. It’s everywhere and quite a menace, but it does produce beautiful blooms of with which the Dingle Distillery infuses its gin to delightful effect.
We soon came to our last stop, the Gallarus Oratory church, one of the oldest, if not the oldest surviving building in Ireland. There is much debate about its age (depending on who you read, anywhere from 8th century to 12th century) but what’s not debated is the importance to Irish heritage. Resembling a boat turned upside down, the oratory is constructed with locally sourced stone in an overlapping, slightly inward form much like the roof construction used at the neolithic site of Newgrange. It was wonderful to stand inside and look out the small window in the back, imagining what it must have been like to worship in such a place.
Soon after it was back on the bus and the return to Dingle. The drive was not far at this point, and as if nature new the excursion was about done, the fog and mist began to give way to sun ending the only properly Irish day of the entire trip.