From my travel journal, dated Sunday, April 13, 2008:
Breakfast this morning was more to my New Yorker sensibilities: coffee with a toasted bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. We drove the 3/4 mile into town and set about renting bikes. Alas, closed were Paddy’s Bike Rental; Foxy John’s Hardware, Pub, and Bike Rental; and the Mountain Man Bike Rental. Eileen’s Bed and Breakfast had only one bike for rent. So deflated were we that we didn’t even bother checking Atheist Jack’s 24/7 Bike Shop. Thankfully, we had a back-up plan for touring Dingle Penninsula: our trusty Mitsubishi Colt.
Retrospectively, given the length of the ride (30 miles) and the numerous hills, this was probably no unhappy occurrence. It was, then, in climate-controlled and lumbar-supported comfort that we reset the odometer and headed west out of town.
The stops are too numerous to try to recall each individually. One early one was a ~1,500-year-old fort, clinging precariously to the edge of the cliffs, surrounded by choppy waves breaking on boulders far below, and by stunning greens and blues in the morning Irish sunlight. The fort was preceded by a series of one-meter embankments, on which we attempted to get some sheep to cooperate with our photographic inclinations.
At another “pull-out”, we scrambled ten meters or so below road level to a rock protruding out above the ocean. A little dirt path told me it was safe, and thus it was difficult to imagine any danger or other untoward event. However, had the path not been there, my sensibilities regarding slippery rocks, a long fall, large boulders, and socialized medicine may have produced a moment’s precautionary hesitation, if not prudent abstention. It was at this stop, I think, that the Colt achieved elevated status as a companion and a personality. We began to try to include it in rugged, scenic photos when at all possible. (Colt post to come.)
One of the more memorable stops was near the Great Blasket Islands. On these, off the westernmost tip of Europe lived about 160 people at most preceding World War I; the population dwindled to fifty and then twenty by the time there was a forced evacuation of the island in 1953. The farmers used to row thirty minutes in to a beach and then hike 12 miles in to Dingle Town to sell produce.
After visiting the sleek, multimillion dollar Great Blasket Centre, however, I learned that the Great Blasket Islanders’ true passion was melancholy storytelling and mourning a vanishing way of life. Irish was primarily an oral tradition for several hundred years until the late 19thCentury, and it was then, about 100 years ago, that the Islanders began to record their history in pen and ink, and to wistfully remember it. The irony is, best as I can tell, that all the sad clinging to the scattering pages of their ancestors’ lives; the fading solidarity with the harsh and rugged landscape, the soft peat, the vast sea; the lilting cadence of the speech and stories…all this mourning and remembering and wistful recording began a good generation or so before the island population’s decline. The island sons’ and daughters’ departure for a better life in Dublin, London, or even America; the forgetting of an ancient tongue; the lure of better jobs for the midwife in a modern inland clinic, or for the farmer in the rapidly sprouting technology corridor of the city; this was all the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the self-conscious writers. They did not preserve the culture; they killed it. I hope you’re happy, Thomás Ó Criomhthain, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. May you rest in peace, just as your culture now rests in peace, Peig Sayers.
I might add, also, that the Great Blasket Centre had a very nice seafood bisque and some of the best Irish brown bread I’ve had here.
One of the final stops was an ancient Norman church built ~1200 AD; in the front yard was a 6-foot stone dating from ~300 AD with a hole near the top. This was a sacred pagan site before the arrival of Christianity. Two parties would place and touch their thumbs through the hole as a means of making a vow. To this day, wedding vows are renewed in this manner by some.
Departing from my usual habit, I had the urge to place a penny in a spot where, upon returning in years hence, I might find it once again. So there, to the right of the second arch, just above eye-level is a crack that now hides a little copper penny.
We coasted back into town and took an hour nap with the window open, sunshine streaming in, and a slight breeze carrying the distant bleating of sheep to make one of the best naps I’ve had in quite some time.
And then, feeling that Rick Steves might be disappointed in our not making the most of the day, we drove into town were I sat by the docks and journaled while David did some souvenir shopping. And to further redeem the afternoon, we walked along the harbor by the water-front all the way around to the old tower. A dog we named Blackie followed us most of the way there and back. From a mossy perch seated near the tower with its nearby rabbit holes and briar patches, we could look out as the sun set across the harbor, and we even spotted Fungie, a dophin that’s lived near the mouth of the harbor since 1981.
Dinner was at the nearly empty Blue Zone Jazz where we split a delicious thin crust pizza with Italian ham and mushroom, with a glass of red wine. Next door was my favorite pub yet: dim but not dark Dick Mack’s, formerly a leather & shoe shop by day and pub by night. There we met an anthropology student from Pittsburg who’d strangely acquired an Irish accent during his time abroad, as well as two men who grew up in Dingle Town but now work in larger cities. They made jokes and we laughed, only catching 3/4 of what they said at baseline, and even less when they were laughing. Maybe they were laughing that we were laughing when we didn’t understand them.
A word about the pub–being across from a church, it had the nickname, “The Last Pew.” It opened in 1899 and the interior can’t have changed much since then. One wall was filled with leather shoes, some in boxes, some atop the long wooden shelves which climbed twelve feet or so to the ceiling. In front was a counter, on either side of which patrons could sit. One side had an array of stools, while the other featured simply a long wooden bench. There was the bar, of course, on the other wall, as well as a couple cubby-holes or nooks for quiet conversation, or, for the demure ladies in town, a discreet drink.
“Is it alcoholic?” I asked of the two men who chatted with David and me, referring to the pint of golden-hued Bulmer’s cider, its crisp coolness accented by tiny bubbles curling their way ot the surface. “Aye!!! Nothing like a coupla’ these after a hot summer’s day!” enthusiastically replied one of the men, and then lapsed into a round of hearty praise for the drink, in either Irish or unintelligible English.
Addendum (June 10, 2008): In my estimation, this pub, with it its cozy atmosphere, quirky wall of shoes, ample hard wood, history, and fun nickname earns the prize for my favorite pub visited in Ireland.