Dingle to Connemara

Thursday 16th July 2009, Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula
We woke to bright sunshine but before the morning was over we'd experienced chill winds, dark clouds, rain, hazy mist and sunshine again. A friend emailing about her vivid recollections of travelling round Ireland says generally the country can experience an entire season of weather in a day. That just about sums it up.

Killarney was okay as a place to spend the night but passing through the centre this morning it all looked fairly modern and crowded, being the last day of the Killarney races.

At Tescos we stopped for fuel and to replenish Modestine's fridge. Our English Tesco club card was happily accepted and we found we get one point for every euro rather than every pound as back home. Should we complain to Tesco that the Irish are being given an unfair advantage? We couldn't easily find anywhere to park in Killarney so headed on towards the Dingle Peninsula, the third finger of land along this stretch of the coast to jut out into the Atlantic. Most people go for the middle one, Kerry, which is the largest and very popular with coach trippers, so we decided to explore Dingle instead, hoping it would be more peaceful. Until we got beyond the town of Dingle though, we felt rather disappointed. There is far more traffic than we found on Beara and the hedgerows, glorious as they are, hide the view of the sea and the coast, which is the whole purpose of the drive.

Dingle is a pleasant little town of 1,500 people but holiday makers were packing the streets and harbour area, swelling the population. Boat trips around the bay were on offer– money back if you don't see a dolphin. Views across to the mountains on the Kerry peninsula were spectacular while Dingle has a major salt water aquarium and a monastery with notable Pre-Raphaelite glass by Harry Clarke.

Dingle Peninsula

Dingle harbour

There are very few areas where Irish is still regularly spoken though apparently in some schools lessons are conducted entirely in Irish. The Dingle peninsula is an area where attempts have been made to ensure the language is protected and is used by local people. All major road signing is in both English and Irish but here government policy has deliberately blocked out the English names. This led to some conflict among the locals who felt that Dingle was a more widely known brand name than An Daingian. Road signs in the area bear witness to changes both official and unofficial. Away from the more major roads signing seems to only be in Irish and we've spent some time today wandering around with the fairies trying to find our way to the campsite where we are spending the night.

Yesterday we discovered that in Ireland beer comes from petrol pumps. Today we discovered whiskey lies beneath the streets of Dingle!

Gaelic manhole cover, Dingle. (Uisce means water, from which the word whiskey is derived.)

Friday 17th July 2009, Doonaha, County Clare
The far west of the Dingle peninsula is spectacular. One of the highest points in Ireland looms, wreathed in mist, over the fields that lie between the mountains and the sea, where the ground rises up into a series of peaked cliffs. Off shore there is a scattering of islands known as the Blaskets. The largest was inhabited up until the 1950s though now birds are the only residents with pleasure boats crossing daily with visitors. The island produced several writers held in high esteem by the Irish, the most famous being Peig Sayers who wrote of her life on Great Blasket. It has been referred to as an account of Neolithic life seen from the inside; it was all so primitive!

Great Blasket, off Clogher Head

We walked out onto a craggy headland at Clogher Head which, apart from Iceland, is the furthest westerly point in Europe, further west even than Cabo da Roca which we visited in Portugal a few months ago. It was the area where Ryan's Daughter was filmed, although in recent years the old cottages had been replaced by bungaloid growth to such an extent that they had to reconstruct the village from fibreglass!

Walking out to Clogher Head, Dingle Peninsula

Clogher head, Dingle Peninsula

From a tiny cove, back in the 6th century, St. Brendon is reputed to have set sail and crossed to America. We parked near a little statue commemorating the event and walked down to the fishing cove where the sea surges into the deep caves in the surrounding rocks. As a small child our son Neil was fascinated with the story of St. Brendon after seeing a replica of his boat in an exhibition at the late lamented Maritime Museum in Exeter. It was made from the inflated hides of cattle sewn together and protected with a coating of animal fat. It really is stretching the imagination to believe it would be capable of leaving the tiny cove, let alone crossing the Atlantic. Tim Severin managed it in 1972 however, proving that it would indeed have been possible.

St. Brendon sets sail for America, Dingle Peninsula

St. Brendon's cove, Dingle Peninsula

In the fields along the coast there are numerous "beehive huts" (so called because of their shape) some reputed to date from the 8th century. Constructed from piled up stones without the use of mortar they are very similar to the capitelles to be found in vineyards down in the Languedoc, and like them, date mainly from the 19th century. Both here and in France they serve as a store for workers' tools when they are out in the fields.

Beehive huts, Dingle Peninsula

Seen through our windscreen on the coast road round the Dingle Peninsula

The coast road around the headland known as Slea Head is bumpy, exposed and narrow as it winds around the rocky cliff top. This does not stop coaches from using it, by consensus always in the same direction. We found ourselves coming the opposite way, grateful that Modestine is slim enough to just squeeze past.

Back in the town of Dingle we turned off up Connor Pass. Our guidebook said it was not for the faint hearted but, apart from a narrow stretch on the way down, too narrow for a normal camper van, there was nothing we've not faced before and worse. The views from the top of the pass were very impressive, the more so when the sun suddenly disappeared and the rain teemed from a black cloud that caused the mist to drop like a blanket, blotting the surrounding hills in a second!

View from the top of the Connor Pass, Dingle

View from the top of the Connor Pass, Dingle

Once down the pass and heading towards Tralee we left the beauty behind. There were rough fields and hedges and roadside villages of garish modern bungalows. Tralee was crowded with traffic and did not inspire us so we continued across boglands where peat cutters were out cutting sods to be piled onto trailers. What do they do with peat and turfs these days we wonder? Are they still burned as fuel?

We have been puzzled not to have seen pretty old wayside churches. In a strongly Catholic country where saints have been performing miracles since the days of St. Brendon we would have expected to see churches in every village. Few are older than the 19th century and even they are few and far between. There are numerous wayside religious monuments in iron or concrete, generally they are horrid.

Currently there is excitement in this part of Ireland. In the village of Rathkeale, a tree was chopped down a few days ago in the churchyard and the stump allegedly looks exactly like the Virgin Mary! Such miracles are not a daily occurrence and we had intended seeking it out, excited at the prospect of being in at the start of a new apparition of the Holy Mother of God. However, we changed our minds and went off in the opposite direction when we discovered we might just catch a ferry that would take us across the estuary of the river Shannon, avoiding the necessity of driving right up to Limerick before we could cross. Our timing was perfect and we drove straight onto the ferry for the twenty minute crossing. It cost us 18 euros leaving us with less than enough to pay for the campsite on the far side, in county Clare.

Modestine drenched by the spray as she crossed the Shannon

Our route in search of a cash machine brought us to Kilrush, a spacious little market town with the usual colourful shop-fronts and a main square in which stands the early 19th century market house and the Maid of Erin Monument. (She is an allegorical figure symbolising Irish nationalism in the same way that Marianne was the symbol of French revolutionary zeal.) This monument was erected by public subscription in 1903 to the memory of the so-called "Manchester Martyrs" who in 1867 rescued the leader of the Fenians, Thomas J.Kelly who had been arrested in Manchester. While attacking the prison van "one of the police guards was accidentally shot dead" presumably by a gun that one of the martyrs was accidentally carrying. The trial was allegedly flawed and three of the five were executed, or rather "judicially murdered by a tyrannical government" according to the monument. Of such stuff are heroes made in Ireland.

Market house and Maid of Erin Monument, Kilrush

Saturday 18th July 2009, An Spideal, Galway
There has been hardly a break in the drizzle and mizzle today as we have slowly wound northwards along the western edge of Ireland following the contours of the coastline. The roads are narrow and, in the main, potholed and bumpy, in urgent need of some fresh tarmac.

County Clare is less dramatic than further south though it does boast the highest cliffs in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher. It was something of a shock though to discover that despite the rain and waterlogged ground, there were queues of vehicles waiting to park and there was a charge for visiting the cliff top! A soaking wet walk over sodden fields to a windswept cliff struck us as a typically Irish way of passing the time.

This rather set the trend for most of the day. Wherever there may have been anything even mildly interesting to see there were crowded car parks, stalls selling Celtic nick-nacks and a turnstile requesting several euros each to pass. We have cromlechs, standing stones and abandoned Celtic villages back in the south-west freely accessible and we need to be very selective in what we visit during our extended travels. It's not quite like taking a holiday and pensions only go so far. Ireland is undoubtedly a very expensive country in all respects.

It does have undeniably beautiful coastal scenery but, apart from countless remains of castles and strongholds that were destroyed during the time of Oliver Cromwell, not a great deal else.

Ruins of the early 17th century Leamaneh castle, destroyed by Cromwell's forces in the 1650s

So far we've yet to discover a pub with live music. This is obviously because our evenings are spent on campsites which in Ireland are few and far between and where they exist are usually well beyond walking distance from any pubs or bars. Once we've settled of an evening it's really too much effort to pack everything away to drive to anywhere lively and sociable, and in any case, with Modestine, I couldn't even have a drink. So once we've cooked supper we watch a dvd, process our photos, write the blog, read our guide books, plan for the following day and listen to the perpetual sound of the rain on the roof.

From the Cliffs of Moher we turned inland to discover Lisdoonvarna, famed as a match-making town where once a year a festival is held, ostensibly, to enable young men working on isolated farmsteads to find themselves a wife. This was the original purpose though now it has become no more than a leery, beery tourist attraction.

Matchmaking excitement at Lisdoonvarna

Further on stands Kilfenora where the tiny village church wallows in the grandiose status of a cathedral! You can find it up a muddy track behind a farmstead on the main street. It dates from the twelfth century and stands in the middle of a crowded, ugly 19th century graveyard that is still in current use. A cow browsing on the far side of the church wall told us the cathedral was kept locked but there were some interesting Celtic crosses round the back as well as one in her field that, almost back to pagan times had been used by her ancestors as a scratching post, until some interfering archaeologist decided to erect a railing round it. Now whenever they rubbed against the bars it sounds like an Irish harp!

The Irish crosses, though naturally very worn, were the real thing, dating from the 12th century, decorated with naïve figures of Christ, animals, and Celtic strap-work. Ian then accompanied the cow across the sodden field to see the largest and most complete of the four crosses while she gave him a real bovine Irish ceili on the surrounding bars, swaying enthusiastically with the rhythm. Who needs a pub and a fiddler anyway?

Celtic crosses from 12th century, Kilfenora

Celtic cross in the fields of Kilfenora with the cathedral in the distance

North of Kilfenora lies the Burren. This is an area of Karstic limestone and is a unique landscape scattered with ancient sites including cromlechs and standing stones as well as natural geological features such as underground rivers and caves. The surface of the landscape is bare, denuded of vegetation, though where the flat plateaux, known as pavements, have cracked open, wild flowers flourish in the fissures during spring and autumn. We've seen various limestone landscapes during our travels – the Causses and the Cirque de Navacelles down in the Midi, and the mountains and spectacular rivers of the Jura – but this was quite different. The lower levels where criss-crossed with countless dry-stone walls to clear some of the debris while the higher ground rose in a series of immense, bare, grey terraces that we found hard to believe had been created by nature rather than quarrying. Presumably the subterranean rivers exit to the nearby sea through caves in the cliffs rather than in a resurgence, as found in the Jura.

Megalithic portal tomb, Poulnabrone, the Burren

Eroded limestone surface, the Burren

Typical landscape, the Burren

And so we reached the edge of Galway Bay where major roads swept us to the outskirts of Galway. Our map indicated a campsite on the far side from where we hoped to catch a bus into the city. The ring-road avoided the centre but the campsite was nowhere to be found. The one we eventually found was way along the coast and if we are to get round Ireland we need to keep going forward, so Galway's delights will not be featuring on our blog.

Looking at the map, as I hope you are too, we see that we are on the very edge of Connemara and the area seems to have as much water as land. It looks like a soggy sponge with its countless lakes and inlets from the sea. Rather like Finland and it may be interesting to compare. The rest of the landscape is probably bog. Much of Ireland seems to be soggy and boggy, and cartloads of peat-blocks by peoples' doors are a familiar sight.

We cannot fathom out the Irish economy. There is good quality housing, albeit incongruous modern bungalows, scattered throughout the countryside. There are very few villages and far less evidence of abandoned cottages from the 1847 potato famine than we would have expected. People appear to have a good standard of living but what has happened to any sense of community? A sign in the post office announced that if you were elderly and paying DIRT you could be eligible for a rebate. The lady behind the counter didn't know what DIRT stood for – just another of the taxes they take from you, she informed us. What are Irish taxes like? Prices for everything seem so high here. Houses cost at least as much as in England if not more. Where do people in the isolated countryside work and how can they afford their houses, cars and general standard of living? Inland around here the countryside generally lies barren, either unworkable bogland or left for silage. There are cattle and sheep in some fields but none of it looks intensive. We've seen road signs offering new potatoes and Wexford strawberries for sale but have seen no real evidence of arable farming, no vegetable gardens, no pigs or poultry. Inland Galway and County Clare seems to be just unused fields of thistles and weeds, lumpy wet grass and bog, while the roadsides are edged by scraggy hedges and untidy overgrown yellowing grass.

Sunday 19th July 2009, Clifden, Connemara
Well, Connemara's not in the least like Finland, which is flat. The coastline and hinterland of Connemara are sublime! Definitely the part of Ireland that has most appealed so far – which is not to say the rest of the West Coast is anything but stunningly beautiful. In Connemara the mountains loom dark blue against the afternoon sky while our route winds for ever through the empty boglands below. Brown peaty streams tumble their way through the bogs, their stony beds shining silver from clusters of fresh water mussels while their surface shines silver from the reflected light of the sky. Somewhere between the two there is the occasional flash of silver from the scales of a fish. All around there are lakes where sometimes fishermen can be seen casting their lines for salmon. There are grey stone crags protruding through the peat where white fluffy cotton grass shows that water is oozing right to the surface. Anywhere they can on the rocks and stones tiny, ground hugging clusters of pink, yellow and blue flowers nestle from the wind. From time to time we pass a coppice of low woodland – twisted oaks and hawthorns hanging low over the water, bent by the winds. Amongst it all horses and ponies wander, their sticky black legs sinking deep in the oozing bog while beside the road and on higher ground are small groups of shaggy sheep, their fleeces brightly stained in reds and blues, indicating ownership. All this sounds somewhat like Dartmoor and indeed the boglands are not dissimilar, even to the extent of dry stone walls enclosing parts of the landscape and occasional plantations of pine trees - though the mountains are definitely something else!

Typical Connemara scenery

First though, we left our campsite and stopped to browse the small coastal town of An Spideal with its tiny fishing harbour.

An increasingly rare example of a typical Irish cottage, An Spideal, Connemara

It being Sunday, we were surprised to find the library open. Inside a lady explained she was a local artist with an exhibition and was simply using the library as her venue. We asked her what might be happening in the town today. "Not a lot" she replied, "though there is always Mass." We admired her paintings and browsed the library shelves. Personally I found it intriguing that so much of the material was in Gaelic, and worrying that overall the collections were so very heavily biased towards Irish history, literature, and culture. This was the public library, catering for the entire community and its needs. Of course, in a strongly Gaelic speaking area the collections should reflect this, but in the 21st century young people should have their minds open to the wider world. Perhaps much of Ireland's troubles stem from too much introspection, entrenched dogmatism and the conviction that they are a persecuted people, exploited by the English. It seems so many of their troubles are of their own making but the blame must always be laid at England's door. Young minds should be presented with the materials to make their own judgement. How can they do this when libraries and bookshops offer almost exclusively works by Irish writers, good as they all undoubtedly are, and a purely Irish view of recent history and politics? Some schools even conduct lessons entirely in Gaelic. This can only do a disservice to young minds in a modern world where they should be encouraged to look to the future, not always back to their own tragic past.

I'll get off my soapbox now and continue northwards along the coast where, just seven minutes off shore by a tiny plane lie the Isles of Aran, where all those white chunky knitted sweaters are hand produced by rosy-cheeked ladies in spotted aprons sitting on wooden chairs at the doors of their little stone cottages while scones bake on a griddle over their glowing peat fires. Meanwhile the gnarled menfolk are out amid the dry stone walls in the fields, hand shearing the sheep and digging turfs which they bring home on their donkey carts. After supper they smoke by their firesides and drink the local whiskey while their wives spin the wool or say their rosaries. We know all this from an excellent set of photos displayed in the tiny airport departure lounge, very like the one at Land's End from where we once flew to the Scillies. There are three Aran Islands and return flights to the largest cost 45 euros each; which is why we've drawn our impressions from the photos rather than life.

Quickest way to reach the Aran Islands, Connemara

All along the coastline were tiny rocky coves but nowhere to park. The roads are all narrow and the surfacing dreadful. We wonder whether it is partly caused by subsidence of the underlying peat. Certainly as soon as we drove at any speed Modestine would bounce and whiplash from one hump or pothole to the next. So even on these rural roads we frequently headed a tailback of lighter cars unable to pass us and with nowhere for us to pull off the road for them to overtake.

Leaving the coast road we turned inland to discover the boglands of Connemara described above. This part is known as Joyce country and in a little rural graveyard out in the bog we found many 19th century headstones of members of the Joyce clan slowly sinking into the saturated peat. Most were inaccessible if we were to remain dry-shod. This Welsh family originally settled in the region after the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century.

Graveyard in Connemara

We rejoined the coast at Roundstone, the harbour and village designed by Alexander Nimmo in 1825. It was regatta day and the narrow road through was blocked solid with pedestrians and cars. A lady in one of the shops suggested we turn up a lane beside her house which would bring us to the top of the town. Here we found easy parking and walked back down to the harbour side. Out on the water were sailing vessels looking quite splendid with their dark red or black sails while nearer to the shore the wide bottomed rowing boats known as currachs, were lined up waiting for the starter's signal. Our son Neil sometimes used to row in very similar boats, intended for sea use rather than lakes or rivers. In England such boats are known as Cornish gigs.

Harbourside at Roundstone, Connemara

Lining up to start the currach racing, Roundstone, Connemara

We joined the crowds with their ice creams and beers as we all crowded around a group of local musicians playing their hearts out with Irish traditional music. Sometimes an elderly resident would take the microphone and sing some well known tune, such as "The road to Kildare", the appreciative audience joining in with the chorus. Others would climb up onto the makeshift stage and dance, twirling, tapping and stamping out a lively jig. So we've at last experienced real Irish traditional music at its best, done for the local people on the village streets.

Irish band, Roundstone, Connemara

Dancing to the Irish music, Roundstone, Connemara

Roundstone is where many of Ireland's traditional musical instruments are made, in particular the bodhran. It's a small hand-held shallow drum with a tympan made from animal skin that is tapped with a double ended short wooden baton. The workshops are open to view and the accompanying shop sells every folk music instrument known to Ireland as well as instruction books on how to play them. Price are reasonable and they are hard to resist, even for us. Inflation and the euro have taken their toll though. Penny whistles are now six euros each!

Further along the coast we turned off, up to a headland overlooking the Atlantic, the indented coastline and the great sweep of low-lying bog-land. Behind us stood the towering mountains known as the Twelve Pins near to the Connemara National Park. Up here stands a monument to Alcock and Brown, the first to fly the Atlantic. They crash landed in the peat bog in June 1919 after leaving Newfoundland less than 17 hours before! Well they were lucky to have landed somewhere soft rather than hitting any of the mountains. Ireland's coasts have witnessed so many of the major links with America, including St. Brendon, the Titanic and transatlantic flight. In nearby Clifden Marconi set up his wireless telegraph station to America in 1905.

Monument like an aircraft's tailfin commemorating the first transatlantic flight in 1919, near Clifden, Connemara

Commemorating the flight of Alcock and Brown, near Clifden, Connemara

View from the monument showing the Twelve Pins, near Clifden, Connemara

The only town of any size in Connemara is Clifden which is little more than a large village. It's a very pleasant little place on a sunny Sunday evening when all the shops are open and despite the breeze people are sitting outside the bars with their Guinness. There are countless hotels, hostels and bed and breakfast places and it looks a very pleasant base from which to explore the lovely surroundings. A few kilometres outside we found a peaceful campsite with lovely views. We are the only camping car here! The lanes are just too small for larger camping cars so everyone else is using tents. It all helps explain why this part of Ireland seems so much less commercialised than around Kerry and Dingle. The site was mentioned to us by some Devon friends emailed to us in a vivid account of their travels around this wonderfully peaceful area. Such suggestions are greatly appreciated. Thanks Deb and Alan.

Town centre, Clifden, Connemara