Back to Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, Part 2

March 23 - 31, 2002
By Lewis Nolan

(Updated 5-16-02. Comments are welcome and should be sent to lewis_nolan@yahoo.com)

Return To Home Page

Part 1: Memphis to Shannon and Dingle Peninsula via Inch
Part 2: Golf at Cheann Sibeal, Slea Head Drive overlooking wild coast
Part 3: Dingle Town, Crystal Factory, Harbor Sights
Part 4: Castlegregory, Abbyfeal, Adare, Bunratty and flight home
Photo Album

Quick Links to Points of Interest in This Segment:

Cheann Sibeal Golf Club
Louis Mulcahy Pottery
Dunbeg Promontory Fort
Smerwick Harbor
Holden Leather Crafts

March 25, 2002, Monday - Dingle

We slept until after 8 a.m., a rarity for us. An elegant buffet breakfast in the hotel's restaurant conservatory overlooking the Dingle Harbor awaited us at 9 a.m., well before the crush of late-sleepers who arrived just before the 10 a.m. closing. For the first time in five years, we enjoyed genuine Irish bacon. It is like a piece of Canadian bacon with a tasty tail resembling a thick strip of American bacon. I thought the eggs tasted a little strange, probably due to a difference in chicken feed. But the hash browns and corn flakes were familiar. Betty, always a light eater in the morning, sampled a little bacon and toast and saved a croissant and apple for later.

We took a few shoreline photos of the hotel and grounds, including some shots of a nice stand of daffodils in full bloom. They were planted alongside a stone wall that kept the sheep in a neighboring pasture out. An ingenious "sheep gate," a sort of V-shaped notch in the wall, allows people to pass through sideways but blocks the sheep. There was a bit of fresh seaweed on the lawn, suggesting either a very high tide during the night or some storm-tossed waves while we slept.

The sun broke through the morning fog and I decided to play golf before the prediction of rain later in the week had a chance to become true. Betty wanted to attack the town's shops, one of her favorite vacation activities that holds little attraction for me. Since most of the shops of Dingle were within walking distance, it made it easy for us to follow our individual interests as we usually due when traveling for pleasure. I could take the car and drive several miles to play golf without having to worry that Betty would be stranded, as she was on our last trip here because of no-show taxis.

I had been looking forward to revisiting "Galfchursa Cheann Sibeal," Gaelic for Sibyl's Point Golf Course, a links course I had played twice during our last trip here. It's a classic seaside course without classic prices. The greens fee for all day play is 15 Euros for Dingle Skellig guests; a "trolley cart," Irish term for pull cart, is a buck extra. The course is described in the inimitable prose that is the birthright of the Irish.

The description is in the club's pocket guidebook to the course's hole maps and playing tips. It says Cheann Sibeal is "the most westerly golf course in Europe,
(From left) Golfers Lewis, Gareth & David
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
with stunning views of the Blasket Islands to the South and Brandon Mountain to the north . . .the most westerly hole is No. 10, with its elevated, half-hidden green carved from the sandy hillside. The 16th is a delight and challenge with a daunting, blind tee shot and an approach over the meandering burn; it is then crowned by a green as breathtaking in its appeal as it is in the putts which it requires. This is a piece of land while is virtually untouched by human hand - architecture as heaven sent as Brandon itself."

I was by myself and lucked into hooking up with two golfers who were very companionable guys. They were Gareth Anthony, a South African about 30 years of age who is resident manager of the Dingle Benners Hotel, and David Callaghan, a retired petroleum engineer from Dublin. Gareth, who has dual citizenship in South Africa and also in the United Kingdom through his Wales-born father, has been working in Ireland the last three years and at Benners the last three months.

A big, strong and athletic young man, Gareth volunteered that local rugby enthusiasts have been hotly recruiting him to join the hometown adult team. It was clear that David, who drove up in a large Mercedes Benz, was a VIP guest at the hotel, where he has been a regular for many years. He volunteered that he is a member of the all-male Grange Golf Club outside Dublin and also of St. Andrews Golf Club (not R&A) in England. A member of Cheann Sibeal's committee drove a cart out onto the course to welcome David to the club and make arrangements for him to play as guest of the chairman later in the week.

The golfing skill of David (handicap of 6 even though he is in his mid sixties) and Gareth (near scratch) had me feeling like a range ball in a box of new Titleists. But it was great fun and they seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did theirs. At least I had an alibi of having only a half bag, with no driver. So I passed on the bet. It was a good thing I did since driving my Three Metal off the blue tees left me consistently short. Compared to Gareth's boomers, I was sometimes short by 75 or more yards.

It was a wonderful though windy day for golf, with the sun shining and temperatures rising into the mid 50s. The views of Clogher Head, the Atlantic Ocean, pastures of deep green grass rising up the headlands and herds of sheep with frolicking lambs were simply spectacular. In the distance was one of the Blasket Islands that is known as "The Corpse" or more politely "The Sleeping Monk." It is so named because its rock formations make it look like a mile-long, laid-out body at a wake. What a day to remember, with good company and the finest scenery I've ever beheld from a golf course. (I'm comparing Cheann Sibeal to such courses I've seen as California's Pebble Beach, Georgia's Augusta National and the renowned Irish links at Ballybunion, Donegal, Killarney and Waterville).

Surprisingly, it really didn't make much difference that I only had eight clubs. I wasn't much shorter than usual on a strange course. I struggled with miss-hits and slices on the front 9 but still managed a 50. But I came alive on the back side, beginning with a par 3 on the 190-yard No. 10. I held the honor of the box for the next five holes and went par, bogey, par, bogey, par, ending up with a 44 for the side. My total of 94 on a tough course - rated at 71 off the blues - was an improvement from my previous 99 and 95 five years ago.

Even with walking, having to wait on several holes and stopping several times to look for balls lost in the rough and in the "burns" (small streams that crisscross the course), we finished the round in 4 1/2 hours. Importantly for me, I actually walked the entire 18 holes despite the sometimes steep, hillside slopes. It was the first time in perhaps four years that I've walked all 18, much less a hilly 18. I admit that had I been by myself, I would have stopped at the turn for a long rest or maybe for good. But it was a great day and I was enjoying the company of the guys, who didn't want to stop at the turn. So with pride driving me on, I reached down and kept trudging up and down the slopes with tired legs and considerable huffing and puffing. I felt great about accomplishing the strenuous walk. But, oh what a price I paid with soreness later.

At the conclusion of the round, David and Gareth settled their bet and invited me to join them for a pint of Guinness. The club bar hadn't opened yet, so we agreed to meet at Teig Peig's pub in nearby Ballyferriter, named in honor of a female writer who chronicled life on Great Blasket Island early in the 20th Century. I delayed long enough at the pro shop to buy a Cheann Sibeal club sweater and visor for myself, a golf shirt for our son, Casey, and a few other souvenirs from Club Pro John "Diony" O'Connor, who kindly threw in a couple of bag tags and greens tools at no charge.

At Teig Peig's, a pint quickly turned into two for me - and three for my new pals. We swapped golf stories and jokes, ending up with an agreement to play again in two days. I got back to the Dingle Skellig about 6:30 p.m., in full light. I was glad to learn that Betty had greatly enjoyed her day of shopping. She started just after 10 a.m. when I dropped her off in town, near a bank where she could cash some American Express Travelers Checks. She told me about visiting a lot of shops in Dingle. Among her purchases were two sweaters and some silver jewelry in Ogham writing for herself, a sweater for Casey and a Nolan lapel pin for me.

Remembering the excellent meals at reasonable prices we had enjoyed before at the Chart House restaurant overlooking the harbor's marina, we returned there in hopes of a fine dinner. However, the prices were high and menu nearly devoid of fish and seafood. We looked at another recommended restaurant, Paudies, but only the bar's meal service was open in this off-season time. So we returned to our hotel, where we had an excellent, expensive dinner with wine. We had some very good sole and shrimp served in a butter-peppercorn sauce and also some fried monkfish crusted with sesame seeds and mango salsa. It was a nice ending to a great day.

March 26, 2002, Tuesday - Slea Head Drive

My minimal willpower evaporated at the hotel's breakfast buffet this morning. I ate way too much of the superb Irish bacon along with unnecessary portions of fried eggs, hash browns, wheat toast and a big bowl of corn flakes mixed with bran flakes. Our plan for the day was to take the Slea Head Drive to re-visit some familiar spots and explore some new places on this route around the most scenic areas of the Dingle Peninsula. I don't think I could ever get enough of the rapturous beauty of this wild coastline and the Atlantic rollers crashing against the black rocks and plunging cliffs. Huge plumes of tossed spray form a constant assault on the senses, with the salt taste/smell of sea wrack and dampness of the powerful wind. How I love it.

As with the similar Cliffs of Moher to the North, there may be more awe-inspiring places than the Southwest Coast of Ireland on this planet. But I've not seen them. I can't imagine mortal man, woman or child standing in the middle of this grand creation and not believing in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth.

Our first stop was at Clogher Head Beach, where we had found a desiccated dolphin's body lodged in the rocks five years ago. The skies were blue, the wind was fierce
Lewis on Clogher Head Beach
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
and the surf running at least 10 feet high. White foam and spray were tossed skyward for many yards as the breakers pounded the rocks and stormed ashore. A swimmer or small boat wouldn't have a chance in this murderous maelstrom. What a sight. We took some photos and picked up a few surf-flattened rocks the size of silver dollars.

Our next stop was at Louis Mulcahy Pottery Studio & Showroom, where we admired the beautiful work that is famous throughout Ireland and elsewhere. Among those singing its praises have been writers in The New York Times and other distant publications. Signature pieces are huge amphora-sized vases that are about 4 feet tall. Most of Mulcahy's pieces - done by any of several production craftsmen and women - are cast in shades of blue and white. The smooth, clean lines of the pottery suggest the sea, which isn't surprising given that the potters' workroom has such grand views of the coast. Betty bought a set of napkin rings and a small vase. We would have liked to have purchased some larger pieces (the lamps were exquisite), but we have learned that you're better off to carry out whatever you buy and make sure that it safely fits in your luggage.

At Cheann Sraithe, or Clogher Head, we drove by the site of a Hollywood village built a decade ago for one of the opening scenes in the Tom Cruise movie, "Far and Away." But there is not a trace of the fiberglass "cottages" left or any marker that notes the filming. An American movie just isn't that big of a deal to the Irish, where history is measured in centuries and even millennia. We also stopped for photos at a verdant cliffside overlook far above Dunquin Pier, where we had boarded a sturdy ferryboat five years ago to see the sights at Great Blasket Island, eight miles out to sea. Either because the main June-August tourist season hasn't started or possibly because the sea was so rough this day, the ferryboats weren't running.

We had learned a lot about the tough life of the pre-20th Century Irish during our several hours on Great Blasket five years ago. The island's last remaining residents, a couple of dozen hardy souls who lived without benefit of electricity or modern conveniences, were moved ashore by the government in 1953 after a child died when storms kept him from getting medical attention from or on the mainland. Blasket is a haunting place with its deserted cottages made of stone. I'd like to see it again someday.

A few miles down Slea Head Drive, we drove by the millennia-old beehive huts where the early Christian monks lived. We had inspected the stone structures on our earlier trip and chatted with the owner of the land where some of them have sat for a thousand years or more, Mara O'Houlihan. She was one of the "extras" in "Far and Away." She had spoken warmly of actor Tom Cruise, whose fight scene shot on her land opened the movie. One of the first things we had done upon our return home in 1997 was re-watch our videotape of the movie again. Sure enough, there was Mrs. O'Houlihan and her rough-looking neighbors in the funeral scene. It still strikes me as odd that there is no spin-off hucksterism or any sign that the movie was shot here. Maybe the locals didn't like the movie.

But we did stop at Dunbeg a few miles down Slea Head Drive to have a look at another ancient structure. Dunbeg is a Promontory Fort, a small
Lewis at Dunbeg Promontory Fort
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
version of Dun Angus on Innishmore Island in the Arans west of Galway. Built of carefully piled stones on a point jutting out into the ocean near Slea Head, the fort was unearthed by archeologists in the late 1970s. It has been dated to the beginning of the Iron Age in Ireland, possibly 500 BC. We paid the owner of the land on which the fort sits 2 Euros each for visitation privileges and it was well worth the price. The fort is enclosed by a wall and has an underground passage, or escape route, called a "souterain."

The fort is on the very edge of a cliff promontory. It was probably all but impregnable in its day. It could have only been vulnerable to very large forces on rare days of still seas. About 70 feet below is the ocean, with waves pounding the basalt rock. The water was gin-clear this sunny day, with the wave-tops turning into surf-thrown foam. I wondered - at this spot and elsewhere on Slea Head Drive - if skilled surfers ever rode these waves. The waves had long crests and were certainly big enough and long-running enough to create rides of great length and duration. But with nowhere to put in or spin out, it would take an incredibly brave (or foolish) surfer with backup jetski craft to avoid the "cliffbreak" at the end of the ride. A "wipeout" would be literal and probably fatal. Besides, the ocean is quite cold even though the passing Gulf Stream warms it somewhat.

At Dunbeg and several other scenic overlooks, we and other tourists reciprocated with photo taking of one another. There was a young couple from Germany who were especially nice. Continuing on the Slea Head loop, we drove past the former Winerock Guest House, where we had stayed in 1997. It is now only open on weekends and during the summer season. The owner has either doubled or tripled its size and changed its name to Smerwick Harbor Hotel. Locals told us the owner had over-reached the market and the property wasn't making it as a hotel due to its somewhat remote location and lack of amenities and 24-hour service. Before the expansion, it was doing well as a guesthouse with 8 or so rooms, limited bar/restaurant service in the evening and lunch service on days when tour buses were passing through.

We drove a few miles down the sideroad from the now-empty hotel to revisit a neat pub and terrific seafood restaurant at Ballydavid's Smerwick Harbor. It is painted a bright yellow that can be seen across the bay and called Tigh T.P.'s, named for its founder, Timothy Paul O'Connor, a member of the vast O'Connor clan on Dingle Peninsula. With Gaellic, variant spellings of the same word seem common. Tig, roughly translating to "place of" like the French "chez," is often seen as Teig.

We were delighted to see that his son, Sean O'Connor, and Sean's wife, Fiona, were now the owners. They were our hosts at several terrific dinners here five years ago and were then in the process of buying the pub/restaurant/B&B establishment from his father. The pub's ceiling and walls were lightly decorated with auto license plate from around the world. I had sent Sean an expired Tennessee license plate from one of our cars and also a replica of a Tennessee plate emblazoned ELVIS. We were pleased to see both mounted and prominently displayed, the only such tags from the American South. Sean professed to remember us and spiritedly thanked us for the license plates; he never had seemed to be the type to write, and hadn't.

Sean had bulked up with muscle during the intervening years and was sporting a black eye, a badge of honor from his rugby play. He knew all about my golf partner
Betty by currach boat at Tigh T.P.'s
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
and was hoping that Gareth could yet be persuaded to join the team, even while saying he understood a hotel manager couldn't afford to go to work with a black eye. We asked about Sean's sister Gran'na and were told she is now working in Dingle at a tourism office. But a charming young local woman, name of Sinead, was working the bar. Oddly, the Diet Cokes served in that and other Irish bars we visited come only in tiny bottles, about 6 oz. each.

We visited with Sean and Fiona for about 15 minutes while they took a break from building a youth hostel to the rear of their pub. With their drive and winning personalities, they'd likely become wealthy in America. Sean said he had decided to sell his stout, 30-foot fishing boat to concentrate on his other ventures, which seem to have limited potential because of seasonality and their distance from the main tourist area of Dingle. We were sorry to learn that their restaurant - which employed a French chef during our last visit - operated only during the summer months. Also closed until the summer season was Begley's, another really good seafood restaurant about 25 yards away.

Sean mentioned that a young American woman on a bicycle had stopped by earlier in the day. It was probably the student from Tucson, Ariz., we had steered to Gallarus Oratory and his way. We had met her on the opposite site of Smerwick Harbor at a scenic spot ringed with black rocks. She was touring Ireland and had ridden out on a rental bike from the Rainbow Hostel just outside Dingle, a good ride of many miles over hills. Ireland is a much safer place for women traveling alone than many countries. There are very few murders or rapes in this land of law-and-order that is the source of so many of the world's cops and priests. The tendency of the Irish immigrants to become cops in the 19th Century is remembered by such generic phrases as "paddy wagon," so-called because Paddy is a nickname for both Padraig and Patrick. Likewise with Shamus, a term denoting a detective that is also an old Irish name..

On Sean's advice, we drove two or three miles down the Peninsula to check out "The Old Pier," a relatively new guesthouse and restaurant. The restaurant would not be open until dinnertime, but a menu was posted at the door. With prices comparable to those at our four-star hotel, we decided against driving back on the narrow, twisting roads to eat there that evening.

We had wanted to revisit the Holden Leather Craft shop and showroom across Dingle Harbor, so postponed further touring along the Slea Head Drive and vicinity to another day. The Dingle Peninsula has a great many antiquities from the Celtic period, from early Christianity and from the Norman era, in addition to wondrous scenery that could captivate my eye for weeks. All you can do in a week or two is sample the ones that are easy to reach.

We drove 15-to-20 miles back to Dingle and around the harbor to the headland of Burnham, site of the leather shop where I had earlier bought myself a sturdy belt and Betty a hand-crafted purse she's used a lot. They didn't have a pre-made belt big enough to fit me, nor a handbag on display that suited Betty. Amazingly, they promised to custom craft the items we wanted overnight, to our color and size specifications. They didn't even collect payment in advance. Betty later found the hotel staff equally trusting (even though the amount of money at stake was trifling) when they didn't collect for some postcards offered from a lobby stand: "You can just pay for them when you mail them."

We poked around the fishing boats moored at the Dingle Harbor. To our mistake, we believed some touring college-age girls eating fish-and-chips on the shoreline. They recommended Harrington's takeout place facing the harbor and we dropped 20 Euros on plaice and fries. We took our takeout dinners to our hotel room and found them basically inedible. So after a short nap, we had a delicious, light supper of smoked salmon, ham sandwiches, salad and boiled vegetables (carrots, cabbage, mange' and the inevitable potatoes) in one of the hotel bar's cozy dining rooms. A nice young Irish couple translated the word "mange" (pronounced mainjay) for us: it means green peas.

Continue with Part III / Return to Home Page