Back To Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, Part 3

March 23 - 31, 2002
By Lewis Nolan

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

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Part 1: Memphis to Shannon and Dingle Peninsula via Inch
Part 2: Golf at Cheann Sibeal, Slea Head Drive, overlooking wild coast
Part 3: More Golf, Antiquities, 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:

Saint Brendan's Monastery & Ocean Voyage
Dingle Crystal Ltd.
Dingle Benners Hotel
"Fungie" the Porpoise

March 27, 2002, Wednesday - Dingle Peninsula

We ate a light breakfast at the Dingle Skellig Hotel while admiring the conservatory's terrific views, then drove several miles around the shoreline to Holden Leather, which is almost directly across Dingle Harbor. As promised, Betty's handbag and my belt had been crafted overnight and were perfectly made. I had actually seen and felt the tanned cowhide the provided the quality leather for the belt. Amazing customer service.

We drove a few more miles down the peninsula to Cheann Sibeal Golf Club, where the pro very kindly allowed me to rent the club's single motorized cart (generally used for maintenance and other official purposes). Betty was along to take photos and my legs were still tired from Monday's hard trekking on the links. Motorized golf carts, which are required at many of the top courses in the U.S. to speed up play and also to provide an important income stream, are rare in Ireland. This one was the first I had seen that was not privately owned by some feeble golfer. The Irish believe golf is a walking game, and walk they do - briskly. But I felt not the slightest bit of shame for wimping out and riding a "buggy cart" on this day of powerful wind. The course is not designed for cart use, so we had to take some major detours to get from tee to green.

There to meet us as promised - and on time - were my new golf buddies Gareth Anthony and David Callaghan. Evidently the canard about the Irish never being on time doesn't apply when the really important stuff is scheduled, like tee times. All of us bundled up with caps, sweaters and windbreakers to ward off the cold wind blowing in from the North Atlantic.

On such a day back home, the wind of this force would keep all but a few golfers in the clubhouse. A course with trees would probably close because of the hazard of falling limbs. It was blowing 30 miles an hour steady off the ocean - a gale force - with gusts of 40 mph and more. The wind was so strong that I sometimes found it impossible to hold a steady stance while putting or driving. It was folly to predict the optimum the pace of putts into the wind or with the wind. The sunny day and the horrendous winds had dried out the greens mercilessly. But the fairway turf was the typical Ireland lush, offering bad lies very rarely. The rough was more pasture-like and not the snarly gorse that gobbles up balls at Ballybunion and Waterville.

On one Par Four hole facing directly into the wind, I hit my Three Metal off the tee. I struck the ball solidly; on a normal day I would expect it to travel 190 or so yards in the air and then roll some extra yards. But on this day, the ball lifted off the tee into a nice, high trajectory then seemed to hit an invisible wall of wind 50-to-75 yards above the fairway. It dropped straight down, as neatly as though it had been in an elevator shaft, and stopped without roll 80 yards out.

Playing in such conditions had entertainment value. And it was great having Betty out on the course with me, a very rare occurrence since we married nearly 34 years ago. She took a lot of pictures of me and my new buddies, of the scenery and of nearby sheep with lambs. As it turned out, we only played nine holes. Gareth had to get back to the hotel and David was scheduled to play another nine at 4 p.m. with some local dignitaries. Thanks to the cart, I could have gone on another nine. But Betty had tired of it and I didn't feel like playing by myself in such severe conditions, so I, too, packed it in at the turn. We enjoyed a light lunch in the clubhouse bar, on the second floor. We looked out through the panoramic windows to watch more determined souls finish their rounds.

A club member who had taken on the volunteer task of tending to a beautiful flower garden near the entrance told us that the Irish don't let bad weather stop them from playing golf. In fact Gareth had remarked two days previously that serious golfers routinely stop whatever they are doing and take time off from work to play on the rare days that fine weather appears. The garden fancier told us with delight about how on one fearsome day, with winds near hurricane strength and sheets of rain blowing sideways, one of the club's regular foursomes of seniors were playing. From the safety of the clubhouse, some visiting golfers from California's notoriously windy Pebble Beach were amazed that anybody would go out in such conditions. One asked if there was ever a day when the club's course was closed because of weather. An official pointed to nearby Mt. Brandon (nearly 4,000 feet high) and said, "when that mountain starts moving because of the wind, that's the day we won't play."

We drove to nearby Clogher Head Beach, a great place to watch the pounding of the surf. Waves were exploding into foam and spray as they hit the black rocks. It was hard to walk into the wind.
A few miles down Slea Head Drive's narrow, twisting road was an even more narrow, twisting road that led to the Dunquin Pier overlook. The road was little more than a half-hearted, pocky pavement more suited for a pig trail. But the view of the ocean from the cliff was superb, even if Great Blasket Island was blurred by the fog.

We decided to take the inland loop of Slea Head Drive to re-visit the ruins of the 12th Century, Romanesque Kilmalkedar Church. The roofless, stone structure was
Betty at Kilmalkedar Church & Cemetery
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built on a site where a monastery founded in the 7th Century once stood. Some erect stones resembling obelisks are decorated with well-weathered Celtic line-alphabet characters called Ogham writing that is centuries old. Some of the stones were probably grave markers. Indeed, the old church is nearly surrounded by an ancient cemetery that is still in use today. Many of the modern tombstones are in Gaellic, as are all the old ones that can still be read.

Nearby is St. Brendan's building, another stone structure that is the remains of a monastery built in Medieval times. We also revisited Brandon's Creek, where St. Brendan supposedly set sail for America. The Irish believe the St. Brendan discovered America 1,500 years before Columbus. The possibility of such a voyage in a small boat was proven by some adventurers who duplicated the trip late in the 20th Century. The creek empties into a tiny, sheltered cleft that is protected from the surf. Overlooking the spot is a bronze memorial to St. Brendan's voyage and several sheep pens.

When we visited here during the summer of 1997, currachs (traditional Irish fishing boats made of tarred leather stretched over wood frames) and a few other small craft bobbed at moorings. The water is clear and as blue as we've seen in the Caribbean. It's a beautiful and magical spot, rich with history. Hundreds of Irish pilgrims climb nearby Mt. Brandon in honor of their saint (I can't explain the Brendan/Brandon spellings, or the Gaellic interchangability of Tig/Teig and Ceann/Cheann). Some pilgrim leave bloody trails on the rocky path since they climb the mountain in their bare feet as a of penance.

The boats should be bobbing at their moorings beneath the mountain in another couple of weeks, when the ferocity of the Spring storms eases enough for the fishermen to venture out into the Atlantic.

Here and everywhere on the peninsula were hundreds of baby sheep, prancing and bouncing about on all four legs as though they were on Pogo Sticks. Late March is lambing season, with sheepherders timing the breeding of their flocks so that birth comes with the arrival of Spring. The lambs slept, nursed and frolicked. The adult sheep were still wearing their thick, wool coats; clipping is normally done in June and July. Bits of wool hung on barbed wire fences everywhere.

While the afternoon temperature was about 50 degrees, it felt like 35 because of the hard-biting wind and damp. Betty wore a heavy, wool sweater she had purchased earlier in the week, covered with a sky-blue, GoreTex raincoat. I wore a short-sleeve, cotton golf sweater-vest beneath my Footjoy, waterproof windbreaker. Keeping my head warm was a wool cap purchased on the Aran Islands years ago. Despite our layers, we were not comfortable standing out in the wind. So we drove into Dingle on a back road, stopping briefly at the Super Value grocery store in the middle of town to buy some Dublin Dry Gin and a few other items. The store was spotless, brightly lighted and well-stocked. I picked up a copy of the Irish tabloid, "Greyhound Weekly," one of two national newspapers that cater to the Irish love of dog racing. (I didn't count the number of sheets touting the even more popular horse racing).

I thought it remarkable that there would be sufficient interest in Greyhound racing - a rapidly declining sport in the U.S. - to warrant such publications aimed at a relatively small niche in a small country. The population of Ireland is about 4 million, making it roughly the size of our home state of Tennessee. It was double that before the Famine, the dark but little discussed period in the mid19th Century when the English starved more than 1 million Irish to death and ran millions more off their land.

"Greyhound Weekly" had 44 pages of racing news and advertising pitched to dog owners, mainly stud services. Sample ad copy: "Booked out!!! 140 bitches mated in first eleven months" was the message on behalf of "Jamella Prince, another early paced wizard from Oz." I took the tabloid home and gave it to the staff of the Mid-South Greyhound Adoption Option, a not-for-profit agency in West Memphis that was the brief home of our retired racer, Dickens.

Back at the hotel late in the afternoon, we took a short nap and then repaired to the pub for a light supper. I enjoyed smoked salmon, a huge salad of strange greens and a mountain of French Fries. Betty, who picked at a few fries, isn't happy with the food so far. She's not a fish lover and coastal Ireland is a fish lover's paradise. After supper we relaxed in some huge, overstuffed easy chairs in the hotel's Gallarus sitting room. The comfortable room, named after a nearby stone church more than 1,000 years old, is warmed by an ersatz coal fire. Its wood paneling and heavy furniture resembles a Hollywood version of an exclusive gentleman's club in England.

March 28, 2002, Thursday - Dingle Town

Betty had what for her was a huge breakfast this morning, making up for not eating supper last night. She ate Irish bacon, a croissant, a wedge of hash brown potatoes, juice and fruit. I held back, limiting myself to two pieces of Irish bacon, some dry toast, a few juicy grapes and a tiny bottle of Diet Coke. As with earlier breakfasts, the hotel's conservatory overlooking the harbor and steep slopes of the peninsula's protecting headlands made for a beautiful start of the day.

At midmorning, we drove to the middle of town to visit Dingle Crystal Ltd., where proprietor/craftsman Sean Daly cuts and sells fine glassware.
Betty, crystal craftsman Sean Daly
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With a shaved head, single earring and gift of gab, he was a charming and persuasive businessman who allayed our fears of depending on him to ship any purchases to Memphis. Sean, who buys the pre-blown glass blanks from Waterford Crystal (where he had previously worked for 15 years), deeply cuts his own patterns into the crystal. We really liked his work, particularly his own "Celtic Flame" pattern, but were reluctant to buy anything we couldn't carry home because of a bad experience many years before with English bone china. While in London 15 years ago, on the advice of a guidebook and The New York Times, we had purchased place settings for eight of a beautiful Anysley pattern we'd not seen in the U.S.

I had paid for the expensive china plus shipping and U.S. Customs with American Express Travelers checks. The shop promised that they would ship everything to Memphis very quickly, saving us the hassle of carting it around and risking breakage. Upon returning home, we got two or three pieces in the mail within four weeks. Then nothing more. After writing several letters and making a number of expensive telephone calls to London, I learned months later that the Discount China chain had been in the U.S. equivalent of Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings when they took our money. The funds ripped off from us and hundreds of other unsuspecting Americans were used to pay salaries and other operating expenses.

We ended up on a creditors list, way down in priority. It was only because my former employer, Schering-Plough, had an operation and shipping office in London that I was able to retrieve the china. Our purchases were being held in inventory a court had assigned to a creditor with higher priority. Even with my company's contacts, I still had to pay a premium for the shipping, but at least a sympathetic Customs agent in Memphis waived the extra duty fees when I told her my sad story. It was an enormous aggravation and we had not bought anything when traveling outside the U.S. since that we couldn't carry out of the store.

However, Sean (helped by assurances of Irish honesty made by David Callaghan's charming wife, Carol, who happened to visit Dingle Crystal with David while we were there) convinced us that he could be trusted. He did this by accepting payment of nearly 300 Euros on American Express charge (which could be revoked for non-delivery). He packed and addressed the box while we watched and placing it in the outdoing UPS pile. He offered to let us walk it to the Irish Post Office and mail it on his behalf, but we declined in the spirit of trust for him and UPS over the Irish post.

So, despite our misgivings of a decade-and-a-half about such long-range purchases, Betty ended up buying a set of crystal cocktail glasses and a small crystal bowl to mark our upcoming 34th Wedding Anniversary; I sprung for the trip to Ireland. Sure enough, the glasses arrived in Memphis within three weeks. And I've been very pleased to verify Sean's promise that dry martinis on the rocks really do taste better when served in fine Irish crystal. Further, I was glad to recommend his work and shop to a relative headed that way in a few weeks. He also does business on the internet and has a nice website at www.dinglecrystal.ie.

As a side benefit of the hour or so spent in Sean's shop while Betty examined the various patterns and pieces and watched Sean demonstrate his glass cutting, I used the shop's computer to access the Internet and check/send e-mail. It's mind-boggling to think of the communications advances of the last few years. There was a time when one could safely "drop out" of his or her world by going abroad. Now, there are no more excuses. It's so quick, easy and cheap to stay in touch that we never really can get away. Even the airports have coin-operated Internet access kiosks. The troubling thing is that such fast access to virtually instantaneous communication hasn't made a difference in man's understanding - or forgiveness - of his fellow man. In a way, the speed simply means that a bad thought travels that much faster. And with the Internet, nothing is ever truly deleted or secure. Consequently, a bad thought has a thousand lives, and a million or more potential recipients.

Despite the spam that relentlessly pounds our e-mail boxes every day - and a lot of junk jokes and silly chain letters - the Internet makes it a lot easier for friends and family to stay in touch. We were pleased to get a message from our son, Casey, who lives in Santa Barbara, CA. He reported somewhat positive feelings about his application interview in LA with a member of Harvard Business School's selection committee (we were all thrilled a couple of weeks later to learn that Casey was admitted to the MBA program, beginning in the fall of 2002). We were also very glad to learn that Casey's employer was reaching out to help him through the transition from work to graduate school.

After Betty completed her transaction with Sean, we walked perhaps 25 yards to the Dingle Benners Hotel, probably the No. 2 lodging facility on the Peninsula. My new golfing pal, hotel resident manager Gareth Anthony, treated us to Diet Cokes in the pub. In one of those small world connections, he told us how the Benner family had sold the hotel quite cheap to a visiting American tourist 10 or so years ago. The tourist in turn got 15 or so Boston businessmen to invest in the property; most have never visited. I later found out that one of the investors is Jim Dineen, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and a close friend of my cousin Richard Lewis Nolan, a longtime Harvard professor.

The hotel is quite nice, with enormous, well-furnished and decorated rooms and a great location right in the middle of town. Rates (including breakfast) range from 58-to-102 Euros a person, double occupancy, depending on season. We checked out Room 426 (identical to 425) on the top floor and liked its view of the distant harbor and the busy Main Street below. We may well stay there during our next visit, particularly if Gareth is still managing the property. The hotel has an attractive and comfortable restaurant, which was highly recommended as one of the very best in town, as well as off-street parking and a traditional pub.

The hotel staff is young and has a decided international flavor, with manager Gareth having dual citizenship in the United Kingdom (his father was born in Wales) and South Africa. Gareth is also eligible for Irish citizenship through one of his grandmothers. A waitress in the pub is from Santa Cruz, CA, one of my haunts early in my college career. Her name is Rhiannon, a lively young woman who was named after the terrific song by Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. She is a harpist and college student working in Dingle for her fourth season. She came here on the recommendation of a fellow musician back home and keeps coming back because of her love for traditional Irish music. I reminisced with her about the big winter surf at Steamer Lane and other notable places around Santa Cruz I enjoyed in the 1960s. I fondly remember the good times there with Pete Siller, a dear friend who joined the Marines and was killed in Vietnam.

A waiter in the pub is Jean Philipe of Western France, a charming vagabond who says he works for six months of the year then travels on the cheap for the remainder of the year. He and his girlfriend plan to go to Nepal when the season ends in Dingle in late summer. There is a similar international group among the Dingle Skellig's seasonal staff. Those we've talked to included young men and women from Spain, the Ukraine, Malaysia, England and New Zealand. All tried hard to please and they nearly always did.

A detail of Irish Army soldiers wearing body armor and carrying automatic rifles stationed themselves at full alert right outside the hotel. As we had seen before, the soldiers were guarding the movement of cash in or out of a bank across the busy street. One of them told me he had been doing this for 20 years, a duty made necessary by the fact that there are 20 terrorist groups operating in Ireland. The IRA is not a Hollywood movie theme here and certainly no laughing matter. It is just one group willing to use murder, bank robbery or other violent means to achieve political ends.

After a tasty lunch at the hotel pub (salmon for me and potato-leek soup for Betty), we poked around Dingle some more. We re-visited St. Mary's Catholic Church, where I again lighted a candle in memory/honor of my Irish ancestors, both the few who are known and the very many whose identities still elude me. A long-running frustration has been my failure to find any confirming records that my great-grandfather, John Nolan, and his older brother, Andrew Nolan, or their parents, Matthew and Honora Nolan, ever lived under those names in Ireland. The family history passed down to me from my father, Lewis E. Nolan M.D., was that John and Andrew had come to America from Ballinasloe, in County Galway. Despite my searches of records and cemeteries on three earlier trips and countless hours spent by me and my sister, Mary Nolan Ballard, looking through records compiled by the Church of Latter Day Saints, I have not been able to prove - or disprove - the family's story.

I came across a wisp of a rumor more than 15 years ago by another of John Nolan's grandsons that raised the possibility of a name change. Donavan Patrick Nolan told me that he had been told by his father (Lee Nolan) that John and Andrew had been running from the British law when they left Ireland. Regardless, any trail they left behind under the Nolan name or another name has vanished like the mist that greets most Irish mornings.

Betty and I walked around Dingle's main, commercial fishing wharf that juts out into the harbor from the central tourism area. We arrived just in time to see a big
Betty at Dingle Harbor's Wharf
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wholesale fish supply firm's truck pulling out from the wharf. The trailer was emblazoned "Nolan" with a bold graphic and Celtic words for markets served. Four scruffy fishermen carried their gym bags of clothing off the equally scruffy boat; two were greeted by wives and young children. They all looked very tired, very grubby and in great need of shaves, baths, pints of Guinness and many hours of sleep. A man in his mid 30's who appeared to be the trawler's captain said in response to my question that they had caught two tons in nine days, "an OK catch." On our last trip we had noted the presiding priest at St. Mary's had led the congregation in a prayer that included a plea for "a good catch" for the fishermen and a good price.

The fishermen were understandably, too tired to engage in conversation with an American tourist. But I'd guess they had been fishing way offshore in the North Sea and had taken quite a pounding from the weather. The Irish fishing boats we saw at Dingle were big, blocky and rusty tubs that do not inspire much confidence. But they make the port of Dingle an important source of seafood for distribution in throughout Ireland and other European markets of such cold water fish as salmon, haddock, whitefish and plaice.

We stopped at a lace shop a few yards from the wharf. Betty bought a lace-covered picture frame for our neighbor who is a new Godmother. Among the items on display that we don't often see back home were beautiful Christening gowns made by hand of Irish linen.

We returned to the Dingle Skellig Hotel and napped for an hour before striking out on an early evening, two-mile walk along the harbor shoreline. We trekked out over the rocks and sheep pastures to the harbor entrance, where we got several looks
Lewis by Hussey's Folly
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at "Fungie," the famous dolphin who has been entertaining the town's visitors for more than a decade. The large male porpoise seems to prefer the company of people to that of the passing schools of his own kind, enjoying nuzzling up to snorklers and frolicking about in the wakes of the "dolphin watch" tour boats. We also had a close look at "Hussey's Folly," a squatty, castle-like tower made of stone. It is right at the mouth of the harbor and is visible from town. But nobody we asked could tell us about it.

Later, we had an excellent dinner at the hotel. I had sesame crusted salmon, served on a mound of herbed potatoes. That was augmented with a dish of boiled potatoes, mange (green peas), cabbage and cauliflower. Betty went for monkfish served in a mango sauce. We relaxed in the Gallarus sitting room for a good while, luxuriating in the overstuffed chairs and quiet paneling.

The room TV had a half-dozen channels, including one in Gaellic. The news and sports programming seemed to originate in Dublin or London, so at least I had "football" to watch. We found it interesting that greyhound races at several Irish tracks were shown on a TV highlights show in prime time. We noticed that the stadium stands looked to be full of cheering fans, unlike in America where dog racing is a dying sport due to the proliferation of casinos. We also noted that the Irish-bred dogs have shorter snouts than do their American counterparts and wear wire muzzles when racing. We both miss Dickens, our lovable and much loved greyhound.

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