Dingle, Ireland – Cliffs, Famine, and Narrow Roads

I visited Dingle many years ago while on spring break.  My memories are of a small, friendly, sea-side town where I enjoyed the scenery and the people.  Things have changed in 25 years.  Dingle now reminds me of Pismo Beach or Capitola in Northern California.  It is a pleasant tourist town with restaurants and shops that aim to sell to the crowds of tourists that visit Dingle on holiday. Perhaps my nostalgic expectations are out of whack, but I am disappointed in the changes to the town and the jaded attitude of many of the locals toward us visitors.  One of my favorite memories from 25 years ago is a weekday evening in a Dingle pub where locals wandered in and started an Irish jam session with a singer, flute, fiddle, and hair drum. It felt very spontaneous and authentic. Today many of the pubs have very nice live Irish music, but it is now an industry, not an improvisation. Ah well, things change.

On the other hand, once outside the village of Dingle the peninsula remains a wonderfully remote and scenic place.  On Sunday we piled the family (Suzanne, me, Patrick, Alex, and my parents) into the Big Red Van and spent the day driving. I had developed rudimentary Big Red Van driving skills on the way from Dublin to Dingle, but I was far from expert. The left hand shift, opposite side driving, and single-lane/two-way country roads quickly moved me up the learning curve.

The Big Red Van

By the end of the day on Sunday I had become a full-fledged novice! I started the day by trying to get out of the parking lot. Our B&B is located next to a church, and some unidentified church-goer (probably late for services) parked illegally and gave me no room to make the turn on the narrow one-way street.

After a couple awkward attempts at three-point-turns, and listening to a few half-baked suggestions from my family in the passenger seats, I made a snap decision and decided to take advantage of a break in the traffic and go the wrong way on the one-way street.  If I could get to the top of the hill I would be able to break free.  I almost made it… I was only 100 feet from the end of the road when a seemingly endless procession of cars turned down the very narrow road. Foiled!  Improvising a new plan on the spot, I drove up on the sidewalk to get out of the street and allow the cars to pass.  No pedestrians had been using the sidewalk at the moment.  However, as the procession of cars continued unabated, pedestrians began to grumble that I had intruded on their right to walk on the sidewalk without a Big Red Van completely blocking the way.  Also the drivers coming down the road didn’t seem too happy that I only allowed them 4 inches of clearance to slide past.  I remained calm, even as critical observations and half-baked suggestions continued unabated from the passengers of the Big Red Van (my family). No actionable suggestions emerged from my Back Seat Brain Trust.  After a few uncomfortable minutes, a somewhat irritated Irish pedestrian walked up to my window and said “You know, you are going the wrong way.”  I informed him that the church people made me do it, and I just needed to get another 100 feet up the road and I would leave all these grumpy people to get about their business.  He suggested I reverse the van down the steep, windy, narrow, one-way road; into a tight driveway with stone walls on each side; and then all would be right with the world. The look on my face must have convinced him that his plan would not happen with me behind the wheel, even though I had paid for the lower deductible on the rental insurance. So he reluctantly walked to the top of the hill and directed traffic for 15 seconds to allow me to escape (a plan my father later said he had suggested – but no one can remember him mentioning)  I gave my Irish benefactor a wave as I escaped, and in my rear view mirror I could see him shake his head at the crazy inept tourist that couldn’t even follow simple street signs. By the way, the street signs are in Gaelic – but that is not a real excuse. Now that I re-read this post, I begin to understand how the Dingle natives might be annoyed and jaded by visitors who invade their beautiful little seaside village and create havoc in the streets.

The scenery along the peninsula is breathtaking.  Turf-topped cliffs drop directly into the Atlantic ocean.  The deep green contrasts wonderfully with the bright blues of the sky and sea. Storm clouds also added to the scenic drama all around us.  Hillsides are sectioned into small plots by ancient rock walls that farmers built over the centuries.  Southwest Ireland has very rocky soil. As the rocks surface in the fields every year, the farmers add stones to the walls. Rock walls are a convenient place to dump the stones and keep the sheep from wandering away.

Besides the scenery, we learned about the famine of 1847.  Even though the soil is poor, potatoes will grow here; and that is why spuds became the dominate food crop of the Irish people in the early 1800’s.  The Irish farmers became overdependent on this one plant. When the blight hit and 90% of the potatoes rotted in the ground; people starved. At this time in history English landlords owned the Irish countryside, and the English landlords cared little for the poor tenant farmers.  Amazingly, the exported food from Ireland as millions died of starvation. We learned that the dominant moral opinion of Victorian England was that poverty is the fault of the pauper, and no good comes from coddling the poor. So, according to the material we read during our day on the peninsula, “help” came in the form of wrecking crews which pulled down tenants’ houses when they couldn’t make rent, work houses which separated men from their families, and overcrowded ships filled with poor, starving immigrant families headed for the USA and other far off destinations. Clearly this was a bleak period, and the Dingle peninsula was hit very hard. During our drive we stopped at an old stone house from the famine period and tried to imagine the hardships of this time. But really – we have never been hungry and hopeless like this – and I pray we never will really learn what it feels like. I’m OK to do my best to appreciate this lesson through reading.

As we continued our drive around the Dingle peninsula we stopped at a pub along the road for lunch.  The locals were watching a Gallic Football championship game, which appears to be a cross between soccer, rugby, and wrestling.  Even though we didn’t understand any of the rules, it was nice to dry out in a warm pub, watch football, enjoy some Irish stew, and sip a pint of Guinness with the family.

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