Although Ireland (at least the Republic of Ireland) officially gained its independence from England in 1949 after seven centuries of English domination, cultural independence has been slower in coming, particularly given the prominence of the English language in Ireland. Before the Great Famine most Irish spoke traditional Irish Gaelic (here they simply call it Irish). In the second half of the 19th Century, English was recommended as the language that would enable people to escape hunger and poverty to a life of opportunity in North America or Australia. Now only about five percent of Irish people speak Irish Gaelic fluently, and they live primarily in the Gaeltacht, which is located mainly in coastal regions in western Ireland like the Dingle Peninsula, Galway, the Connemara and the Aran Islands. Ireland is putting tremendous effort into reviving the Irish language. It’s compulsory for Irish students, who are required to take as many as eight years of instruction in their native Irish tongue. All over Ireland, the highway signs are in both Irish and English (Irish coming first).
This actually wasn’t the photograph I wanted to place in this spot. Going through security at Dublin Airport, I took a cool photograph of the incredibly long Irish Gaelic phrase for “No photographs,” but I was forced to delete it from my camera. Airport security agents apparently have no appreciation of paradox.
For the residents of Dingle, the Connemara, and the Aran Islands English seems to be an afterthought. They don’t even bother to put English on the signs, despite the fact that on any given day from May through September there are far more English-speaking tourists in these places than residents. Although I love languages, I think the three that I’ve struggled to gain a bit of competency in will not allow any others in, so that when we see a road sign that says “kill” (actually spelled “cill), Lois always has to remind me that it refers to a place of worship rather than a strategy being recommended to Irish motorists. There are only two Irish words I seem to have retained. One is “craic” pronounced ‘crack.’ It means ‘good times.’ The other is slainte (pronounced ‘slawncha’). It pretty much means the same thing, except that you say it when you raise your pint in a pub.
On the way from Toehead to our next Irish destination, we stopped at Kilarney National Park. We once asked an Irish tour guide whether it was supposed to rain that afternoon. She responded that, in Ireland it’s always either raining or about to rain. On our travel day to Kilarney it was not about to rain; it was raining. They tell us this is the rainiest June they’ve had in Ireland in several decades. When Lois and I travel, this sort of thing is always happening. This past winter was the coldest winter they’d had in Florence since the Arno River froze in the Little Ice Age. When we lived in Florence in 2009, old timers were saying they hadn’t seen such a rainy winter since the Arno flooded in 1333. I think if we traveled to Antarctica temperatures would hit the 90’s and palm trees would start sprouting. As far as Ireland is concerned, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s always the rainiest month they’ve ever had.
As we drove over Moll’s Gap through the green, treeless mountain terrain and started descending toward Kilarney, we stopped at Ladies View, a turnout that one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting had called ‘the finest view in the land’ over a century ago.
Even in the rain, it was beautiful.
We lingered for an afternoon in Kilarney National Park, hiking to waterfalls
We visited Muckross House, built by a wealthy man from the big island to the east (of course). It was later donated to the park, along with thousands of acres of land, by one of his descendants. The house has a stunning view of Lough Leane.
Front yard, Muckross House
Our destination for the evening was the town of Dingle, a delightful town, small by any measure, yet still the largest on the Dingle Peninsula. We spent the night in a lovely bed and breakfast a few miles west of Dingle Town with a beautiful view of Coventry Bay.
View of the front lawn and pond.
The Dingle Peninsula is the westernmost point in Ireland. Locals say the next parish over is Boston. Dingle is one of a trio of west-facing Irish peninsulas that tourists flock to. Even more than most towns in the Gaeltacht, Dingle is famous for Irish music (the Irish Gaelic word for this is ‘trad’), unamplified traditional Irish tunes played on instruments like the melodeon (an Irish version of an accordion), Irish flutes, fiddles, guitars, banjos and uilleann pipes (a sort of bag pipe inflated by elbow action rather than by the lungs). The instrumentalists typically sit in a booth reserved for musicians surrounding a table covered with pints of Guinness (if the pub is closer to Dublin) or Murphy’s (if the pub is closer to Cork). The Irish have tremendous loyalty both to their stout and to their city hurling team. Not to be confused with what Americans do in Ireland after a night of stout at the pub, hurling is actually a sport… in which team members sling hard balls with long boomerang-shaped sticks in the direction of an understandably terrified goalie. In Ireland hurling is at least as big as soccer (yes, the Irish do call it soccer in order to distinguish it from Gaelic football, another charmingly violent recreational activity).
You’ve got to pick your pub carefully. We’ve been to one in Galway that resembled a teeming mosh-pit of youths, each one trying to bump and jostle past all of the others on the way to the only toilet in the establishment while holding a glass filled with sloshing, foaming brown liquid. We chose one in Dingle that was recommended in the Rick Steves Guide to Ireland. It’s called Moriarty’s, just down the road from a place called the Craic House (see above for pronunciation of ‘craic’). Rick Steves’ only reservation about the place was that there are quite a few German and American tourists that frequent Moriarty’s. The place looked inviting; we went in and found a table. On one side of us was a pair of Germans, on the other a family from Wisconsin. That’s why Rick Steves gets the big bucks. Like Lois and I, the Germans were traveling the world, although they were working – as travel photo journalists – a job I’m planning to put in an application for in my next life. We talked about the places we had been. In their case it was pretty much everywhere. When we asked them about their favorite places on Earth, two topped their list. Bali was one. We’d already planned to go there in October. The Slovenian Alps were another. We’re revising our summer itinerary to add a stop there. After the Germans left the pub, we chatted with the Wisconsonians (one of whom was a delightful and adventurous young woman who had just finished a year studying ethnomusicology in Cork), and we listened to live Irish trad music. A ‘trad’ music session always gives the impression that a group of buddies just decided on the spur of the moment to grab instruments and start playing tunes in someone’s kitchen around a breakfast nook. Whenever the musicians would pause for a break, a short man with mischievous eyes would move to the center of the circle to tell an Irish tale with an outrageous and sometimes offensive punch-line. It was totally craic.
Want ad at Moriarty’s
The next morning our bed and breakfast hosts made us a wonderful breakfast while we caught traces of Irish Gaelic conversation drifting from the kitchen. Fortunately, our host Noirin also spoke excellent English, and she made some suggestions about places to visit on the loop we were planning to take around the peninsula.
I’ve mentioned Queen Victoria’s retinue’s claim that ‘Ladies View” has the finest view in the land. Many places in Ireland make the same claim, and in some sense, they’re all right. Here are a few potential candidates from the Dingle Peninsula.
Although the Beara Peninsula is the least touted of the three main peninsulas in southwest Ireland, I have no idea why. Here are a few photos of the second runner-up.
There is a price to be paid for all of this beauty. This is what you have to do to get across the Beara Peninsula.
The Iveragh Peninsula is rimmed by the famous roadway called the Ring of Kerry. One of the following views was advertised as the best view in Ireland. They charged 8 euro (about 11 bucks) per person. Loveliness is not cheap.
At the very western tip of the Ring of Kerry, we picnicked on a beach and looked out at the Skelig Islands. While surfers rode the waves, right behind them a half dozen gannets plummeted from the sky before our eyes like arrows into the bay.
The gannets were too fast for the camera lens, but we did manage to catch this human being.
Farther north near the Burren are the Cliffs of Moher, the most visited national park in all of Ireland, certainly in the running for “Ireland’s Loveliest View.”
Then, of course, there are the Aran Islands and the Connemara, the photos of which I’m reluctant to enter into this post for fear that the computer’s aesthetic wow-o-meter will overload, bursting a seam in the fragile fabric of cyberspace.
Folks fond of music may well have heard of the town of Doolin. People from all over the world travel there to see Irish trad music of the highest quality — for the price of a Guinness or a Murphys (they seem to swing both ways in Doolin). After getting blissed out on the Cliffs of Moher, we needed a place to hyperventilate, and Doolin was just down the road. Doolin’ is not Nashville…or London….or Paris. This music mecca is a village populated by just over 500 folks clustered around a tiny piece of Irish coastline. We left our Nissan rental car where it had a spectacular view of the Atlantic and slipped into Gus O’Connor’s pub for some Euro 2012 soccer and trad music. We ordered up some veggie pub food (chips and chips), and settled in to watch Italy play England, while Irish music drifted in from the adjacent room. There was definitely ambivalence in my loyalties. We’d spent a long time in both Italy and England. The couple to our right was from Genoa — their loyalties were clear. The guy I chatted with at the bar when I ordered another Bulmer’s (I never did get the hang of swilling beer) was an English tourist. There was a small cohort of English tourists. But everyone else in this pub was Irish, and as soon as the game started it was as though the contest was between the army of Gaelic commander Hugh O’Neill and the forces of Queen Elizabeth I. When England went down in a shootout after regular (and overtime) play resulted in a scoreless tie (validating my complaints about this aspect of soccer in a previous post), there was utter pandemonium at O’Connors. The Irish were happier about the English loss than the Italian couple was about their team’s victory. Ireland does not have a good soccer team; Ireland was defeated decisively by Croatia, a country that has existed as a nation for less than two decades. Unlike America, to which so many Irish have emigrated, or the kingdom on the other side of the Irish Sea that lost its soccer game to the Italians, Ireland is not a great military or economic power. It is so much more than this; it is a cultural and aesthetic treasure. After the game, we listened to a trio of truly talented Irish musicians do one of the things the Irish can do like no one else — play jigs and reels that music lovers from all of the world travel to hear.
At 10:30 pm we were driving back to Galway, basking in the glow of the music and the deep twilight that framed the outlines of a coastline so spectacular that it overwhelms the capacity of the English language. Of course, there is another language that was born in this part of the world — the Irish language. If there’s any hope of capturing this land and these people, I think that’s where it must lie. As they say in Irish, “Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste” (Bad Irish is better than clever English).