Green gems

Author: ANDREW MUELLER
Photography: JULIAN KINGMA

Dingle is several things. Dingle is a town - a neat,homely burg of a couple of thousand people. Dingle is a harbour - small, secure, home to the trawlers which stock the town's frequently miraculous seafood restaurants. Dingle is a bay - a sliver of ocean bitten out of County Kerry. And Dingle is a peninsula - jutting approximately from Tralee, Kerry's largest town, out to the westernmost point of Europe (at which, inevitably, you may drink in the westernmost pub in Europe, Krugers, where a sign reminds you that your next pint, if you keep going, is in Boston).

What Dingle isn't, at least not officially, not anymore, is Dingle. The peninsula is one of several predominantly Irish-speaking regions of Ireland collectively known as the Gaeltacht. In 2005, legislation was passed to further promote the Irish language within the Gaeltacht by banishing English place names from road signs and official maps. Dingle, it was declared, was now An Daingean.

The row has a rich and complex history, which I heartily commended to anyone having difficulty sleeping, but the continuing reaction of the locals says much, and much good, about Dingle. Most road signs pointing towards An Daingean have had "Dingle" added to or painted over them by annoyed locals. Flags and signs in the windows of Dingle's shops demand recognition of the 2006 plebiscite in which 1005 out of 1222 voters called for the abandonment of An Daingean in favour of the compromise Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis (or, obviously, "Dingle" for short).

If nothing else, it's a useful conversational gambit for the stranger in town, though locals require little prompting on that front. The crucial thing that any visitor needs to invest in Dingle is time. Many breeze through on coaches, not even staying overnight. It's true that Dingle has few conventional attractions: there are boat trips to see Fungie, the dolphin who's lived in Dingle Bay since the mid-1980s, an aquarium, and, in the foyer of the library, artefacts pertaining to Thomas Ashe, the locally born rebel who died on a hunger strike in 1917. It's also true that you could see all that in half a day. But although there is almost nothing to do in Dingle, it's the most agreeable place imaginable in which to do it.

Dingle, as the locals are fond of pointing out, has a staggering (literally, if you overdo it) concentration of pubs - more than 50, by most counts, or one for every 40 full-time residents. Younger, rowdier crowds are catered for by the audaciously named Dingle Pub and the barnlike An Droichead Beag - either of which could be any Irish theme pub anywhere from Caracas to Copenhagen. The pubs in a row along the waterfront have half an eye on the tourist trade, offering nightly performances of local traditional musicians. My favourites are all in the town centre, such as it is. Dick Mack's, J Curran's and O'Flaherty's share a few precious absences: none are blighted by flat-screen televisions, or by music, unless someone starts making it themselves (and they do). Such places are wretchedly rare everywhere else in entertainment-plagued Europe, and I find myself wondering whether the reason the Irish so excel at conversation and yarn-spinning is that they've always had plenty of places to practise.

Beyond that, all three pubs are as different from each other as they might be from anywhere else in explored space. Dick Mack's was, until the eponymous proprietor died, also a shoe repair shop; the pub, now run by his son who dresses like a 1930s gunslinger, retains as décor shelves full of boots and related accoutrements. J Curran's still does a daytime sideline in hats and sundry hardware and attracts a crowd of genial eccentrics. It's here I meet Bert, originally from Wales, who once travelled the world as a film technician but settled in Dingle after working on the 1970 Oscar-winning Ryan's Daughter, which was shot on the peninsula (so were portions of the appalling Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman potboiler Far and Away, though Dingle brags about it rather less). O'Flaherty's, meanwhile, looks like a somewhat oversold Irish theme bar, but the Civil War memorabilia is not just quaint decoration. I'm not surprised to be told that it's the preferred haunt of Gerry Adams when he's in town, but it may just be that the Sinn Féin president has an ear for music: the crew of musicians thrashing giddying reels out of banjos, tin whistles and uilleann pipes the night I drop by would have ticket-clutching queues round the block in most other neighbourhoods. A poster left by the Dingle Historical Society advertises a lecture by one Ryle Dwyer on "The healing power of Gaelic football". It was last week; I'm genuinely sorry to have missed it.

I'm staying in Emlagh House, an entirely flawless bed and breakfast a few minutes' walk from the city centre. Emlagh House is a newish building which does a convincing impression of a stately Georgian home outside and in. Presided over by the Kavanagh family, it contains just 10 rooms and manages to provide everything a guest could reasonably want without showing off about it. There are libraries of books, videos and CDs, a lounge with complimentary tea and coffee and an honour bar, free WiFi, and a sunlit dining room, in which an incredible breakfast is served, with views over the fields and harbour. Gráinne Kavanagh and her mother Marion know everything and everybody in Dingle, and are helpful to the point - on at least one occasion - of getting halfway through giving me directions before deciding it'd be easier all round if they just drove me there.

Emlagh House is several ladders' worth of steps up from where I stayed on my only previous visit to Dingle, 18 years ago: a youth hostel whose sleeping quarters compared unfavourably with those aboard 18th-century warships. In many respects, Dingle is much as I remember it: pretty, friendly, quirky. In others, it has changed beyond recognition, all to the good. The economic boom which transformed Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s went straight to Dingle's restaurants, which began catering less for impecunious backpackers and more for Dubliners on weekend outings to the countryside.

While the good times may have gone, the restaurants haven't. Today, it's plausible that Dingle, tiny as it is, contains more great restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Europe. The Global Village on Main Street showcases the bounty of the local waters with a superb seafood platter. Out of the Blue, housed in an unprepossessing harbourfront bunker that was once a trawlermen's storage shed, takes an almost militant approach to seafood. The chalk sign out the front warns that they serve nothing frozen, lest a customer embarrass themselves by asking for chips; inside there's a written promise that if there's no fresh catch, they don't open.

It would be possible to enjoy a thoroughly agreeable holiday - indeed, as Bert and other denizens of Dick Mack's, J Curran's and O'Flaherty's would seem to demonstrate, possibly a thoroughly agreeable existence - without straying beyond Dingle town. However, this would be doing a disservice verging on the criminal to one of Europe's most magnificent wildernesses, a place at once as pleasingly lush as anywhere in Tuscany and as thrillingly bleak as the tundra of Iceland.

The first time I venture into the country surrounding Dingle I go on foot. I've wanted to see a game of Gaelic football, not just for any alleged healing properties (those, I figure, are a bonus). Gaelic football is believed by some to be the code from which Australian Rules descended, and it is the code at which Kerry historically excels - the county's representative team holds a record 36 All-Ireland titles. I arrived in Dingle to find that Dingle's own team was playing out of town. However, Gráinne Kavanagh finds me an alternative: a local league match pitting An Ghaeltacht, from the village of Murreagh on the north coast of the Dingle peninsula, in a home game against Gneeveguilla, a team based near the Kerry/Cork border. The game is due to start at 6.30 on Saturday evening; looking at a map of the peninsula, I reckon, with a day in hand, that I can walk it.

For the first couple of hours, I follow a section of the narrow country road-cum-trekking route called the Dingle Way (this winds, in total, around 179km of the peninsula and can be walked in its entirety in a bit over a week). This gets me as far as the next inlet to the west, the harbour at Ventry - a small town best known for a pub called Paidi O Se, which is both owned by, and a homage to, the legendary former Kerry footballer of the same name. I turn inland and head north along the track known as Pilgrim's Route. This leads onto the heights overlooking Ventry down a slope of sheep-speckled fields, past the ruin of the 16th-century Rahinnane Castle, and to a couple of gnomic conversations with terse, but not unfriendly, farmers. "From Dingle," muses one, a weather-beaten cove shrouded in tweed. "That's quite a way." I'm going to Murreagh, I explain. "An Mhuirioch," he ponders. "That's a way further." To see a football match, I continue. "You're mad," he observes.

I'm not, though, or not nearly so much as I thought I might have been when I set out. Despite the fact that hills are never out of view - least missably, the 952m Mount Brandon, Ireland's second-highest peak - I rarely feel like I'm climbing. The path curves between the peaks, and 90 minutes beyond Ventry I can already see Smerwick Harbour on the peninsula's opposite coast. I reach Gallarus Oratory - a perfectly preserved and still virtually waterproof 1200-year-old stone church - with time to spare before pushing on to Murreagh. This I spend in the visitor centre eating cake.

The location of An Ghaeltacht's home ground, right on the shore of Smerwick Harbour, is a mixed blessing. It is almost hilariously windswept, a minor Atlantic gale roaring directly across the pitch, abducting any high ball with it. The compensation is what must be one of the most sensational natural settings of any sporting venue. We few dozen souls in attendance have a choice of viewing the match, the fog-shrouded heights of Brandon, or expanses of Smerwick crested by the triple peak known as the Three Sisters. I stick with the game at hand. An Ghaeltacht's supporters are keen to stress, as the scoreboard begins to run against them, that they'd usually make short work of Gneeveguilla, but a few of their best players are on furlough pending a county match between Kerry and ancient rivals Cork. I find myself warming to Gneeveguilla, however, for reasons trivial (I like the way the coach yelled all his instructions in Irish, but punctuates these with definitively Anglo-Saxon swearing) and not so trivial (it is darkening, and starting to rain, and I calculate that the Gneeveguilla crowd will have to drive home through Dingle).

I'm right on the latter count. It seems such a natural interaction all round that it doesn't occur to me until later how few places I'd feel completely relaxed about asking total strangers for a ride along remote country roads after dark, and in how few places I'd expect anyone to say yes to giving a total stranger a lift.

The next day I head out to see Dingle again, this time by car. Said vehicle is driven by Denis Ryan, a local guide who manages the rare feat of being knowledgeable and passionate without ever becoming didactic or tiresome. My four-hour ride with Ryan covers some of the territory I'd seen on foot and a great deal I'd missed.

I hadn't, for example, seen the natural spectacle of the Blasket Islands, huddled the other side of an infamously treacherous stretch of water. The largest of the islands is accessible by boat only when weather permits. I'm not that lucky, but am unable to feel myself unfortunate. The view from the tip of Slea Head, where the coast road cuts around a dramatic statue of the crucifixion, actually does merit that carelessly abused adjective "breathtaking"; even on a clear day, the Blaskets look like the humps of a vast, sleeping sea-beast, pausing before rearing up and biting a chunk out of the mainland. Dingle, like Ireland in general and like this part of Ireland in particular, somehow embodies all your most clichéd hopes and expectations of it with wondrously guileless and unoppressive charm.

"We're terrible early," announces the taxi driver taking me back to Kerry airport, as we near our destination. "Tell you what, there's a really strange little pub a bit further on. Fancy a swift one?"

There really is nowhere like Dingle. Whatever they call it.





THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
Etihad flies to Dublin via Abu Dhabi 10 times a week from Sydney, four times a week from Melbourne and three times a week from Brisbane. Kerry Airport is a 50-minute flight from Dublin. From Kerry Airport it's an hour's drive to Dingle.

STAY
Emlagh House, a luxury family-run retreat, is a short walk from Dingle's town centre. Rooms from $215 including breakfast. +353 66 9152345.

Castlewood House is perched on the harbour shore a short walk from the centre of Dingle. Beautifully appointed rooms with Jacuzzi baths; doubles from $110 including breakfast. The Wood, Dingle, +353 66 9152788.

EAT

Out of the Blue
Outstanding seafood. Waterside (opposite the marina), Dingle, +353 66 9150811.

The Global Village
Another stunning seafood restaurant. The steaks aren't bad, either. Upper Main St, Dingle, +353 66 9152325.

Lord Baker's
Situated in what is believed to be the oldest pub in Dingle. Popular with visiting celebrities, judging by the photos on the wall. Main St, Dingle, +353 66 9151277.

DRINK

Dick Mack's
Look for the walk of stars on the footpath. Green St (opposite St Mary's Church), Dingle, +353 66 9151960
 
O'Flaherty's
Bridge St, Dingle, +353 66 9151983

Paidi O Se pub and restaurant
Ventry, Dingle Peninsula, +353 66 9159011

J Curran's
Also sells flat caps and gumboots. Lower Main St, Dingle

SEE
Denis Ryan guided tours +353 86 3252996

Fungie the Dolphin tour +353 66 9152626



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