Thursday, December 17, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

GAELIC GETAWAY, Chapter 16:  

Day 17:  Dingle to Tralee
This morning we headed northwest on Slea Head Drive, a circular route along R-559 that begins and ends in Dingle town and explores the remote extreme of the Dingle Peninsula.  This finger of unspoiled countryside features mountains, a rugged coastline, quaint villages, several hundred thousand sheep, and numerous early Christian relics.  Traveling counterclockwise on the loop, our first stop was the ruins of the Kilmalkedar Church near Ballydavid.  A monastery was founded at the site before the year 650, and this Irish Romanesque church was built in the 12th century by the English.

Kilmalkedar ruins
The graveyard surrounding the church contains an ancient cross and an ogham stone, which had stood on this spot for centuries before the church was built.  According to legend, the hole drilled in the top of the stone was used in a dealmaking ritual.  Parties entering the agreement would stand on either side of the stone near this place of worship and seal the deal with an oath to God as they touched thumbs through the hole.

Ogham stone at Kilmalkedar Churchyard
Further west, we stopped in Ballyferriter to check out the tiny Gallarus Oratory, a small chapel built about 1,300 years ago.  Resembling an inverted boat, this is one of the best preserved early Christian churches remaining in Ireland.  The chapel has just two openings—a doorway and a single window—and its mortarless walls are still impervious to rain.  The office was closed but the relic was accessible to visitors, and several black and white cats came up to greet us.  After a young couple from Poland scrounged up some treats for them, the cats paid us no further attention.  

Gallarus Oratory
Following R-559 as it wound around the end of the peninsula, we came to Clogher Head beach where the Atlantic crashes into the towering headland.  According to the interpretive signs, this was the filming location for the opening scenes of the 1992 film Far and Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.  After a snack and some photo ops, we meandered on through the wee village of Graigue and around the coast with foggy views of the no-longer-inhabited Blasket Islands.

Clogher Head beach
On around Dingle's promontory we rolled into the little town of Dunquin (Duncan) at the tip, where we hoped to learn more about the Blasket Islands and the forced evacuation in 1953 of island fishermen, subsistence farmers, and even a few literary legends who had inhabited the islands for so long.  Unfortunately, the Blasket Centre museum was closed for the season.

View from Dunmore Head
However, we had a filmy view of the islands from the overlook at Dunmore Head, Ireland's westernmost point.  Despite the mist and fog, the scenery was dramatic with powerful waves battering the massive cliffs, sending up gushers of salty spray.  We extended our enjoyment of the view with a picnic lunch before moving on.

Dunbeg Fort
Continuing along the shore on the loop road, now high above the water, we stopped about 1:00 for a visit to Dunbeg Fort, a remnant of Ireland's Iron Age.  When we parked, we marveled at a stonework building aptly called the Stone House.  Even the roof was made of stone.  It appeared to be a restaurant but was not open today.

Stone structure near Dunbeg Fort
Across the road from the structure, we made our way to a tiny trailside hut where we paid our €3 admission to the fort in exchange for a descriptive handout.  Dunbeg, we learned, is a promontory (sea-facing) fort built on a sheer cliff around 1,300 years ago and excavated in the 1970s.

On the way back to the car, we again stopped at the little hut and asked the gatekeeper about the history of the stone house we had seen across the road.  "Guess how old it is," he suggested.  "Built in the 1600s?" I offered.  He chuckled.  "Fifteen years ago," he laughed.  Somehow I had the feeling he'd had this conversation before.

Colorful Dingle street
Completing the Slea Head Loop, we drove back through Dingle town and headed north toward Connor Pass on R-560.  The lookout at the summit of the pass was completely socked in with fog.  As we left the top and continued down the other side, the road suddenly narrowed to about one and a quarter lanes, a bit nerve-wracking on the steep, winding foggy route.

Single lane track through the mountains in the fog
Down at the bottom, the road expanded back to two lanes, the fog was thinner, and we could see to the north a stretch of barren sandy land.  Continuing on around, we were soon overlooking the long beach of Brandon Bay as we approached Stradbally.  We decided to drive north to the highly praised Castlegregory Beach on Tralee Bay.  Having known the sparkling beaches of the Florida panhandle, we found it rather mundane and moved back to N-86 toward Tralee.

King Puck, a legendary goat who warned Killorgin about the approaching Cromwellian army, is honored at an annual festival.
In Tralee, we jostled our way through a late afternoon traffic snarl to the Ashe Hotel and booked a room upon arrival.  As has been the pattern, we were in one of only five rooms occupied tonight.  After unpacking, we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner and enjoyed chatting with our server, Connor, who attended college on a soccer scholarship in Thomasville, Georgia.

After a satisfying meal, we spent the rest of the evening making plans and hotel reservations for the next couple of weeks as we continue up the Irish coast and enter Northern Ireland.  Due to a variety of circumstances, mostly involving the weather, we're beginning to wonder whether we will make it to Scotland as planned.  Maybe for a week or ten days.

Daily Stats:
  • Started in Dingle, ended in Tralee
  • Mileage - 76   (Trip total: 5,877)
  • Weather - 52° to 57°, cloudy and rainy
  • Sunrise - 8:42, Sunset - 4:26 
Cross country trail at Clogher Head 
View at Dunmore Head
View from Dunquin
They may be smokeless but they're not odorless.  The scent of burning peat logs is ubiquitous in Irish villages in winter.
Rocky shore below Dunbeg Fort