Ireland's Wild West
In words and watercolors, artist Neil Welliver revisits the rugged shores of the Dingle Peninsula
Twelve years ago, American poet Mark Strand and I searched up and down Ireland until we found a house that he, at six foot seven, could actually stand up in without hitting his head. It was what the Irish call a Dutch house (because it has two floors), and it was in Dingle, on Ireland's westernmost peninsula. I've been going back there ever since.
To get to Dingle, you fly into Shannon and then drive three or four hours southwest through magnificent countryside. Tall gorse hedges circumscribe verdant pastures where holsteins graze, their black and white markings sharp against the brilliant grass. The bucolic simplicity of the towns along the way— Adare, Rathkeale, Tralee— belies the richness of their past. There are still houses with thatch roofs (though most are now capped by slate tiles), as well as ruins of abbeys, friaries, castles, and keeps, dating to the time of the Knights Templars.
Though you do have another choice, no route from Tralee to Dingle town is more spectacular than the vertiginous Connor Pass. Rising sharply from the sea, this serpentine road is so narrow you have to pull off to the side if a car comes from the opposite direction. The top of the pass affords a view few would associate with Ireland: the Slieve Mish mountain range, dominated by the 3,127-foot-high Mount Brandon, its peak shrouded in clouds. There isn't a tree in sight.
Isolated and wild, the Dingle Peninsula seems to be populated mainly by sheep, either hogging the road or ambling across grassy mountain slopes marked by ancient stone walls. Dingle itself is a port town, where fishing is still a vibrant industry, providing a sea of restaurants with a bounty that includes clams, mussels, oysters, and lobsters, as well as plaice, shark, and turbot. Incomparable steaks, from cows fed on nothing but grass, are served at El Toro; the best seafood is at Half Door. The first floor of the village's abutting three-story buildings almost invariably houses one of two things: a pub or a shop selling locally produced knits. Of the numerous pubs, the most lively— filled with musicians, artists, herders, and, of course, writers— is Dick Mack's on Green Street, my longtime favorite. The Irish are industrious, sturdy, kind, and courteous, the most civilized people I've ever met, though my 15-year-old son did make fast friends when he admitted that he hated the British.
From Dingle toward Dunquin, take the coastal road. On one side the Atlantic Ocean, warmed by a Gulf Stream current, laps against sandy shores. On the other, green mountains rise. As you head north (via Dunmore Head, Slea Head, and Coumeenoole), the road narrows, clinging to the sides of cliffs like the ubiquitous sheep. From Slea Head, you can look out toward the once inhabited Blasket Islands; now only ruins of houses remain.
Not far beyond Slea Head are the clocháns, or beehive houses, for which this area is famous. First constructed in the third and fourth centuries by Christian settlers, these circular huts, which are of corbeled flat stone and resemble igloos, were still being built in the 20th. There are many along this road, but most are to be found at Fahan. The shells of castles are no less frequent; Minard Castle at Minard Head and Rahinnane Castle in Ventry were both destroyed by Cromwell during his genocidal anti-Catholic campaign. Strung along the coast are also innumerable early fortifications, or ring forts, as well as middens— mounds marking sites where layer upon layer of shellfish remains were discarded thousands of years ago.
In its odd and ferocious beauty, Ireland is all pleasure— it never disappoints.