Ireland: walk of the month
Christopher Somerville is swept along the Dingle Way.
Of course it turned out that Cameron Heaton, my guesthouse host on the shores of Dingle Harbour, was some kind of a cousin of mine. The family’s pleasant but formal greetings turned into cries of delight. While the breakfast pancakes were cooking I was put on the phone to Cameron’s mother up in Galway, a great family historian. ‘Well, this is just wonderful – a West Cork Somerville! You must come and see me. Come and stay!’
You somehow grow to expect such warming coincidences when you’re travelling in the west of Ireland. The previous night in Dingle’s best traditional music pub, the Small Bridge, I’d stumbled across a friend I’d thought was in America – Brendan Begley, a melodeon magician. The ensuing session had zipped along until one in the morning, and my lips were now sore from over-enthusiastic harmonica honking. The legs were fine, though; and that’s what mattered, with a dozen miles of the Dingle Way to cover on this blowy, blustery West Kerry day.
I’d last been down this way fifteen years before, approaching the end of an 800-mile walk from top to bottom of Ireland. I’d fallen head over heels in love with the rugged and mountainous Dingle peninsula, the northernmost of five that poke out like stumpy fingers into the Atlantic from the southwest extremity of the island. Back then the Dingle Way was in its infancy, and a rough, boggy, badly-marked path it had proved. I was looking forward to retracing old footsteps today, and seeing if things had improved along the track since then.
John Ahern was waiting for me outside the South Pole Inn in Anascaul. John’s small company, South West Walks Ireland, takes people on guided rambles all over Ireland, or provides the backup for them to walk on their own if they prefer. There isn’t much about the Dingle Way that John doesn’t know, and if he’s stumped he’ll spin you a yarn about it anyway. I couldn’t have wished for a more vigorous or conversational companion on a day when the north wind seemed determined to drive blacker and blacker clouds of wetter and wetter content in over the peninsula’s mountains and out again across Dingle Bay. When Ireland’s Atlantic coast decides to put on this sort of display, it does it wholeheartedly.
Mind you, the drenchings we got would have been laughed to scorn – if he had even registered them – by the man whose name was lettered along the front of the South Pole Inn. Thomas Crean was a hard, hard man. As a teenager in the 1890s he ran away from Anascaul to join the Navy. He accompanied Captain Scott on two of his famous Antarctic expeditions, including the doomed journey of 1910-12. He voyaged 800 miles with Ernest Shackleton in an open boat through the Southern Ocean in a bid to fetch help for colleagues trapped by pack ice. Then he came home to Anascaul and ran the pub, spinning tales across the counter until his death in 1938, having reached the age of 61 against all the odds.
‘A mighty man,’ agreed John as we tramped the roads westward, ‘but not quite as mighty as our famous Irish giant Fionn MacCumhaill.’ He pointed up to a corrie in the mountain walls darkened by rain shadow. ‘That’s where Fionn’s girlfriend drowned herself in the lake when she thought he’d been killed in a battle with another giant. But he hadn’t, of course. You couldn’t kill a hero like Fionn!’
Black blocks of rain dragging fragments of rainbow in their skirts melted into brief windows of intense sunshine, making the gorse hedges glow sulphurously and the bushes of may shine blindingly white. Down on the southern shore we passed the grim tower of Minard Castle – a Fitzgerald stronghold blown to ruins in the 1650s by Oliver Cromwell’s men, said John. Gannets were planing over Dingle Bay on black-tipped wings, toppling over to plunge into the rain-pocked sea after fish. On the far shore of the bay rose the mountain ridges of the Iveragh peninsula, far higher and more sharply cut than Dingle’s smoothly undulating backbone.
Beyond the castle, hidden in a leafy dingle, we found a beautiful horseshoe of grass enclosing Tobar Eoin, St John’s Well. Offerings of coins and bright white quartz chips lay at the bottom of the little pool. The gently dimpling water was cool on my music-battered lips, sweet on the palate. Good for the eyes, John told me. Above the well a seamed old tree had been festooned with strips of rag, each tied there for a wish or a prayer.
Narrow country lanes led us on westward, climbing into the foothills of the mountains past abandoned farms where trees flourished in the derelict rooms. John beguiled the showers and the miles with talk, telling me of the difficulties he’d experienced as a merchant navy radio operator with very little English. Education in the rural Ireland of the 1950s and 60s was highly politicised, and all John’s schooling had been in Gaelic. That, however, hadn’t stopped him developing a champion gift of the gab in both tongues, it seemed.
For a short while we followed the line of the old Tralee & Dingle Light Railway. This rickety-rackety branch line, closed with much mourning in 1953, was a wonder and a wild amusement to legions of enthusiasts. The fireman’s duties including pelting coal lumps at sheep straying on the line. You could run from Tralee to Dingle more swiftly than the trains would trundle. ‘It was a nice question,’ said John, ‘as to who took on more liquid refreshment at Camp Junction – the engine or the guard! Oh, a great institution, and a great source of crack.’
Now the Dingle Way left the lanes and climbed up to cross the slopes of Cruach Sceirde, the Scattered Mountain. The stones of ancient huts and field walls patterned the brown turf. We climbed above small mountain farms to a high pass in the teeth of wind and rain. Below in a hollow of the coast the circle of Dingle Harbour lay cradled. A beautiful pale sunset layered the sea beyond with pure silver. A long gleaming ribbon of laneway led us down out of the rainy hills, into the town where strangers and friends seem two sides of the same coin,
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Series Sheet 70. Walk route maps in Dingle Way guide books/leaflets.
From Dingle, take Tralee bus (4 a day, 5 in summer: 7.15 and 10.15 a.m. are the most useful) to start of walk in Anascaul; or Moran’s Taxis (freephone 1800-605705 or 087/086-275-3333).
WALK DIRECTIONS: Full directions in Dingle Way guide books/leaflets. Route is well waymarked throughout with yellow ‘walking man’ symbols and arrows.
In brief: From South Pole Inn, Anascaul (593019), cross river. 200 yd up Dingle road, left (Dingle Way waymark – DW) along Castlemaine road. Left along R561 (589013); in 150 yd fork right up narrow lane. Follow it for 3 miles to Minard Castle (555992). Ahead up lane; in 50 yd fork right (DW) up grassy track (Tobar Eoin/St John’s Well is in front of you here). Continue on road through Minard East (549997); in 1/4 mile, left by bungalow with garden wall (545999 – DW) for ½ mile to T-junction. Right here uphill (539995 – DW) for 3/4 mile, passing Tobar Beannaithe graveyard (537003) to turn right at top of hill (536006 – DW). At T-junction (DW), left downhill into Bheag village.
On right bend, left (538012 – DW) along lane for 1 1/3 miles to join N86 Dingle road by post office in Lispole (519010). Forward across bridge; immediately right on lane rising towards mountains. At fork (517018 – DW), left on lane to bear right into fields after 1 mile (502024 – DW) – NB!! Not where OS map shows it at 510022!!
Up three fields; then bear left (503028 – DW) to road. Forward through Lisdargan to junction by Durane’s B&B notice (501031 – DW). Right; in 50 yd left (DW) along green lane. In 300 yards, left off lane (DW), over bog and fields by stiles (DW) to road through farming hamlet (488032). In 200 yd right (DW) across fields to road (482032). Continue to pass a house; in 50 yards, right (479031 – yellow arrow) up stony track, following DW up mountainside for 2/3 mile to cross Garfinny River and reach road (474038). Left for 2/3 mile to cross Connor Pass road (466031 – DW). Continue down long lane for 1 3/4 miles into Dingle.
LENGTH: 12 miles: allow 6–7 hours
CONDITIONS: Can be very wet and muddy; wear wet weather gear and walking boots.
REFRESHMENTS: South Pole Inn, Anascaul. (NB None en route – take picnic).
DINGLE WAY GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: From Dingle Tourist Office, Strand Street, Dingle (066-915-1188)
SOUTHWESTWALKS IRELAND:. 28 The Anchorage Tralee, Co. Kerry (00-353-66-71-28733; www.southwestwalksireland.com).