Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 1)
August 29, 2014 § 10 Comments
I was meant to spend my summer holiday in the Loire Valley and instead I ended up in western Ireland.
No, it isn’t because I’m cursed with a particularly poor sense of direction. Let me explain…
I don’t usually talk much about my personal life here, but there’s no way to explain the turn my travels took without temporarily breaking that self-imposed rule. Just over four months ago, my boyfriend and I split up. We had been together ten and a half years so as you might imagine, my life went through some drastic changes. Among other things, I suddenly found my holiday plans in ruins. We’d been talking about renting a cottage in the Loire Valley; it would have been my first time back there since my year teaching English in Tours. Even if I could have afforded the cottage by myself (I couldn’t) or could drive (I can’t), there was no way I could have faced going there alone.
Two days after we split up, I went to the cinema in desperate need of distraction. I ended up seeing Tracks and came out deeply moved and inspired by Robyn Davidson’s journey. I wasn’t deluded enough to decide to go on my own 1700-mile trek across the Australian desert in the company of three camels, but I decided to do something similar, on a more manageable scale, that I had never done before – a multi-day solo hike. Somewhere beautiful and relatively unpeopled, so I could clear my head and take stock, but not so far from civilisation that I wouldn’t be able to have a roof over my head at night.
The first place I thought of was Ireland and it immediately felt right. I’ve always felt a very strong affinity with the place – perhaps it has something to do with having grown up in Chicago, which has a huge Irish community and celebrates St Patrick’s Day like a national holiday (complete with dyeing the river emerald green – I also remember my dad coming home one year with green-tinted bagels for my brother and me and being simultaneously relieved and disappointed when they tasted just like ordinary bagels), or perhaps it’s more to do with my love of the literature and the music (and the wide, deep streak of melancholy that runs through both).
The rub, though, is that Ireland and I have ‘previous’. I had visited once before, eight years ago when I was a student. I was travelling with my mother, and as I don’t drive (see above) and she won’t drive on the left, the only really feasible option for us to see the country was a coach tour. We were fortunate to have good guides, I will say that in its favour, but after three days of being hustled on and off the coach, allowed only a few minutes to look at places where I could easily have spent hours or days (and, conversely, having to visit a few I could gladly have skipped – Blarney Castle, I’m looking at you), I was seething with frustration. To cap it all, I ended up having my bag (with my wallet, keys and passport inside it) stolen in Dublin. Everyone I dealt with in the aftermath couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful, but suffice it to say it didn’t make me particularly eager to return to Dublin (which by that point I felt I had properly ‘done’ anyway). So I spent the next eight years telling myself that someday I would go back to Ireland, avoid Dublin, and see the places I wanted to see at my own pace.
So now was the time to conquer my demons. One of the better aspects of that previous trip was a day spent zipping up and down the Dingle Peninsula, and even in that brief time (and rotten weather) I fell in love with the dramatic landscape. Eight days walking the Dingle Way sounded perfect. I spent the summer reading all I could about it, from guidebooks to J M Synge’s excellent In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (the ‘West Kerry’ section being devoted almost exclusively to the Dingle Peninsula), and gathering the various bits of gear I’d need for my walk.
And last week I landed at Kerry airport with my rucksack, about to embark on one of the best adventures of my life.
Day 1: Tralee
Distance covered: 4 km (approx); total ascent: 0 m
One of the places I stayed on that coach tour eight years ago was Killarney – which the tour visited while totally bypassing Killarney National Park (something which to my mind is akin to going to Paris and never leaving the Gare du Nord). I have encountered few places in my life (at least in Europe) as aggressively and unapologetically touristy. If towns posted ‘welcome’ signs that were brutally honest, Killarney’s would probably read ‘Killarney: The only good thing we’ve ever given the world is Michael Fassbender.’
If Tralee had a similar sign, it would likely say ‘Tralee: At least we’re not Killarney.’
Tralee may be the county town of Kerry, but it is deeply unprepossessing. My heart sinks as I come out of the station and doesn’t really rise again on the walk to my B&B. The town is nearly 700 years old but you’d never know to look at it – most of the architecture is modern and drab, or 19th-century and drab, and there are a disproportionate number of shops (for a town its size, anyway) selling really ugly shoes. (Not that I will be scaling Mount Brandon wearing faux-snakeskin platforms, of course, so I don’t linger to gape at their awfulness.) It is also the day after this year’s Rose of Tralee Festival, so the town appears to be in the throes of a collective hangover (not entirely of the alcoholic kind, more of the nostalgic kind, which, given the tackiness of the contest, I find it a bit hard to sympathise with).
The one interesting thing to do in Tralee is to visit the Kerry County Museum, which, although it initially looks small and poky, provides a good and thorough introduction to the history of the area. I end up learning a surprising amount about places and archaeological remains I’ll end up encountering along the Dingle Way. There’s also a moving display of photos of Kerry in the 1950s and 1960s (a time of continuing rural poverty and emigration) and an unintentionally comical one of dresses worn by past Roses of Tralee (okay, I’m being mean, but…)
The trailhead of the Dingle Way is just outside the museum, but I superstitiously avoid it. Instead I end up going for a walk upstream along a path that runs beside the River Lee. It’s quiet and pretty but very definitely still hemmed in by buildings. Apart from this walk and a turn around a rather dull rose garden, I seem to have exhausted Tralee’s possibilities already. I could wait until late enough to go to one of the trad sessions in the pubs, but as I had to get up at 4 am to catch my flight (there is only one per day from London, it’s early and from Luton of all places – damn you, Ryanair) I am already starting to melt with exhaustion. Despite my fatigue I still feel rather like a bird hurling itself against the bars of a cage.
I do manage to keep myself awake long enough after dinner to discover that Tralee has one wonderful surprise to offer – the sunset. I take my camera and walk down to a bridge over the Lee where it broadens out into a marsh. The Slieve Mish mountains loom in the near distance and every time I glance in their direction I shiver with anticipation – this is where I’ll be hiking tomorrow. The sky blazes and the water gives back the blaze in soft blur. Two swans glide silently by. A grey heron stands in elegantly frozen profile under the next bridge along. My eye is captured by the constant to-and-fro of a small fluttering creature that I think at first is a bird but then realise is a bat (the first time I’ve ever seen one in the wild).
Once the sun has completely set, I head back to my B&B. As I’m laying out my clothes for the next day, I know exactly what t-shirt I’ll wear.
One with two birds in flight on the front and a golden cage, its door burst open, on the side.