Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 3)
September 4, 2014 § 3 Comments
Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here
Day 4: Anascaul to Dingle
Distance covered: 22 km; total ascent: 340 m
I wake to quite possibly the most beautiful morning I’ve ever experienced in Ireland. The sky is a gorgeous crystalline blue, with only a few small clouds. It’s cool, but there’s a promise of warmth in the air. I want to pinch myself. My previous experience of Ireland was of more or less unceasing rain. I don’t know how much longer this is going to last, but I intend to take full advantage of it.
The trail winds gently uphill out of Anascaul and drops back down toward Dingle Bay, coming out in a small cove above which is perched the ruined Minard Castle. The sea is as smooth as glass. I could happily while away a whole morning here exploring the rock pools and the far reaches of the cove, but sadly the castle itself is off limits. Ah well, perhaps it’s more majestic at a slight distance anyway.
The trail cuts inland again, curling around farm after farm, cutting between hedgerows. I’m glad for their shelter because by now the sun is beating down harder than I imagined possible in this part of the world: if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine myself hiking in the Santa Ynez Valley or the Santa Monica Mountains.
Ireland might be known as the Emerald Isle, but the hedgerows have been a constant surprise to me: an explosion of colour. The dominant hues are the crimson and purple of fuchsia (yes, really: an introduction from New Zealand in the nineteenth century, apparently) and the orange of montbretia, but nearly every other colour in the spectrum is present: pink stars of herb Robert, the occasional creamy yellow sunburst of honeysuckle, blue pincushions of scabious, and the purple-black jewels on all the brambles, none of which is safe around me.
The village (hamlet, really) of Lispole behind me, the trail starts to climb in earnest. The first part of it is sheltered by trees, but soon I’m out in the open again, passing along the flank of a mountain, with a spectacular view spread out below me: Dingle Bay and the Iveragh Peninsula, with, from this angle, the spires of Skellig Michael just visible off the tip of the peninsula.
This is where the trail throws up a new problem, one I’ve never dealt with before. It sends me over stile after stile and straight into fields. Some of the fields are filled with sheep, which is fine by me: as already established, I have infinite respect for them and they, for whatever reason, find me the scariest thing in the known universe.
No, the problem is that most of the fields are pasture for cattle.
I have a shameful but, in this instance, reasonable confession to make: I am scared of cattle.
Well, not always. If there’s a fence between them and me, I find them mild-mannered and inoffensive. However, there’s nothing separating us. If I happen to accidentally startle one (or, worse, several), there’s the unavoidable fact that
- They outnumber me and
- Each one weighs at least eight times what I do.
Most of the pastures through which I have to pass contain a small enough number of cattle that I can avoid them relatively easily as I try to hurry past without startling any of the apparently placid beasts. But then I come to one where this approach won’t work. First of all, the trail is all squelching mud, churned by countless hooves (I am suddenly extremely grateful to whoever invented gaiters); second, there are at least fifty head of cattle in the field.
I do a quick survey of the pasture. It’s mostly young bullocks, too young to have acquired horns yet (small mercies!). I draw a deep breath, put my head down and march across the field as quickly as the mud will allow.
After what feels like an eternity (but can only have been about thirty seconds), the stile appears. I scramble over it and pause on the other side to catch my breath. Thank goodness that’s over. (Also, sphagnum moss has been officially displaced from its erstwhile position as most frightening thing encountered on the Dingle Way, even if it has technically caused me more harm than the cows have.)
I eventually come out on the flank of another mountain overlooking the same splendid view of the Iveragh Peninsula and Skellig Michael and, in the shadow of sun- and wind-bleached skeletons of gorse, wend my way to the bridge over the Garfinny River. On the other side of the bridge I consult my map and then my watch and get a pleasant shock.
I have only about 3 km left to go to Dingle. This portion of the Way is supposed to take eight hours to walk. Taking into account the last 3 km, I will have done it in… six.
As with Anascaul, Dingle lies at the bottom of a straight road that seems to draw out forever. There’s another unfortunate parallel with the approach to Anascaul: about a quarter of the way down, my knee begins to protest again. Through sheer force of will I manage to fight down the pain until once again it’s lurking like a wounded animal in a corner. I’m properly frightened now. Evidently whatever I’ve done to my knee doesn’t like descents – and I’ve got two rather tall mountains to tackle. The first of which will be… tomorrow.
After tiny Anascaul and tinier Camp, Dingle feels like a big city, even if its population doesn’t quite reach 2000. Dingle was one of the places my coach tour stopped eight years ago, but as is the nature of such tours, the only part of it I saw (or at least remember) was the harbour with its statue of Fungie, the resident dolphin. All seen in a grey drizzle, of course.
However, Dingle in the sunshine, explored at its own pace, is remarkably pleasant. It owes a lot to tourism, thanks to its use as a location in Ryan’s Daughter, but it isn’t obnoxious in the mode of Killarney. The beachfront might have its share of tatty souvenir shops, but there are also a bookshop whose stock would put to shame quite a few in larger towns, two excellent music shops, and further temptation in the form of the shop of Lisbeth Mulcahy, weaver extraordinaire (and wife of Louis, whose pottery near Dunquin I will visit two days later). As for restaurants, it’s an embarrassment of riches – I wander around in a blissful agony of indecision before finally choosing Fenton’s, where I have a royal dinner that includes the best moules marinières I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Belgium) and would probably cost at least twice as much in London. And as Dingle forms the gateway to one of Ireland’s Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking regions), I hear people conversing in Irish in nearly every shop I pop into. Even if I don’t understand a word (and the conversation, for all I know, is probably prosaic) it sounds enchantingly lovely.
What I’ve most been looking forward to in Dingle, though, is music, and to make up for the lack of it the three previous nights, I manage to cram in three different sessions in three different pubs. The first is in a tiny pub called O’Sullivan’s just off the main street; I get there just as they’re winding down, but I catch a couple of rousing reels and then – wonderful surprise – a short session of sean-nós singing. The six musicians take it in turn to sing, passing the song around the circle and changing it subtly as it passes from person to person; the words are incomprehensible to me but the emotion is not.
The next session is in a pub decorated with posters for Ryan’s Daughter in English, German, French, Spanish, Polish and Turkish.* The décor might be somewhat questionable but the music certainly isn’t – Damien Mullane, an extraordinary young accordionist. Watching him play is a rather strange experience, as from the shoulders up he’s completely impassive and barely moves, a strange disconnect from the motion of hands and wrists – it feels almost like the musical equivalent of Irish step dancing (preternaturally still from the knees up, all wild motion below). I’m so absorbed by his playing that I nearly forget about photographing the sunset, but I remember just in time to dash down to the harbour and get one good shot.
The third and last session (one door down from the all-Ryan’s-Daughter pub) is an equally excellent multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, flute and tin whistle) named Aoife Granville. Her name sounds familiar, and I realise I picked up one of her CDs in a music shop earlier in the afternoon. Now I’m kicking myself for not buying it.
By the time I leave the pub, it’s well past 11 (which, amazingly, is the latest night I’ve had since arriving in Ireland). There are still late sessions going on as I head back down to my B&B and I’m sorely tempted to stop and listen, but sleep wins out.
After all, tomorrow is going to be the first truly difficult day on the trail. I’m going to need every minute of rest I can get.
*In case you ever wondered what Ryan’s Daughter is called in Turkish, it’s Irlandali kiz (‘Irish Girl’). A matter of burning curiosity to many, I’m sure…