Thursday, March 31, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Killarney Day 10: "Pizza for Rae... I mean Daisy."

Another day, another amazing selection of experiences. I have learned and seen so much in the last few hours, and I am so glad I get to share the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula. The history here goes all the way back to the monks in the Beehive Huts and continues to evolve today, thanks to sea marinas like the one in Dingle. Take a trip with me from Killarney, to the beach at a place called Inch, to the edge of Slea Head and the Blasket Islands—and maybe see the filming sight of Star Wars VIII along the way…

Our final journey in Killarney started at 9AM once again, this time headed for the Dingle Peninsula. This is exactly on the other side of where we were yesterday—in fact, we could often see the exact road we drove on from across the channel. That was pretty cool to see! The mountains were bathed in sunshine and framed by a cloudless sky as we sped down past the sparkling blue water.

After about a half hour drive, we passed through onto the peninsula and landed at our first stop: Inch Beach. Yes, there is a place called Inch, and they have a beautiful beach there. As we all ran toward the ocean, we greeted an enthusiastic yellow lab that we named Lucy. She stayed with us for our entire time at Inch, enticing us to throw her a glove that she had found on the side of the road. She bounded with us through the water, despite its chilly temperature. Many people took their shoes off, but I did not want my feet to freeze and fall off completely—even if they are still recovering from climbing Torc. Instead, I contented myself with breathing the salt air and looking for Atlantic seashells to add to my collection and give to friends back home. I found some amazing mussel shells still intact, as well as a ton of clamshells and barnacles growing on it. The morning sun created a haze over the whole beach that made it look like a scene from a movie, or an oil painting in a museum. The mountains glowed in the background, the sea blazed turquoise, the horizon line opened up in the distance. It was truly amazing. 

We slowly removed the sand from our feet and shoes and headed back to the bus, then went on our way to the Gealtacht region of the Dingle Peninsula. Here, Gaelic is the first language; signs all read Gaelic first with English underneath, or no English at all. Irish people speak English only to tourists who do not know Gaelic. Even store names and advertisements (like the grocery stores we stopped at in Dingle) had Gaelic phrases and no English. It is a storied region that extends in pockets all the way up the West of Ireland, and we got to see a small part of it.

But the real reason for coming to this area was to see the ancient Beehive Huts in the town on Fahan, used by monks in the early days of Irish Christianity. This particular site is called Caher Conor, built on Mount Eagle just to the west of Dingle town. Similar to the huts on Skellig Michael, these huts are made completely through dry masonry—this means no mortar or nails, just stones stacked in a corbeled style (curved inwardly) so that the capstones do not fall in. This is what gives them their “beehive” shape. These huts are difficult to date, but could be as old as 12th century examples of stunning dry masonry. Even if we could not get out to see Skellig Michael, at least we could stand atop Mount Eagle, with the huts beside us, and see the Skelligs out across the way. It was humbling to see these huts in real life, and how delicate they are. It is amazing that they have survived for so many years!

Also, as a quick digression: I was the last one on the bus because I was trying to get pictures of the huts without 32 people running all over them. Because of this, I was subjected to sing a song over the bus’s microphone. Apparently this is a new rule that I was unaware of. I chose “Row Row Row Your Boat” because we were about to drive through the narrow pass on the way to the edge of the peninsula—in case we fell in, at least we would be singing the right song.

Next, we kept on driving toward the Atlantic via what is called Slea Head Drive. This includes switchbacks like the Devil’s Elbow: a sharp 270° turn with a small river running through the middle of the road into the cliff below, rushing down from the mountain on the other side. Our bus driver Tom handled it wonderfully, even if our professor got a little nervous. From then on, it was cliff faces and swirling water at the bottom, all about a foot from our bus to the edge. Eventually, we caught sight of the large coastal islands called the Blasket Islands, where people lived for centuries up until their forced removal in the 1950s.

We walked through some of Slea Head so that the bus could maneuver more easily, and we got to see some famine cottages along the road. These houses were built in the 19th century and housed the people most vulnerable to and hard-hit by the potato famine. Because their diet only consisted of potato, these remote farmers had nothing else to live on during the Great Hunger. Today, many of them lay in ruin, but are protected from demolition by the Irish government as heritage sites. People still live around these cottages, however. We passed by many sheep and cow pastures, where we got to meet some adorable lambs and calves before meeting the bus at the other end of the road. Lambs are everywhere during this season, and I am so thankful to see their little bodies bouncing around with excitement!

Back on the bus, we made our way to the Blasket Island Centre, where we explored the museum. The Blaskets are made up of 6 islands, with the largest housing the central population for hundreds of years. The main occupation was fishing. There were numerous stone houses, and the island even had a “king”. We watched a short documentary film about how influential the Blasket Islands were to the study of Gaelic by outsiders. The traditional language and lifestyle attracted many English and European anthropologists and linguists, who helped to enlighten the world. Because of this heightened interest, there are many autobiographical books written by former residents of the island that I now want to read: The Island Man, Twenty Years A-Growing and Peig, for starters. But the film did not really explain why the people were removed from their island in 1953, and why that was such a big deal to those inhabitants. Over the years, the population of the island lowered to around 20 people. The school, once teaching over 60 children, now had a class of four students. The government decided there were not enough people left to populate the island, so they forcibly removed them from their homes and resettled them on the Dingle Peninsula. 

We are going to learn more about the islands later, but for now, this was another humbling introduction into the past lives of these historical Irish people. The last man to be born on the Blaskets is now 69 years old—in one of the quotes from the film, he said that “kids these days wouldn’t make it doing the things necessary for survival on this island.” I think this is an incredibly important message to the world in general to not take anything for granted. It might be easy for us because of where we are from, but I personally feel that these memories need to be shared so that we can understand just how lucky we are. They also need to be remembered so that the Irish language can continue thriving. I am looking forward to learning more about these islands and how they fit into the history of Ireland as a whole.

On our way back through the peninsula toward the Gallarus Oratory, we got to stop on the side of the road to see where the cast of Star Wars is filming Episode VIII. We saw a beehive hut in there, as well as a very tall sort of spire. Presumably, they are doing filming on the mainland instead of Skellig (aka Luke’s hiding place), which is impossible to get to this time of year, even without the film equipment and actors on board. Instead, they just brought the hut to a cliff looking out onto the ocean. We were too far away to see individual people, but it was so cool to be a part of this amazing media masterpiece. I can’t wait for the movie to come out so that we can see these shots!

Our geek session over, we landed at the Gallarus Oratory hut. This is another example of dry masonry, though this hut has a pointed top with capstones rather than a rounded shape. Our professor explained that this shape was supposed to mimic an upturned boat, since the “nave” of the church comes from the Latin word for boat (navis). This particular site was probably not used as a common church, but rather a pilgrimage site for Christians traveling around Ireland. It only has one door and one window, each fitted with stone hooks for door and window coverings. Though it is very small, the acoustics are phenomenal. We tried and failed to sing a Gregorian chant, settling on Sail by Styx. Because of the boat. Get it? Haha.

Anyway, our day was almost over. Our final stop was Dingle town, where we got to eat lunch and browse a little bit. We sat on the pier and ate the remains of our lunch, then went straight to Murphy’s Ice Cream to get another two scoops of deliciousness. This time, I got the caramel honeycomb and the cookie flavors. In hindsight, I should have gotten the sea salt, but the cookie was very good. I would recommend the honeycomb to anyone—light, refreshing, and just a little bit sweet. We feasted on our ice cream whilst walking up the streets of Dingle, past St. Mary’s Church, and into the Dingle Bookshop. We threatened to report the percussionists of the band to the Dingle Percussion Workshop. All of the buildings are brightly colored, advertising fish and chips or ice cream or trinkets, and many hanging Irish flags. There were so many seafood stalls featuring fresh caught fish from just out on the water. It was a typically quaint seaside village, and I loved walking through it. After a final stop in SuperValu for two more packages of Oaties (the best ones come from there, not Tesco), we walked back toward the bus and the marina. I did not have time to walk the marina itself, but I got a good glimpse of it from the parking lot below. Apparently, this marina is one of the largest fisheries still running in Ireland today. Pretty neat to see—and smell!

The long day was finally done. We arrived back a the hotel around 5:15PM, just enough time to relax a bit before dinner. Tomorrow is our last day in Killarney, and we plan to leave at noon to go into town, do some shopping, and then explore the grounds around Ross Castle once more before leaving for Galway on Saturday morning. Our time here has been lovely, but I am ready to move on to the next town. I have heard and learned so much about Galway, so I cannot wait to finally see and hear it in person. But first, I’ll say goodbye to Killarney with some more Murphy’s and some hiking. The perfect way to end the visit!

photo credit Diana Cleveland & Katie Walker

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