Dingle Trifecta, Part 7

Dingle Trifecta, Part 7

Dingle’s Ancient Ruins

March 7 – 15, 2003 (Page updated June 3, 2003)


1: Trip begins despite war clouds

5: Slea Head Drive

2: Memphis to Detroit-Boston-Shannon

6: Golf at Cheann Sibéal

3: Dingle and Ballydavid

7: Dingle's ancient ruins

4: More Dingle and Ballydavid

8: Bunratty and home

Photo Album


By Lewis Nolan

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Thursday, March 13, 2003 – Dingle’s Ancient Ruins


We had a great view from our room (No. 302) on the top floor of the Dingle Skellig Hotel. Our windows looked straight out into the mouth of the harbor. I put my 7x35 binoculars to good use on this bright and mostly clear morning.


The broad-shouldered, rust-coated fishing boats were making their way out of the bay to do battle with the still angry Atlantic Ocean. Parading around the rocky shoreline and working seaweed beds exposed by the low tide were several varieties of coastal birds. One group looked like a cross between a puffin and a gull. Two fishermen in a small skiff were pulling, checking and re-baiting crab or lobster pots.


We were told that we were the first occupants in a freshly renovated room located in a rejuvenated section on the third floor. The bathroom has an enormous tub that is so long even six-footers could stretch out. A separate, glass enclosed shower made in a half-circle gives one a choice of soak or spray. It’s all in gleaming white marble and sparkling, stainless steel. The upgrade to “deluxe room” cost an additional €25 per day and it is worth it. The base rate for a comfortable room with a queen bed during the off-season is €90 a day, including a great breakfast buffet. The big room, outstanding view and the services and facilities of a four-star hotel made the 116-room Skellig one of the best lodging values we’ve ever had.  Its website is at www.dingleskellig.com.


Making it even nicer is the fact that the hotel is only half-full because of the low season. There aren’t many school children here, a situation that changes drastically in the summer months because of the indoor pool. Irish kids do swim in the Atlantic, but the water is never warm.


After my usual breakfast, I had a decent workout in the hotel’s “leisure center.” I watched an overhead TV and did 30 minutes of pedaling on a stationery bike, some work with free and controlled weights and some yogic stretching. For a medium size hotel, the Skellig’s fitness center is well equipped with aerobic exercise machines and weight lifting equipment. Cheerful employees who appear to be 20-something are on duty from early in the morning until 10 p.m. most days to help guests and to watch the 17-meter pool.


Near the Skellig and a few steps closer to the town’s main shopping area is the Alpine Guesthouse, a four-star B&B managed by Paul O’Shea. We looked at the rooms and found them to be spacious, comfortable and well equipped. The off-season rates for two are €64, including a full Irish breakfast. Summer rates add another €20. While it does not offer the services and facilities of the Skellig or have a waterfront location, the Alpine Guesthouse looks to be far superior to the more modestly priced B&Bs we looked at a year earlier. It has a website at www.alpineguesthouse.org.


We went into town so Betty could poke around some shops while I checked my e-mail in what is advertised as “the most westerly Internet café” in Europe. I paid a little over €2 for about 30 minutes of connection time, which allowed me to delete the usual avalanche of spam and respond to a few legitimate messages. The “café” provides high-speed Internet connections on a half-dozen PCs. It also offers coffee and soft drinks. Though my visit was in the off-season and during regular school hours, every PC was taken. I had not noticed the café on previous trips.


Our next stop was at Garvey’s Super Value Grocery, where I bought a half-pint of Dry Cork Gin and Betty picked up a copy of the weekly Greyhound Gazette, one of two weekly tabloids that serve the poplar racing industry. It provides results from races at Ireland’s several dog tracks and provides a venue for advertising for sellers of kennel equipment and breeding services.


We drove a few miles out from Dingle and down a narrow, country lane to revisit the Gallarus Oratory, which is supposedly the oldest
Gallarus Oratory is Europe's oldest church
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Christian Church in Western Europe that is still standing. As is typical of historic sights in Ireland, there was little signage to direct tourists and nary a billboard to promote the attraction.


The Michelin guidebook to Ireland rates the oratory as a three-star excursion, the highest rating given anything on the Dingle Peninsula. Built of intricately placed rocks that make it virtually leak proof, it is perhaps 30 feet long and 20 feet wide. It is shaped like an upside-down rowboat, or ark. Here is what “The Real Guide” to Ireland says about it:


“The single most impressive early Christian monument on the Dingle peninsula is the Gallarus Oratory. It is the most perfectly preserved of about 20 such oratories (a word from the Latin meaning church), and looks almost too good to be true, though apparently it hasn’t undergone any great restoration programs. It can’t be dated with any great certainty, but it is thought to have been built between the 9th and 12th Centuries, although Christian architectural activity in the area dates from the late 6th or early 7th Century. It wasn’t until the 9th Century that churches began to be built of stone rather than wood. The oratory was a transition between the stone, beehive huts that served as religious centers elsewhere on the peninsula in the 6th Century and the later rectangular churches.”


There was a light rain falling by the time we arrived and we had the antiquity to ourselves. So, in honor of my Sunday School classmates at Evergreen Presbyterian Church back in Memphis, I belted out the first verse of our class anthem, “How Great Thou Art.” The half-dozen of us gray-haired regulars in the Men’s Bible Class have closed our weekly sessions with the song for many years, now so familiar that we refer to it by its page number in our hymnal, “801.” The Oratory’s rock structure is over a millennia old and makes a wonderful resonating chamber, like that of a giant tile shower. I’m not sure that even Elvis’ version of 801 ever sounded so good.


The visitor center includes a small theater where a well-done slide show and narration provides an excellent overview of the Dingle Peninsula and its history. Many of the photos were taken by helicopter so the viewer gets an aerial perspective not otherwise available. The theater has been added since our last visit to the Oratory six years ago. An attendant has living quarters above the visitor center, which doesn’t offer much in the way of exhibits or souvenirs. I don’t think the Irish fully appreciate the value and potential of so many wonders of Western Civilization and the incredible beauty the Creator placed in this oft-tortured land. Any one site of antiquity here would be any town’s claim to fame in the U.S. and would be extensively marketed.


Even before early Christian monks built beehive huts, the Celtic people stacked up stones and slabs of rock to build small forts. These were for protection from sea-born raiders and from their own neighbors. We had visited the Dun Beg promontory fort last year, which had been excavated from a cliff above the ocean by an archeological team a few years ago.


We learned from the Gallarus Oratory slide show about the inland ring forts, where extended families and their livestock could retreat in case of attack. One that still stands is a short drive from Gallarus, near the Ballydavid/Murioch village. Called Cathair Deargáin, the fort is way out of the way and poorly marked. There is no parking lot or signage that tells its story. But yet it still stands, much like it probably was two millennia ago. Such things are taken for granted.


We revisited the exquisite ruin of  Kilmalkedar Church,  a Romanesque structure built of stone in the 12th Century on the site
Betty by ruins of Kilmalkedar Church
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that housed a monastery in the 6th Century. Christianity was a young religion in those ancient times, long before it spread like wildfire through Europe and changed Western Civilization. Some scholars credit the Irish with keeping Christianity alive through the dark days of the Mongol invasions and later the Plague. Protected by their remoteness, the Irish monks patiently copied their illuminated Biblical passages and practiced the Christian rites while so much of the church went fallow and died in the population centers of Mainland Europe.


Adjacent to Kilmalkedar Church is the ruins of St. Brendan’s Home, an ancient monastery built in his honor. Here is what Britannica has to say about Saint Brendan, also called Brendan of Clonfert, Brendan the Voyager, or Brendan the Navigator:


“Born circa 484-486 in Tralee, now in County Kerry, Ireland, died 578 in Annaghdown, County Galway. Celtic Saint, monastic founder, abbot and hero of legendary voyages in the Atlantic Ocean. . .


“A noted traveler, Brendan voyaged to the Hebrides (according to St. Adamnan’s life of Abbot St. Columbia of Iona) and to western Scotland and perhaps to Wales and Brittany. Later, possibly as early as the 8th Century, Brendan was immortalized as the hero of a legendary Christian tale of sea adventure, “Navigatio Brendani” (Voyage of Brendan). This Irish epic, a narrative masterpiece, was translated into Latin prose early in the 10th Century. According to “Navigatio,” Brendan makes an astonishing Atlantic journey with other monks to the “Promised Land of the Saints” (later identified possibly as the Canary Islands), which he reaches after a prolonged search. St. Brendan’s Island, somewhere in the Atlantic and long sought by sailors, was believed in Columbus’ time to have been sighted by inhabitants of the Azores.”


 To the front and on one side of Kilmalkedar (pronounced kill-mah-kay-dur) Church is a very old graveyard that is still in use. Virtually all the stones that can be read are in Irish. Several stones are marked in the Ogham alphabet, the line writing of the Celtic peoples. A local craftsman, Brian de Staic, makes silver and gold jewelry adorned with Ogham writing. He has stores in Dingle, Kilarney and Tralee and a website at www.briandestaic.com. Among his fans who wear his jewelry are Betty and our friend Charlene Raub of Parrish, Fla., who visited Ireland last year.


Thanks to a tip from the Gallarus Oratory’s slide show, we drove a few miles to see the ruins of one of the oldest religious communities
Lewis with Ogham stone at Reask Monastery
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in Ireland. Called Reask (also spelled Riasc in the impenetrable variances of Irish spellings) Enclosed Monastery, it is a remarkable archeological site. If you weren’t really looking for it and determined to find it, you never would make your way there; we had driven by the turnoff to it dozens of times without taking notice. It doesn’t even rate a mention in the Michelin guidebook. Nonetheless, it makes for a grand visit and triggered in me much reflection on the strength of the Christian movement.


To get to Reask, we drove through Ballyferriter on local road No. 559 (away from the ocean toward Dingle). On the outskirts of the village is a small, general store, in Irish called a “Siopa,” made of brick. Above the store is a B&B. A very narrow, farm road that is paved is next to the store. Down the lane a mile or two is what remains of the monastic community of Reask. Perhaps an acre or two in size, the outlines and some of the walls of the now-roofless, stone huts of the Christian settlement are still in place after a millennia and a half.


The rocks and slabs that formed the roofs of the community’s oratory and communal huts where the monks lived are long gone. Perhaps some were used to build the labyrinth of waist-high, stone walls that crisscross the Peninsula. Reask, unlike the ring fort we had visited earlier in the day, has some informative signage about the purpose and life of the long-forgotten monks. There is not a hint of vandalism. Love the Irish!


Alas, there is also not a hint that this important site is much visited. On two earlier trips, we had driven by a tiny marker on the road that pointed to Reask on many driving excursions. But we had no idea that it is such a well-preserved archeological site that represents a distant but important period of Western Civilization.


I’m sure the modern-day professionals have done the best they could with the resources available.  But I came away disappointed that we know so very, very little about this long-gone outpost of Christianity. As fascinating as Reask is, it presents no pathway to getting a feel for the lonely lives these long-ago monks lived in the service of Jesus Christ. We can only speculate about the hard lives the long-dead monks lived and how they probably devoted their days to prayer,
Lewis by Cathair Deargain Ring Forts
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gathering enough food to sustain life and to worshipping God in a Celtic version of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul.


We were pleasantly surprised to have another excellent lunch at Murphy’s Pub in Ballyferriter. A typical, rural pub, Murphy’s has a dirty floor, clean restrooms, a coal fire and a pool table. It serves a good chicken sandwich on brown bread and fresh Guinness stout on draft.


Later, we took a short detour to revisit a neat spot down another country lane at Smerwick Harbor, opposite Ballydavid. A formation of huge, black basalt-looking rock forms a launch point for pleasure boats. Within a few yards is a pretty, yellow sand beach washed by chilly Atlantic water. In the distance across the harbor is the distinctive, bright yellow building of Tigh T. P.’s Pub. Altogether, the unknowing would never find this place of rare beauty. In America, it would probably be ringed by millionaires’ homes and high-rise condos. From the rocks, one can see the mouth of Smerwick Harbor. On this day, a parade of healthy Atlantic swells marched into the harbor before breaking on a rocky shoreline.


Last year, we lingered for an hour or more at this spot on a beautiful day that was unseasonably warm and windless. But this year’s visit was marked by a brisk wind blowing in from the ocean. It made the 40’s feel like the 30’s. We took a few photos and didn’t stay long.


Back in Dingle, we found that it wasn’t much warmer around the town’s wharf. But the fishing boats and hauled out yachts made for some good picture taking.


It being our last night in Dingle, we decided to eat sparingly that evening. We had a late lunch (3 p.m.) so by the time we got around to dinner we went for a light meal in the hotel pub. We were surprised and delighted when Liz Daly of Dingle Crystal appeared, following up on a casual comment she had made earlier in the week about getting together with us. She joined us for dinner and we hugely enjoyed her company. We learned about her and crystal cutter Sean’s many years of marriage and how that had built Dingle Crystal into a national treasure all the while raising a family.


A special treat for the three of us came when the pub’s big screen TV showed a special on a locally beloved priest, whom Liz knew. (Only in Ireland. I can’t imagine a hotel bar TV showing anything but sports or music). A monseigner in his 80s, the priest happened to be in the pub with a young family when the show aired. Of course Liz had to go to his table to pay her respects. I struck up a conversation with the priest and learned he had once served at the Parish of Clonfert at Ballinasloe. Ironically, we had twice visited the location during earlier trips while I was researching the connection between Ballinasloe and great-grandfather John Nolan. Such a small world. Like other Irish priests I’ve met, this man had a very special quality of humility and quick wit about him that has given me an understanding of the enduring and unbreakable bond between the Irish and the Roman Catholic Church.


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