I MUST BE MAD. IT IS A MISERABLE DAY AND I AM TRUDGING AROUND A wind-swept graveyard in the parish of Ventry, on the Dingle peninsula. This is the most westerly point in Ireland--"next parish, America." Sudden squalls, mixed with hailstones, batter the gravestones. Yet, ever since daybreak, people have been braving the elements to make the three, seven or nine clockwise rounds that are prescribed by the ritual of the turus, or "pattern." They say a decade of the rosary with each round and a special prayer for the occasion, which starts in Irish, Go mbeannaithear duit a Chaitli n Naofa ("Hail to you, Blessed Catherine").
Today is the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt, Ventry's patron saint. Though not an official church holiday anywhere else, today is a special day in this parish. Apart from absolutely necessary duties such as milking the odd cow, no normal work is permitted. There has been a special Mass for the Feastday at 10 o'clock and the rest of the day is one long celebration.
Old people and sick people and recluses who have not emerged from their houses all year arise from their beds and make the supreme effort to perform the turus and, greatly invigorated by the exercise, are later found in the nearby pub, toasting each others' health and that of the saint with Guinness and gusto. People from the surrounding parishes come to do the rounds and to take part in the evening revelries. Expats like myself, forlorn in linguistic exile in Dublin, make the 200-mile journey with their families, daring life and limb on treacherous, rain-slicked roads to get home for the pattern.
Linguistic exile? Yes, nothing less, because this is the Gaeltacht , or Irish-speaking area, of the Dingle peninsula, Corcha Dhuibhne . Composed of the seven ancient parishes on the peninsula's westernmost tip, this approximately 12-by-7-mile area is one of the last strongholds of the Munster dialect of Irish, by far the most musical and resonant of the three main dialects, the others being the Connacht and Ulster dialects. It was in the province of Munster that the old literary and manuscript tradition was kept alive. And it is here that the language has held out in almost pristine form, in spite of the constant danger of erosion by the ever-powerful presence of English.
It was here to my aunt's house in the village of Cahiratrant that I was fostered out at the age of 5. Until then, I had lived quite happily in England, and though Irish was spoken in the house, I had only a passive knowledge of the language. But what I was to experience on the Dingle peninsula was a great sense of relief, a sense of belonging, of being a link in a long familial chain. What delighted me more than anything else was the dinnsheanchas , the stories we tell each other about the landscape as we walk around it. And with an unbroken literary tradition of 1,500 years and countless millennia of an oral tradition behind it, this mytho-poetic dimension to the landscape is rich and variegated and deeply nuanced.
THIRTY-SEVEN MILES LONG AND NEVER MORE THAN 10 MILES WIDE, the Dingle peninsula rises out of the broad Atlantic like some humped, mythical sea creature. Its stunning scenery is probably best known to Americans from David Lean's epic "Ryan's Daughter." Even the Irish National Tourist Agency assiduously markets the area as " 'Ryan's Daughter' Country"--to the chagrin of us locals, who, in the course of going to work and to church and raising families, know better. And as dramatic as the scenery looks in Technicolor, the best camera work cannot capture the effects achieved naturally here by the simple play of light on water: from the thrilling shine of silver when the sea is calm to the purple and indigo hues that color it in full swell. All four seasons of the year can be encountered here in a single day: from the spring light of morning to a torrid, almost subtropical midday, to wet, high winds toward evening, followed by cool night breezes.
There are other good reasons to come , from the fishing and Gulf Stream sea life (including great tortoises and Fungie, the famously friendly dolphin of Dingle town harbor) to the local artists and crafts people to the beautiful and desolate Blasket Islands (where the Irish language was rediscovered by European philologists at the turn of the century). But the other great, unquantifiable charm of the area is the people, and their natural gift for conversation. Locals believe that the art of talking dies out east of the Shannon River. Here in Dingle, all is nod and wink, arpeggio and innuendo. The talk eddies and spins, rises, soars and dives like a verbal equivalent of the aerial acrobatics of the ravens that fly above us. Indeed, you can often find more poetry in a Dingle pub than between the covers of most books. And in recent years, an increasing number of Irish and non-Irish alike come for the Gaelic courses offered on the peninsula.
In summer, beginning to advanced courses are available for both adults and children. (Only the serious should apply: Irish, which sounds to the uninitiated like the thickest brogue imaginable, is one of the world's most complicated languages.) Most Irish learners elect to stay in local homes where the bean a'ti , woman of the house, will chat away with you and even correct your grammatical errors with the same tact and kindliness with which she will later provide a hot-water bottle for your bed. Yes, the weather can be a bit dicey, but only a fool would come here for the weather. With at least 13 words in Irish for rain , a passing shower can be a good chance to practice your Irish on a local farmer while sharing the shelter of a dry-stone wall or upturned curragh, the wood-framed, canvas-covered boat common here.
The peninsula is also a treasure trove of 2,000 archeological sites, but in keeping with the spirit of the place, none of them are particularly monumental or enormous, as on the Continent--which may be why the land and the language and the dinnsheanchas remain so powerful here, so tangible. Apart from an excavated site at Riasc in the westerly parish of Ballyferriter, the tiny boat-shaped Gallorus Oratory a mile away, and the Irish Romanesque church two miles farther at Cill Maolcheadair, they are often no more than a small stone Celtic cross in a field, as at Kilfountain, three or four miles west of Dingle on the road to Ballyferriter.
I love them for their nonchalance and grace, the way they fit beautifully into the landscape, without fanfare or self-importance. Sometimes they can be a little difficult to find, but a lot of the fun comes from the searching. (Steve Mac Donagh gives intricate directions to these sites in his book, "The Dingle Peninsula: History, Folklore, Archeology" by Brandon Press, available at the Blasket Island Interpretive Center in Dunquin.)
My favorite site is at Lough Adoon near Cloghane, which lies across the peninsula from Dingle town on Brandon Bay. It's best to park the car at Kilmore Cross, where Dingle Road meets the road leading down to Cloghane village. To the south, a track over the bog leads in to a horseshoe-shaped valley, or coum , where a dark lake nestles.
Under the blanket bog, an extensive series of neolithic and Bronze Age remains have recently been surveyed, their existence revealed by a combination of turf-cutting and erosion. Some of them, such as a wedge-shaped tomb standing on a small hillock, two large standing stones (one "male"--tall and thin--the other "female"--flat and wide) and some dry-stonewall huts, are immediately visible. Two ancient cooking pits, fulacht fiadh , can be found down by the river.
The walk is nice and easy, the gradient not steep. In the middle of the lake is a small island crossed by the rampart of an Iron Age fort. The water here is shallow enough to allow anyone with high Wellingtons--or who is prepared to roll up their trousers and wade--to easily make it out to the island. The area is still imbued with the presence of those early farmers, whose settlements, graves and field boundaries are preserved in the bog. At the end of the valley, often the only sounds to be heard are the faint bleating of grazing sheep, the raucous mating cries of choughs, a rare kind of red-legged crow, and the gurgle of falling water. Maybe it is the ionized air near the waterfall or the empty but historically rich vista, but I have experienced here moments of such quiet and deep intensity that they will remain with me forever.
WHEN I LOOK AT THE DINGLE LANDSCAPE, what I am mostly aware of is the area's mythology, that this is Cailleach country. The great personage of the Cailleach , or Hag, haunts it as truly as the ghost of the murdered Banquo does Macbeth. This shadowy presence is associated often with high mountains, a distant mother of the gods. Here she manifests as Mish, for whom the great mountain range at the start of the peninsula is named.
Here also, she takes the form of the eponymous mother goddess of sovereignty, Mor of Munster, who is associated with many local place names--Faill Mhoire, the boat-launching site for the Blasket Islands, and Dunmore Head ( Dun Mhoire ), the most westerly headland in Europe. She is reputedly buried at Mor's House in Dunquin--an early Christian site that is now little more than a mess of stones. Indeed the whole parish here is often referred to jocularly as bundun Mhoire , Mor's backside, which is considered a term of pride and honor by the local people, notwithstanding the jibes that it inspires.
In Cailleach's many forms and names, she is a barely submerged feature of many of the lakes and inlets on the peninsula--in Lake Anascaul (a couple of miles north of Anascaul town on Dingle Road) as Scail who threw herself in when the hero Cuchulainn, fighting another giant on her behalf, let out a roar of pain and she believed him dead; in Lough Corrauley (northwest of Dingle), as the monster induced by the verbal trickery of St. Cuan to remain under a caldron at the bottom of the lake until doomsday; and here in Lough Adoon, into which the hero/giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill, having accidentally killed his foster mother, threw her bones. And she is still venerated to this day in barely Christian forms, as the patron saints of the different parishes, like Dunquin's St. Gobnait or Ventry's own St. Catherine.
The Cailleach is everywhere in Corcha Dhuibhne . So it is hardly surprising that, when I began writing poetry seriously in my late teens, she walked unannounced and unasked for into my life and work without so much as a by-your-leave. And it is hardly surprising that I began to see her in unexpected places, such as one not far from Lough Adoon, a secret and magic place that will not be found in any guide book.
Up by the side of Bartrigaum mountain, near Caherconree promontory fort, onetime seat of the ancient king Curaoi Mac Daire, is a valley called Derrymore Glen. In this wild and desolate spot where all the valleys, though green, are completely denuded of trees due to the persistent attentions over centuries of too many people and too many sheep, by some miracle a lone, wizened, ancient oak tree has survived.
For me this tree has become a symbol of hope, of many things, of the whole peninsula, sometimes even of the Irish language--but not just as a throwback to some long lost utopic reality that never really existed. It is a vision of the language as giving me (and many others) the wherewithal to create an imaginative reality and a linguistic home that fits better than English. The enormous love I have for Corcha Dhuibhne, for its way of life and inexhaustible hoard of stories, for the Irish language itself and the people who speak it, can be summed up in that one tree.
The feast day of St. Catherine past, the revelry done, life returns to normal as we do to Dublin. With my three youngest kids in the back of the car, I stop at the top of Connor Pass, which has reminded more than one traveler of the Khyber. We troop out of the car at the viewing point, on what is a clear but brisk morning. The view of the rock-strewn valley is incredible. Across from us rises the massive bulk of Mt. Brandon, at 3,127 feet the second-highest mountain in Ireland. This may not seem like any great shakes until you realize that the mountain rears to this height straight up from sea level in a space of less than two miles. This is a great site for celebrating the ancient Celtic Festival of Lughnasa (or August, after Lugh, the Celtic god of light), the source for Brian Friel's play "Dancing at Lughnasa."
It's here the turus, part of the festival held the last Sunday in July, includes a climb to the top of the mountain. Definitely not a venture for the fainthearted, it is performed religiously by local people of all ages and degrees of agility, who do it for reasons of their own--"to do penance," "for the view," "for a special intention," "to give good example to the children"--just as their forebears have done for millennia. This is my father's ancestral stamping ground and so on the way down the mountain I point out to my children the various mythological landmarks.
"That is Macha na Bo, where the great cow Glas Gaibhneach used to go in the evenings when her stomach was full."
"That's where Sean Conway, the tailor, lived, and that is the very window through which one night he spied a great funeral going up the road to Ballyduff graveyard and not a soul in the parish dead. It was a fairy funeral."
"That is the turn of Glenahoo Bridge, where a strange dark apparition called 'The Screecher' was often heard in olden times."
"And there away in the distance is Muireargane, where the banshee Dora Dooley used to come to lament the dead Fitzgeralds."
The kids are getting bored. A hand is held up behind me with the fingers splayed out, meaning they have heard this before at least five times. Soon it is two hands, meaning 10 times. Finally:
"Mom, do you by any chance really believe in all that stuff?"
"Oh, you know, Cailleachs and ghosts and spirits and fairies and things?"
"Believe in fairies? Of course I don't believe in fairies. What makes you think I believe in fairies?"
"Well, you have just spent the last half-hour talking about nothing else."
"Of course I don't believe in fairies . . . but they're there. Can't you see the whole countryside around is fairly hopping with them?"
That should keep them wondering.
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GUIDEBOOK / IRISH IRELAND
Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Ireland is 353. The local code for the Dingle peninsula is 66. All prices are approximate and computed at the rate of $1.60 per Irish pound. Most hotel prices are for a single room for one night. Most restaurant prices are for food only (unless otherwise indicated).
How to get there: Delta offers the only direct flights from Los Angeles to Dublin and Shannon via Atlanta. Aer Lingus has daily flights from New York to Shannon or Dublin. Vacation packages, ranging from self-drive vacations to the "Emerald Holiday" in deluxe castles, are available. Dingle town is 107 miles from Shannon Airport and 230 from Dublin. Travelers can get to Dingle by bus or train, but it involves several connections and leaves you without a car when you arrive. (For information, contact C.I.E. Tours, U.S. representatives for Irish Rail and Bus Eireann, telephone (800) 243-7687.) Rental cars are available at both airports but remember that the Irish drive on the left.
Where to stay: (Note: Reservations are a must in August, a busy tourist month.) Benners, Main Street, Dingle, tel. 51638, fax 51412. This centrally located hotel, a favorite because of its lovely ambience and personal service, has recently been refurbished to a high standard. Rates: $56-$88. Of the many B&Bs; in and around Dingle, the better ones include: Doyle's, John Street, tel. 51174, fax 51816. Eight elegantly appointed rooms with private baths. Rate: About $93 for a double. Mrs. K. Farrell, Corner House, Dykegate Street; tel. 51516. Very central and scrupulously clean with meticulous service. Rates: $24-$29. Eileen Collins, Kirrary House, Avondale; tel. and fax 51606. A family home converted into a six-bedroom B&B.; Rates: $24-$32. Maire Thompson, Carhoo, Dunquin; tel. 56144. Looks out on one of the most splendid sea views in the world. Rates: $21-$26. Fiona Knott, Tigh Nuadha, Knocknagower, Cloghane; tel. 38221. This was the author's father's family home, and is situated in wonderful hill-walking country. Open April-October. Rates: $24-$30.
Where to eat: Evening meals are available in most B&Bs;, if ordered in advance. Doyle's, adjoining the B&B; (above), is probably the best restaurant in town, specializing in seafood and fresh local vegetables, with a good wine list. Reservations recommended. Entrees start at about $24. The Half Door, John Street, tel. 51600, is also very good. Open from April through mid-November, it specializes in seafood. Dinner entrees average about $21 and reservations are a must. Fenton's Restaurant, Green Street, tel. 51209, is particularly good for seafood, including local lobster and sole. Open for lunch and dinner from March through November. Main courses run about $14; set dinners, about $24. The same family runs the Forge Restaurant, Holyground Street, tel. 51209, where you can get a good steak cooked any way you want. Open for lunch and dinner from March through November. A three-course meal is about $16.
Irish language courses: For information, contact the school Oidhreact Chorcha Dhuibhne, Ballyferriter, tel. 56100, fax 56348. An intensive, two-week course for beginners is available July 3-15; the full cost, including tuition, boarding and all meals, is $720.
For more information: The Irish Tourist Board, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY, 10154; (800) 223-6470 or (212) 418-0800.