7. Of Music and Magic

Published on 1 May 2023 at 08:28

Dunquin Pier

Today was day 7 of our road trip as we continued to explore County Kerry, Ireland’s largest county. Kerry is known as “The Kingdom” because of its tradition of independence and disregard for Dublin rule. It is a Gaeltacht, an area rich in Gaelic culture and famous for its traditional Irish music.

Beltane is on May 1st and the Dingle community hosts Feile na Bealtaine every year to celebrate. This is a traditional arts and music festival with performers from all over Ireland. Visitors stream to Dingle for the weekend, so I don't recommend visiting at this time unless you want to come specifically to experience the festival. Finding places to eat was a challenge, but during the day we managed to escape the crowds by exploring the Dingle Peninsula.

Driving the scenic Slea Head Drive loop (which we thought was even prettier than the Ring of Kerry) is like traveling through an open-air archaeological museum.   The landscape is dotted with more than 1,200 monuments dating back from the Neolithic Age (roughly 3000 BC) through early Christian times. It’s crazy to think that some of these sites are even older than the pyramids in Egypt!

Our first stop was at a "Fairy Ring Fort" where the enterprising farmer had set up a little stall to collect his $2.50 per person entrance fee. This included a small bucket of grain which Rach had great fun feeding to the sheep, goats, donkeys and ponies that wandered amiably around the fort. Stone Age Neolithic farmers and herdsmen (around 6000 BC) were the first people to create permanent settlements in Ireland. They built the stone circles and ring forts that dot the landscape. Sites like these have survived untouched for centuries because of the belief that they were ‘fairy forts”, gateways to the magical realm of Tir-na-og.

Just 50 yards down the road Dunberg Fort transported us forward into the Iron Age (500BC to 450AD). In this time period Celts from Central Europe (known as the Gaels) migrated to Ireland via France and Britain and established themselves here. Dunberg is a promontory fort that was built by the dominant clan in the area as a symbol of their military might. Although half the fort has been eroded and collapsed into the ocean, the piece that remains is impressive with its 6 meter thick stone walls, earthen defensive ramparts, and ditches built around a central clochan.  

A few miles further down the road we entered the Age of Saints and Scholars (between 450 and 800AD). The Gallus Oratory was built about 1,300 years ago and is Ireland’s best preserved early church. It is incredible to see how thick and waterproof the walls are, especially when you consider that no mortar was used – it’s all drystone. You can just picture the inside lit with candles as the monks attended to prayers, although you couldn’t have fitted many congregants in here!     

Aside from archeological wonders, this route has some spectacular view points. We stopped at Dunquin Pier with its crazy zig zag road that accesses the ocean and climbed to the top of Clogher Head with its far reaching views of Mount Brandon, the Three Sisters, and Butter harbor.

Vikings from Norway began raiding in Ireland around 795AD. Their raids wreaked havoc on the monasteries situated on isolated coastlines like this one.  Butter harbor is one of the spots where they would pull their boats up onto the shore in to grease up their hulls before returning home (which explains the name!). Eventually a Viking band decided to winter over, and the idea caught on leading to the first permanent cities built in Ireland, Dublin and Waterford. 

From Clogher Head you can also see Great Blasket Island whose isolation made it an icon of traditional Irish culture. Because the islanders subsisted off the sea, they survived the potato famine that devastated so many of the farmers on the mainland.

As I stood alone gazing out over the bays and inlets, the whistling wind seemed to echo with voices from the past – simple farmers scratching a living from their rocky fields, fishermen tending to their boats, and fierce warriors protecting the land they fought so hard to hold on to – generations carried away on the inexorable tide of history, leaving behind them nothing but fragments of stone to mark their fleeting  lives.

It was a sobering thought.

Fairy Ring Fort, Dunberg Fort Pormitory, Clochan (farmers dwellings), Gallus Oratory, Clogher Head Viewpoint

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