ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #12 – Dingle Peninsula

August 14, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

May/June 2016

ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #12 – Dingle Peninsula

Map of route for Day 12

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REASK MONASTIC SITE

Our first stop today was the Reask Monastic site which is from the 6th century and is located a bit east of Ballyferriter along Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula.  It seems to be a monastic site from the Early Medieval period but there is some debate about this.  Even though our visit to this site was accompanied by a real rain we were able to see the primary structures.  What is visible today are the bottoms of the walls along with several standing stones.  The buildings were much taller when built but now those walls are only a few feet high.

According to the sign, not much is known about the history of the site.  The enclosing wall is roughly circular and its interior is divided by another curving wall into two parts.  As is customary in the region at that time, all the buildings here were made of dry stone walls (no mortar or cement).  The eastern part is the oratory (small church).  Next to and underneath this oratory is an earlier cemetery of 42 graves and the area around it was used as a children’s burial ground after the site was abandoned.  There are a couple of large circular – “beehive shaped” -- structures that were probably the homes of the monks.

On the site are at least 10 cross-inscribed standing stones including the namesake “Reask Stone”.  This slab is decorated with an encircled Greek cross from which are pendant spiral designs terminating in a pelta. The stone was decorated in Early Christian times (c. 7th century). The letters 'DNE' - D(omi)ne - O Lord, are set sideways to the cross

Probably dwellings for monks

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Several of the standing stones

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The Reask Stone

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WINE STRAND

On our way to the Kilmalkedar Cemetery & Church we went near Wine Strand.  Back when the British were in charge of Ireland they took exception to smugglers from Europe bringing in goods without paying the required taxes.  This was especially true for Alcohol as the taxes for those items were quite high.  But, as this was the days of swashbuckling pirating – which by the way was also practiced by governments – there was a constant back and forth between the smugglers and the Navy (in this case the British navy).  The main culprit as it were in this trade were the Spanish that had an overabundance of wine that they thought would be a big seller in the UK as grapes were not well suited to the wet cold climate of the British Isles. 

So, illegal wine smuggling was a big business for Spain.  However, the Spanish had no strong desire to confront the British fleet so instead of trying to land their goods in England, Wales or Scotland which would bring them along the English coast; they targeted the west coast of Ireland for their landing spots.  From here they could sell their wine locally but could also bring it across to England without much of a fuss by intermingling the wine with other commercial shipments of agricultural products. 

The Kerry County coast we a favorite drop off point.  It was near the Southern end of Ireland and thus closer to Spain than other parts of Ireland. But, unlike County Cork, the coast itself was not as treacherous to navigate and it was a bit off the main shipping routes where they might be intercepted.  It also has many bays the ends of which cannot be easily seen from the sea and have a soft sandy beach at the end.  Wine Strand on the North side of the Dingle Peninsula is one such drop off point.  From there the wine made its way by land to the port of Galway where it would be sent on its way to much of the UK.

 

KILMALKEDAR CEMETERY & CHURCH

The Kilmalkedar Cemetery & Church is an early Christian and later medieval site spread over around 10 acres.

Although the history of this site is associated with St Brendan it is thought to have been founded by St Maolcethair, a local saint.  At the center of this area is the 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque church. It consists of a Nave and Chancel with the chancel being a later addition. The church is thought to have been modeled on Cormac's Chapel at Cashel and there are many similarities. The church like Cormacs Chapel is one of a number of stone-roofed churches in Ireland.

Access to the church is through a gorgeous inclined Romanesque doorway. It has three orders and a round head with a projecting hood made from red and green stone. The green keystone is a carved head.

While we were here our guest lecturer for the day pulled out a replica of a long prehistoric horn that looked like it came right out of a Dr. Seuss children’s book.  It’s called a Loughnashade Trumpet from around 100 BCE.  The original function of the trumpet is uncertain but it may have been used during special ceremonies or possibly even warfare. There are numerous classical accounts which detail how the Gauls and other continental Celtic tribes used similar bronze trumpets as war-horns. For example in c. 60-30 BC the Greek historian, Diodurus Siculus wrote this description, ‘their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kin, they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war’.  Our guide demonstrated it for us.  You blow into it sort of like a Didgeridoo using circular breathing which is where you are breathing in and out at the same time.  Bassoon players do this as well. 

Kilmalkedar Cemetery & Church

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Kilmalkedar Cemetery & Church

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Romanesque doorway

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Irish (or Celtic) Cross with clover markings

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Loughnashade Trumpet

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GALLARUS ORATORY

The Gallarus Oratory (Irish: Séipéilín Ghallarais, literally "The Church of the Place of the Foreigners") is believed to be an early Christian church located on the Dingle Peninsula.  The oratory overlooks the harbor at Ard na Caithne (formerly also called Smerwick).  The stacked stones that make up the building are cut on all 6 sides to help them fit together with little space between them.  They exhibit smoothly finished outside surfaces that follow the slant of the wall.  The edifice is usually thought to have been built without mortar, but there is evidence that a slight amount may have been used in a structural medium for the interior of the wall but never in such a way that it was visible.  Inside a thin layer of lime mortar may have been used to bond the stones together and to fill in small hollows in the inner faces.

The oratory’s shape has been compared to that of an upside down boat because of its sloping side walls which are of a design called corbel vaulting. The stones are positioned on each course with their edges projecting inward by a small increment as the wall rises. They are also laid at a slight angle, lower on the outside than on the inside, thus allowing rainwater to run out rather than in. Both techniques can still be seen in modern agricultural structures in southwest Ireland in general and on the Dingle peninsula in particular.

The edifice has two side walls and two end walls, sloping and converging at the top, each one playing a dual role as load-bearing wall and corbelled half-vault. Over time some slight sagging has occurred across the length of the northern roof slope.

Though the building is believed to have been built between the 6th century and 9th century, archaeologist Peter Harbison believes it could have been built as late as the 12th century for a number of reasons, including because the east window has a rounded top made of two carved stones (not a true arch) as well as other evidential evidence.

Gallarus Oratory

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View of the bay from Gallarus Oratory

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SLEA HEAD DRIVE

Slea Head Drive is a circular route that takes in a large number of attractions and stunning views on the western end of the peninsula.  As is the case with most places in Ireland, and especially western Ireland, each area has a plethora of historic and scenic locations.  Going back to the early days of the automobile the 110 mile Ring of Kerry was established to attract tourists to the Iveragh Peninsula and has since become the most famous drive in Ireland and is known worldwide.  However it wasn’t until later when economic downturns in the economy became a serious problem that other areas decided to tap into the exploding tourist industry as a way to boost the economy of their area.  One of the things several of them did was to emulate the popular Ring of Kerry by creating and promoted their own named scenic drive.  Among these are Sky Road, Ring of Beara, and Slea Head Drive.   In more recent times the 1700 mile Wild Atlantic Way was created which traces one third of the southern and the entire western coastline of Ireland from its southernmost tip at Kinsale all the way to the northern tip of Northern Ireland at Malin.  Many sections of the Wild Atlantic Way overlap sections of the local scenic loops such as Slea Head and Ring of Kerry Drives. 

Although it is a 30 mile long loop, Slea Head Drive is generally said to start and end in the town of Dingle.  We already traversed sections of it today when we went to Reask and the Gallarus Oratory but the key section for scenic beauty is where it traces the southern edge of the Dingle Peninsula near the peninsula’s western tip.  This is the section that contains Slea Head itself with dramatic views to South Kerry and the Blaskett Islands.

From Slea Head Drive (Southern Section) – Blaskett Island in distance

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From Slea Head Drive (Southern Section)

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Slea Head Drive (Southern Section)

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Slea Head Drive (Southern Section)

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Slea Head Drive (Southern Section)

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BLASKETT ISLAND CENTER

This state-of-the-art heritage center gives visitors the best look of the language, literature, and way of life of Blaskett Islanders. The building’s award-winning design mixes interpretation and the surrounding countryside. Its spine, a sloping village lane, leads to an almost sacred view of the actual island.   Among the exhibits is a wonderful 20-minute video of interviews with some of the last inhabitants of the island

The Blaskett Islands are a rugged group of six islands off the tip of Dingle Peninsula and seem particularly close to the soul of Ireland. Life here was hard.  Each family had a cow, a few sheep, and a plot of potatoes. They cut peat from the high ridge and harvested fish from the sea. There was no priest, pub, or doctor. Because they were not entirely dependent upon the potato, they survived the famine relatively unscathed. These people formed the most traditional Irish community of the 20th century—the symbol of ancient Gaelic culture. 

In the 1920s and 1930s BlaskettIsland writers produced books which are deemed classics in the world of literature. They wrote of Island people living on the very edge of Europe, and brought to life the topography, life and times of their Island. They wrote all of their stories in the Irish language.  You’ll find Peig (by Peig Sayers), Twenty Years a-Growing (Maurice O’Sullivan), and The Islander (Thomas O’Crohan) in shops everywhere.

Sadly, the Blaskett Island community declined as a result of the persistent emigration of its young people, until eventually the Island was abandoned in 1953 when only 22 inhabitants remained.  The Great BlaskettIsland remains uninhabited today, but visitors can travel by ferry over to this remote and wildly beautiful place and spend several hours or all day marveling at its natural beauty and what remains of years of human endeavor.

Another island, 30 miles farther south is Skellig Island.   Although completely different from Blaskett in pretty much all regards except landscape it is sometimes confused with Blaskettin regards to Star Wars.  Skellig Island (not BlaskettIsland as some believe) was used for the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where the long look for Luke Skywalker ended. 

Blaskett Island from Clogher Strand

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CLOGHER STRAND

Clogher Strand (Beach) is at the end of a smallish.  It may be familiar from David Lean's 1970 film Ryan's Daughter.  Clogher Strand is one of the more spectacular beaches in Ireland and is renowned for its pounding surf in westerly storms which fortunately was not happening when we were there.  It’s not that big of a beach but has dramatic views of the BlaskettIslands between the hills at the mouth of the cove.  Apparently this beach is not suitable for swimming, maybe a paddle or two, but the views make up for it.

Clogher Strand with Blaskett Island in background

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Rocks at Clogher Strand

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Receding Tide at Clogher Strand

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THE “OTHER WORLD”

I talked about fairies and the “Other World” in episode #08 of this Ireland series but as our guest lecturer also described this belief I decided to add some more information here but will try not to repeat what was included in section 08.  Let’s go back to our western use of the word “fairy” which refers to silly, cartoonish, do-gooders such as Tinkerbell, or Fairy God Mother’s waving magic wands around to make good things happen.  This depiction is a far cry from the traditional Irish view of what a fairy is.  It turns out that this turnabout was done deliberately by the English to make the Irish look silly, childish and foolish. 

In the Irish tradition fairies are not a good.  In fact they are quite evil.  I talked before about how they would abduct male children.  But, they did not limit themselves to just male children it’s just that those were their favorites.  Anybody could be kidnapped by a fairy.  But, the fairies didn’t want you to know that someone you knew or a family member had been taken so when they abducted someone they replaced them with a fairy that had been changed to a look-a-like for the abducted person.  Hence the word “changeling” entered the lexicon.  However, even though a changeling could be an identical look-a-like for the abducted person, their behavior, way of talking, and knowledge of the past could not be replicated.  So if Fred was acting weird or saying strange things, people would suspect that it wasn’t really Fred at all but rather a Changeling.  This is where we get phrases like “Fred’s not himself” or “Fred’s off with the Fairies”.  In fact most mentally challenged people at the time were thought to be changelings and were locked up to protect society form them. 

But, after taking the place of a kidnapped person, in very short order the changeling would be sure to become sickly and weak or would contract some fatal disease and would die shortly after arriving - making the remaining people think that their loved one just got sick and died rather than that they were abducted and taken to the Other World.  At this point, of course, the changeling could go back to the “Other World” and get back to business as it were.

But abducting someone and replacing them with a Changeling was not an easy task.  They would have to wait for a time of most vulnerability which turned out to be what is called “liminal times” (from the Latin word meaning “Threshold”).  In other words, times of transition.  These were times such as spring and fall when the seasons change – with the most vulnerability being in the fall.  This is where Halloween comes from.  Dressing up as someone, or something, else reflects the idea of a creature disguising themselves as the person being taken.  Another time of transition is during child birth – for both the mother and the child.   And of course death when one leaves this world and can go to one of several other worlds is also a liminal time.  So, for example, if a new baby was sickly it was much easier to believe that the real baby had been taken and a Changeling had been substituted with the intent of being sick and soon dying.  Same thing when the new mother didn’t survive childbirth.  Also when someone just disappeared, rather than contemplating that they just couldn’t stand their relatives anymore and ran off that they had been “taken by the Fairy’s.”

As legend goes, the fairies love great music.  Sometimes they’d kidnap a promising young musician and once in the Other World they’d bestow on him great musical talent, well beyond what normal people could ever achieve.  Then, interestingly enough, these super musicians are returned to our world with their new found musical ability.  When great rock band players do their instrumental solos, some of which can be quite long, they are said to transition into a spiritual state of mind -- or are “in the zone” -- where the real world is shut off and some other state of mind takes over.  The Irish attribute this to them crossing over into the “other world” and tapping into the extra musical power there and only when they transition back do they return to this world and their solo winds down.

Remember the discussion about Ring Forts and Fairy Rings?  It is said that the Delorian factory (the car featured in the Back to the Future movies) was built on top of – and destroyed – a ring fort and that is why the company failed and went bankrupt.

So, two last things if you ever travel in Ireland.  First is that it is said that the Fairies are Red Haired and that people with red hair are either descendants of fairies or are actually changelings impersonating people.  And second, if you ever find yourself among fairies, do what you will but never eat any of their food, even if it is offered to you.  If you eat any of their food they then own you and you can never leave.  However if you don’t eat their food you are usually free to go – unless you’ve annoyed them in some other way.

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This brings us to the end of our 12th day (5th day on formal tour) with real Irish Rain.

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Episode 13 will be the town of Dingle.

I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.  

- Images of this trip will be published on my website in the near future (I’ll let you know when they’re posted), but photos from other adventures are there now.

www.danhartfordphoto.com

 

This Blog can be found online here:  http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2016/8/escape-to-ireland-12

 

 

Thanks for reading – Dan


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