Last week in between visits to friends when I found myself on the Dingle peninsula. It was only as I was passing the long finger of magnificent Inch Beach, out of old habit heading for Dingle town and my childhood, that I realised that that place was no longer there, that I no longer felt drawn to Dingle.
I love the west of Ireland. The west is wilder, more mysterious than the more conservative and well-behaved east. Though I love Connemara and Donegal and West Cork too it is Kerry that stamped its mark on my childhood.
Back then the roads were more basic and cars were slower~especially with my Dad driving~and because I was small the west seemed like a lifetime away. Even as I got older, the bus trip there was arduous and involved at least two changes and the effort it took to get there gave it the cachet of the far country.
Achill Island in Mayo had been the scene of our first holiday in a caravan that was a cream to rust Father Ted-like contraption. It rained nearly all the time.
For our second holiday we stayed in Ballyheigue north of the Dingle peninsula. Our caravan this time was a smarter affair, turquoise and white and nearly new and set behind the dunes of a massive beach that seemed to stretch away to the mountains.
There are scraps of memories: the daisied path through the dunes, a dead silver fish left behind by the tide which when poked emitted a stream of tiny fish which I assumed had been the big guys last meal, a gang of girls perched on the stone base of the town road sign all smocks and platform shoes, long hair tangled, sucking on orange lollies, half-girls, half-women and I couldn’t wait to be like them.
I visited Ballyheigue again last week and the town remains unchanged, untouched by the Tiger. The only concession to modernity that I could see was a deli in the dark low-ceilinged supermarket, the crusty egg salad presided over by a bored young girl dreaming of escaping small town life.
Outside four girls wandered around eating cones in their skinny jeans, high tops and hoodies the counterparts of those long ago girls in smocks and for a moment I was transported back over the decades but the spell was broken when they got into a massive new Audi and drove off.
I looked for souvenirs in the one gift shop I eventually found up a grubby carpeted stairs over the local restaurant. It had once been someones landing, maybe still was. There were a lot of secondhand books, baby clothes, oddments of pottery, a lamp made from a Jameson bottle with a crappy red shade and an awkward acrylic painting of a girl named Claudia on a piece of cardboard. Not one souvenir mentioned Ballyheigue. There wasn’t even a postcard.
The Indian woman behind the counter downstairs smiled and shrugged apologetically. Still at least the place hasn’t been evicserated by the Celtic Tiger and the vast silver beach ringed by the dusty mountains of the peninsula is truly a sight to behold.
It was on that Ballyheigue holiday that I first visited Dingle which seemed a magical place. We went to Dick Mack’s a famous pub/shoe repair shop where Dad bought all us kids leather wrist bands stamped with our names.
My second visit to the Dingle peninsula was a weekend trip with the school to the Gaeltacht area-an Irish-speaking area that plays host to young people who must speak Irish throughout their stay there. That weekend it rained torrentially most of the time. It being before the invention of gortex, we wore plastic bags. In the big house where we stayed in Mariaocht I found my sisters signature scrawled in biro on the dark, densely patterned wallpaper beside my bunk, left there from a previous school expedition.
On the Sunday the sun came out and the scene as I stood on the glistening silver ribbon of road that led to high mountains laddered with dry stone walls, their slopes a screen for the purple, slow-moving cloud shadows imprinted itself on my mind forever.
A couple of years later I was sent back kicking and screaming despite memories of silver roads and shadowed mountains to the Gaeltacht at Ballydavid at the tip of the Dingle peninsula for what teenager thinks the Gaeltacht is cool?Three weeks later I left kicking and screaming unwilling now to leave sunny days embossed in green, blue and gold and indigo céile nights alive with hilarity. Crawling around the back of the céile hall to meet my boyfriend for kisses I had cut my hand on some glass leaving a scar I wore proudly for years until it faded and has finally gone.
In my 20s I went back again with friends, Pippa and Lizzy. We stayed at Ballintaggart House Hostel on the rise just before Dingle town. It was a lovely old house which had just been recently renovated. We sat out in the courtyard to eat and walked the dark back road back from Dick Mack’s and O’Flahertys. We drove around Slea Head and its dizzy roads, Abba on the car stereo.
We took a ferry-a tiny grey row boat-out to the Blasket Islands on a heaving ultramarine sea convinced we would drown. Lizzy wore a pair of cuban heeled yellow wellies, the drawstring at the top pulled tight to stop water getting in, in case we fell over board. The thought of her yellow feet sticking straight up out of the sea amused me but not her.
Soon afterwards I did a tour of Kerry with my friend Shaun, the demon driver of a Hi-Ace van. That trip flashed by. I do remember that the countryside was a-blossom with whitethorn under a sunny June sky and the van taking to the air as we shot over the Conor Pass the coums like surprised blue eyes widened at our unseemly haste.
I left Ireland for a while and it was another few years before I revisited imagining the Dingle peninsula of my youth. I stopped off to stay at Ballinataggart only to find it closed and forlorn. Where do the years go?I stayed in a B&B in a grey Dingle town teeming with its directionless tourists and twee shops that were mostly closed. The landlady of the B&B was working as a nurse and making a killing at home.
I asked for tea when I arrived and was given a tiny cup of weak stuff. She watched closely while I drank and whipped the cup away when I had finished, still parched. I fled the next morning under a rainy sky but not before I rounded Slea Head and revisited the Gaeltacht of my teenage years which was still the same caught in a network of narrow roads that ended at the sea under the shadow of Brandon still host to moving shadows.
Last week I arrived to find that Ballintaggart had been transformed yet again into an up market wedding venue with a receptionist whose smile froze at my jeans and grubby zippy. As I drove off down the gravel drive I saw curious powdered faces and a flash of shoulder shimmer in the window. The Rainbow Hostel on the other side of town was more my style.
These days Dingle is still a small town enclosed in the unspectacular scenery of Dingle Bay except with its twee shops and its streets clogged with milling tourists it has somehow become a parody of somewhere else. Dingle:It’s a feeling and the feeling has gone.
Dick Mack’s is still there but with its stars embedded in the pavement outside telling of visiting celebrities and tourists lining up to get their photos taken it has become the touchstone for what has happened to the whole town.
On the first night I stopped off for fish and chips in a clean little cafe. I thought €12 was a bit steep for fish & chips especially as there wasn’t even table service. I briefly considered sticking my hand into the massive vase-like tip jar on the counter to get some of my money back but as the opening was small I knew that like a monkey in a trap I would be unable to get my hand out in my reluctance to let go of the money. I imagined myself running down the street with a vase jammed on my paw stared at by wax jacketed Germans and woolly hippies as I scampered along and I desisted.
Eventually I recaptured some of the magic. I walked on Ventry Beach and had a surprisingly low-priced cream tea at the local pottery. I did the Slea Head Drive, a twisty road lined with low walls manned by hungry gulls, rich green fields bobbled with creamy sheep slanting down to the heaving Atlantic and cliffs notched with tiny white gold beaches, turquoise tongues lapping coffee and cream. Beyond is the Great Blasket Island that looks like the dead man and the three Sisters and their pointy heads.
I visited Annascaul, a few miles inland from Inch, for a very nice hamburger and chips in the South Pole Inn the pub that belonged to Tom Crean our famous Antarctic explorer. I would recommend it, un-DickMacked Bar which just happens to have a lot of Antarctic memorabilia hanging on the walls.
I went over the Conor Pass and wound my way down to explore the narrow roads of the north side before driving on alongside Brandon Bay towards Tralee. I stopped at Goulane Beach where a rich rust and blue makeshift corrugated iron fence combed the mares tails in the high blue sky. To the south the clouds were being held at bay by Mount Brandon which crumpled in ochre and grey down to Brandon point.
The sea was a startlingly turquoise, an offshore wind giving the waves furious, ermine manes while whipping the white sand into dust devils that stung my eyes. I walked a while looking for silver fish and shells. Turning to leave, to find the road back to Ballyheigue I saw in the steep ridge of the peninsula the laddered, shadowed hills and the silver ribbon roads that had first captured me and though the world become smaller I felt again the magic of those past times and realised that in scratching the surface I had found Kerry gold.