In western Ireland, hear the voices, hear the stones
DINGLE, Ireland — All five bar stools are occupied this spring afternoon in Dick Mack’s, a pub of some acclaim in this village at the western edge of Ireland. Yet untouched on the bar are pints of beer just served to new customers.
Two of them, women in their early 20s, ignore their beers and start to sing in fine voices Will You Go, Lassie, Go. The other three at the bar, all men, join in the song that mentions the heather that covers much ground with tiny purple blooms.
“Written by a Belfast man, that was,” one of the men informs me and the others when they finish singing.
Without any signal, the young women begin a sweet version of Down In The River to Pray, a gospel hymn heard in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The men quickly join this song, too.
After the gospel number, everyone finally reaches for a glass of beer. A couple more customers wander in, get their pints and go stand behind a low wooden counter that is parallel to the bar and a few feet away. Behind this counter are shelves and cubbyholes filled with cobbler’s gear, boots, metal taps for shoes and a pair of “Wellies,” the rubber boots every farmer owns.
Though Dick Mack’s has been a pub a long while, it was also a leather worker’s shop. “They stopped that more than 10 years ago,” a man at the bar tells me. “No one has leather soles on their shoes anymore.”
Just then, a man in his 20s pulls a black flute from his jacket and starts playing a traditional Irish tune. As soon as he finishes, another man takes the flute, and he begins to play.
The flute’s owner goes to the wall and takes down a bodhran, the hand-held drum that resembles a large tambourine. The man cannot find the traditional knobbed stick to thump the bodhran, so he expertly uses his thumbs.
It is not quite 4 in the afternoon. The pints of beer largely are being ignored in favor of upholding this pub’s tradition of impromptu music.
Outside on the sidewalk, dark gray stars have been painted, a la the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The stars bear the names of celebrities who have stopped in at Dick Mack’s: actors John Mills, Julia Roberts, Timothy Dalton, Robert Mitchum.
Also painted there are the names of some who might have led the singing: Dolly Parton and Paul Simon.
Though the pub/cobbler shop dates to 1899, the earliest settlers on the Dingle Peninsula arrived about 6,000 years earlier.
They probably had been sailing along the western edge of the European continent when they came ashore, because this peninsula juts 40 miles into the Atlantic from the southwestern edge of Ireland, and it is the end of Europe.
“The next parish is Boston,” says Timothy Collins, repeating a common joke based in fact.
Collins was a policeman on the 8-mile-wide peninsula for 35 years, and he now leads archaeological tours. There were few tourists to guide until the last quarter of the 20th century.
It was in 1970 that master director David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was released. It is about a romantic triangle complicated by World War I animosities, and it takes place on the peninsula.
Lean’s film crew spent a year on the Dingle, constructing an authentic village from tons of newly quarried granite. Cinematography filled with spectacular landscapes began to draw tourists way out to the Dingle. Even now, many can recall the overhead shot of Sarah Miles on a stretch of vacant beach, a beach that Collins points out to the tourists piled into his minivan.
Though Dingle Harbor still receives ships returning with catches of herring, sole, cod, lobster and salmon, tourism has become more important to the economy. The town’s year-round population of about 1,400 at least doubles during the summer.
“In 1970, we only had one hotel, no B&Bs, and the only visitors here were archaeologists,” Collins recalls.
“Now we can only hope that Ryan doesn’t have a granddaughter!”
What the stones have to say
Visitors don’t need a guide to take the breathtaking coastal road, often high above the Atlantic, to view the settings of Ryan’s Daughter and the 1992 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film Far and Away. But travelers probably will want someone like Collins to explain some of the estimated 2,000 ancient stones and structures left by the earliest settlers.
Pieces of granite are everywhere.
In the towns and villages of west Ireland, they often were used to make walls that have since been covered with stucco and painted in a rainbow of rich colors.
Outside the villages, the stones are stacked in countless miles of knee-high fences that divide farmers’ fields. Circles of granite remain as Bronze Age stone forts, dating 3,700 years.
Standing stones — upright pillars — were inscribed as far back as the fourth century A.D. with Ogham, a series of straight lines forming the letters of an alphabet now long-dead. In many places, huge slabs of stone were positioned upright to support a capstone, creating rudimentary tombs 5,000 years ago.
And just a few centuries ago, more pieces of granite were stacked to become farmhouses and barns, workers’ humbles cottages and nobles’ castles.
All the stones have stories to tell.
Guides and researchers such as Collins discuss the rise and fall of ancient peoples, their religions and writing forms. The narrative often winds to modern day.
Halting the minivan, Collins gathers his passengers by two upright stalks of reddish sandstone to discuss their Ogham carvings.
Various standing stones might have told stories of a chieftain or served as directional posts. Now, however, he wryly observes, “they are mainly cow-scratchers,” against which wandering cattle rub themselves.
A road past history
The coastal road, designated R559, is a scenic drive even without the stone artifacts. It winds through crossroad villages, past a few two-room schoolhouses built in the early 1900s. These schools usually have “20 or 25 children and two teachers,” Collins says.
The minivan passes familiar-looking highway signs, except that the wording is in Gaelic. Tag Bog E, which is pronounced “toe-g boe-g eh,” literally means “Take it easy,” Irish for “Please slow down.”
Western Ireland is the stronghold for Gaeltacht, pronounced “gwail tawkt,” which is spoken and written Irish. Some schools here are conducted entirely in Gaelic.
On the inland side of the road are the gentle slopes of 1,600-foot Mount Eagle, dotted with beehive huts –dome-shaped, stone, one-room places. There is also the occasional graveyard and, everywhere, grazing sheep.
There are 23 monastic settlements on the peninsula, but perhaps the prime attraction from the early Christian era is the Gallarus Oratory.
Dating between the seventh and ninth centuries, this is a perfect example of the corbel, or dry-stone, construction: Relatively flat rocks were placed atop each other in the shape of an inverted boat, so rainfall followed the slanted rocks down and away from the building. The interior of the tiny church is dry, despite an average rainfall on the Dingle of 80 inches.
The Oratory is usually the last stop on Collins’ tour. But the peninsula offers dozens of other sites easily located with a good map.
And so my trip to Ireland had begun with song, but at other times, I heard the stones talking.
If you go
PLANNING YOUR TRIP: If you prefer to drive yourself, check car-rentals before leaving the U.S. – this is usually cheaper than hiring at the airport.
But plenty of tour operators will be glad to coddle you as they move you about. These companies can group folks who share interests in walking tours, horseback riding, seeing pubs, visiting gardens, viewing castles, staying in cottages, playing golf or just eyeing the well-publicized sights.
For all sorts of information – tour operators, lodgings, attractions – go to the government’s fine web site, www.discoverireland.com/us.