By Mari Gold.
Among the many things that make the town of Dingle, Ireland, special are the friendly, smiling people, the knock-your-socks-off scenery and the music. Asking directions invariably leads to genuine help, delivered with a big grin and almost always a question from your guide as to where you are from. Wherever your eye lights, be it towards the tiny town of Dingle with its brightly painted buildings or seaward to the Atlantic, you are greeted with an eyeful of charm. Apparently to be Irish is to be musical because all around, people are singing, playing the fiddle or simply beating out a rhythm on the steering wheel.
Dingle, the only major town on the Dingle Peninsula, faces a harbor out of central casting. Fishing boats depart with regularity, returning with a catch so fresh you can almost taste the ocean on your plate. The tiny town is home to roughly 1200 people although in summer months the population increases dramatically with an influx of tourists. Strand Street faces the harbor and connects with the other three main streets: Green, John and Main. The town is a hotbed of pubs with something like twenty-five that range from modern to straight out of a James Joyce story.
A walk around the town and its environs is a good way to get oriented. As I strolled, the mountains were to my back while the streets were full of local shoppers toting net bags for daily groceries. For some retail therapy, I stopped in at Lisbeth Mulcahy’s on Green Street where I fingered lush throws and beautiful table linens made of cotton and Irish linen. There are many places to pick up Irish souvenirs including the Dingle Shop although, as I’m not a souvenir girl, I mostly browsed quickly through, thanked and departed. On a more upscale note, I visited the modern shop owned by Brian de Staic who makes stylish and fairly expensive Celtic-inspired pins, bracelets, rings and earrings, working mostly in silver or gold. De Staic also makes crosses and pieces of jewelry based on the famed Ogham (pronounced “Oomm) Stones, plinth-like pieces that are fairly plentiful in this part of Ireland and have special Celtic writing on them. Every shop keeper I met was a great example of Irish warmth and courtesy.
A bottlenose dolphin, named Fungie, lives in the Dingle Harbor. During warm weather months, there are boat trips into the harbor and if Fungie doesn’t show, the trip is free—but he usually does. I loved the bronze sculpture of the dolphin near the pier but it was October, too late in the year for a boat trip.
Wherever you wander in and around Dingle, as is true for anywhere in Ireland, a hat is a useful accessory. Rain falls often, sometimes with little warning. An umbrella isn’t as useful as winds can turn it inside out so a baseball cap or other headgear that will keep the rain out of your face is a good idea.
Whatever I did during the Dingle day, by evening the pubs beckoned. Foxy John’s is both a pub and a shoe repair shop (although no one came in carrying shoes in need of repair.) The bartender sported a University of Michigan sweatshirt and proudly talked about his visits to the U.S., although he had Michigan confused with New Jersey. For genuine local color, Stevie and Timmy, farmers who spend most of their time sitting at the bar drinking, are almost impossible to tell apart as both are deeply wrinkled and wear brownish tweed jackets and dirty sweaters. Neither man has many teeth left but both guys retain a trace of what must have been considerable charm in earlier life.
Dick Max’s Pub on Green Street used to be a leather shop which made me wonder about the pub/leather connection. I was with friends so twelve of us crammed into one of the ‘snugs,’ small ‘ rooms’ with no ceilings that are separated from the main bar by a wall so that ladies could drink while remaining unobserved. The place is usually full as it’s the real thing, no artificial gloss, and a great experience. I learned to drink Guinness with an occasional shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream, not a bad duet. The bar tender was friendly and happy to scoot drinks in through the small window of the snug. If you close your eyes, it’s easy to make the twenty-first century fall away and be in nineteenth century Ireland.
The movie Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in Dingle in the early 1970 so gold stars, reminiscent of the stars in the cement on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, line the pavement outside of Dick Max’s. Robert Mitchum’s name adorns one star and other celebrities are commemorated here also.
I stayed at the bright-red Dingle Bay Hotel smack in the center of town on Strand Street. The hotel is basic with the dim lighting I’ve come to recognize in all but very upmarket Irish hotels but very clean and the shower was powerful. T he “full Irish” breakfast served the next morning in the area called Paudie’s Bar was fabulous—a carbo-load of,” eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast with butter and preserves and coffee. I could have had more of everything but as it was I felt stuffed.
One night I ate at Fenton’s, a family-run spot that came highly recommended. I had the house salad while my husband ate the pate and my entrée was the baked filet of cod with Parmesan and Gruyere while he salivated over the seared Dingle Bay Scallops with Smoky Bacon and some magical kind of potato. Our second night in Dingle, we ate at the Blue Zone. The owner is French, the starter salad was gigantic and there are many kinds of delicious pizzas to choose from. The price was gentle, the vibe laid-back and the friendly, chatty owner came to ask how I liked the pizza.
I paid a visit to the tiny Dingle Music Shop, (Siopa Ceoil An Daingin in Gaelic), that offers a large assortment of Irish and international music. My timing was perfect because an Irish drummer happened in and played a bit. CD prices are a little on the high side but it’s the difference between buying from an independent vs. a large chain and this comes complete with personality.
It took a friend with a car to get to the Gallarus Oratory which is about ten minutes outside of the town. Entrance to this 8th century church that sits in a field, is free. The church is quite small and it’s said that the stones are held together entirely without mortar. It doesn’t take long to see but is well worth it for the sense of communing with time long past. En route, we passed many sheep grazing and once had to stop as they were in the middle of the road. Go to Dingle for magical, mystical scenery, music in the air and a full dose of Irish charm.