The Dingle Peninsula (Co. Kerry)

Ferriter’s Cove & Three Sisters

Ferriter’s Cove has yielded the earliest known archaeological remains on the peninsula, with shell middens containing stone tools and animal bones, carbon dated to between 3670 and 3240 BC, in the late Mesolithic / early Neolithic period.

Caislean an Fheirtearaigh / Ferriter’s Castle / Sybil’s Castle, now reduced to little more than a stump of masonry at Doon Point, was built in 1460 as a fairly typical Tower House of the period. It was the stronghold of the Norman Le Furetur family who settled locally in the late medieval period and owned the land in Ballyferriter, Dunquin and Marthain. Their most famous member was the poet Piaras Feirtear / Pierce Ferriter, the last leader to submit to Cromwell’s army. He was hanged in 1653, and the lands were confiscated from the Ferriter family, many of whom continue to live locally.

Sybil Point and Sybil Head are said to be called after Galway-born Sybil Lynch, although it is likely that they were named earlier than her time. The story goes that she was a beautiful heiress who eloped with one of the Ferriters of Ballyferriter. Her father gave chase, and laid siege to Ferriter’s Castle. She hid in a cave on the seashore, but when the tide came in she was drowned and swept out to sea.

Eastwards from here, the peninsular coastline comprises 2okm of stunning cliffs, rocky outcrops, sea arches, caves and waterfalls, broken only by Smerwick Harbour.

Smerwick Harbour

 

Smerwick Harbour / Cuan Ard na Caithne is a naturally sheltered bay on the north-west of the peninsula. It was a Viking settlement from which butter was shipped to Limerick. The name Smerwick comes from two Norse words, smoer meaning butter and wik meaning harbour.

 

Ard na Caithne (”height of the arbutus / strawberry tree”, sometimes anglicised as Ardnaconnia) also known in Irish as Iorras Tuaiscirt (north peninsula”) and Gall Iorrais (”peninsula of the strangers”), was known as Smerwick in English until the Placenames Order (Gaeltacht Regions) 2004. It is on the edge of Smerwick Harbour / Cuan Ard na Caithne.

Dún an Óir


Dún an Óir (”the Fort of Gold”), originally an Iron Age Promontory Fort, was the location of the Siege of Smerwick, an  English massacre that even by the standards of perfidious Albion must rank as an infamous atrocity. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com)

 

A 600-strong Papal invasion force of mostly Italian and some Spanish troops under Bastiano di San Giuseppi of Bologna, landed in September 1580 to take part in the Second Desmond Rebellion initiated the previous year by James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, Within days their ships were seized by an English naval force under the command of William Winter, and Crown forces under the Lord Deputy, Arthur, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, and the Earl of Ormond, prevented rebel Geraldine troops from linking up with the landing force. The Continental soldiers started to fortify Dún an Óir with earth in the new Italian style. They were unable to finish the job before Grey surrounded the fort and subjected them to bombardment with superior artillery and heavy naval cannon. After two days the Italian commander surrendered without condition. Grey took away the troops’ armour and weapons and penned them inside the fort. He later wrote to Queen Elizabeth I:

 

I sent in certain gentlement (sic) to see their weapons and armures layed downe and to gard the munitions and victaile there left for spoile,” he wrote to the Queen. “Then putt I in certeyn bandes who streight fell to execution. There were 600 slayne . . . So hath it pleased the Lord of hostes to deliver your enemies into (your) Highnes handes.”

 

The English are said to have spent two days decapitating their victims, lining them up one by one in a nearby field known as Gort a Ghearradh (the Field of the Cutting). Some of the corpses were used for target practice, but most were tossed into the ocean. They buried the heads in another field known as Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads). Historians say that the evidence is confusing. Grey made no mention of decapitation, but local people insist the stories are true. In recent years many skeletons have been revealed with the effect of coastal erosion. Sean Ferriter, 56, owner of the land at the edge of the beach, said he had seen “umpteen” skeletons. Seamus O’Sullivan, 84, told The Times he had seen dozens of skeletons, some headless, others complete.

 

Local tradition also maintains that there were women and children among the victims, although this seems unlikely. Analysis of the recently exposed skeletons may throw some light on the matter.

 

According to Peninsular folklore, Walter Raleigh was a principal commander in the massacre. However, English military records of the time do not bear this out, indicating that Raleigh was at headquarters in Tipperary when it took place. To this day, children in Dingle are told that if they misbehave they will have to “Seachain a’Raleigh“.

 

It is also alleged that the poet Edmund Spenser was a participant. It is undoubtedly true that both Raleigh and Spenser were part of Lord Grey’s entourage.

 

Smerwick Harbour was also Raleigh’s landfall on his return from his transatlantic expedition in 1587. This may indicate that the by then Sir Walter knew the area well, perhaps because he had been present at the massacre seven years before.

Baile an Fheirtéaraig / Ballyferriter (Co. Kerry / Southwest)

Baile an Fheirtéaraig / Ballyferriter, also referred to by its older Irish name, An Buailtín (”the little dairy place”), lies in a stunning green valley beneath the majestic hill of Croaghmarhin, with grat views of the jagged peaks of Sybil Head and the Three Sisters.

According to the 2002 census, about 75% of the population speak Irish on a daily basis. (I was once warned  – in Dingle in 1999  – to be careful of the locals in Ballyferriter: “mountainy men, they still speak the Irish”!) Everyone speaks English as well, albeit a bit more poetically than usual. The village is full of teenage Irish students in summer, and older, higher level UCC students avail of a house during the rest of the year.

The village has three pubs, Tigh Uí Chatháin, Tigh Uí Mhurchú, Tigh an tSaorsaigh, and one hotel, Óstán Cheann Sibéal (formerly Tigh Peig). It also has a couple of shops and restaurants, a school, and a Garda station housed in an old RIC barracks.

St Vincent’s church (RC), designed by JJ McCarthy, was built c.1865.

Café na Cille has great food and lovely views from its rear window.

Músaem / Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne (”Corkaguiney Regional Museum”), began as Ballyferriter community’s own Heritage Centre, and is now aka the West Cork Museum, with a good website. Occupying the old schoolhouse (1875), it has interesting artefacts, photographs and educational displays about local archaeology / history, geology and wildlife, and a pleasant café. It  occasionally hosts temporary exhibitions. 

Reasc Monastery was built in the late C5th or early C6th, and probably continued in use up to the C9th or C10th; the site is believed to have been regarded as sacred for much longer. The enclosure was excavated by archaeologists in 1974, and found to have several wonderfully carved stone slabs bearing Classical, old Gaelic and Christian motifs, illustrative of the integration of the pre-existing pagan religion into Christianity. Also identified were remains of drystone huts, burial grounds, a number of cross slabs, paved pathways, and an oratory, a shrine site and a corn drying kiln. The 1974 finds are on view at the Museum in Ballyferriter.

Gallarus Oratory

 

Gallarus Oratory, shaped like an inverted boat, is unique in its setting and mystique.

 

Built with much the same techniques as some Neolithic tombs, the almost windowless construction of stone without mortar remains waterproof after 1200 years’ exposure to the Atlantic winds and rain on its hillside overlooking Smerwick Harbour.

 

The interior really does have a special ambience, as if immeasurable aeons of time were a matter of total indifference.

 

An Interpretative Centre and café are housed in a nearby converted farm building

Cillmaolceadair / Kilmalkedar is the most important church site in the peninsular region. The original monastery on the site, of which virtually no trace remains, was reputedly founded by Saint Maolcethair (whose death is recorded in the Martyrology of Donegal under the year 636 AD), but is also traditionally associated with Saint Brendan (who supposedly died a century earlier).  The ruined church visible today dates from the first half of the C12th, with certain Romanesque touches copied from Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel. Some fine stone carving can be found in the interior. Also visible on the site are a sundial, a large stone cross, an alphabet stone (inside the church near the chancel arch) and an Ogham stone with the inscription of “Anm Maile Inbir Maci Brocann” (”The name of Mael Inbir son of Brocan”).

Cathair Deargain Stone Fort has a single defence wall, and the ruins of some Clochans are also visible.

Ballynana / Baile na nÁth (”the townland of the height”) is connected directly by the R559 to Milltown near An Daingean / Dingle.

Murreagh (Co. Kerry / Southwest)

Murreagh, a village on the eastern side of Smerwick Harbour, is at one corner of a roughly triangular area (the other corners are Tiduff and Ballinloghig), relatively rarely visited and interesting to explore. Narrow roads through wild, open landscape between Mount Brandon and the ocean. Towering cliffs, rocky bulwarks against the power of the Atlantic, are within easy reach.

Siamsa Tíre, a folklore organisation that trains young people in dance, drama, music and song, and also gives performances, has a local centre in Teach Siamsa, a large white thatched edifice near the church at the junction of the road to Kilcooly. Visitors should enquire at the Dingle Tourist Office or locally about details for any events scheduled.

Baile na nGall (Co. Kerry / West)

Baile na nGall (”the townland of the foreigner”, probably referring to the Vikings), the village formerly known as Ballydavid, is a small traditional fishing community on the shores of Smerwick Harbour, with views of  the Three Sisters to the westand Mount Brandon to the east.

View from near village. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com)

This is a lovely place to be at sunset, also a good time to walk along the coast beyond the village. Many an hour can be whiled away in conversation in either of two pubs, and with a bit of luck you might arrive one night when music is being played. The village retains much of its traditional character, and the unique currach used for generations by fishermen on the western seaboard is still built here.

Gallarus Castle is a C15th tower occupied by a branch of the Geraldines who were kinsfolk to the Knight of Kerry. Of the three castles on the Peninsula, Gallarus is in the best condition and retains its vaulted roof. Tradition has it that when the last Fitzgerald was on his deathbed he ordered his servants to take him up to the highest window of the castle. A fierce gale was blowing. He remained there looking out on the great waves breaking on the shore. After watching for a time, he came to himself with a start and remarked, “This indeed is a fitting time for a Geraldine to bid goodbye to his world.” The castle is now an Irish Heritage Site.

The Dingle Standing Stones, three inscutable upright rocks, are amongst only three extant alignments on the Peninsula.

Gorman’s Clifftop House, owned by chef Vincent Gorman and his wife Sile, is a laid-back guesthouse with windswept gardens commanding wonderful views and delicious breakfasts served in the restaurant, open to non-residents for superb lunches and evening meals.

Radio na Gaeltachta, the Irish language station, is situated just outside the village on Bothar na Léinsí.

Dingle Activities Information Centre is also located here.

Feohanagh (Co. Kerry / Southwest)

Feohanagh (meaning disputed; it either means “a place of thistles” or derives from an old Irish word for a windy place) lies close to the foot of Mount Brandon.

A large, deep bog covered much of the land to the east, and provided turf for the fires of Dingle until the end of the C19th. In earlier centuries the area enjoyed a remarkable reputation as a famous monastic centre and even some kind of Garden of Eden.

Opposite the pub in Feohanagh, a road leads to a house decorated with scallop shells on a bohreen that is the start of an exhilirating walk along a clifftop path to Brandon Creek. (Those driving vehicles should continue along the road through the clusters of houses that make up Ballynabuck, Ballyroe and Ballycurrane).

Ballydavid Head, a Marilyn with a relative height of 247m, rears up dramatically between the road and the sea. It has a Martello Tower and an old garrison house overlooking the mouth of Tralee Bay.

Brandon Creek / Cuas an Bhodaigh / Coosavuddig is said to have been the starting place for Saint Brendan`s Voyage to “the Heavenly Isles”, perhaps America. Tim Severin also set out from here in a craft made of hides for North America in 1977, and successfully established the feasibility of such a voyage, via Scotland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, as described in his excellent book The Brendan Voyage. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.com)

Several major early Christian sites are believed to have existed north of the Feohanagh River, but little of them survives. Tradition asserts that Saint Brendan’s main settlement in the area was here at the foot of Mount Brandon. Near Ballynavenooragh is Shanakeel, or Seana Cill, usually translated as “the old church”; and at the western foot of Masatiompan a remarkable site clinging to steep cliffs is called Faiche na Manach / Fothar na Manaigh (”the Green Fields of the Monks”).

Tiduff  (Co. Kerry / West)

From Tiduff a straight turf-track running northeast to Masatiompan is a good route for a walk in rising, open countryside, with views back along the coastline which are sometimes quite spectacular.

The area south of Tiduff is rich in clocháin and cahers. Less numerous than those at the unique Fahan settlement in the southwest of the peninsula, they still make up a significant concentration. It has been suggested that these were built to provide accommodation for pilgrims waiting for clear weather to make the ascent of Mount Brandon.

Ballinloghig (Co. Kerry / Southwest)

Turning left off the main road into the village a road continues into the valley of Coumaloghig and becomes a rough track. Waterproof footwear is needed, as on most walks, but an easy stroll along the track brings one deep into the valley and up to the massive headwall of Ghearhane. There are signs of tillage on the right, and on a spur above stood a spectacularly isolated farmhouse within living memory. On the left there are pre-bog field fences on the northern side of the river.

South of Ballinloghig a low pass connects the northwestern part of the peninsula to the outskirts of An Daingean / Dingle.

 

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