Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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TRAVEL

MUSIC & SURF FROM DINGLE TO DOOLIN

By Turtle Bunbury (2012)

One minute I’m having a quiet pint in a charming West Kerry pub, sprawled beside a flickering log-fire, my toes rattling along to an old fellow playing a polka on a squeezy box, thinking ‘ah yes, this is the only way to pass the long, dark winters’.

And next thing I know, I’m submerged in ice-cold seawater, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, repeatedly banging my head off a surfboard I can’t control.

Well, okay, maybe there were more than a few minutes between the two events. And perhaps more than a few pints too. Which is presumably what “inspired” me to sign up to a late morning’s surfing on the strand of Castlegregory in the midst of an Irish winter.

Despite my semi-aquatic name, I am not and never have been a surfing dude. I have always wanted to be, of course, but my attempts to stand up have been consistently futile. That said, I can assure you that the incentive to stay out of the water increases considerably when you find yourself surfing the sub-zero waves that rumble down the coast of the Dingle peninsula. Aided by an inconceivably patient teacher (jamieknox.com) and a miraculous hooded O’Neill Pscyho Freak winter wetsuit that somehow keeps the coldness away, I was astounded to discover that, after two hours of solid surfing, I could stand upright for several seconds at once.

Any trace of a hangover had long since been washed away when I made my way over the Conor Pass to Dingle town for celebratory refreshments. The journey, though precarious in places, is one of the finest in Ireland, leading me past snow-capped mountain peaks, plunging cliffs, meandering rivers and oxbow lakes. This is a landscape that needs to be enjoyed close up so if you’re here on the weekend of 17th-19th February, give the Dingle Walking Festival (dinglewalkingfestival.com) a whirl, and you’ll get your chance to discover why National Geographic described the Dingle Peninsula as ‘the most beautiful place on Earth’.

The town of Dingle is consistently hailed as the most fun in Ireland. It was not ever thus. Along the walls of Dick Mack’s pub are a series of early 20th century photographs recalling a time when this coastal enclave was little more than muddy roads, thatched cabins and open drains, overrun with donkeys and carts, old women in black shawls carrying baskets, rugged men in cloth caps and skinny children in bare feet. The town came to prominence when David Lean’s Oscar winning masterpiece ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was filmed locally in 1968. It’s also garnered considerable attention through Fungie, a fun-loving bottlenose dolphin who swam into the harbour 27 years ago and has been based here ever since.

But it’s the craic of the pub life that make Dingle a cut above. There are stacks of wonderful pubs in this small town. J. Curran's bar, which doubles up as a general merchant and drapery, is a straight up classic. Amongst its regulars are bachelor brothers Stevie and Timmy Kelleher who have hit upon a canny solution to the drink-driving conundrum. Even though their farm is less than 3km from Currans, they know better than to risk driving home ‘after a few’. And so they now have two houses – the farmhouse, where they spend most of their days, and a townhouse in Dingle, where they ‘rest’ on drinking nights.

Down the road, Dick Mack's pub still has the cobbler's shoeboxes rolling up the walls, just as they did when owner Oliver McDonnell’s father established himself as the town’s foremost boot merchant. Oliver, who was born and raised here, has since converted the old family kitchen, sitting and dining areas into alternative drinking spots for his customers. By night it seems as though every rattan stool, bentwood chair and scuff-resistant step is occupied by someone of a different nationality. Everywhere the banter is in full flow. When the music starts, all ankles stir. If these people are not Irish, they sure want to be.

From Dingle, I head back west via Anascaul (where one of the pubs is a veritable shrine to its one-time publican, the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean) and Tralee (venue for the world-famous Rose of Tralee contest) to Listowel (a major horse-racing centre with a horse fair scheduled for January 5th).

I get my first proper glimpse of the broad, majestic Shannon from a pier at the back of Finucane’s pub in Ballylongford. This is the longest river in Britain or Ireland, its earliest waters rising from the sphagnum mosses of faraway County Cavan. Finucane’s once belonged to the entrepreneurial O’Rahilly family, one of whom became the only rebel leader of the Easter Rising of 1916 to die in action. They prospered through the pub, two creameries and an enormous corn-mill which ran along the river banks. At one end of the bar counter is the yardstick once used by the pub’s in-house tailors to measure arm lengths. Customers would sit at the bar and drink a pint or two, while their tailor proposed different colours and cloths.

Onward to Glin, home to the charismatic Knights of Glin, the 29th and last of whom passed way in 2011 after a lifetime in which he did an enormous amount to highlight the wonders of Georgian architecture in Ireland, as well as Irish furniture and art. His own home at Glin Castle has an epic history. Many centuries ago, one of the then Knight’s sons was captured during an assault by an English fleet. A message was sent to the Knight stating that if he did not surrender, his son would be blasted from the ship’s canons against his castle walls. The Knight boisterously replied: ‘Fire away, there’s plenty more where he came from!’

Just west of Glin is the small town of Tarbert, with its’ handsome but eerie gaol, from where I take a short ferry across the Shannon to Killimer in south Clare. Clare is known as the Banner County on account of all the flags and banners unfurled in support of Daniel O'Connell, the emancipator of Irish Catholics, when he was elected to represent the county in Parliament in 1828

As legendary Irish songwriter Christy Moore puts it, ‘if it’s music you want, go to Clare’. There’s no shortage of marvellous musical venues in the county from top to bottom. The town of Doolin, gateway to both the Burren and the Aran Islands, hosts the Micho Russell Memorial Festival (michorussellweekend.ie) on the last weekend in February (24th-27th), where innumerable kindred souls will gather for recitals, workshops and sessions - both prearranged and spontaneous - in honour one of Ireland’s finest musicians.

Nearby Kilfenora is rightly considered one of the finest places you could be on St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) with a splendid homemade parade and a lively session, starring the Kilfenora Ceili Band, that runs until the small hours of the morning and attracts musicians from all over the world.

Just be careful because, as I say, you might think you’re safely supping on your drink, listening to a session in motion, with no place else to go, only to awaken abruptly in a notably cold ocean with a surfboard attached to your ankle.

A TRADITIONAL MUSIC SCHOOL

Music is a massive part of life on the Dingle Peninsula. If music is your thing, you should seriously consider attending the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh, a traditional music school, which takes place in Ballyferriter. scoilcheoil.com

For traditional music fans headed north of the Shannon, Sixmilebridge in Co. Clare is the place to be on Friday nights where the Greyhound Bar hosts a traditional session from 10pm onwards. (wmw.ie) It’s also worth keeping an eye on the line up for Glór Ennis, the main stage in the county town of Ennis offering a hearty array of music, theatre, comedy and visual art.

 

YOU WILL, YOU WILL, YOU WILL.

If you’re a fan of the ‘Father Ted’ series, you might want to consider a trip with Tedtours (tedtours.com) where you’ll be dressed up as a nun or a priest and escorted on a grand tour of the locations used in the show from Craggy Island to the Very Dark Caves, including tea in the Parochial House and a ‘Lovely Girls’ competition in the pub afterwards.

 

 

This article appeared in Ryanair's Let's Go magazine in 2012.

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