Dingle Peninsula Loop Trip

By car or bicycle, this self-guided tour offers spectacular views and plenty of Irish history

Slea Head Road curves along the coast on the Dingle Peninsula. (Pat O'Connor)
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23.1 km: Back at the turnoff, head left (sign to Louis Mulcahy Pottery).

24.5 km: Passing land that was never reclaimed, think of the work it took to pick out the stones, pile them into fences, and bring up sand and seaweed to nourish the clay and make soil for growing potatoes. Look over the water to the island aptly named the “Sleeping Giant”—see his hand resting happily on his beer belly.

24.9 km: Grab the scenic pull-out. The view is spectacular. Ahead, on the right, study the top fields, untouched since the planting of 1845, when the potatoes didn’t grow, but rotted in the ground. The faint vertical ridges of the potato beds can still be seen—a reminder of the famine (easier to see a bit later). Before the famine, 40,000 people lived on this peninsula. After the famine, the population was so small that there was never again a need to farm so high up. Today, only 10,000 live on the peninsula.

Coast downhill. The distant hills are crowned by lookout forts built back when Britain expected Napoleon to invade.

The lousy farmland on both sides of the straight stretch of road was stripped of seven feet of peat (turf) in the 19th century. While the land here provided a lot of warmth back then...it ¬provides no food today.

30 km: The town of Ballyferriter (Baile an Fheirtearaigh), established by a Norman family in the 12th century, is the largest on this side of Dingle. The pubs serve grub, and the old schoolhouse is a museum (€2.50, May–Sept daily 10:00–17:30, closed Oct–April, tel. 066/915-6333). The early-Christian cross next to the schoolhouse looks real. Tap it...it’s fiberglass—a prop from Ryan’s Daughter.

31.4 km: At the T-junction, signs direct you left to An Daingean (Dingle, 11 km). Go left, via Gallaras (and still following Ceann Sleibhe/Slea Head Drive). Take a right over the bridge, following signs to Gallaras.

32 km: Just beyond the bridge, you’ll pass the Tigh Bhric pub and market (great pub-grub lunches, tel. 066/915-6325). Five yards before the sign to Mainistir Riaise (Reasc Monastery), detour right up the lane. After 0.3 km (up the unsigned turnout on your right), you’ll find the scant remains of the walled Reasc Monastery (dating from the 6th–12th centuries, free, always open). The inner wall divided the community into sections for prayer and business (cottage industries helped support the monastery). In 1975, only the stone pillar was visible, as the entire site was buried. The layer of black tar paper marks where the original rocks stop and the excavators’ reconstruction begins. The stone pillar is Celtic (c. 500 B.C.). When the Christians arrived in the fifth century, they didn’t throw out the Celtic society. Instead, they carved a Maltese-type cross over the Celtic scrollwork. The square building was an oratory (church—you’ll see an intact oratory at the next stop). The round buildings would have been clochans—those stone igloo–type dwellings. One of the cottage industries operated by the monastery was a double-duty kiln. Just outside the wall (opposite the oratory, past the duplex clochan, at the bottom end), find a stone hole with a passage facing the southwest wind. This was the kiln—fanned by the wind, it was used for cooking and drying grain. Locals would bring their grain to be dried and ground, and the monks would keep a 10 percent tithe. With the arrival of the Normans in the 12th century, these small religious communities were replaced by relatively big-time state and church governments.

32.8 km: Return to the main road, and continue to the right.

34.6 km: At the big hotel (Smerwick Harbor), turn left following the sign to Gallaras (Gallarus Oratory).

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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