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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35.6 km: At the big building (with camping sign), make a hard right up the long lane bordered by hedges. To park for free near the Gallarus Oratory, continue along this lane for a quarter-mile, where you’ll find a five-car parking lot—which occasionally fills up (be prepared to cooperate with other drivers exiting this small lot). From the free parking lot, a sign points you up the path leading you to the oratory (about 150 yards away).

If, however, you don’t mind paying €3 to park, veer left just at the start of the hedge-lined lane into a large paved parking lot. Nearby is a small visitors center with a coffee shop, WC, and video theater. I prefer to park for free in the small lot (especially since it’s closer to the oratory), but many will appreciate the large lot, handy WC, and informative 17-minute video overview of the Dingle Peninsula’s historic sights (daily May–Sept 9:00–20:00, Oct–April 9:00–19:00, tel. 066/915-5333). This visitors center is the business initiative of a man who simply owns the adjacent land—not the oratory. If you park in his lot, you’ll have to pay the fee, even if you skip the facilities and walk up the public lane.

The Gallarus Oratory, built about 1,300 years ago, is one of Ireland’s best-preserved early-Christian churches. Shaped like an upturned boat, its finely fitted drystone walls are still waterproof. Lower your head (notice how thick the walls are), walk inside, and give your eyes a moment to adjust to the low light. A simple, small arched window offers scant daylight to the opposite wall, where the altar would have stood. Picture the interior lit by candles during medieval monastic services. It would have been tough to fit more than about a dozen monks inside (especially if they decided to do jumping jacks). Notice the holes once used to secure covering at the door, and the fine alternating stonework on the corners.

From the oratory, return to the main road and continue, following the brown Ceann Sleibhe/Slea Head Drive sign. If instead you continue up the narrow lane from the free parking lot, you’ll end up on R-559 (a shortcut to Dingle that misses the Kilmalkedar Church ruins).

37.7 km: Turn right at the fork and immediately take a right (at the blue shop sign) at the next fork. Here you leave the Slea Head Drive and head for Dingle (10 km away).

39.5 km: The ruined church of Kilmalkedar (Cill Mhaoil-cheadair, on the left) was the Norman center of worship for this end of the peninsula. It was built when England replaced the old monastic settlements in an attempt to centralize their rule. The 12th-century Irish Romanesque church is surrounded by a densely populated graveyard (which has risen noticeably above the surrounding fields over the centuries). In front of the church, you’ll find the oldest medieval tombs, a stately early-Christian cross (substantially buried by the rising graveyard and therefore oddly proportioned), and a much older ogham stone. This stone, which had already stood here 900 years when the church was built, is notched with the mysterious Morse code–type ogham script used from the third to seventh centuries. It marked a grave, indicating this was a pre-Christian holy spot. The hole was drilled through the top of the stone centuries ago as a place where people would come to seal a deal—standing on the graves of their ancestors and in front of the house of God, they’d “swear to God” by touching thumbs through this stone. You can still use this to renew your marriage vows (free, B.Y.O. spouse). The church fell into ruin during the Reformation. As Catholic worship went underground until the early 19th century, Kilmalkedar was never rebuilt.

40.2 km: Continue uphill, overlooking the water. You’ll pass another “fairy fort” (Ciher Dorgan) on the right dating back to 1000 B.C. (free, go through the rusty “kissing gate”). The bay stretched out below you is Smerwick Harbor. In 1580 a force of 600 Italian and Spanish troops (sent by the pope to aid a rebellion against the Protestant English) surrendered at this bay to the English. All 600 were massacred by the English forces, which included Sir Walter Raleigh.

41.7 km: At the crest of the hill, enjoy a three-mile-long coast back into Dingle town (sighting, as old-time mariners did, on the Eask Tower).

46.3 km: Tog Bog E means “take it easy.” At the T-junction, turn left. Then turn right at the roundabout.

47.5 km: You’re back in Dingle town. Well done.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

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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