Dingle Peninsula Loop Trip

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

Slea Head Road
Slea Head Road curves along the coast on the Dingle Peninsula. Pat O'Connor

The Dingle Peninsula loop trip is about 30 miles (47 km) long and must be driven in a clockwise direction. It’s easy by car, or it’s a demanding four hours by bike—if you don’t stop. Cyclists should plan on an early start (preferably by 9:00) to allow for enough sightseeing and lunch/rest time.

While you can take a basic guided tour of the peninsula, my self-guided tour makes it unnecessary. A fancy map is also not necessary with my instructions. I’ve provided distances to help locate points of interest. Just like Ireland’s speed-limit signs, Ireland’s car speedometers and odometers have gone metric in recent years. I’ve given distances below in kilometers so you can follow along with your rental-car odometer. Most Irish odometers give distances to tenths of a kilometer.

If you’re driving, check your odometer at Oceanworld, as you leave Dingle (ideally, reset your odometer to zero—most likely you can do this by holding down the button next to it). Even if you get off track or are biking, you can subtract the kilometers listed below to figure out distances between points. To get the most out of your circle trip, read through this entire section before departing. Then go step-by-step (staying on R-559 and following the brown Ceann Sleibhe/Slea Head Drive signs). Roads are very congested mid-July to late August.

The Dingle Peninsula is 10 miles wide and runs 40 miles from Tralee to Slea Head. The top of its mountainous spine is Mount Brandon—at 3,130 feet, the second-tallest mountain in Ireland (after a nearby peak above Killarney that’s almost 500 feet higher). While only tiny villages lie west of Dingle town, the peninsula is home to 500,000 sheep.

Self-Guided Tour
Leave Dingle town west along the waterfront (0.0 km at Oceanworld). Driving out of town, on the left you’ll see a row of humble “two up and two down” flats from a 1908 affordable housing government initiative. Today, even these little places would cost more than €250,000.

0.5 km: There’s an eight-foot tide here. The seaweed was used to make formerly worthless land arable. (Seaweed is a natural source of potash—it’s organic farming, before it was trendy.) Across the Milltown River estuary, the fancy Milltown House B&B (with flags) was Robert Mitchum’s home for a year during the filming of Ryan’s Daughter. (Behind that is an extremely scenic pitch & putt range.) Look for the narrow mouth of this blind harbor (where Fungie frolics) and the Ring of Kerry beyond that. Dingle Bay is so hidden that ships needed the tower (1847) on the hill to find its mouth.

0.7 km: At the roundabout, turn left over the bridge. The hardware-store building on the right was a corn-grinding mill in the 18th century. You’ll pass the junction where you’ll complete this loop trip later.

1.3 km: The Milestone B&B is named for the stone pillar (gallaun in Gaelic) in its front yard. This may have been a prehistoric grave or a boundary marker between two tribes. The stone goes down as far as it sticks up. The peninsula, literally an open-air museum, is dotted with more than 2,000 such monuments dating from the Neolithic Age (4000 B.C.) through early-Christian times. Another stone pillar stands in the field across the street, in the direction of the yellow manor house of Lord Ventry (in the distance). Its function today: cow scratcher.

Lord Ventry, whose family came to Dingle as post–Cromwellian War landlords in 1666, built this mansion in about 1750. Today it houses an all-Irish-language boarding school for 140 high-school girls.

As you drive past the Ventry estate, you’ll pass palms, magnolias, and exotic flora introduced to Dingle by Lord Ventry. The Gulf Stream is the source of the mild climate (it never snows here), which supports subtropical plants. Consequently, fuchsias—imported from Chile and spreading like weeds—line the roads all over the peninsula and redden the countryside from June through September. More than 100 inches of rain a year gives this area its “40 shades of green.”

The old red-sandstone and slate-roof cottages along the roadside housed Ventry estate workers in the 1840s.

4.6 km: Stay off the “soft margin” as you enjoy views of Ventry Bay, its four-mile-long beach (to your right as you face the water), and distant Skellig Michael, which you’ll see all along this part of the route. Skellig Michael—an island jutting up like France’s Mont St. Michel—contains the rocky remains of a sixth-century monastic settlement (described in previous chapter). Next to it is a smaller island, Little Skellig—a breeding ground for gannets (seagull-like birds with six-foot wingspans). In 1866, the first transatlantic cable was laid from nearby Valentia Island to Canada’s Newfoundland. It was in use until 1965. Mount Eagle (1,660 feet), rising across the bay, marks the end of Ireland.

In the town of Ventry—or Ceann Tra’—Gaelic is the first language. Ventry is little more than a bungalow holiday village today. Urban Irish families love to come here in the summer to immerse their kids in the traditional culture and wild nature. A large hall at the edge of the village is used as a classroom where big-city students come on field trips to learn the Gaelic language. Just past the town, a lane leads left to a fine beach and mobile-home vacation community. An information board explains the history, geology, and bird life of this bay. The humble trailer park has no running water or electricity. Locals like it for its economy and proximity to the beach. From here, a lane also leads inland to Long’s Horseriding Centre.

5.2 km: The bamboo-like rushes on either side of the road are the kind used to make the local thatched roofs. Thatching, which nearly died out because of the fire danger, is more popular now that anti-flame treatments are available. It’s not the cheap roofing alternative, however, as it’s expensive to pay the few qualified craftsman thatchers that remain in Ireland. Black-and-white ¬magpies fly.

8.6 km: The Irish football (GAA) star Páidí Ó Sé (Paddy O’Shea) is a household name in Ireland. He won eight all-Ireland football titles for Kerry as a player. He then trained the Kerry team for many years, and he now runs the pub on the left (also notice the tiny grocery on the right; easy beach access from here).

9.2 km: The plain blue cottage hiding in the trees 100 yards off the road on the left (view through the white gate, harder to see in summer when foliage is thickest) was kept cozy by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during the filming of Far and Away. Just beyond are fine views of the harbor and Dingle’s stone tower.

10.7 km: Taisteal go Mall means “go slowly”; there’s a red-colored, two-room schoolhouse on the right (20 students, two teachers). During the summer, it’s used for Gaelic courses for kids from the big cities. On the left is the small Celtic and Pre¬¬historic Museum, a quirky private collection of prehistoric artifacts collected by a retired busker named Harris (€4, family-€12, daily 10:00–17:30, tel. 066/915-9191).

11.1 km: The circular mound (that looks like an elevated hedge) on the right is a late–Stone Age ring fort. In 500 B.C., it was a petty Celtic chieftain’s headquarters, a stone-and-earth stockade filled with little stone houses. These survived untouched through the centuries because of superstitious beliefs that they were “fairy forts.” While this site is unexcavated, recent digging has shown that people have lived on this peninsula since well before 4000 B.C.

11.7 km: Look ahead up Mount Eagle at the patchwork of stone-fenced fields.

12.5 km: Dunbeg Fort, a series of defensive ramparts and ditches around a central clochan, is open to tourists—though it’s ready to fall into the sea. There are no carvings to be seen, but the small (beg) fort (dun) is dramatic (€3, daily 9:00–19:00, May–Aug until 20:00, descriptive handout, includes 10-min video shown in the modern stone house across the street, giving a bigger picture of the prehistory of the peninsula). Forts like this are the most important relics left from Ireland’s Iron Age (500 B.C.–A.D. 500).

Along the road, you’ll see a new stone-roofed house built to blend in with the landscape and the region’s ancient rock-slab architecture (A.D. 2000). It’s the Stone House, which had been, until recently, a restaurant. A traditional currach boat is permanently dry-docked in the parking lot.

12.6 km: Roughly 50 yards up the hill is a thatched cottage abandoned by a family named Kavanaugh 150 years ago, during the famine. With a few rusty and chipped old artifacts and good descriptions, it provides an evocative peek into the simple lifestyles of the area in the 19th century (€3, family-€10, May–Sept daily 9:30–18:00, closed Oct–April, tel. 066/915-6241 or 087/762-2617).

13.4 km: A group of beehive huts, or clochans, is a short walk uphill (€2, daily 9:30–19:00, WC). These mysterious stone igloos, which cluster together within a circular wall, are a better sight than the similar group of beehive huts a mile down the road. Look over the water for more Skellig views.

Farther on, you’ll ford a stream. There has never been a bridge here; this bit of road—nicknamed the “upside-down bridge”—was designed as a ford.

14.9 km: Pull off to the left at this second group of beehive huts. Look downhill at the rocky field—in the movie Far and Away, that’s where Lord Ventry evicted (read: torched) peasants from their cottages. Even without Hollywood, this is a bleak and godforsaken land. Look above at the patches of land slowly made into farmland by the inhabitants of this westernmost piece of Europe. Rocks were cleared and piled into fences. Sand and seaweed were laid on the clay, and in time it was good for grass. The created land, if at all tillable, was generally used for growing potatoes; otherwise, it was only good for grazing. Much has fallen out of use now. Look across the bay at the Ring of Kerry in the distance, and ahead at the Blasket Islands (Na Blascaodai).

16.1 km: At Slea Head (Ceann Sleibhe)—marked by a crucifix, a pullout, and great views of the Blasket Islands (described later in this chapter)—you turn the corner on this tour. On stormy days, the waves are “racing in like white horses.”

16.9 km: Pull into the little parking lot (at Dun Chaoin sign) to view the Blasket Islands and Dunmore Head (the westernmost point in Europe) and to review the roadside map (which traces your route) posted in the parking lot. The scattered village of Dunquin (Dun Chaoin) has many ruined rock homes abandoned during the famine. Some are fixed up, as this is a popular place these days for summer homes. You can see more good examples of land reclamation, patch by patch, climbing up the hillside. Mount Eagle was the first bit of land that Charles Lindbergh saw after crossing the Atlantic on his way to Paris in 1927. Villagers here were as excited as he was—they had never seen anything so big in the air. About a kilometer down a road on the left, a plaque celebrates the 30th anniversary of the filming of Ryan’s Daughter. From here, a trail leads down to a wild beach.

19.3 km: The Blasket Islands’ residents had no church or cemetery on the island. This was their cemetery. The famous Blascaod storyteller Peig Sayers (1873–1958) is buried in the center. At the next intersection, drive down the little lane that leads left (100 yards) to a small stone marker (hiding in the grass on the left) commemorating the 1588 shipwreck of the Santa María de la Rosa of the Spanish Armada. Below that is the often-tempestuous Dunquin Harbor, from where the Blasket Islands ferry departs. Island-farmers—who on a calm day could row across in 30 minutes—would dock here and hike 12 miles into Dingle to sell their produce.

19.4 km: Back on the main road, follow signs to the Ionad An Blascaod Mór (Great Blasket Centre). You’ll pass a village school from 1914 (its two teachers still teach 18 students, grades one through six).

22.3 km: Leave the Slea Head Road, turning left for the Great Blasket Centre (provides a worthwhile introduction to Blasket Islands; also has a good cafeteria).

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).

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 [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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