Dingle, Ireland: In Praise of a Humble Town
Rick Steves: On one of Ireland's national parks of traditional culture
06.14.10 | 12:41 PM ET
Kathleen was old and frail, but picked up her step as she led me to the small-town cinema. She declared, “Tom Cruise is a wee little guy.” Everyone was all abuzz about where he and Nicole Kidman had slept.
I was in the town of Dingle, on the west coast of Ireland. And tonight, in Dingle’s homey theater, it seemed the entire town had gathered to watch the premiere of “Far and Away”—a movie that was partly filmed right here in Dingle. As the movie played, each time a bit player from the village appeared on screen, a rowdy uproar erupted. Knowing where to look in the movie, you could see telephone poles decorated like trees.
The movie depicted tough times—the 1890s, when impoverished people from villages like Dingle flocked to the New World in pursuit of a better life. All it takes is a pensive stroll through the fields to remember the earlier pain and struggle of this land. Picking up a clod of earth, my friend Tim, Dingle’s retired police chief, explained how even the dirt had to be made by struggling peasants—sand and seaweed carried here by human beasts of burden from the distant shore.
Dingle’s a humble town. Each day, it feels like the main business is rolling out the empty kegs and rolling in the full ones. They claim to have more pubs per capita than any town in Ireland. And each evening, I walk around the block like a guy choosing a dance partner, considering where I’ll enjoy a pint.
Dingle’s town mascot has long been a dolphin named Fungie. This playful dolphin is thoroughly milked to stoke tourism. But to me, it seems that Fungie just brings people to town for the wrong reason. You don’t come to Dingle to see a freak dolphin; you come to experience a Gaeltacht town.
A Gaeltacht (a place where Gaelic—the traditional Irish language—is spoken) is a kind of national park for the traditional culture. As a Gaeltacht, Dingle gets special subsidies from the government. A precondition of this financial support is that towns use their Irish (Gaelic) name. But Dingle (or An Daingean in Irish) has voted down this dictate from Dublin. I think changing it back to An Daingean would be true in principle to the Gaelic movement, but just plain bad marketing. (It’s fun to say Dingle, but An Daingean—pronounced “on DANG-un”—is hard to say and to spell.) As a compromise, signposts spell it both ways.
The tip of the Dingle Peninsula is marked by a chalky statue of a crucifix. It faces the sea, but it seems like about half the time, it’s actually facing a cloud with zero visibility being whipped by sheets of rain. I imagine cows here have thicker eyelids, evolved over centuries of sideways rain. The Gallarus Oratory, a 1,300-year-old church made only of stone, is famously watertight—unless the rain is hosing in sideways. I’ve been splattered inside. I’ve crept over the Conor Pass with zero visibility, ragamuffin sheep nonchalantly appearing like ghosts in the milky cloud. I’ve huddled in farmhouses abandoned in the great famine of 1848, awaiting a chance to step out. Yes, the weather is a force on the west coast of Ireland. But when the sun comes out, everything rejoices.
To commemorate the Smithsonian Presents Travels with Rick Steves magazine—now on sale online, and at newsstands nationwide—Rick is blogging about some of the places featured in the issue. Dingle is one of them.