We turned a trip to the Dingle Peninsular into a treasure hunt for archaeological remains by checking out anything marked in red in Gaelic on the 1:50,000 map. Our guidebook told us that clochán means a ‘beehive’ hut – built in the manner of a dry stone wall without mortar, but cleverly shaped so that the stacked stones met at the apex of the roof to make a whether-proof home. We also worked out that a gallán is an undecorated standing stone, but the other unintelligible Gaelic descriptions made it challenging to find sites of significance, especially as we sometimes didn’t know what we were looking for. From a distance some sites looked like nothing more interesting than contemporary dry stone walls. Some turned out to be mere bumps in the landscape: ancient field systems or burial places. Others were superb early Christian carved obelisks or crosses. Bewilderingly the best of the crosses, which was decorated with intriguing Celtic spirals and starred on local post cards, was beyond several barbed wire fences and across a couple of squlechy fields.
In between our quest to find the best 1500-year-old carvings we ended up walking a spectacular craggy coastline whence, invigorated, we watched gannets dive-bombing fish and seals rolling with the swell. Grey smudges on cliff ledges turned out – on examination with binoculars – to be huge bags of fluff-covered blubber: fulmar chicks waiting patiently for their next regurgitated fish meal.
We enjoyed the local fish too and I indulged my bad habit of eavesdropping in pubs. I even heard old jokes making fun – not of Irish naïveté – but of the simplicity of the people of Kerry. And when I first saw a curragh rowed with oars with no blades I did wonder about local inventiveness. Yet even in a seething pub (one of the best was Antarctic explorer Tom Crean’s house in Annascaul) where it was hardly possible to reach the bar and the excellent music made communication difficult, good food arrived in no time and a niche was freed to sit and enjoy seafood chowder or steak sandwich.
After five days exploring the Peninsular we headed for a site at the summit of a hill overlooking Dingle harbour. Here the red Gaelic lettering on our map promised a whole collection of oghaim stones, representing the earliest form of written Irish. The gate into the field bore a notice, ‘Beware of the Bull: visitors enter at their own risk.’ Just as we were deliberating whether this was a real warning or to discourage tourists, a large ginger bull with a ring through his nose appeared and blew disapprovingly at us. We tried another approach. At a second gate a local asked, ‘Do ya know where you’re going?’
‘Yes but we weren’t sure about the bull.’ ‘Mmm well the wind is in our direction so you have the advantage. And maybe this will be the high point of your holiday – when you ran for your lives before a charging bull…’ We risked it. The hilltop was littered with rounded stones. Each was over a metre long and carved with series of parallel lines.
Interesting, but not exactly a sight to die for.