DINGLE -- In the year of The Gathering it is quite possible that you have Dear Old Erin’s Isle on your calendar just to get a piece of the craic that is happening over the course of the 2013 year dedicated to putting people in touch with their Irish roots.
If that is the case let me share some advice from my most recent trip to Ireland that can be employed this year, because it has long been something that I recommend to travelers to the Ould Sod, even first-timers.
If at all possible allow yourselves a few flex days on your itinerary to either linger in a locality longer than you’ve set aside, or take a road not traveled to experience something new or different without a plan.
In my case, it was simply to fill out a few days between a family wedding and reunion in Co, Clare and the CCE Congress in Dublin which anchored two weekends.
So it was off to the Dingle Peninsula for a mid-week excursion in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, a place where I have not spent more than a couple of days spinning around the well-traveled tourist route like so many others.
Okay, if truth be told, it was also to satisfy my curiosity about why the fabled region was becoming a musical mecca of its own with many musicians settling into its welcoming embrace in recent years.
I headed off for the Kingdom early on a Tuesday with a slight detour at Shannon Airport to drop off my sister Peggy who was returning to New York after the weekend wedding festivities around Ennistymon.
I was delayed slightly waiting for the Shannon Airport Failte Ireland office to open at 10 a.m. to see what was on offer to help guide my way to Kerry. It was worth the wait as the helpful attendant supplied me with all I needed with a pleasant smile and welcome.
Like so many road trips in Ireland, motorways and the Shannon Tunnel connecting Clare and Limerick speed you along the way and occasionally slow down to wend your way through charming villages like Adare and Abbeyfeale as you make your way to the Dingle Peninsula.
The northern-most road brings you through Blennerville, Castlegregory and Stradbally with Tralee and Brandon Bays offering scenic seascapes on the right while the Dingle Mountains tower on the left. This brings you to the captivating Conor Pass road into Dingle displaying all its rugged beauty and treacherous but skillfully laid roadbed (the foggy early hour return a few days later wasn’t as relaxing).
Once in Dingle, I stopped again at the local Failte Ireland office conveniently placed on the main quay area in Dingle Harbor for some local orientation.
While I was in Clare, the Dingle denizens were celebrating the 30th year since the first sighting of Fungi in Dingle Harbor -- surely the most famous dolphin in Ireland -- on the last weekend in April.
Then I was guided to the street dubbed The Mall where I was to meet up with my musician friend Tommy O’Sullivan from the group Sliabh Notes who played a few months prior in Newtown, Connecticut.
Along with his wife Saundra, they are also owners of the popular music pub O’Sullivan’s Courthouse which not only provided my first pint of plain in Dingle but WiFi to touch base with the outside world which was kept at a distance on this trip.
Since this is a TV and pool table free pub, the Internet connection is its only concession to the 21st century, preferring to feature the always entertaining live chats with real people in house along with first-class music acts by night organized by the tasty governor himself, singer and guitarist O’Sullivan.
With O’Sullivan’s assistance, I headed to the Ashes Bar and Restaurant around the corner on Main Street where reasonable sleeping quarters were arranged for three nights, chosen for its proximity to three music houses within yards of its doorways (O’Sullivan’s, The Mighty Session and the corner hotspot An Droichead Beag Little Bridge).
One stretch to the tourist’s dollars these days are the early bird two and three-course offerings which could be found all over Dingle Town, so the first night I went for the excellent seafood choice at Ashes.
Live music in the town starts at either 9 or 9:30 p.m. and goes to 11:30 p.m. in most of the pubs that would also include John Benny’s and O’Flaherty’s.
For the first time I opted to take in Tommy’s pub featuring himself on guitar and vocals plus the outstanding young button box player, Damien Mullane, originally from England but resettled here in Dingle who just produced an excellent new CD called simply 13.
The pub is small and intimate, and it doesn’t take many to fill up the front room with its mixture of visitors who know what they are looking for, and others who are attracted by the quaintness and atmosphere of a well-staffed proper Irish pub. Gorgeous music and ambience on the first night.
On the Wednesday, a much-needed lie-in was called for but the brilliant sunshine and warmth of the day soon got me into action for a leisurely walk around town that included a stop at one of the three music shops, Siopa Ceoil off of Strand Street, a more recent addition to the venerable Dingle Record Store operated by the venerable Mazz O’Flaherty for over three decades which I visited the next day opposite St. Mary’s Church.
Along with some new CDs featuring local talent, I was treated to a cuppa coffee by the owners (the Herlihy father and son tandem who operate it) and a mini-concert by Micheal Herlihy on accordion and Maire Breatnach, a well-respected fiddle player who also recently relocated to the peninsula to educate her child in the Irish language and customs.
Another coffee followed later with singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh of Danu who recently returned to her Dun Chaoin roots as well.
The warmth of the sun drew me first to Murphy’s ice cream shop with its creamy homemade treats, and then out on the roads back towards Anascual and Inch Strand for a pleasant walk along one of Ireland’s longest beaches looking out at the vast expanse of Dingle Bay that separates the larger Iveragh Peninsula with its equally beautiful Ring of Kerry.
As the sun still shone brilliantly I made my way back to An Daingean (its Irish name) for a 8 p.m. early bird reservation at a pub that I had heard about but never visited before, John Benny’s on Strand Street.
Owned by locals John Benny Moriarty and Eilis ni Chinneide, the popular restaurant and pub becomes a charming hotspot later on when the center room becomes a music hall for those lucky enough to garner one of the seats there.
Tastefully miked performances can be experienced in the bar areas in the front and back rooms allowing for general conversations that can overcome artists in the best of pubs.
Since the landlords Eilis Kennedy and box player John Benny himself along with Donagh Hennessey were the featured acts this night, I didn’t want to miss any of the action there on my first and only night to avail of it.
It was wonderful singing from the husband and wife duo along with the chance to see Donagh Hennessey once again provide his standout accompaniment all night.
Several bonuses on the night were another great early-bird special of steak and colcannon washed down by the local brew, Crean’s, and receiving a copy of the newly-minted Lumiere’s CD My Dearest Dear featuring Eilis and partner Pauline Scanlon accompanied by Donagh Hennessey.
My last day would start earlier with a Ventry Harbor departure around Slea Head out to view the Great Blasket Islands accompanied by many relations of Fungi, as the dolphins playfully tagged along our small island ferry.
Sunshine continued to follow my journey around to Dunquin with its excellent Blasket Island Center, Ballyferriter and Ballydavid after an enjoyable lunch with singer and musician Breandan Begley who hails from this beautiful part of the world near Mount Brandon.
My last night’s rambles started hitting the Mighty Session first, then next door to An Droichead Beag to see Meabh ni Bheaglaoich, the box playing daughter of Seamus Begley (who was touring in Africa with Teada) and finally back to O’Sullivan’s Courthouse where I began my Dingle journey to see Full Set’s Theresa Horgan (another transplant from Cork) and Tommy.
Though you would need a week to fully enjoy all that the Dingle Peninsula has to offer, even a few days is enough to comprehend why it is such a vital place in today’s Ireland and worth allocating the time and effort. I’ll be back again as soon as I can.