Despite the disappearance of its most famous tourist attraction, Fungie the friendly dolphin, its stunning scenery and rich cultural heritage will keep Dingle on the must-visit list, writes Deanna O’Connor.
Editors note: This article was written when restrictions were in place in Ireland and describes how the Dingle Peninsula adapted to the changes caused by the pandemic.
Ever since Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in the area in the 1970s, the town of Dingle and the surrounding peninsula have been firmly marked on the tourist trail. The arrival of the "Star Wars" shoot for The Last Jedi added further to the area’s cachet as a film location.
Although you’re likely to spot a low-key celebrity cozied up by the fire in Benner’s Hotel on the Main St, the town’s most famous visitor of all was a friendly dolphin, Fungie, who made Dingle Bay his home for over 35 years. He delighted thousands of visitors every year, and locals established strong bonds with him, swimming and diving with this magical creature. Sadly, during the darkest days of 2020, the town, already reeling from the effects of Covid-19, lost its most famous resident. Overnight, Fungie was gone without a trace.
Yet, even without Fungie, when people can come to Dingle again, it’s sure to remain top of the list for both International and Irish holidaymakers. What remains is an area of exceptional natural beauty and the buzz of a cultural hub in an area which is a magnet to artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers. As a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area, people are fiercely protective of their traditional culture, and so it thrives.
One of the most authentic cultural experiences you can enjoy is during Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh (the Spring Music School). During the day the classes are full of the younger generation learning the old tunes, but at night the pubs fill with the master musicians buzzing off each other in traditional Irish sessions, where anyone is welcome to join in once they have the skill and the tunes. And if you don’t - just prop up the bar and order another pint.
Back in pre-pandemic times, the nightlife and foodie scene in Dingle was hopping. A full calendar of festivals kept the town thronged and on any given night you would find a party in the pubs, with local musicians playing everywhere. Notable dates on the calendar throughout the year celebrate animation (Animation Dingle); arts (Feile na Bealtaine); food (Dingle Food Festival); literature (Dingle Lit) and contemporary music (Other Voices).
Drinking and dining
After the Covid-19 closures hit the hospitality trade, some old favorite spots might never reopen their doors, while others are just biding their time, and making changes where they can. Dick Mack’s, a landmark in the town, hired a carpenter to build extra covered outdoor seating, and kept fans of their huge selection of whiskeys happy with mail order ‘Curated Whiskey Pack’ deliveries.
The much-loved Solas Tapas restaurant used the time to experiment, first collaborating with a neighboring pub to provide outdoor dining, then filling the ethnic food gap with a gourmet Indian takeaway pop-up, before returning to its much-loved core menus.
Vegetarian cafe Thyme Out has also kept its loyal customers fed, with owner Brenda Flannery offering private dining group bookings when restrictions allowed, as well as batch-cooked meals to stock freezers with her hearty fare. Her curries are incredibly moreish and the devilishly good chocolate desserts balance out the healthiness of the main courses—everything in moderation, especially moderation!
A more new kid on the block, Matt Browne of freshly-opened juice bar Juice For Thought, is one of those brave souls who opened a new business in a tricky time. Offering a selection of made-to-order fruit and vegetable juices, healthy salads, and of course, coffee and sweet treats, it’s a perfect antidote to the excesses of the night before or the temptation of the fish and chips on offer down the seafront stretch towards the Marina.
“A juice is great because it costs as much as a pint of Guinness, but has a much healthier return. And that’s saying something because we’re told ‘Guinness is good for you’,” he jokes. If you’ve over-indulged in Guinness the night before, his ‘Orange One’ juice, with plenty of stomach-settling ginger and anti-inflammatory turmeric, is sure to speed up your recovery.
In Ventry village
As you drive out of town, onto the Slea Head drive the village of Ventry overlooks Ventry Bay and its lengthy curve of beach. Die-hard swimmers, dubbing themselves ‘The Wild Atlantic Women’ have braved the icy waters throughout the winter, with many of the hardy ladies never missing a day.
Without the rumble of tour buses, the road by the beach and pier is quiet, but blink-and-you-miss-it Ventry village is a gathering point, for chats outside the shop on a sunny day. Gastro-pub Quinns is the perfect spot for some ‘reward fries’ after a swim. Publican Paul has opened and shut the doors throughout the lockdowns and varying restrictions, sometimes just for takeaway, sometimes just for outdoor dining, depending on the situation. The minute the doors open the locals flock, for a creamy pint, a generously-poured cocktail, or some fresh local seafood cooked up by French chef Michel.
Work and play
Mount Brandon is a magnet for hikers. It’s the second highest peak in Ireland, and the highest, Carrauntoohill is only a short drive away, so it’s a good practice run. Depending on which side you approach it from you can make your hike as long or as short as your fitness or time allows. Stuck for time? If you want a cardio burst and an amazing view payoff, the local’s secret workout is Cruach Mharthain (type it into Google Maps or ask a local to direct you to kroo-awk var-hawn!). Park up by the mobile phone mast and a 30-minute steep hike up the hill will reward you with epic 360 views taking in the Blasket Islands and Mount Brandon.
With so much to do and see in the area, from whale-watching tours, to visiting the Blasket Islands, taking in festivals or Irish language courses, there are plenty of reasons to want to stay longer. The Dingle Creativity & Innovation Hub is a community enterprise that incorporates a co-working facility located overlooking Dingle Harbour. It comes alive during the summer months as holidayers squeeze in a few office days or hours.
With the move to working from home precipitated by the pandemic meaning many companies are now more open to remote working, manager Deirdre Ni Bhailis is optimistic for this facility to thrive once restrictions lift again, offering a convenient office away from home for locals and tourists alike:
"We're really looking forward to welcoming back our seasonal visitors once restrictions lift—they bring everything from insights into different businesses to fresh ideas for collaboration and are such a valuable addition to the Hub Community. The now widespread acceptance of flexible working, and the national hub infrastructure in place to support this, means that our visitors can plan for longer stays to truly experience Ireland.” Sounds tempting, doesn’t it?
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