The next morning, Michael and I stood in the lounge looking at the splendid view over the bay to the Blasket Islands and discussed local life and history. I was leaving De Morda with some regret. In the lounge, the local books included more in which Michael had been involved including one diary by an inhabitant of the Islands that was written in Irish but with Michael’s translation on the facing page; the islanders had all been native Irish speakers.
Soon after leaving, I came across another pictorial sign along the road and discovered that it meant that there were roadworks along the lane leading off to the right.
In about a mile I turned down the drive into the car park of the Blasket Centre which was large, with plenty of room for coaches. The Heritage Centre was an impressively designed building, low to fit into the landscape. The atrium was large, light and airy and led to a museum, book shop and a theatre which could hold 100 people. About every half an hour there was a very interesting presentation telling the history of the community, their struggle for existence, their own language and culture and modes of life and work until they were evacuated in 1953. Some of the introduction was by Michael who was manager there after its opening in 1993.
There was also “The American Room.” As the harsh conditions became less tolerable in a more modern society, the inhabitants gradually left the Islands with many emigrating to Springfield, Massachusetts, family members welcoming the newcomers as they arrived. The population had been completely Irish-speaking, the school on the Island closed and the children were educated on the mainland. The reduction in the population resulted in the gradual loss of amenities but there was a further problem: Great Blasket Island was often cut off by bad weather, as it still can be. The islanders’ requests to government for help over a number of years to keep their community viable were not met. Eventually, public opinion forced them to act when one of the children contracted meningitis but the Island was cut off by storms and when help arrived, after three weeks, it was too late. The islanders were settled on the mainland and, since then, the Islands have remained uninhabited.
A term popular with the American migrants for the Blasket Islands was “Next Parish -America”. Their descendants are now visiting the Centre to discover what the GoKerry web site describes as “their history and the effects of emigration of the rural communities in Kerry”. There are exhibitions on the daily life, traditional fishing and farming methods, the Irish language and Blasket literature. There are “Interactive features to feel, listen and experience the sounds, images and elements of the islander’s way of life”. There is also a large educational area for children and school visits. The GoKerry web site also describes the Centre as being one of the two Kerry Signature Points on the Wild Atlantic Way and the half way point of the Slea Head Drive.
Leading from the Atrium there was an airy passage to a large cafe/ restaurant which, with the large and spotlessly clean toilets, would be welcomed by the coach passengers.
I took a picture across the fields showing the Great Blasket Island and Dunmore Head and set off on my way back, continuing along the Slea Head Drive to Dingle. Passing though Ballyferriter, now it was daylight, I could see that is was the local administrative and shopping centre for the area. Target completed, I was now cycling with a feeling of carefree freedom. It was less than 30 miles to Dingle and I was now heading towards Gallarus Oratory, one of the most famous historical sites in Dingle Peninsula. I had been urged a number of times beforehand not to miss it.
Shortly after I left Ballyferriter I suddenly came across the West Kerry Brewery. There was a reference to a shop and Brewery Tours and, as I could see no one about but the doors were open, I took this as an invitation and found myself wandering around the Brewery and shop. It was all very interesting and then someone appeared from a side door and seemed surprised to see me. When I told him that I had enjoyed one of his beers the previous night I was welcomed but had to explain that I could not buy any bottles as I was cycling.
The scenery was spectacular and the roadsides wild. The further west I had gone, the more the hedgerows had been taken over by fuchsia. I assumed that it was a native plant but was told that it was an introduction from several hundred years ago. The bush in my garden is a pale imitation but the soil and climate in Kerry suits it and it was suggested that it also likes the saltiness borne on the west wind. There were also gorse bushes so I took a photograph of one to remind me of my prickly encounter with a low bush on Dunmore Head.
I was reluctant to leave the picturesque countryside and continued past my turn to ride along a bay until I reached what seemed to be an abandoned harbour. However, when taking a photograph, I saw rain showers approaching from the west.
I hurried off to the Oratory and went into the cafe for shelter and tea and cake. There was also an exhibition, a gift shop and a separate room to watch a video of the history of the Oratory and surrounding area. After looking at these, the showers had passed so I went to look at the Oratory itself. The Oratory was a few hundreds yards away from the Visitor Centre from which it was hidden to protect its remote setting. It was built between the seventh and eighth century and is the best preserved early Christian church in Ireland. What is really striking is its construction using techniques first developed by Neolithic tomb makers and also used in the beehive huts I had passed a few days before. The stones are laid slightly sloping so that the rain runs off them and there is just one small window at the rear so inside it is dark. The Guide said that it had never had to be restored.
Set off again for Dingle, and could soon see the road winding up the first of the hills forming the spine of the Peninsular. I stopped to look at it with pleasurable anticipation and remembered the apprehension I had had on my first day struggling up not very steep hills towards the Severn Bridge and having to get off and push after the first few miles. Now the hills were an enjoyable challenge; I could not remember when I had last had to push and I had my cyclist thighs back again.
There was a long Scenic downhill to Dingle as Dingle Bay, the port and the town steadily came into view. It had not been possible to find any reasonably priced bed and breakfast in Dingle but the Hideout Hostel was conveniently in the centre of the town. Everything was run very efficiently: the bike was secured, the bedroom was comfortable and after looking around I headed into the town for a meal. The first place was full, the second part of a hotel but with the usual Irish pub/restaurant type layout and there was a single table available which I quickly grabbed. I don’t usually take photographs of meals, the meals always look more attractive when you sit down hungry than when seen in the light of the day but as well as showing the usual generous portion, very welcome after a day’s cycling, there was the customary milk jug. As this was already on, or brought to, the
table whatever you are having, I wondered if this was a Kerry habit but an Irish friend said it was usual all over Eire. I saw that they had beer from the West Kerry Brewery so I had a Porter (the label titled in Irish) so I did not miss out by not being able to carry a bottle away earlier. The Brewery claims to put botanicals from their garden into some of their beers.
There were a couple of Irish Musicians tuning up with guitar and fiddle but, from their equipment and voices, it was obvious that they were not casual amateurs. The ballads were introduced with genial familiarity with their significance often described to the appreciative diners. It was with reluctance that I eventually left.