Dingle, a Dolphin and An Daingean
After an arduous hike, you finally surmount those last grey slippery rocks, proud that you’ve reached the top of the hill. As you recover your breath, it’s time to enjoy the reward, a most incredible view. Just beneath you, sheep marked with multicoloured dye run around like some moving demented rainbow while further still, bright green fields give way to knife-like rocks, and then, finally, an emerald-blue ocean. You’re looking out over the Dingle Peninsula, a place National Geographic Traveller once described as ‘the most beautiful place on earth’.
With breathtaking landscape dotted with ancient forts, spectacular hiking excursions are the norm when you’re staying in the little town of Dingle, the only settlement for miles around. The peninsula is situated in County Kerry, in south-western Ireland, with Dunmore head at its very tip – Europe’s westernmost point.
Most of the region is designated a ‘Gaeltacht’, meaning Irish is the predominant spoken language – in fact, the peninsula is quite often known as ‘Corca Dhuibhne’, even by those speaking English. The Blasket Islands, inhabited until 1953 and long since abandoned, are just down the coast from Dingle. Sitting on a group of rocks, looking out at those dark blotches on the roaring ocean, you can make out old houses and paths, symbols of a lost way of life. They stand in stark contrast to the peninsula, where tourism and life in general are flourishing. The few former inhabitants of the Blaskets can be traced primarily to Springfield, Massachusetts, and a few areas near Dingle – if you’re lucky, you might bump into them near their former home, and have the good fortune to listen to some incredible stories.
Dingle used to be the terminus of the Tralee and Dingle Light Railway, and this operation ceased in 1939. Now, its easy to drive from Tralee to Dingle, and the road is incredibly scenic, winding its way through rolling green hills, over precarious mountain passes, and of course past herds of those ever curious, rainbow-coloured sheep. The sheep are free-range, hence the reason for blue and red dye so that farmers can keep track of their herds. Be careful if you’re driving – they’re over fond of relaxing in the middle of the road, so drive slowly. There are other problems too.
In 2005, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs made the announcement that signposts in Gaeltacht regions would only feature placenames in Irish, rather than English and Irish, which is normal throughout the rest of Ireland. The English name ‘Dingle’ was dropped and the Irish name ‘An Daingean’ was adopted, resulting in fiery controversy. There’s already a town called Daingean in County Offaly and visitors quickly became confused while business owners lamented potential losses in tourism. Eventually, the town settled on the bilingual name of ‘Dingle/Daingean Uí Chúis’, but the road signs remained unchanged. Local people finally used their own initiative to spray paint ‘Dingle’ onto most signs in the area, finally ending the rumbling controversy.
Dingle itself may seem like a quaint, sleepy fishing town at first glance. Take a walk through its narrow, photogenic streets and you’ll quickly experience the special, unique atmosphere the town is renowned for. With just 2,000 inhabitants, it has an oddly cosmopolitan feel, distinctly out of character with its size. Small independent shops selling jewellery, clothes and handicrafts are flourishing. People visit Dingle from all over the world to experience this alternative lifestyle. After a long day of hiking, a visit to the pub is always a great idea, where you can meet every imaginable soul, including boisterous Dingle inhabitants, enthusiastic American tourists, or unkempt Dutch hippies.
The town’s multitude of pubs are warm and cosy. There’s something for everyone – seek out a quiet corner of solitude and people-watch at your leisure, nestle in amongst the ever-friendly locals and listen to traditional music, or some of the modern, crowded and loud pubs. Every place has its own character, from wooden bars and dirty mirrors, unchanged for decades, to slightly more stylish varieties featuring flat screen TVs and modern music. If you want an authentic experience, go to Dicky Mack’s pub. Red coloured walls with archaic shelves, a corner full of loud singers and a great pint of Guinness all make for a fantastic evening.
After a few pints, its time for a traditional bite to eat. The Irish love their food and, according to statistics on food, there’s a great multitude of dishes to try whenever you decide to visit. Its best to start the day with a full Irish breakfast – a delicious, greasy mammoth of a meal, overloaded with bacon, eggs, sausages, beans and black pudding. You can try something typical for lunch, including bacon and cabbage, bangers and mash, roast beef or Irish stew. In the evening, nothing beats a delicious portion of fish and chips after a few pints of Guinness, and Dingle is renowned for its excellent selection. The chips are hand cut, and the fish is freshly caught, equating to great taste. Try and visit Reel Dingle Fish, for a fully authentic portion.
Colour is certainly one of the major themes in rural Ireland and Dingle really embraces it. With golden lager, German white beer, and of course, that pitch black Guinness, Dicky Mack’s is just one of the places you might notice it. Exit the pub, turn around, and you’ll be greeted by a bright blue façade. The rest of town is no different. Nearly every house is brightly painted – red, green, blue, white, purple. The effect is one of unyielding positivity. Take a stroll to the harbour and you’ll see happy, long-bearded fishermen unloading their latest catch from small boats. And yes of course, the boats are also painted in a mesmerising display of colour. Nets and buoys dangle across the pier so tread carefully. Eventually, you’ll see an unusual golden statue reflecting in the sunlight, possibly with seagulls perched on top. It’s a statue of Dingle’s most famous resident: Fungi the dolphin.
Mention Dingle to any Irish person and they’ll more than likely ask you about the dolphin and if you’ve seen him. It’s an extremely odd story to say the least. Back in 1983, a wild bottlenose dolphin arrived in the Dingle harbour area, and stayed put. Normally, these animals travel in large pods, so the sight of a single dolphin baffled locals and scientists alike.
Friendly and inquisitive, he was given the name Fungi, and grew to become a massive tourist attraction. Another dolphin appeared for a few months, igniting hopes of a romance and an end to his solitary life, but unfortunately, the companion disappeared. Many people in the area believe that Fungi is either gay, prefers the company of humans or enjoys the beautiful scenery of the Dingle peninsula, and therefore remains in the harbour. Normally bottlenose dolphins live until the age of 25, but with Fungi estimated to have been born in the mid-1970s, he’s an exceptionally old dolphin, now in his late thirties.
Make sure you take a boat trip to see him – several are scheduled daily. If you take the very earliest, you can even swim with Fungi. Pack your wetsuit though – the water in Dingle harbour is icy cold. A few years ago, Fungi’s leaps and summersaults were unforgettably magnificent. Today unfortunately, he isn’t as energetic as he once was, which is somewhat understandable considering he’s reached the human equivalent of 100. So, if you take a boat trip, he’ll swim alongside but don’t expect anything on par with SeaWorld in Orlando.
Winter isn’t ideal in terms of weather in Dingle, but you can make the most of it sitting by the fire sipping Guinness or walking along the beach, watching the powerful Atlantic waves crashing over the rugged coastline. CNN even stated that winter is the best time to visit Dingle in order to avoid throngs of summer tourists and Fungi watchers. December means music, and the beginning of a very special and rather unknown festival. The 200 year-old Church of St James and several shops play host to an excellent string of gigs known as ‘Other Voices’. Over the years, the event has played host to Snow Patrol, Amy Winehouse, Imelda May, Damien Rice, and countless others.
For its size, Dingle has an incredible amount to offer. Try to find a small town with a population of 2,000 people anywhere else in the world boasting magnificent scenery, unyielding cosmopolitan charisma, excellent food, high-profile international music acts and, of course, a dolphin. You certainly won’t end up disappointed if you make the trip to the Dingle Peninsula. More than likely you’ll agree with National Geographic Traveller in its view that it really is ‘the most beautiful place on earth’.