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TAKING HIGH ROADS AND LOW ROADS THROUGH IRELAND : In County Kerry, a farmhouse stay amid ancient monuments and wild landscapes on the Dingle Peninsula

July 10, 1994|MARIE WHITLA O'REILLY | O'Reilly is a free-lance writer of Irish descent who is based in Darien, Conn

INGLE, Ireland — We arrived in County Kerry in a mist. Although it was August, a heavy fog brooded, sealing off sky and scenery, slowing our progress and dampening our spirits. Our apprehensions grew with the gloom. "What if we don't like it?" I thought, wishing my husband hadn't made reservations for a whole week. When our rented car reached Lispole, a small community outside Dingle town, we peered through the downpour at the signpost for the farmhouse bed and breakfast accommodation we had booked, then followed a meandering lane for more than two miles up the side of Mt. Strickeen, desolate in the rain.

But the moment we saw the immaculate stucco house, white-washed sheds and neat flower beds, we knew we had worried needlessly. Even in the deluge we could see a field of sheep in front and a herd of handsome black-and-white cattle grazing on the hillside behind. Our hostess, Mary Devane, welcomed us heartily and showed my husband, teen-age daughter and me to our two comfortable rooms.

Next morning, the view completely took our breath away. Gone were the rains and the mists, and in their place a dazzling landscape worthy of legends and high deeds. A vast patchwork of green fields and blue hills, dotted with sheep and hemmed with hedges of flaming fuchsia, stretched as far as the eye could see. Dingle Bay, the Iveragh Peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean lay before us in shining splendor. Like sentinels, the Blasket Islands and Skellig Rocks guarded the horizon, marking the westernmost frontier of Europe. I knew then that a week would be too short.

The Dingle Peninsula, the most northerly of three trailing toes that claw the ocean at the southwestern corner of Ireland, has an extraordinary variety of antiquities and mountain scenery. Dolmens (rock monuments) from the dawn of history, ring forts from early Christianity, monastic settlements, castles, oratories--the millennia are carved boldly on the land. Ancient ogham stones (inscribed in Old Irish), cairns (stone grave mounds), megalithic tombs and beehive-shaped huts sprout all over the countryside like mushrooms after rain.

Since the Stone Age, the region has received waves of invaders: Beakers, Milesians, Celts, Vikings and Anglo-Normans. Today there's a new wave of invaders: cyclists from Italy, hikers from Germany and Japanese armed with cameras and guidebooks. They are attracted by the wild beauty and rich cultural heritage of this Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region, one of the few pockets left in Ireland where Gaelic is spoken on a daily basis.

Thanks to a people who are deeply superstitious, the landscape too, has remained unchanged. The prehistoric past is very present today, partly because no Kerry farmer would dare move the stone pillars or ring forts from his fields lest his cattle or sheep be cursed and perish.

One of the local legends is that Noah's daughter was the first to settle here. But it must have been the Tuatha De Danann, a mythical, magic-wielding people who left their mark of enchantment on the Kingdom of Kerry and its people. They too, arrived in a mist, said to have come in on a cloud and caused an eclipse of the sun. According to the Irish writer Lady Gregory, a contemporary of Yeats, their music could evoke slumber, a fighting spirit, love or sadness. If a warrior lost a limb in battle, their sorcery could fashion a new one out of silver. As the legend goes, upon defeat in battle they went underground to dwell in palaces beneath hills and forts, joining forces with the fairies.

The gentle bleating of sheep, our wake-up call that first morning, echoed across the hillside as tantalizing aromas wafted up from the kitchen. Breakfast was hearty enough for a plowman and fortified us for hours. Hot and cold cereal, as well as bacon, sausages and eggs, were served with homemade bread and fragrant black currant jam and accompanied by lively discussions with our hosts, Kevin and Mary Devane. In the evening we chatted with fellow guests in the lounge--a biochemist and her psychiatrist husband from San Diego, a Canadian restaurateur and his wife, and a handsome Irish farming family from County Roscommon, to the northeast.

Because of its dramatic scenery and sweeping beaches, the Dingle Peninsula has been the location for several movies. "Far and Away," which featured Tom Cruise, was filmed here. But it was "Ryan's Daughter," shot here in 1969, that put Dingle on the map. Mary told us that the David Lean film brought an infusion of money and jobs and, later, tourism to what was an impoverished region. Kevin Devane, in fact, got a job as chauffeur to actress Sarah Miles during the filming.

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