Friday, 16 January 2015

Travels with my girls.

My visit to Dingle with the girls. 
Written on December 19th 2014

I had been invited by my three sons to visit Edinburgh and the monastery in Nunraw in early September and I was quite excited when my three daughters, not to be out done a few weeks later, invited me as their guest to spend a weekend in Dingle in County Kerry where I retained such vivid memories of my early childhood and adolescence during my summer holidays from 1929 to 1937.

A photo I took of Baile Mór in 1937
Tina, Barbara and Lisa were my hosts.  Tina flew from her home in Strasbourg, hired a comfortable car and was our safe driver for the weekend.  We stayed in Mrs Benner’s hotel in Dingle, a hostelry I can recommend to the most fastidious.  We were greeted warmly by the staff and had an excellent dinner on arrival, imbibed by the champagne emailed to the hotel by one of my absent boys.

We spent the next day on the grand tour starting at Dingle, next to Ballyferriter and following to the coast at Slea Head, the Blaskets and on to Ventry and back from there to Dingle. We saw the Gallarus Oratory on the road to Ballyferriter.  It is a remarkable and very beautiful stone structure which was built in the 8th century, chapel like, and which is remarkable still in its perfection. It is striking in its isolation on the plain among the hills in this part of the Dingle peninsula and distantly over-shadowed by the peak of Mount Brandon, the second highest mountain in Ireland. 

We passed through Ballyferriter without stopping there although it is known as the centre of Irish speaking in this part of Ireland.  It was a beautiful day with little wind, no cloud and yet we were struck by the view of the mighty ocean crashing against the cliffs and the rocks as we moved around the headland towards Sea Head and the  Blaskets.  When we arrived at Slea Head the well designed visitors centre was closed but we had a fine view of the Baskets on this clear bright day.  We also had a fine view of the distant Skelligs in the south west. We climbed down to the old quay at the bottom of the cliff where the curraghs used to land from the islands.  I remember well on a few stormy occasions in my early days making the apparently perilous journey to and from the Blaskets but the curraghs, handled by highly skilled and competent men, were in safe hands no matter how turbulent the sea and  despite the constant pitching  movements of these light canvas craft. 

I take my first photo on a smartphone
Like my boys three months earlier, the girls enjoyed each other’s company very much and had much to talk about though. Tina, good driver as she is, did remain reasonably quiet during the longer and more concentrated parts of our journey.  I became largely involved in their discussions and I was able to talk with Barbara and Lisa who were in the back seat by turning my only functioning ear sideways so that I could hear their conversation as well as I could hear the driver’s.  We spoke about anything and every thing and they showed little interest in domestic affairs. The two days with the three girls provided a greatly different and more stimulating ambience to one’s contact with them in the domestic scene where family affairs tend to dominate. I did not feel in any way an outsider during these quite intensive conversations as I joined in solving the affairs of the world.  I had the advantage over them as I had some Irish and I could show off a little from time to time with the odd stranger. Indeed we heard little Irish among those we encountered despite being in the heart of the Munster gaelteacht. 

I found it a little strange at the beginning of our trip that I could not identify the girls' names accurately in discussion as I normally could.  They are alike in size, posture and in accent but they’re being constantly together during our time caused me a little confusion and lead to my addressing them wrongly at times.  I eventually found the solution to this dilemma, the colour of their hair differed.  Lisa’s is almost black, Barbara is blond and Tina’s practically white with only a tinge of blond. 

A postcard  I sent to my mother in 1933 showing the road
We continued from Slea Head along the cliff coast to Ventry.  I recall this cliff road as being very narrow and being quite unsuitable for modern traffic.  The perilous and narrow road which stretched from Slea Head to Ventry many years ago has been widened and made safe. It is a credit to the engineers who have now provided us with this remarkable safe passage.

In Ventry we piled into the local and well known pub, Pádaí O’Sé’s.  It was full of people of all ages and I expect that this is the normal ambiance of the house there.  We soon joined into the spirit of things with our pints and with the warm chat of our neighbours.  That evening, after dining well in the hotel, we visited an equally crowded pub, with a good mix of locals as well visitors.  The noise was deafening and was accentuated by various musical instruments and enthusiastic players. Eventually I was driven by the noise and excitement to return to the peace of the hotel and to rational conversation. There is no doubt that the pub is the centre of all social intercourse in Kerry.

Dingle as a town has no great architectural merits but is obviously very prosperous if one is to judge by the numerous attractions for visitors and particularly for Americans.  Many of the people of the Dingle peninsula emigrated to the US during the past century or more and particularly to the Boston area, and seemed to return to the same spot in Kerry where they are undoubtedly very good contributors to the wealth and welfare of Dingle.  The town has many shops attracting visitors and has other advantages such as much improved facilities particularly in the harbour area.  It has the real treasure and greatly admired stained-glass windows by Harry Clarke in its convent close to the Catholic Church and is famed for Fungi the lone dolphin which for many years now guards the entrance to the harbour and which enjoys cavorting among the visitors who are brought there by the local boatmen.

On the following morning we went shopping and paid another visit to the harbour. We then returned about three miles along the Ventry road to visit Baile Mór and the Clery house on the coast where I stayed for about three or four summers during the 1930s. Rita Clery had been our teacher, carer and Irish speakers in the early 1930s and later as a close family friend after she qualified as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Here we met another Clery relation and his wife and I was able to convey some of the history of the area to them!

In my time the Clerys were farmers but they largely depended on the sale of lobsters to a French company whose boat called every week or two for the lobster catch. I used go out twice daily lobster fishing with the two older boys in the family. I spent my time too with some of the local lads exploring the many coves and rocks for jetsam and other treasure along the adjacent coast. I used to sleep in the loft above the cattle shed in the yard and I was not apparently too disturbed by the grunts and flatulent sounds of the cattle below. I still remember the towel piled high with flowery potatoes at dinner and the added fish, crabs and even lobsters which had been damaged and unfit for sale to the French.

Open air Irish dancing at the crossroads was popular during my childhood in Dingle in the 1930s.  Music was provided by a fiddler and an accordion or melodeon.  A dedicated night of dancing at such a function, usually on a wooden or concrete platform at the crossroads, required energy expenditure which would be required to do a fast half marathon.  Set dancing was the rule and age was no bar – all three generations took part!  “The Walls of Limerick” and the eight hand reel were popular and were indulged in with great gusto in terms of both energy and high spirited shouting that might raise the roof if such existed.  The spontaneous enthusiasm of the Kerry dances and the wholesome freshness of the open air, often under brilliant starlit skies which are no longer seen since darkness left the earth.  They were hugely enjoyable perhaps because little alcohol was part of the scene.  At a time when transport was very limited and the houses were widely scattered in the hills and countryside, the dancing, like the Sunday Mass, provided one of the few means of social cohesion for young and old.  Now the houses are scattered everywhere, many bungalows and modern houses thickly planted along the roads and elsewhere. During our visit I was unable to identify the site of the concrete dancing area.

Later during the second afternoon of our visit we drove directly to the village of Littleton near Cashel in the Co. Tipperary where my father and mother are buried in the same site as his parents.  It was pitch dark by the time we got there but much to my surprise and wonder I found that Tina and Lisa were taking numerous photographs of the parents' grave and of the churchyard in general without using a flash.  To a person of my limited knowledge of the modern world, it seemed astonishing that photographs could be taken in the dark and I was more than surprised to see the very good results which were presented to me a few days later.   

My two days with my three girls were such happy ones and they, like their brothers and older siblings, will retain a warm glow of affection in my mind during my remaining days. I can also be grateful to being part of an extended family with a good tradition of amity and of care for each other.  When I was asked by one of my daughters about the good fortune we enjoyed as a family I attributed it to my previous generation, including my parents, who went through all the turmoil of the 1916 -24 period and who survived and I suspect improved in outlook rather than suffered in any way. That generation, disastrously divided by the Civil War, was careful to ensure that their differences were never conveyed to their offspring so that we were never touched by their conflict.

When I went three months ago to Edinburgh the only money I carried was a two euro piece which I  keep in a small box on my desk  I have added the second euro coin to my box which I brought home from Dingle.

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