The tip of the Dingle peninsula is Ireland’s westernmost point. If that was not enough to make you want to go there, wait until you see my photos of that part of the emerald isle. Less popular than the Ring of Kerry, Western Ireland’s most famous drive, the Dingle peninsula is rising in popularity. Two are the main reasons behind this. First, it’s a shorter drive than the Ring of Kerry. Second, despite being shorter it still encompasses some of the finest views of Ireland.
While planning my Ireland itinerary, which was mostly focussed on Irish whiskey distilleries, I had two days to get from Galway to Midleton. We wanted to explore Ireland as much as the whiskey, so I was very excited to drive the Western coast. One stop were the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s most famous natural attraction. The other one had to be the Dingle peninsula.
The Dingle peninsula drive can be a simple daytrip. The drive is fairly short, so even allowing generous exploration time along the road, one day is definitely more than enough. Arriving from a morning stop at the Cliffs we didn’t have enough time to also drive around the Dingle peninsula on the same day, so we planned for an overnight stop there. Given the unpredictable quality of the Irish weather, I figured that spending one night there we could hope to get okay weather on at least one out of two days.
The Cliffs of Moher welcomed us in the most typical Irish weather: rain, wind and general gloominess. The rain followed us almost all the way to Dingle. I did not mind getting hours and hours of rain on the days when we had lots of driving time. But I was hoping for a change of weather once we got to the Dingle peninsula. As we approached Dingle it actually happened. The rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the sun came out just before setting. It felt somewhat majestic to drive towards the sunset on our way to Dunquin, Ireland’s westernmost village.
Where to stay on the Dingle Peninsula
Dunquin was not a random choice. It’s the village where you can find the westernmost hostel in Europe, Dún Chaoin Youth Hostel. I recommend being in the area for the sunset. The hostel is pretty simple, but welcoming. At the time of our visit it was also the cheapest option on the peninsula, which was a plus. Access to a shared kitchen was also a blessing, as there are no dining options at walking distance. We ate out pretty often in Ireland, as I was very excited to taste the local food and beer, but in order to keep the budget low we had to make our own food some days.
So for Dunquin we planned a great night in. We brought a package of pasta and a jar of pesto, picked up a package of Connemara salmon and a couple of beers at the supermarket and made a great hostel dinner. Dún Chaoin hostel has a common room that faces the Ocean. We had a great dinner admiring the sunset from the large common room windows.
You can reach the hostel by following the Slea Head drive from Dingle. The Slea Head drive is a coastal route that passes by some of the Dingle peninsula’s most famous landmarks, such as Ventry Beach, the Famine Cottage and Gallarus Oratory. We decided to take a shortcut and reached the Hostel through the small road that cuts from Ventry to Dunquin. Less famous than the coastal route, this little road proved no less scenic. Being elevated, just before driving down into Dunquin one can admire a beautiful view of the Blasket islands on the horizon.
The Dunquin Pier
Overnighting at Dún Chaoin was cool for its location, but it was also quite strategic. One of the most interesting sights on the Dingle peninsula is the Dunquin pier. My favourite sight, if you ask me. The pier is one narrow and steep path that leads to the sea following the natural morphology of the land. Impressive cliffs tower all around the small bay that hosts the only landing point that makes connection possible between the Blasket islands and mainland Ireland.
The sea was pretty rough, navigation of the Blasket sound was not happening that day. As I made my way down towards the sea I was in awe. This is better than the Cliffs of Moher, I kept thinking. Sure, the height of the famous cliffs is impressive, but they’re so famous that I had seen them so many times in pictures before and in a way I knew what to expect. The Dunquin pier is less known. Sure, I had seen photos of it while researching for the trip, but when I was finally descending its steep slope, forcing my way through that channel of pure Atlantic wind I was in awe. If that was not enough, the whole anthropological importance that that pier represents made the whole experience feel so solemn.
The Blasket islands were inhabited until 1953. Emigration, isolation and the harsh nature of the place had made life for the small community there unsustainable. The islanders were finally brought to the mainland indefinitely on the 17th of November 1953. Many of them emigrated to America. Prior to that final one-way trip to the mainland, the Dunquin pier had been the islanders’ lifeline, their way to the rest of the country. They would land there and unload their sheep on their way to the cattle market in Dingle. It was from this pier that the teacher, the postman, even tax collectors would reach the isolated community. As I made my way down the pier resisting the wind that was blowing in the opposite direction I felt a strange nostalgia for a life I haven’t lived. For a brief moment I was surrounded by the ghosts of the Blasketers making their way up the pier after a stormy sailing. It was like that same vessel was waiting for me, like I was going home. The idea of that isolation felt like home.
A stronger gust of wind made me falter and I was back in the present.
Slea Head viewpoint
I took the last picture of the Dunquin pier seconds before a huge downpour. We ran back to the car and started our proper Dingle peninsula drive. Following the Slea Head drive clockwise from Dunquin, we found a viewpoint over Sybil Head. A signpost informed me that this place had been used as a Star Wars filming location. There is no evidence of the set, but the view is amazing. Even non Star Wars fans should definitely plan a stop there and take it all in. I was impressed with the little sandy bay to the right getting regularly filled with sea water over the whole beach.
And again, the clouds unveiled the sun just for the time of a few pictures, and then a sudden downpour followed. We ran, once again, back to the car. The rain chased us away after every stop, the half day we spent on the Dingle peninsula was a constant run from the rain. A very typical Irish experience.
Our last stop on the Dingle peninsula was Inch Beach. We had driven past it the day before, as the weather was supposed to be better the following day. I’m glad we did not stop then – Inch Beach was unbelievably windy, just like the rest of the Dingle peninsula. Better not combine rain with extreme wind, if possible. Can’t say we did not experience any rain at all at Inch Beach, as a brief downpour happened also on that stop. You can see those thick clouds looming over the sea are bearers of rain, and the wind brings them in no time.
Inch Beach is a surfer’s paradise and during high season one can rent equipment there. It is also a great place for photos, that large sandy beach is a great background. It is just so windy that the photographer requires a steady hand, and no self-timed tripod shots will ever do the trick there.
When the rain chased us away from the beach we found shelter in the little shop next to the parking lot. The shop had a great selection of books from the Blasket islands authors. Many islanders recounted their lives at the edge of the world and they are all documented in a series of books. Most of them had been dictated or written in Irish, and the store sells both the original versions and the English translations. I was so fascinated with the life on the islands that I found a perfect souvenir there, Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O’Sullivan. I wonder if reading it I’ll get the same feeling I had on the pier.
Other things to do on the Dingle peninsula
After Inch Beach we made our way to Killarney, where we stopped for lunch and for woollen sweater shopping before driving some more to Midleton and the Jameson Experience, our final destination for the day. We skipped some of the attractions of the peninsula, and deliberately decided to skip driving the Conor Pass. After all, we were in transit, so I’m already grateful for what we managed to see and experience while there.
The town of Dingle definitely deserves some more exploration than just passing through. It is the dining spot of the peninsula, so worth stopping at mealtime. The Dingle peninsula also hosts a distillery, the Dingle Distillery. They offer guided tours, but their times conflicted with our schedule. Furthermore, we basically visited the peninsula in transit and needed to do some driving afterwards. Since we didn’t want to do a distillery tour without the possibility to sample the local product we decided to skip that one as that would have implied one more night in Dingle. We just have one more reason to go back.
And when we do I hope for good seas. I want to take the ferry to the Great Blasket Island and see what remains of a settlement that has long lived in isolation and is now left to fade in the strong Atlantic wind.