Dingle peninsula: magic and fear at ‘the end of the world’
Our Going Coastal series continues with a walking and driving tour of the musical – even mystical – peninsula
Musician and film-maker Philip King, trad musician Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich and Conor Pope at Ceann Sibéal on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
With beguiling simplicity, Seamus Heaney once described the weather on the Dingle peninsula as “loud”. It certainly can be, but it is never loud enough to drown out the music and the poetry, which is carried on the winds blowing in off the Blaskets or on the waves that wash the long, white sands of Inch.
This stretch of elemental coastline, with its sheer cliffs, black angry seas and gently sloping sands, is beloved of the music- makers and the dreamers of dreams who have come here for generations.
It is special, mystical even. Few people know better than box player Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich just how special it is. He is one of the most highly regarded trad musicians in the country. “There is a draw the peninsula has that it indescribable,” he tells me as we climb a boggy hill near his home about 16km outside Dingle town.
“There was a time when this was the end of the world, and if you went any further you fell,” he says as we reach the crest of the hill and look out over St Brendan’s Creek, the dark, unforgiving inlet where the saint set off on his perilous voyage to the new world in the sixth century.
“I hate this place,” says Ó Beaglaoich unexpectedly. “I hate it because I can’t live anywhere else, and, believe me, I have tried. I am not alone. The people who settle here have been out in the world and have chosen to come back.”
For Ó Beaglaoich, the Dingle coast is about the magic but also fear. “Growing up, we were always told the sea never made friends with anyone. We were never allowed to learn to swim and we were always told that if we stayed away from the sea we wouldn’t get drowned.”
He took this advice until he turned 18, when he first took to the water. He now swims year-round from this rocky shore. Last year he took a currach, known locally as néamhóg, around the Irish coast to the furthest reaches of Scotland. He retains a fierce respect for the powerful currents that swirl around the peninsula. “The sea is the master. You follow the sea.”
Ó Beaglaoich points north toward a rocky outcrop. “That there is the cliff of widows,” he says. “On a rough day there is a freak wave that comes in, we call it Ithe an Chuasa, or the eating wave. It has taken three people in my lifetime, men fishing off the rocks who were just washed away. None of them were ever found.”
Ó Beaglaoich has noticed a shift in trad music in recent times. “People are playing faster now because they are not working the sea or the land and they want to build up a sweat. Older people play slower because they don’t want to build up a sweat.”