Although Dingle is famous around the world for its sweeping coastlines, rugged beauty and rich archaeological history, that's not what first drew my parents here in 1990. It was simply finding an affordable seaside house to rent that could fit four children. Yet 30 years later we're still here, renting the same house, for the same two weeks, every year. We fell head over heels for this part of the world, as people tend to do. Returning this July, in the midst of coronavirus and the Irish holiday accommodation panic, I was admittedly smug to have somewhere booked and then intrigued as to how this iconic tourist town I'd fallen in love with would differ with new restrictions in place and missing its usual fuel of overseas visitors that seem as much a part of Dingle as the coloured houses and Fungie the dolphin.
But Dingle has weathered many storms, literally and metaphorically over the years and this summer it is still working away to welcome every visitor that comes along. Jutting out on the most westerly point of Europe it's not somewhere that is always easy to get to, yet still, they come, in droves. Locals credit the production of Oscar-winning film Ryan's Daughter here in the late 60s for putting the area on the map and since then this picturesque place has grown into the darling of Irish tourist towns. Caroline Boland, local resident and former chairperson of Dingle Peninsula Tourism sums up the appeal well. "It's the extraordinary landscape, then it's the people, then it's the Irish language, the fishing, the farming. All of it. But it's never a plastic Paddy experience. It is never a Disneyfied version of Ireland."
Missing the Americans
Travelling out to Slea Head it’s a relief to navigate the winding roads without the awkward coaches but this is not such a relief for anyone relying on the influx of touring Americans, like farmer Aédan O hUallacháin. O hUallacháin has an impressive cluster of clochán, or beehive huts, on his coastal farmland and charges €3 for visitors to come and look at the ancient structures that pepper his fields. “It’s really quiet for me this summer. Usually, I’d have bus groups but they just don’t exist this year.” Four years ago he’d already diversified, having kept baby lambs on his farm he put up a sign advertising “Hold a Baby Lamb” and it took off. “It increased my business a lot. People want to stop and see the lambs more so than the huts, they may have already done the huts already down the road.” I’d never usually have stopped to hold a baby lamb, dismissing it as a gimmick for the Americans but this year I’m fully embracing all things local and I have to say the lambs were lovely and the beehive huts, impressive as always.
Back in town and walking around it can feel startlingly quiet at times. The first thing I notice is the distinct lack of practical rainwear being worn - homegrown tourists seem to dress more for the weather they want, me included. The staycationers (or whatever you prefer to call them) are definitely here in force when the sun is out, but on bad weather days, pubs mostly closed, small footpaths, random downpours, face masks and limited numbers in shops mean the usual pottering you partake in around town is much less appealing.
Still, when I ask shopkeepers how business has been, in true Dingle fashion they assure me things are great, the visitors are lovely and they are only delighted to be open. Mark Murphy from The Little Cheese Shop is upbeat but admits, "You'd definitely miss the Americans being around, they are great people, they are just so proud to be in Ireland". Finn MacDonnell who runs the famous Dick Mack's pub also notes "the whole dynamic of town would often be the Irish holidaymaker interacting with people from all over the world. You know, they walk into a bar and the whole bar gets to know each other". The usual prerequisite of a Dingle visit, a pint in Dick Mack's, won't be happening this season but their brewery is open for business and MacDonnell is glad to have an extended pool of more local tourists. "We are definitely getting a different type of Irish holidaymaker than we normally would. We always had the families but now you're also getting a kind of a younger crowd that wants to find a good hike, eat well, maybe go out to Fungie. They are not here purely to pub crawl. I think they are happy, making do with what they can."
Pubs and restaurants join forces
The pubs are not a total no-go but not quite the attraction they would usually be with strict regulations in place. Establishments that already served food have been able to open their doors, and others have, in true Kerry fashion, found ways to make it work. Curran's, usually a packed bar and hat shop with cosy snugs, joined forces with Global Village, one the town's best-regarded restaurants to serve street food in their adjoining alley. Solas, a local tapas spot was short on space so they joined forces with Bob Griffin's Bar and together put purpose-built outdoor booths in a beer garden serving Bob Griffin's drinks and Solas's food. Across the street, Paddy Bawn Brosnans Bar has a taco truck on-site and around the corner Hannie Agnes' is serving pizza from the nearby diner. So if it's pints you're after, you can find them, you'll just need to be hungry.
And when we’re not out looking for a feed or a beer, the beach is where the Irish tourists flock to, even on the soft, misty Kerry days. Coumeenoole Beach, often no more than a patch of golden sand set amongst a dramatic backdrop of cliffs, is usually more active as a photo opportunity than a day out, but when we visit, there are friends and families set up on the beach with chairs and flasks of tea and swimmers and bodyboarders in the swelling waters. The usual coach tours and day-trippers wouldn’t dare swim in the wild ocean here that averages a high of 15 degrees in the water on a good day.
Boland tells me she's really noticed this change in the activities of this year's homegrown tourists. "We've seen Ventry beach much busier than you would ever see it. It's just the fact that there are so many Irish families here. It's great to see so many out enjoying the landscape."
There is certainly a slower pace to the summer here this year and you can tell Dingle will lap up the tourism the best it can over the next few weeks. However, for the rest of the year, the season they’ve worked so hard to extend by running up to 45 festivals annually, is not so jolly-looking. Big hitters like Dingle Food Festival have already been cancelled and the rest are not looking likely. It’s too hard to plan or predict what lies ahead. While many will admit a breather was welcome after so many intense years of tourism, it’s a huge worry to think what casualties it will bring. One thing’s for sure, the Americans and the rest of the world will be welcomed back here with open arms, baby lambs at the ready.