Picturesque Dingle juggles pandemic . . . and life after Fungie

Tourists arriving for more than a glimpse of the playful dolphin are pleasantly surprised

‘Dingle was great before Fungie and it is great after Fungie.’ File photograph: Ronan Quinlan

‘Dingle was great before Fungie and it is great after Fungie.’ File photograph: Ronan Quinlan

 

For the first summer in four decades Dingle is without Fungie, the bottlenose dolphin that generated international headlines for the west Kerry village. His memory remains, but locals and visitors have already started to move on.

This week, tourists have thronged the village, while glistening white yachts lie in the harbour. A lone fishing trawler, the French-registered L’Ar Voaleden is berthed at the end of the neat quay, but no longer strewn with nets and ropes.

Nothing stands still in Dingle, however.

Works to make way for a weighbridge needed for local fishermen means that a statue erected by grateful fishermen to former taoiseach, Charles J Haughey in 2005 has been been shifted to the side.

Visitors this year are overwhelmingly Irish, in their late 30s and early 40s, usually with children: “Ninety-five per cent are Irish,” says John Foley, the manager of the old-style Benner’s Hotel on Main Street.

Tourism turnaround

Until the pandemic struck in March of last year, the majority of Dingle’s guests were Germans, Americans, Australians, mostly. This year, however, everything has been turned around.

“Some had never been to Dingle before. People last year arrived for the first time and they are back,” says Foley. He adds that it has re-established patterns last seen before foreign holidays became the norm.

With the country seeing its first orange weather warning this week, many visitors are extending their holidays, treasuring summer holiday weather that will live on in family albums for decades.

While Fungie may be gone, his memory is everywhere. A new harbour square with a laughing sculpture of the dolphin is central to Dingle’s new image, peopled by families, ice cream and eco and sea safari tours.

For more than a generation following his arrival in Dingle Harbour in 1987, a dozen local families earned their living by ferrying enchanted visitors out for a treasured glimpse of the dolphin.

Now “flat out” dealing with the cruising and eco tours that have replaced the Fungie trips, Gill May of Dingle Dolphin Tours says “you can’t complain. He was amazing for 37 years.”

However, the dolphin is never far from conversation. Visitors pop into the tourist centre to ask if he has returned, says one of the staff. In the Dolphin Shop on Strand Street, dolphin bracelets and Fungie postcards sell for €1.

Meanwhile, Dingle Sea Safari, run by the Flannerys, Bridget and Jimmy and their son Colm, now offer visitors the thrill of a fast-rib tour of nearby cliffs and coves, rather than the Fungie trips of before.

“Without Fungie being here, a lot of families would never have come and then they see there is so much more to the Dingle coastline than they realised,” she says.

However, there are also challenges. A third of all of Dingle’s houses have been built in the last 20 years, but a fifth of the total are holiday homes vacant for much of the year, according to a recent report.

Ryan’s Daughter

Meanwhile, a Fáilte Ireland study found that tourism is concentrated in the town of Dingle. Apart from traffic jams on Slea Head, the wider Gaeltacht region had not benefited much.

“Dingle has numbers it can cope with. A lot are day trippers,” says Sean Brosnan, who runs Leac A’ Ré, Dingle’s oldest book craft shop, dating from the 1970s when Ryan’s Daughter first brought tourists in numbers to Dingle.

The old nets of the Brosnan fishermen hang on the ceiling, while Brosnan tells of being in Germany in 1987, some years after he left UCC, and reading a spread on Fungie in the weekly Bild magazine.

He has closely watched planning in Dingle for decades, successfully objecting to a 1994 plan to build apartments and shops on the waterfront. “It would have been a 40ft wall,” he says.

For the first time in decades he is confident that Kerry County Council planners will preserve the small boatyard fronting the harbour as an amenity, rather than for development.

Less than half an acre in size, it could be a vital green space. “It’s not as if Dingle is short of bars, restaurants, shops, cafes, but there is only one vista of Dingle harbour,” he says.

Word has come through recently that the council is seeking Fáilte Ireland funding for a park there. It is a sign of things to come, he says. “Dingle was great before Fungie and it is great after Fungie.”