Ireland's Dingle Peninsula: How Fetching

By Bill O'Brian
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

A blustery breeze buffets the terrace of what is undoubtedly the westernmost cafe in Ireland, in all of Europe, really, presuming you don't count Iceland. Which I don't.

Atlantic Ocean waves are crashing into the majestically craggy coast. There is not the slightest break in the pillowy gray clouds that are so low you can almost touch them, and so enveloping they almost embrace you. The salt air is mild, and the Irish mist sweet. The expanse of grass being scarfed down by the sheep grazing across the way is archetypal Kelly green.

A palpable sense of history emanates from the landscape. And from the people, too. Their thick brogue hints at an ancient language that is making something of a comeback these days.

I'm on the patio of the Tig Slea Head cafe, playing fetch with a dog named Banshee. Banshee belongs to Marlene Tomasy, a 50-year-old woman from Germany who immigrated to Ireland earlier this decade. Tomasy, who bakes the cafe's delicious cookies, pies and pastries on the premises, tells me she rescued the brown Lab-collie mix a little more than two years ago. Somebody had abandoned him in the surf on a local beach, in a plastic bag, with six canine siblings. They appeared to be about 3 weeks old. The others were dead, drowned. He was still breathing. She took him home.

Now, Banshee is as excited as I am relaxed. He'll go on retrieving his slimy, fluorescent green tennis ball as long as I go on tossing it into an adjoining field.

"He loves the tourists, and they love him," Tomasy says. "I happen to think he is the most-photographed dog in Ireland at the moment -- and he knows it."

* * *

Somehow, playing fetch with a reclaimed dog owned by a German woman amid the humble antiquity of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, about 140 miles southwest of Galway, feels right. It seems to embody the island nation today. After all, Ireland, which just 30 years ago was still backward and poor, has experienced a remarkable economic revival and an influx of immigrants in recent years. Yet it remains a simple, traditional, outdoorsy, carefree place -- carefree as a game of fetch.

My wife and I ended up at the cafe because Barbara Carroll, co-owner of the Milestone House B&B in Dingle town, told us that the Slea Head Drive west of town is one of the most beautiful circuits in all of Ireland. "It's only 22 miles, or 35 if you take the longer loop," she said, "but give yourself three hours."

The short loop took us six hours.

Not by design, but simply because everywhere we stopped we found ourselves lingering. We lingered at the ruins of Dunbeg Fort, which sit on a sheer seafront promontory and date from 800 B.C. We crawled into a small opening in the rampart that led to a primeval room -- a man-made cave, really -- roughly seven feet high and six feet across. It was big enough to stand in. But what was it for? What was life here like then?

We lingered more than once at the side of the road just gazing, as if in a dream, at the verdant pastures delineated by ancient stone fences and realizing that the stone fence is to this part of the world what the white picket fence is to New England.

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