"The towns aren't Ireland," said my Irish friend when she heard I was going. "Stay in the country." Even Dubliners felt this way, she assured me, perhaps because most of Ireland's cities were founded by invaders -- Dublin by the Vikings and Cork, Ireland's Second City, by the Anglo-Normans. So I took her advice. I flew to Shannon, perhaps the world's most pastoral international airport, and headed west, away from Britain and the continent, looking for The Real Ireland.
The Wild Gaels held out in the country, like the Celts in Wales, unpacified for millenia while the country changed hands on paper. My map was shaded red for the "An Ghaeltacht" or Irish-speaking areas, strongholds, mostly in the west, where geography reinforced the Gaelic resistance to outsiders. The tip of the Dingle Peninsula (in Gaelic Corca Dhuibhne) was the westernmost point in Ireland and was tinted red. This could be it, I thought.
And it was. The place is still a stronghold, walled off from the rest of the peninsula -- and the rest of Ireland -- by Mount Brandon, the country's second highest peak, and from the rest of the world by the ocean and the peninsula's steep and forbidding headlands. I came over the narrow road called the Connor Pass, which rises from sea level to somewhere near 2,000 feet in the space of a mile and drops to sea level again in an even shorter space. The road, as the locals pointed out, tends to keep the tour buses away.
In this Gaelic dominion the land is wild, leaping up in ridges and scarps like a gesture of the wind. On the north coast are a series of parallel scarps called the Three Sisters, where the pasture sweeps gracefully uphill, then plunges, in three 500-foot faces of vertical rock, into the sea.
When I first arrived on the northern shore, I walked to the top of the ridge and gave myself a scare when the grass gave way to thin air and, far below, the crashing surf. My legs folded beneath me like safety breakaways. The British army built a lookout here during World War II; it is now one more ruin among the hundreds in this place, bleakly overlooking hundreds of miles of cold ocean.
Where the outsiders were able to come, they have. There are three small harbors, each with a neat English name: Smerwick, Ventry and Dingle. In the lee of the north wind on Dingle Harbor is the major town of the peninsula, Dingle (Daingean), a pretty village occupying a little more than a couple of hilly crossroads and a quay.
Dingle is a town like Point Reyes, Calif., where outsiders have brought city amenities to a small town in a beautiful and wild place. So there are three fine restaurants in Dingle, also a very good bookshop, An Cafe' Litearia, and overnight accommodations. Best of all, though, there are a couple of bicycle rental places. A bicycle, I thought, would be the perfect way of sneaking up on The Real Ireland. However nice a town, Dingle was a town, and I remembered my friend's warning.
I rented a bike at Foxy John Moriarty's, a pub-grocery-hardware store with a bike rental business on the side. The canny proprietor, Foxy John himself, saw to the adjustments of my mount, telling me at the same time of his uncle, a policeman shot to death in San Francisco while trying to apprehend a horse thief.
My bicycle was a solid Raleigh -- a good bike though not a good name in this part of the world -- a three-speed, with baggage racks fore and aft, a regular Mary Poppins number. It was to the flyweight 10-speed as a Ford is to a Ferrari, but it was suited to the task at hand. I secured my pack to the rear rack and pedalled out of town, finally in Ireland.
The roads in West Dingle are splendid -- for bicycles. They are narrow, winding, mostly empty, hilly enough to be challenging without being discouraging. For any visitor accustomed to freeway driving in the United States, driving these roads in a car can be terrifying. Earthen hedges line the road, there is no shoulder, and an oncoming car, traveling at freeway speeds, seems sure to shear the outside mirror off. In my bus was one American who clutched her knees and closed her eyes each time this happened. When I wasn't clutching my knees and closing my eyes, I saw her doing so.
But on a bike, the rare car is no problem, and one is out in the air, taking the world at a manageable pace. The hedgerows are overgrown with gorse and wild fuchsia, and so in spring are first a dark yellow, then scarlet as the season progresses. Stone walls or hedges divide the fields, but not as do the wire fences in this country, into neat rectangles. The circumstance of local geography or age-old ownership makes the fields an irregular quilt, laid over the land even to the highest peak.
There are few trees here, so there's grass to the ridgetop, turfy bogs in the dales. Partisans say that the English cut down the Irish oak forests, to make ships for their navy, and no doubt this is partially true, though carbon dating shows that the bogs in the country -- the aftereffect of the loss of the forests -- were well established by the Bronze Age. In any case, the landscape is naked and stark, every rise and declension in the earth apparent. On a bike, you can often see the road ahead for miles as it climbs out of a valley or verges a ridge.
What's also apparent is the ancient human culture of the place. There are more than 700 anthropological sites on the peninsula, and at times its seems as if the corner of every field has some ruin in it: the broken tower of a castle from the 15th century, beehive huts from the 12th, the foundations of monastic enclosures from the fifth century, standing stones and druidic rings from the time before.
These riches are everywhere: Near the crossroads of Emlagh stands a wedge-shaped stone building, an 8th-century Christian oratory, the only one of its type still complete. At Rahinane, there is a Norman tower, complete with moat, destroyed in the Cromwellian wars of 1641. At Dunbeg an elaborate stone fortress, with beehive huts and interconnecting tunnels, perches on the headlands and was probably in continuous use for a period of a thousand years, beginning about 400 B.C.
In this part of Ireland, the olden days are still around. When an archeologist set out in the 1970s to document some ruined fifth-century beehive huts -- piles of stone with roofs of sod -- he found them repaired and in use. Around Ballyferriter, one sees such huts, fitted with new doors and used as root cellars or toolsheds. The Bronze Age -- circa 1500 B.C. -- burial ground abuts the present-day cemetery at Milltown near Dingle. Of course, this kind of continuous culture has its liabilities, familiarity breeding callousness, if not contempt. A farmer recently "cleared" part of the Dunbeg site to increase his acreage.
On my bike and reading the landscape on the peninsula, I could understand that farmer's reasoning. People, probably his people, have been here forever. At Dun an Oir, on the western tip of the peninsula near what is now a golf course, are the remains of the oldest known human settlement in Ireland, the tools and bones of a hunting and gathering community that lived around 4,000 B.C. Seeing the obvious evidence of the centuries in the landscape, I could easily feel that the descendants of those people had occupied the rest of these ruins, and still inhabited the towns and farmhouses today. When I suggested this to the archeologist I met, a local man himself, he looked at me, a little surprised, then agreed.
Slea Head is land's end for the peninsula. The road here is cut into the face of Mount Eagle, and until recently there was no guard rail on the narrow road, just the crisp air and a long drop to the surf and the rocks. Now there are a couple of strands of wire. The road fords a stream at one point, and in two or three places offers a way of descending to a sheltered beach, beaches private enough, say the locals, for the tourists to go sunbathing naked. The way this gets reported, one gets the feeling that such cavorting was never a local custom.
At Coumeenoole is a boat dock for the ferry to the Blasket Islands. These stand offshore in the blue Atlantic, five of them, the largest inhabited once, until 1953, when the residents came ashore in search of schooling for their children and other 20th-century necessities. On the Great Blasket, it might as well be some earlier time. The stony island has neither cars nor electricity, and in the roaring wind off the North Atlantic would be a difficult place to get comfortable. In past years, a commune of German youths set up residence on the island, but gave up and returned to the mainland, muttering about educating their kids. "They were living Germanically," said a man in a pub, not sorry to see them go.
The other Blaskets cluster around the big island like pilot fish: Inishvickillane, Inishnabro, Tearaght and Inishtooskert, this last translated "Dead Man's Island," with its perfect profile of the corpse laid out, arms crossed over its chest.
Mount Eagle allows one narrow valley at the sea, and here is the village of Dunquin, the site of the westernmost pub in Europe, Kruger's. Like other pubs in the area, it is not a tourist place. Conversation dies down awfully when a stranger walks in, and resumes haltingly after. This place has floral carpeting -- on the walls -- as well as a tapesty commemorating JFK and stills from the film "Ryan's Daughter," which was filmed around Slea Head.
People here talk a lot about this film, though no one claims to like it much, with its nudity and its English female lead. Speaking of the movie's opening sequence, one Kruger's regular said, "Now just how did she drop her parasol off the Cliffs of Moher some 60 miles north and have it come down here, that's what I want to know. The wind I suppose."
Also on the wall at Kruger's is a yellowed clipping from a Canadian newspaper, in which the reporter tried to find out about this place, the last pub in Europe. The bartender, his only source, had a single comment: "Yes, we're the last pub."
Until two years ago, this region still had crank telephones with a central switchboard operator. "Everybody knew everything," said one woman, a Dane who has lived as an outsider on the peninsula for 10 years. Sometimes the operator would even interrupt a conversation to say, no, that wasn't quite right, as he recalled.
Though there are new phones now, one senses no real embrace of change. The tourists are to be endured, a good source of income in a place where it's hard to make a living. Along the roads are many homes where a bedroom or two has been dedicated to the bed-and-breakfast business, and there is a single modern hotel at Dun an Oir, built as part of a government program to increase employment in the area. The Gaels have adapted to the ways of visitors. Still, this is their place, ancient and beautiful, and they know it.
I stayed in a small cottage near Dun an Oir, keeping warm at my turf fire. Turf is peat, the layer of composted vegetation that forms at the top of a bog, and is dug out and extruded into heavy, clean-burning logs. With the city-dweller's hankering for nightlife, I decided to ride my bike into the nearest town, Ballyferriter, some two miles away.
Outside, it was dark and clear, the moon a bronze arc low in the sky, the stars deep and clustered like some celestial coral reef. It was cold. I pulled my hat over my ears and flew down the hill into the valley, my tears streaming in the wind. The small pub in town was unmarked. "Daniel Cane's place," someone had pointed out to me during the day. Inside the space was no bigger than a living room, and half a dozen Irish men sat before their glasses of Guinness. Their talk ceased as I took my seat at the bar. I ordered the local lager, Smithwick's, and drank in silence. Slowly the chat started back up again, in Gaelic, a musical and strange tongue.
The bartender told me a story about "Ryan's Daughter" -- I was beginning to suspect that these movie star stories were reserved for the tourists. One of the film stars, he said, couldn't stand being beaten in table tennis by the owner of the local grocery. "She said she wouldn't mind being beaten by the owner of Harrods," said the barkeep, "but to the village grocer, well. She didn't like that."
Despite his story (or maybe because of it) I couldn't feel at home in the pub. I finished my beer and got up, but at the door I encountered an old-fashioned latch, and stared dumbly at it. I didn't know how it worked, and I couldn't leave. Finally a man rose from a nearby table, and in the ensuing silence, easily unlatched the door. "Should drink Guinness next time," he said to general laughter. "It makes you strong."
I rode home, shooting through the dark on my bike, a little chagrined but impressed by all of it: the old ways, the language, the place. Earlier that day a longtime resident, not born on the peninsula, said that she could be in that place a lifetime and not really be "of" it. That was for "them," she said, gesturing out the window, to the natives or the spirits of the place. On my way home, I felt that resistance. I might get close to The Real Ireland, but not too close. How else, in fact, could it have remained The Real Ireland?