Exploring Ireland’s Peninsulas
Ireland’s rural countryside and iconic peninsulas offers a glimpse into a simpler life and the island’s many charms.
When most people plan a trip to Ireland, they put Dublin, Cork and perhaps Galway on the list. While these places offer plenty to see and do, going deep into the Irish countryside is the way to really get the feel of this old-world country.
I recently visited Ireland with my family. We opted to minimize our city time and instead spend the better part of our time on Ireland’s iconic and oft-underexplored peninsulas located in the southernmost part of the country. There are five of them: Dingle, Iveragh, Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen – all of which stretch miles out into the Atlantic. They offer dramatic shorelines, gorgeous water views and miles of Ireland’s unmistakable rocky grass terrain, peppered with seemingly unending herds of sheep, abandoned castles and fortresses of all shapes and sizes.
The smallest and narrowest of the peninsulas, Sheep’s Head, served as our home base, as we were fortunate to have access to a friend’s cottage about a kilometer from the peninsula’s main attraction, the Sheep’s Head Way Lighthouse. Sheep’s Head is home to the fishing village of Bantry and the tiny village of Kilcrohane, with a combination post office/general store/gas station, a town pub, village cathedral and two restaurants. The pub and the store are the village’s central meeting spots; on the day we visited the pub some of the locals were singing Danny Boy and My Irish Rose to entertain a group of visiting Canadians. It was a scene you’d be hard pressed to find in any American watering hole.
On Sheep’s Head, we discovered artist Annabel Langrish and her delightful Heron Gallery in Ahakista, where we spent a leisurely afternoon enjoying lunch al fresco, thumbing through Langrish’s nature inspired art and meandering through the lovely English-style garden filled with wildflowers and vegetable beds.
In addition to 60 miles of walking trails, the main reason to visit Sheep’s Head is to hike out to the small lighthouse, only in place since 1968 and perilously perched on the tip of the peninsula. We were grateful for our sunny, visible weather (thanks to Ireland’s longest heatwave since 1976), adding to the glory of the hike. Two things can make the hike treacherous; one being wet conditions (no problem there); the second is a plethora of fecal bombs from local animals that delighted my 7-year-old son, who came up with all sorts of dodge-the-poop slogans as we traversed along (ummm, do you know any young boys that don’t love poop talk?).
Later in the week we ventured over to the Beara and Iveragh pensinsulas, traveling a portion of the Ring of Kerry through the delightful bayside villages of Glengarriff and Kenmare. Both are worth a stop, especially Kenmare to see the ancient Bronze Age stone circle. From Kenmare we headed over Molls Gap, stopping briefly at Molly Gallivan’s Cottage. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but the story it tells of a sprightly Irish widowed gal from the early 1800s, forced to provide for her seven kids, was pretty fascinating. To survive, Molly bootlegged poitín (whiskey), nicknamed Molly’s Mountain Dew, and served it an illegal pub she ran out of her house. If Molly were alive today, I’m sure she’d be a CEO or at the very least, running a highly successful Etsy store.
After slowly making our way down to the Dingle Peninsula (as a friend of mine says, getting places in Ireland while navigating the narrow roads is half the fun), we arrived in the town of Dingle, a favored holiday spot for both Irish nationals and visitors. Full of shops, restaurants and a slew of pubs, our favorite stops were Sheehy’s Anchor Down for seafood and Murphy’s Ice Cream for dessert. We did fall into one tourist trap by booking a boat excursion to see Fungie, the world-famous bottlenose dolphin in Dingle Harbour who apparently prefers to interact with humans more than other dolphins. Fungie didn’t disappoint; we spotted him numerous times even if he stuck much closer to another boat that wasn’t ours.
From Dingle, we made the Slea’s Head Drive and were rewarded with dramatic, sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and rugged cliff sides – offering us the most spectacular scenery of our entire holiday. As it was another record-breaking day, we made a stop at Coumeenole Beach to cool off; then wandered the hillside above the beach which served as a film site for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Continuing down Slea’s Head, we discovered archeological ruins dating back to the Bronze Age, medieval churches and an oratory. We almost skipped the drive altogether, until one of the front desk attendants at Dingle’s Skellig Hotel told us that we would have wasted our trip to Dingle without doing this. She was right.
There is so much more to do on the peninsulas that we didn’t have time to explore – Muckross House in Killarney National Forest (Irish version of Downtown Abbey), where you can take a ride in a jaunting car; the medieval era Ross Castle; the dramatic Mizen Head at the end of the Mizen Peninsula.
We did, however, make a detour to the Blarney Castle, just outside of Cork, where like hundreds of other tourists that day, we worked our way to the top famous medieval castle where we kissed the Blarney Stone. It felt like a trip to Ireland wouldn’t be complete without experiencing this, after all, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be bestowed with the gift of eloquence.
So we ended our journey, taking our gift of gab home with us. The remainder of Ireland’s peninsulas will have to await our return.