I’ve had the great fortune to drive the Dingle Peninsula twice; the first time in 2002 when I made my first trip- solo- to Ireland, and more recently with my daughters. Each time the breathtaking scenery has left me entranced. Photo after photo of rugged shorelines, crashing waves, and sites so ancient the time elapsed between then and now is almost unfathomable.
Slea Head Drive, Postcard Perfect
Slea Head Drive begins and ends in Dingle, just past the marina where you can take a boat tour to see Fungi. While you can drive clockwise or counterclockwise, most visitors heading out of town follow the R559 to the left, taking the clockwise route around the peninsula. This is also the route taken by tour buses, and while you may not enjoy following the lumbering beasts it is, at times, preferable to meeting one on the narrow, winding road.
On this trip we didn’t get very far before the girls just had to stop. There was a beach, you see. And my landlocked girls love beaches. So we made our first stop at Ventry Harbour, home to a lovely sand beach. Telling the girls we had only 10 minutes, they set out to collect shells.
Only I had nothing to put them in. Thankfully, most Irish beaches have one thing in common…
Yep, Poop-Scoop bags. So very handy for cleaning up after your dog and for collecting shells!
Leaving Ventry, you move inland a bit which only makes the dramatic cliffs to come even more breathtaking. As the road begins to turn and follow the cliffs, you’ll see Dún Beg Promontory Fort perched on the narrow bit of land between road and sea.
When I visited in 2002, a very small visitor centre was across the road, but it had short hours and varying hours. As it hadn’t yet opened on the day I visited, the gates were open and I was able to wander at will. Not so anymore. The Stonehouse Restaurant and Cafe serves as a fine visitor centre. A paved walkway now leads to the fort and I am doubtful that the gates remain unlocked when the visitor centre is closed.
Not far past Dun Beg the road begins to hug the cliffside, giving the passenger side of the vehicle a terrific view down to the waves crashing on the cliffs, while the other side of the road rubs along a sheer cliff. You’ll find a wide spot in the road, perfect for dramatic photos.
Just down the hill from this spot, you’ll cross a ford in the road. I remember this spot well, as I had to wait on local traffic near this curve during my visit in 2002.
Passing the Beehive Huts and Famine Cottage, we continued on, passing the large Crucifixion scene at Slea Head, until another beach called to us.
Above the beach a large parking area allows access to the walking path to the Ogham Stone on Dunmore Head. From this parking area you can choose walk the nearly perpendicular pathway down to the beach, or bet on the chance of finding parking at the base- or along the edge- of the steep, winding, narrow road to the strand. We found parking about half way down the path- which was terrific fun when it came time to head back up as our rental was a manual transmission.
The Blasket Islands Visitor Centre lies just past Dunmore Head in Dunquin where, if time allows, you can catch a boat for a tour to the Blaskets.
Moving away from the dramatic coastline, the next stop is one of the most famous buildings in all of Ireland.
The Gallarus Oratory was built between the 7th and 8th centuries and is one of the best preserved Christian churches in Ireland. The construction of this dry stone church is unique to County Kerry in both it’s ‘upturned boat’ shape and the fact that no mortar was used, yet the building is waterproof.
Beside the oratory, at the east end of a field of stones, is a small stone slab carved with an equal-armed cross within a circle. If the carvings below the cross had meaning, it has been lost with time.
Not far from Gallarus Oratory, you’ll have a decision to make…
Continue along Slea Head Drive toward the fishing village of Ballydavid, with its dramatic cliff-top route before crossing Brandon Creek, the inlet where St. Brandon is said to have begun his legendary journey to America or turn to follow the R559 which leads to my favorite churchyard in Ireland.
The ruins of the church are gorgeous, of Romanesque design with little intricacies you can spend hours studying.
But my interests were in the churchyard.
In the photo above are both an Ogham Stone and an early Christian Cross. The Ogham Stone, to the left of the path, has a hole through the top of it. This hole, legend tells us, was used to make binding agreements- often of engaged couples standing on either side of the stone and entwining their fingers through the hole. This stone is also carved with Ogham writing, a series of specific lines that was one of the earliest forms of writing.
The simple stone cross to the right has a very distinct square carved at the top of a rectangle. What most intrigues me about the cross is that nearly 2 meters of it are below the ground- so was it set that way or has it been slowly sinking into the earth?
Though a magnificent stone sundial sits here, I was intrigued by the stone below which nestles close to the church. I think because the top stone is level and feels quite natural while the stones holding it are carved and perfectly placed, one taller than the other to hold the horizontal stone level. It was placed precisely for a reason… but why?
From here you can continue into Dingle or backtrack to Slea Head Drive for a bit of dramatic cliff-top views before turning inland to head back to Dingle.
Slea Head Drive is definitely a ‘must’ when your vacation in Ireland takes you to Dingle.