25 September 2017

The harbour and streets
of Dingle are colourful
even on a rainy day

Colourful boats in the harbour in Dingle, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Last week’s tour of the Dingle Peninsula came to an end in Dingle, the only town on the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle has a population of about 2,000 and sits on the Atlantic coast, about 50 km south-west of Tralee and 71 km north-west of Killarney.

Dingle is the largest Gaeltacht town in Ireland and it depends almost entirely on tourism.

But is it Dingle?

Or is it Daingean?

And would we find Fungie the Dingle dolphin?

The Irish Government officially abolished the name of Dingle in 20015, decreeing it could no longer be used officially in government papers, on road signs and or on street names. The town was the be known officially and on signposts only as An Daingean. The name Dingle was taped over and removed from all road signs throughout Co Kerry.

Dingle may be the capital of the Kerry Gaeltact, but the people of Dingle would have none of it and a lengthy dispute erupted between the people of Dingle and the government.
The people of Dingle rebelled, and in the Dingle Plebiscite in 2006, 93 per cent of them voted to restore the town’s historic names, Dingle in English and Daingean Uí Chúis in Irish.

Legislation was eventually introduced in in 2011 to recognise the mandate. Today the town’s traditional names, Dingle and Daingean, sit comfortably side-by-side in the one place.

The name Daingean or Daingean Uí Chúis is said to mean the Fortress of the Hussey family, recalling the Husseys, who were of Norman-Flemish origin and who lived in the Dingle area from the 13th century.

However, there is a second interpretation of the meaning of Daingean Uí Chúis. The Annals of the Four Masters, compiled by four Franciscan friars in 1632-1636, refer to a pre-Norman chieftain named O Cuis who ruled the area before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. According to this version, he had his principle fortress in Dingle, and gave his name the name Daingean Uí Chúis.

Whatever the true meaning of the name, the earliest records show the two names of Dingle and Daingean Uí Chúis side-by-side from the mid-13th century. The story of the town dates back to its foundation by the FitzGerald and Rice families. They developed the town into the second largest port on the west coast of Ireland, second only to Galway.

Dingle prospered thanks to extensive trade with France and Spain, and by the 14th century importing wine was a major business. The 1st Earl of Desmond, who held Palatine powers in the area, imposed a tax on this activity around 1329.

Dingle was also a starting point for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella to begin the Camino and set off on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James. It is said that the mediaeval church in Dingle, dedicated to Saint James, was built by the Spanish.

By the 16th century, Dingle was one of Ireland’s main trading ports, exporting fish and hides and importing wines from Continental Europe. French and Spanish fishing fleets used the town as a base. The connections with Spain were particularly strong. In 1529, the 11th Earl of Desmond and Gonzalo Fernandes, the Spanish Ambassador of the Emperor Charles V, signed the Treaty of Dingle.

Commerce and trade Dingle were enhanced in 1569, when an Act of Parliament was limited to 15 the number of ports in Ireland through which wines could be imported. The Act named Dingle among those towns and refers to it as ‘Dingle Husey, otherwise called Dingle I Couch.’ That year, the merchants of Dingle also applied for a ‘murage grant’ to build walls to enclose the town, but their application was not successful on that occasion.

In 1579, James FitzMaurice FitzGerald brought a small fleet of ships into Dingle and launched the Second Desmond Rebellion. But he was killed soon after in a minor skirmish with the forces of a cousin. The fleet left Dingle after three days, anchoring at Dún an Óir on the western end of the peninsula, leading eventually to the Siege of Smerwick in 1580.

Colourful narrow streets in the old town in Dingle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Following the defeat of the Desmond Rebellion, Queen Elizabeth agreed in 1585 to a grant of a royal charter to Dingle, incorporating the town as a borough. This would allow building town walls, and traces of these town walls can still be seen, while the street layout preserves the pattern of burgage plots. The town was enclosed by a strong wall, with two gates in what is now Dykegate Lane, enclosing an area that included the present Main Street and parts of John Street and Goat Street.

Although Queen Elizabeth agreed to grant this charter to Dingle, the charter was only obtained in 1607. On 2 March 1607, King James I granted the charter, although the borough and the corporation were already in existence for 22 years.

The head of the corporation was the sovereign, who was the equivalent of mayor. The sovereign was elected annually on the Feast of Saint Michael, 29 September, and the corporation consisted of 12 burgesses.

The area of jurisdiction of the corporation was all the land and sea within two Irish miles of the parish church, and the borough had an admiralty jurisdiction over Dingle, Ventry, Smerwick and Ferriter’s Creek ‘as far as an arrow would fly.’

The charter also made Dingle a parliamentary borough, sending two MPs to the Irish House of Commons until the dissolution of the Irish Parliament at the Act of Union.

From the mid-17th century until the 1920s, the Dingle Peninsula was controlled by Lord Ventry and the Mullen or de Moleyns family, who lived on the Burnham Estate.

Dingle suffered greatly in the wars in 17th century, and the town was burnt or sacked on several occasions.

Dingle began to recover in the 18th century, due to the patronage of the FitzGerald family, Knights of Kerry. Robert FitzGerald (1717-1781) succeeded as the 17th Knight of Kerry in 1779. He was MP for Dingle from 1741 until he died. He imported flax seed and by 1755 a flourishing linen industry had been established, producing cloth worth £60,000 a year.

James Louis Rice, the son of Black Tom Rice, was a member of a family of prosperous wine traders and merchants with extensive links with France and Spain. Their ancestral home, the Rice House, stood on the corner of Goat Street and Green Street.

James Louis Rice was educated in Belgium and joined the Austrian army. He became an intimate friend of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who made James Louis and his father Black Tom counts of the Holy Roman Empire.

Queen Marie Antoinette of France was a sister of Emperor Joseph II. When the French Revolution began in 1789, she, the king and their two children were gaoled in Paris. Rice and his circle formed a plan for her escape. They bribed some gaolers and prepared relays of horses to take Marie Antoinette to the coast. There, Count James Louis had one of his father’s wine ships waiting to take her to Dingle, where rooms at Rice House were ready for her.

At the last moment, however, Marie Antoinette hesitated and refused to abandon her husband the king and her children, and so she remained.

The flax and linen trade in Dingle collapsed with the successful industrial production of cotton in Great Britain, and was virtually extinct by 1837.

During the Great Famine in the 1840s, up to 5,000 people died in the Dingle Poorhouse alone, and they are buried in the paupers’ burial ground that overlooks the town. The town also fell victim to a cholera plague in 1849.

Meanwhile, the family of Lord Ventry sold Burnham House in the 1920. The house is now an Irish-speaking boarding school for girls known as Coláiste Íde.

All we saw of Fungie last week was his statue in the harbour in Dingle, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Today, with mountains at its back, Dingle faces into a sheltered harbour. Three main streets rise from the level ground at Strand Street at the edge of the harbour and at the Mall beside the Dingle River: Green Street, John Street and Main Street.

About 1,200 people live in Dingle, but the number of residents increases dramatically at the height of the tourist season.

However, we missed one of the main attractions, Fungie the Dolphin. Fungie is a full-grown, middle aged, male bottlenose dolphin. He weighs about a quarter tonne (500 lb) and is about four metres (13 ft). long.

During the summer months, Fungie is often seen taking fish in the harbour mouth. During the winter months, he travels further afield for food.

Paddy Ferriter, the Dingle Harbour lighthouse keeper, first began watching a lone wild dolphin escort the town’s fishing boats in and out of the harbour in 1984. By that August, the dolphin was officially a permanent resident of the entrance channel and self-appointed pilot of Dingle’s fishing fleet.

Over the years, the dolphin moved from being a timid but inquisitive observer of human life into a playful, mischievous, companion. Everyone receives playful attention, from swimmers and divers, to canoeists, windsurfers and day-trippers and children paddling on the beach.

Boats from Dingle Boat Tours and the Dingle Boatmen’s Association leave Dingle Pier at regular intervals throughout the day, every day, all year round, weather permitting, on a one-hour trip to see Fungie wild and free in his natural habitat.

The boats also offer trips from the harbour along the coast of the Dingle Peninsula and to the islands, including the Blasket Islands.

Our stop-off in Dingle was too short to go in search of Fungie. After lunch in John Benny’s Pub on Strand Street we went for a walk along the Mall and the narrow streets that date back to the Middle Ages and the days of a walled borough.

Even on a rainy day, as summer was turning to autumn, the narrow streets of Dingle were packed with tourists and visitors and colourful with their brightly-painted shop fronts.

Dingle’s streets are colourful, even of a grey, rain-soaked day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A fresh take on the Blasket Islands
despite memories of Peig Sayers

The Blasket Islands seen from Slea Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

As a schoolboy, Peig Sayers were the bane of my life.

Her books were part of the reading list on the Irish-language courses. And until I spent the summer of 1966 in Ballinskelligs in the Kerry Gaeltacht, I was on course to fail the ‘Inter Cert’ exams in Irish – and so I was on course too to failing the full exams and to finding myself on the way to school in England.

I cannot blame my negative teenage views of the Irish language on Peig Sayers … but she did nothing to leave me with a positive view of a language that was foreign to me, despite an increasing interest in the Irish language at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

Anyone of my age who was a schoolboy in Ireland in the 1950s and the 1960s has memories of Peig Sayers (1873-1958) and her autobiographical memoir Peig. It was only later in life that I learned that she never wrote the book, and that she dictated her reminiscences to others, who redacted and edited them.

Her book Peig depicts the declining years of a traditional, Irish-speaking way of life characterised by poverty, devout Roman Catholicism, and folk memories of gang violence, the Great Famine, and the Penal Laws.

The oft-bleak tone of the book begins with the very opening words: ‘I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge. I have experienced much ease and much hardship from the day I was born until this very day. Had I known in advance half, or even one-third, of what the future had in store for me, my heart wouldn’t have been as gay or as courageous it was in the beginning of my days.’

The other Blasket islanders we were expected to read, or to know about, included Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, author of the autobiographical Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years a-Growing), and Tomás Ó Criomhthain, who wrote An tOileánach (‘The Islandman,’ 1929), satirised by Flann O’Brien as An Béal Bocht (‘The Poor Mouth’).

But as we headed out the Dingle Peninsula last week, we were reminded that Peig was neither from the Blasket Islands, nor did she die there. She was born in Vicarstown, Dunquin, she was educated in English, she was illiterate in Irish, she spent her first working years in Dingle, and she was only in her mid-50s when the stories in Peig were recorded by Robin Flower, who gave her the voice of an old and dying woman.

I was surprised to realise that she was still alive when I was born. By the time she actually had ‘one foot in the grave and the other on its edge,’ she was living in a nursing home in Dingle, where she died at the end of 1958, when I was almost 7, and she was buried not on the Blasket Islands but on the mainland in Dunquin.

Freed from the myths about Peig Sayers and memories of her morose memoirs, I was able to have a fresh view of the Blasket Islands and Dunquin last week.

Indeed, the Blaskets have always been an intrinsic part of Dunquin. The Great Blasket was always known simply as the Island, or the Western Island, or the Great Island, while the other islands were the Lesser Blaskets.

From the end of the 13th century, the Ferriter family leased the islands from the Earls of Desmond, and from Sir Richard Boyle after the dispossession of the Desmond Geraldines at the end of the 16th century.

The last of the Ferriters on the Blasket Islands was the poet and rebel Captain Pierce Ferriter who hanged in Killarney in 1653. However, Charles Smith, author of The Ancient and the Present State of the County of Kerry (1756), claimed the Great Blasket was not inhabited, except by ancient monks, before 1710.

The population of the Island grew with the influx of tenants evicted from their holdings by Lord Ventry in the first half of the 19th century. By 1840, the population of the Island estimated at 150. The stones of the Ferriter castle were used to build a Church of Ireland school in 1840, but this school closed in 1852 when the population of the island fell dramatically after the Great Famine.

Another Famine hit the island in 1878-1879. At the time, the Earl of Cork was the landlord of the Islands and much of the mainland. Richard Edmund St Lawrence Boyle (1829–1904), 9th Earl of Cork, supplied Champion and Black seed potatoes free to all his tenants in 1880.

The Congested Districts Board bought the island in 1907, and the population is said to have reached its peak in 1916 at 176, although the maximum number of houses on the island was never more than 30.

Visitors to the island from the early 20th century included the playwright John Millington Synge, who first visited the Blaskets in 1905, the Norwegian linguist Carl Marstrander, who visited in 1907 and was called ‘the Viking’ by the islanders, and the Celtic scholar Robin Flower, who first visited in 1910. Others included George Derwent Thomson, the great Greek scholar, and Kenneth Jackson, the Celtic scholar.

Island life had been a constant struggle and the population began to decline in the early 1930s. Finally, in 1953-1954, the islanders abandoned the Blasket Islands.

The former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey bought Inishvickillane, one of the Blasket Islands, for £25,000 in 1974. His few guests there included President Francois Mitterrand, in whose honour a French flag was raised on the island in 1988.

Whatever happens to Inishvickillane may still be an open question. But, for me, Peig Sayers remains a closed book.

The sandy beaches at Dunquin on Slea Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)