Hiking the Dingle Peninsula

Getting lost—and found—on Ireland's ancient tangle of trails

Rock on: a coastal vista along the trail     Photo: Chris Gordaneer

The path cut through undulating hillsides of green gorse and purple heather. Sheep danced away as we neared. We had walked alone for hours—lost—when two hikers appeared ahead. We prayed that they were shepherds who could guide us back to civilization, but instead we met two schoolteachers from New Hampshire, also lost. Our lyrical guidebook, The Dingle Way Companion, read, "Cross the field diagonally, clear a stile set in a stone wall and drop down through boughs of fuchsia, entwined as if in prayer. . . ."
Recreational hiking is still an emerging sport in Ireland, where working the fields once left little time for constitutionals. Nobody knows that better than Joss Lynam, the 78-year-old author and patriarch of Irish hiking, who led the push to expand the National Waymarked Ways (just Ways, for short), which link about 1,910 miles of ancient bog paths, goat spoors, and fisherman's trails. "If you're chasing sheep over the hills five days a week, you don't want to do it on the weekend," said Lynam. That's changing. In 1991 there were only 12 Ways. Today there are 33. But Lyman was no help to us now, and in a late-afternoon routine that we repeated daily, we hitchhiked, wet, hungry, and happy back to our hotel.
There are no huts along the Ways, but farmers allow camping, and trails often pass through or near towns with hotels, hostels, and B&Bs. On this trip last fall, my wife and I fell for the village of Dingle and its cobblestone streets; blue, green, and orange row houses; and dark pubs. So instead of hiking the entire 95-mile Dingle Way, which hugs the perimeter of southwest Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, we stayed for three days on the outskirts of town at spacious, modern Greenmount House, an inn with ocean views. We took daily hikes averaging 14 miles, crossing green fields and stark beaches. Mornings began with a buffet of smoked salmon and homemade breads and jams before we headed west from the inn through intermittent rain. We would survey Dingle's harbor, looking for the wild but fish-begging dolphin named Fungi, then pick a direction and go.
On the flanks of 1,693-foot Mount Eagle, about five miles west of Dingle, we stood among the cattle and wildflowers, watching the morning mist rise to reveal craggy islands to the west and 3,000-foot Brandon Mountain to the north. We stopped to pluck blackberries. We stopped at the medieval ruins of Menard Castle and Celtic stone huts called clochain. We stopped to watch gannets dive from their cliffs into the water below, and we stopped to check the "guidebook." Eventually we found a road and stuck out our thumbs.
On our final day, we walked through spongy, shoe-sucking peat bogs to the tip of Dingle Peninsula. Atop sandstone cliffs we looked down 500 feet to islets and caves. Later, when we were lost—again—we stumbled onto Kruger's pub. After an hour of listening to the Gaelic tongue of farmers, we forged on, content to let the landscape lead the way. Finding our inn was a bit less important after the pub's cool Guinness and hot whiskey.

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