“Drive on left,” read the helpful sticker in our Irish rental car.
I noted this soon after I’d climbed into the driver’s seat, thinking it was the passenger’s spot, and after Aaron, my husband, repeatedly tried to shift gears with his right hand, only to knock his knuckles into the door handle.
But soon, driving on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong side of the car, felt easy. Mainly because I wasn’t driving. My role was limited to closing my eyes or, more helpfully, focusing on the map.
On this particular day, the map led us 45 kilometers from a small airport in Kerry to Dingle, a town located near the tip of a peninsula in western Ireland. Once a sleepy fishing and farming town, Dingle gained worldwide recognition when the area was featured in the 1970 film, “Ryan’s Daughter.”
But Aaron and I had never seen the film. We found it because we wanted to participate in an organized run and the Dingle Marathon, held Sept. 3, fit neatly into our schedule (like the majority of entrants, we ran the half marathon).
Fortunately for us, the area also offered unsurpassed beauty, a plethora of pubs and a heavy dollop of Irish culture; the perfect way to relax after two weeks of frantic sightseeing and country-hopping in Ireland, England and France.
Dingle is one of a few regions in Ireland where Irish traditions and culture have continued to thrive. Much of the peninsula is Irish speaking, or Gaeltacht. Road signs and menus are written in Irish and the language is spoken at home, in school and at work.
While checking the map, I tried to remember the Irish name for Dingle — An Daingean — so that we could find our way.
“I don’t think this is such a great idea,” Aaron commented after we’d nearly sideswiped another vehicle.
I’d read that the Irish word for road literally translates to “cow path.” Now, faced with small, twisty roads and numerous blind corners, we knew why.
We spotted a few cows and horses, but mostly sheep — hundreds of sheep — sporting blue or red circles on their backs, spray-painted there by their owners to easily recognize and claim them. We even spotted some sheep colored completely blue.
A half-hour later, we arrived safely in Dingle and checked into our bed and breakfast, The Captain’s House, a charming home owned by Jim and Mary Milhench. Our room came with a small kitchenette, private balcony, barbecue and a friendly cat named Holly.
Jim informed us that they don’t have wifi, but there are several Internet cafes in town. “We’ve been looking into getting it,” he said. “We don’t want to fall behind the times.”
Aaron and I headed out and walked a few blocks toward the wharf, to eat and drink at one of the town’s numerous pubs, explore and enjoy a bit of craic — Irish for “fun” or a “good laugh.” After a few weeks in Europe, we were getting pretty good at it.
The sights of Dublin
We had arrived in Dublin a few weeks earlier.
The weather was cool and occasionally rainy, but we found the city walkable and welcoming.
We stayed in a small but modern room at the Harding Hotel, located near the trendy, touristy Temple Bar area and across the street from Christ Church Cathedral.
Over the course of afew days, we toured the Guinness Storehouse, where pints of the black stuff have been brewed since 1759. The price of admission also buys a complimentary pint. We drank ours in the seventhfloor Gravity Bar, which offers a 360-degree view of the city.
We walked around Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest university (founded in 1592); went for a run around St. Stephen’s Green, a 22-acre park, and toured the Kilmainham Gaol, which was open from 1796 to 1924 and frequently used by the British as a political prison.
On our last full day in Dublin, we opted to take a day trip out to the small town of Trim. A 30-minute bus ride brought us within walking distance of Trim Castle, the largest Anglo Norman castle in Ireland, constructed in three stages over a 30-year period starting in the 1170s.
I wanted to see it mainly because it featured prominently in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film, “Braveheart.” The castle did not disappoint — our tour guide gave a detailed tour of the drafty, stone building. And I was even able to pose with a wooden prop from the movie, used during the execution scene at the end of the epic and now housed near the heavy entrance doors.
But after a few days of sightseeing and pub crawling in Dublin, we were ready for a slower pace.
A town of pubs
Notice I said slower — not quieter.
Dingle boasts about 50 pubs — impressive for a town of about 1,500 residents, with about 10,000 total living on the peninsula.
Live music can be found every night, though offerings are more limited in the winter.
We dropped into a handful of pubs, sampling local cuisine along with Irish beer: French onion soup at Murphy’s Pub, meat pie and vegetable soup at The Dingle Pub, sweet potato soup and a beef and Guinness stew at John Benny’s.
We dropped into O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub for the music, where barman Adrian Spillett informed us that it has “become the musician’s pub” in Dingle.
Tommy O’Sullivan, who was playing the guitar the night we visited, has owned the place since February and allows his employees to fashion their work schedules around their musical gigs.
Spillett visited Dingle from Cork for two weeks and ended up staying five months. He sings and plays the guitar and the Irish bouzouki, a string instrument that was originally introduced in Greece but later modified specifically for Irish traditional music.
Ireland’s recession, however, has slowed tourism — the area’s bread and butter — and Spillett worried that the pub culture is suffering.
“One of our greatest assets is that social center,” he said. “And it’s slipping away.”
But the night we visited, the pub was bursting with jovial locals. I hope that doesn’t fade.
Great day for a run
We were up early on our last full day in Dingle. We laced up our running shoes, adjusted our race bibs and headed to the start line of the Dingle marathon.
Eminem was playing as we hit the harbor, where hundreds of other runners were warming up in front of the row of colorful pubs and a statue of Fungi, the town’s resident dolphin.
At 9:30 a.m. (a great time for a half-marathon to start), we took off. The course circled the 30-mile Dingle Peninsula, with the marathoners completing nearly the entire loop.
The scenery was breathtaking. We ran on a tiny two-lane road next to jagged cliffs and crashing waves, passing sandy beaches and green hills spotted with sheep.
We ran by remnants of history stretching back thousands of years, from Iron Age beehive huts and forts to crumbling stone cottages abandoned during the country’s Great Famine from 1845-48 when the potato crop failed and millions died or left the country.
Off in the distance we could see the outline of Skellig Michael, an island eight miles off shore. Christian monks founded a monastery there in the 6th century that was occupied for more than 600 years, surviving multiple Viking attacks.
In the opposite direction, the green hills of the Blasket Islands, located off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, came into view. Until 1953, the Great Blasket Island was inhabited by as many as 160 hardy Irish whose families each survived with a cow, a few sheep and a plot of potatoes.
The course was hilly, but I was so preoccupied with the view that the miles flew by. It was the first time I was disappointed when we came to the finish.
But not disappointed enough to want to keep running with the marathoners.
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.