Travel: This is life but not as we know it

Want to go to the ends of the earth without leaving Europe? Cole Moreton suggests Dunquin
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The Independent Travel
THE PIPER flexes his fingers, then begins to explore a tune. His arm squeezes air from the bag, and his eyes meet those of an accordionist, who nods and finds a counter-refrain. In this bar, the only one for half- a-dozen miles, on a finger of land at the extreme western edge of Europe, the mood changes.

Conversations end as people turn in their seats to face the session. There is no room to move, and barely enough to stand. A small boy with raven hair and artful eyes is playing an intricate rhythm on his knees with the spoons. Men and women watch and nod their heads in time, tapping a foot or drumming on a glass with their fingers.

A signal passes through the crowd and eight dancers are on their feet. Nobody else dares to occupy the floor space, such as it is. Each holds a partner and they're off, turning tight patterns within small circles, bodies mad and free and yet never colliding or stumbling into a space where they should not be.

Now they move as an eight, stamping their heels to accentuate the beat. Their dance is something wild and ancient, seen for hundreds of years on the crossroads above this valley, in the homes of Ireland, in the bowels of transatlantic steamers and the social clubs of America and here, in the saloon bar of Kruger's pub in the parish of Dunquin, the county of Kerry and the Republic of Ireland.

Want to get away from it all? You can go no further than this without dropping off the edge of the Old World.

The small fishing town of Dingle, now transformed into a tourist attraction by the presence of a friendly dolphin in its harbour, used to be a byword in Ireland for the back of beyond. The sort of place you wished someone to go to, if Hell was too good for them. But in Dingle, they knew there were people living even further west, a dozen miles away in the land hidden behind the Slieve Mish mountains.

There are no shops but more than 60 homes in Dunquin, spread over the sides of a natural bowl created by the slopes of Mount Eagle and Croagmarhin. A third of the bowl is missing, broken into the sea, but seems to rise from the waves a mile out as an island called the Great Blasket. Hugged from behind by the mountains, with the Atlantic offering an endless, uninterrupted perspective, it does feel like the end of the world.

For many people, it was. Dunquin calls itself a parish because there were once 10 separate villages here, each with 20 or more homes in it, but that was before the Great Famine, which drove the dispossessed west and brought starvation and disease to those who could not find fertile land or the fare to America. In 1841 there were 1,394 people living in Dunquin, but by 1861 there were only 617.

The population is way below that these days. Work is hard to find, with the nearest major town, Tralee, more than an hour's drive away along narrow lanes. A dominant proportion of the old cottages and modern bungalows in the valley are holiday homes that stand empty for most of the year, the most famous of them being the cathedral-like house built for Dolores O'Riordan, lead singer with the Cranberries. It is on the market for pounds 2 million, to the dismay of most locals.

Below it, at the crossroads is a new language college that also offers bed and breakfast and has a remarkably good restaurant attached called An Portn, a sign of the economic development that will surely transform Dunquin over the next few years. With a hire car and a flight from Stansted, I got there from London in five hours, door-to-door. But even when the streets are packed with summer tourists in Dingle, a dozen miles away over the mountain pass, Dunquin remains quiet enough for walkers to hear each car entering the valley.

Most vehicles are passing through on a scenic drive along the coast around the point at Slea Head. The road is inaccessible during the winter because of a river that crosses it at one point and the real danger of being swept away by high winds and waves as you skirt the cliffs.

Foam breaks on the black rocks far below on one side of the car and, on the other, the rising fields look like the surface of a strange and barren planet, marked with dry-stone walls and the remains of ancient settlements.

History remains in the present here, so far from the desperate race that is modern Europe. A farmer standing in the doorway,

in a flat cap and old grey jacket, is working the land his family has lived on for centuries.

In his fields are beehive huts, the conical shelters built by early Christians for fellow travellers on a maritime pilgrimage. Irish is the first language in an area where people still remember why their pinnacles and bays are named after heroes, poets and lovers.

At every turn, there is an extraordinary view: the sweep of Dingle Bay across to the Iveragh Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry; the Skelligs, jagged rocks in the far distance that are home to huge flocks of storm petrels; the Iron Age fort at Dn Beag, a series of ditches and walls protecting an inner fortress whose rearguard is the cliff edge, as it was 500 years before Christ; and a towering white crucifixion scene, with a natural backdrop of slate-grey rock, that startles travellers at Slea Head itself, rust streaking like old blood from the nails in the hands and feet of the statue.

On rainy days, they park up at the heritage centre, an ugly modern building that squats low against the hillside in Dunquin.

Once you're through the door it is an enchanting place that tells the story of the community that lived on the Great Blasket, before its evacuation in 1953. Theirs was a medieval way of life that preserved the language and story-telling tradition that had long been abandoned in most of Ireland.

Encouraged by visiting scholars, some of the islanders dictated or wrote their stories down, and from these came three great works: the autobiography of the story-teller Peig Sayers, which became a set text in Irish schools; The Islandman by Tomas O'Crohan, whose elegant, dry memoir was a lament for a passing way of life; and Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan, of the next generation, who wrote about what it was like to leave the island forever.

No one lives there now. A few hardy souls stay "in" the island, as they say, during the summer months, weaving or offering refreshment to those who do get across for a couple of hours' visit on a boat that runs from Dunquin harbour in fine weather. We crossed the Blasket Sound on the first ferry of the year and, at the end of the day, waved goodbye to the solitary figure of a woman who had set up her tent in the ruins of the old schoolhouse.

She wanted to be picked up two days later, but it was at least a week until the weather allowed the boat to return. Her friend, another woman in her early thirties who had renovated one of the houses on the island, told me that was the risk they took. "It is worth it for the beauty of the place, and the strange peace there when everyone else is gone."

Such relentless seclusion would be too much for me. It is enough to walk for hours in the mountains or on the cliffs around Dunquin without meeting another soul, but with the promise of a pint down below.

When the sun comes out, the grass and sea and sky have an inner light, undimmed by pollution, bringing to mind the words Tomas O'Crohan wrote about the Great Blasket: "A misty white haze rose from the sea at this time, floating over the round-topped hills. The plants on the hillside were not without their own sweet scent. You need not stir from where you stood on the height to fill your lungs with scented breeze, from whichever direction it might be blowing. I used to wonder why city folk would make for a place like this, but I need not have wondered."

Cole Moreton is writing a book about the Blaskets, to be published next year by Penguin.

Dunquin fact file

When to go

If you want to go across to the Great Blasket, July/August is when the weather is likely to be best and the ferries run regularly (IRpounds 10 return). Otherwise, May, June and September offer a fair chance of sunshine, but strong sea winds mean conditions can change quickly, so never go without a mac. In winter, the Dingle Peninsulais almost deserted, its beauty savage.

Getting there

Ryanair flights direct to Kerry airport from Stansted, in Essex, take just over an hour. Prices are pounds 70 for a fixed return, plus pounds 10 airport tax, and pounds 140 plus tax for a flexible return. A fly-drive package with Europcar can be arranged at time of booking (0541 569569). From the airport to Dunquin by road takes about an hour, depending on your nerves. Those without a car can take a taxi to the town of Tralee, then a bus to Dingle and another to Dunquin (but only in season). Allow at least two to three hours.

Where to eat, sleep and visit

There aren't many places to eat in Dunquin so, if money is tight, go for self-catering. Kruger's (00 353 66 56127), the only pub in the valley, does food in the summer and also offers bed and breakfast. Across the road is An Portn (00 353 66 56212), a good restaurant attached to a language college, which also does B&B.

The chefs from An Portn also provide lunches at the Great Blasket Centre, a couple of hundred yards away. A visit here is essential. Adults pay IRpounds 2.50 to get in, students and children IRpounds 1. (There are special rates for groups and families.) The centre is open 10am-6pm daily, from Easter to the end of October, and for an hour longer in the evening during July and August.

For a pit stop on your way around the Slea Head Drive, the Dunquin Pottery & Cafe does home-made soup, sandwiches and cakes, and has a fine bookshop. For details on cottages, holiday homes and B&Bs, call the tourist office in Dingle on 00 353 66 51188, or the peninsula's independent tourism co-op on 00 353 66 52411.