Dingle: From a Writer’s POV

Dingle: From a Writer’s POV

A friend of mine who read “Irish Literature: In the Air” commented, “I thought Dingle was just a peninsula.”

It is a peninsula–-a peninsula on the westernmost tip of Ireland––and it includes Dingle Town. Anyone who travels to Ireland shouldn’t miss Dingle and the 30-mile-trip which loops around the peninsula on narrow roads through summertime crowds of people and fleets of tour buses. Rick Steve’s “Dingle Loop Trip” in Ireland 2017 covers it all…the Stone Age ring fort, thatched roof cottages, beehive huts, remains of a walled monastery, and the 100,000 sheep, motorists and cyclists have to watch out for.

My wife, Amory, and I visited for the first time in 2004. Like many tourists, we were drawn to its funky restaurants, lively pub music, hospitable innkeepers, waterfront scenery, bookstore, and the library.

Not everyone includes bookstores and libraries on their travel itineraries, but we do. During that initial visit, I noticed a Librarian Wanted sign in the Dingle Library. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I mused, to work in a small town library where we could submerge ourselves in the community? Then I noticed an enthusiasm-dashing minimum requirement: Gaelic language skill. There were children’s books in Irish all around the room.

It was then that I learned that Dingle (An Daingean) is part of the “Gaeltacht,” a region on the Western seaboard where the government provides funds to ensure the survival of the Irish language and culture. English is the language of commerce, but if you listen, you’ll overhear conversations in Irish too.

When my MFA program through the University of Southern Maine offered a residency in Dingle, applying for it was a foregone conclusion. So, in summer 2015, I was privileged to be with Stonecoast faculty and students, while Amory traveled around with Jolene Hansen, a friend from Bellingham who’s photographed and written extensively about Ireland.

For almost twenty years Poet/Residency Director Ted Deppe has afforded eight to ten students opportunities to interact with contemporary Irish writers––during lectures, at meal times, and at readings at the Dingle Bookstore.

Considering Dingle’s tiny population of 1500, The Dingle Bookshop‘s success is an anomaly. The summertime swell of tourists helps, not to mention the friendly feel of the place and the person running it. I emailed the owner ahead of time, asking if she could procure Three Strange Angels, a novel published in the UK, written by American author and friend Laura Kalpakian.

When we got there, the book was waiting and Camilla Dinkel––yes, Dinkel of Dingle!–– handed it over. I asked her how she and here husband acquired a bookstore. “My husband came over [from the UK] to build a house for an Englishman. We decided to stay. We brought the bookstore and business has increased every year.” Unlike me, helpless at the prospect of learning Irish, she and her husband Michael found a way to live in Dingle Town.


Kevin Barry, an Irish author in his late 40s, was at the Residency. In order to write his first novel, he left journalism, bought a beat-up van, stationed it in a field near Cork, and “pounded out,” he says, “a terrible novel” set in Montana. It was never published. However, his two short story collections and two published novels have won a multiplicity of awards. Beatlebone, the most recent, is about John Lennon who bought an island near Sligo.

“Yes,” affirmed Barry, “that John Lennon.” Kevin Barry and his wife live in Sligo in an old Royal Irish Constabulary barracks. He spent four years writing and researching Beatlebone. Click here to read a review.

I agree with the reviewer’s conclusion: “…while I enjoyed Beatlebone, somehow the sum was slightly less than its many fine and savoursome parts.” I like Barry’s insights about the writing process more than I did his actual fiction.

“When you say you’re going to write something, you’re making a pact with yourself. Writing is a mysterious business. The only thing it’s close to is dreaming. It’s close to the subconscious. When you awake in the morning, you’re still in the puddle of dreams. We’re all perfect storytellers when we are dreaming, and soon after we wake up. The front part, the critical part of the brain, shuts down. So, first thing, I sit up, scratch down words using crazy nerve ending places, and spew onto the page.”

The next morning, after hearing Barry, I dashed from bed, typed maniacally on my keyboard and produced arresting pieces of writing––flash fiction, bits of lyric poetry, astute observations. I substantiated something else Barry said: “What seems like God-given genius in the morning, seems like crap at 5 o’clock.”


Harry Clifton, who held the Irish equivalent of U.S. poet laureate, entered into his writing career under the mantle of classic poetry. He described his generation as:

  “…super-saturated with the emotionalism of the early Yeats. We had to fight our way out of that in order to find ourselves. Dublin really didn’t have a poetry [of its own] until the sixties when Patrick Kavanagh, kicking around in the pubs of Dublin, wrote his ‘disillusioned city’ poems. Yeats was all about emotion.”

I had never heard Yeats described in anything but adulatory terms, particularly by my respected poetry professor, Dr. Ron Leatherbarrow, who believes that Yeats was “the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” I was stunned by Clifton’s assessment of “The Song of Wandering Angus” as “enormously appealing, but it also anchored a person in a kind of Ireland that didn’t really exist anymore.”

My admiration of Yeats is unchanged, but I understand Clifton’s view that for him, the older poetry of Ireland did not account “for the city rhythms of urban Dublin.”

There are few city rhythms in Dingle; there are none on the six Blasket Islands, a three-mile boat ride from Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula. Yet the Blaskets produced writers Ireland claims as important members of its literary heritage.

Next blog: The Great Blasket Island (An Blascaod Mor).

Irish Literature: In the Air

I went to Ireland two summers ago with a Big Question on my mind: why has Ireland produced so many fine authors? Beckett and Behan, Shaw and Synge, Swift and Stoker, Yeats and Joyce, C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Swift—to name a familiar few.

And I wouldn’t want to neglect those sterling female writers, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Iris Murdock, Emma Donoghue, and my personal favorite, Nuala O’Faolain.

Was it the environment? J.R.R. Tolkien used the lunar-like landscape of Burren and the Hole of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Yeats’ last poem “Under Ben Bulben,” was about a brooding plateau mountain of the same name.

Was it governmental incentive? Irish authors are not taxed for creative work produced and sold in Ireland.

Was it the cultural climate of Ireland––the Writers’ Museum, the Abbey Theater, the National Library, the existences of ferries and bridges and statues named after writers? The existence of Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl? The marriage of writerly tradition and alcoholic products reflected in the names Writers’ Pale Ale, Writers’ Tears Whiskey, and Writers’ Block Lager? Was it that the Irish Literature Exchange paid for translations that resulted, for example, in Colm Toibin’s work selling 100,000 copies in China?

Was it the climate, the Northwest Washington-like, gloomy patina of rain upon green that turns one’s thoughts inward?

Kevin Barry, a popular contemporary novelist and short story writer (his most recent novel is Beatlebone, based on John Lennon’s real life purchase of an island off the coast of County Sligo where Barry lives) proclaims the latter:

“Irish literature was invented to get us through long dark nights, to keep out of the God-awful weather, to entertain us. Look out the window––it explains our rich literary history.”

Kevin Barry’s climatological explanation subdued me. I stopped wondering about why Ireland has produced so many great authors and opened myself to the experience of being in Dublin and Dingle, two of the cities my wife and I visited.

Dublin is a UNESCO-designated “City of Literature,” of which there are now eleven, including disparate places like Reykjavik, Iceland; Krakow, Poland, and Dunedin, New Zealand. Dublin’s “City of Words” lists 33 items, including festivals, readings, and book publishing events. We went to many of them.

One favorite: Sweny’s, the pharmacy where Leopold Bloom in Ulysses bought lemon soap. They host readings, sell books and lemon soap, but no drugs. Sweny’s was suggested by Brendan Clarke, the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus driver we became friends with.

“One day when I went,” Clarke said, “I heard someone behind me reading. I thought I know that American voice.” He laughed. “I’ll give you a hint. His initials are H.F.”

“Harrison Ford?” I said.

“That’s right!”

A small chalkboard in Sweny’s front window announced the day, time, and title of the book––all authored by Joyce, of course––from which we would read: “Tuesday, 1 p.m. Dubliners.”

The bustle of Dublin’s overcrowded summer streets receded as we entered a tiny dark room with wood-paneled walls and stacks of old books.

A white-haired gentleman greeted us as we came in, “Here for the reading?” He handed us paperback copies of Joyce’s Dubliners. “Would you like tea?”

Ten strangers, an equal collection of men and women, sat on long wooden benches, each reading a page from “The Dead,” one of the short stories in Dubliners.

Most of us had ordinary voices and reading ability, but there were two whose utterances made me anticipate their turns. Killian, dark-haired, good-looking, dressed in slacks, an open-collared shirt and jacket, was a Ph.D. student in English literature from Cork. Deep-voiced, he read with studied seriousness, leaning into the words, showing reverence for Joyce’s prose.

Sean, wearing a t-shirt with “Anonymous” and a quilled pen on the front, sprang into vocal action. He was athletic and energized as if he were an actor in a one-man play. His dialects and volume changed from character to character. I was sure he was attached to a Dublin Theater. But no, I found out later, he was a public relations guy for a whiskey association who was waiting for his first book to be published, a history of whiskey in Ireland.

This was intimate space occupied by residents of a high-tech world who took pleasure in the simple act of reading to one another. Speaking, reading, reciting, storytelling, singing––Irish culture’s got it right.

I wrote a positive Trip Advisor review and identified Brendan as “a writer.” The next day as we boarded the bus, Brendan was our driver again.

“Listen,” he said, “All the drivers are saying to me, ‘We didn’t know you were a writer.’ Turning to us, he said, I’m not a writer. Maybe you can take that out of the review. I’m just interested in writing.”

That’s the thing about Ireland—there are so many people interested in writing and literature. As travel writer Pol O’Conghaile says in a YouTube video, “The literature isn’t always on the page; it’s almost as if it’s in the air.”

Next Post: Dingle