Kerry: Rambling among the Romanesque

GALLARUS AND KILMALKEDAR, DINGLE

SETTING out, we take the neatly gravelled path — signposted Gallarus Oratory — towards that unique stone structure created 13 centuries ago. The design is inspired; perhaps the saint designed it. Light pours through a single-shafted window in the gable. Nothing was used but stones, yet it is bone dry inside.

The hills rise behind, with stone walled fields, and houses scattered on the lower levels. On typical Atlantic days, the sun pierces the clouds like a searchlight sweeping across the hills, dark at one moment, dazzling green the next.

At the tarred road, we go left, a narrow road, lined with fuchsia, climbing gently and, unfortunately, busy at times.

A stone plaque tells us we are in Baile na n-Ath. Opposite it, we take the unmade boreen and go left at the road; it can be busy but we won’t be on it for long. As it descends, the views of Smerwick Harbour and Wine Strand are magnificent.

Passing a long, straight road on the left, we continue to a stile and visit the Cathair Deargáin settlement, a well-preserved collection of five hut foundations within a ringfort, with a commanding position over the plain stretching to Murreagh Strand, present-day Ballydavid village, Wine Strand with Binn Diarmada rising beyond and Cruach Mhárthain and Mount Eagle to the south.

Looking right, we see other stone ruins, Tigh an tSeansailéara, the 13th century home of the Chancellor of Ardfert Diocese.

The nearby church settlement of Kilmalkedar, built in the 12th century and the most important ecclesiastical foundation on the Dingle peninsula, is described as an “Irish Romanesque cathedral in miniature”.

Kilmalkedar was also a centre of learning. Within the church is a 7th century abcedarium (inscription) stone, carved with the earliest surviving Roman lettering in Ireland. There is also a holed stone, indicating earlier pagan worship, and an ogham-marked stone outside.

Nearby is a crude stone cross, dramatic in resilience, a relic of Celtic Christianity, the faith before the Roman frills. Similar crosses stand at the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael, seven miles out to sea.

Back on the lane, we take the sign for the Pilgrim’s Way on the right, the route of old Saint’s Road to the summit of Mount Brandon for the pilgrimages to St Brendan’s shrine. Below it, is the small St Brendan’s well, still visited by the devout on Easter Day.

Reaching the road, we go right, descending gently, the sea ahead. Soon, a narrow path to the right, takes us to the enclosure to Argail Bréannain, Brendan’s Oratory, which predates Gallarus. Further along, we see the steeple of the Church of Ireland, built in 1860 and now deconsecrated.

We pass the village of An Mhuiríoch and continue onto Murreagh Strand, host to many birds in winter. In summer, the rockpools teem with life.

We walk left along the beach. Dun an Óir and Cruach Mhárthain are landmarks ahead. The path up from the beach is sandy before we cross a field and, at a farmyard, follow the sign for the Way of the Saints. We come to a farm with a castle on our right, a 16h century, FitzGerald stronghold. The Gallarus trailhead is a few minutes down the path.


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