Wet west's a jaunty test

A few showers, a little mud, lots of mist and great stories — Richard Tulloch soaks up some rugged coastal beauty.

"NOBODY does rain like the Irish," our walking guide John Ahern assures us. "Other places have rain too but our Irish rain has character." A likely story, I think, as I pour myself a third cup of coffee to wash down my full Irish breakfast of soda bread, eggs, bacon and black pudding.

Outside, character-filled rain is drenching the streets of Tralee and thick mist shrouds the Slieve Mish Mountains above the town.

"It's a holiday, not a route march," John reminds us, "so you can decide how much walking you want to do during the week. Any time you've had enough, I'll arrange for the leprechauns to pick us up."

That's sounding better. Though most of our group - Canadian, German, American, Swiss, Dutch and Australian - are experienced hikers, we're also the wrong side of 50 and not looking for athletic achievements to notch up on our trekking poles. Four or five hours' walking each day will be plenty, especially in this weather.

When the shower eases, John drives us in his little van to our starting point on the Dingle Way. The name suggests a gentle amble rather than a vicious trek and although there is some mud, some rocky terrain and a couple of respectable climbs to negotiate, we find we can all comfortably manage.

We slosh through fields and clamber over stiles, watched by wary sheep, and soon we have to agree with John that a little Irish rain adds to the experience. The countryside is lovely when the sun breaks through but it's the cloud clinging to the peaks, the showers drifting across from islands in the bay and the moisture glistening on stone that give it its unique quality.

Walkers come to Ireland's west coast for its gentle beauty, the appeal lying less in spectacular vistas than in the colours at eye-level. Bright fuchsias and orange monbretias line winding country roads. Heather and gorse-covered slopes are broken by ancient stone walls. Russet red sphagnum moss is slowly turning into peat bogs and the locals are still cutting the black stuff and stacking it for drying.

Visitors come here for the history and the stories. This is land where for centuries people struggled for survival, battling poverty and oppression. Drystone walls mark age-old farm boundaries and offer us a sheltered lunch spot, and we explore what is left of the oratories - tiny chapels from the early days of Christianity. John points out the remains of the beehive huts used by travelling preachers and storytellers through the centuries.

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The walking pace is leisurely and we love it when John calls a halt to fill us in on some history, share a joke, or moan about Irish farming practices ("propped up by your European subsidies").

Colourful characters pepper his stories. St Brendan the Navigator set sail from the Dingle Peninsula in the 6th century for Iceland, Greenland and, according to some, America. More recent adventurer Tim Severin recreated Brendan's voyage and proved that crossing the Atlantic in a leather vessel was possible, though not for the faint-hearted.

Sir Roger Casement, human rights activist and Irish patriot, was captured at Tralee Bay and executed by the British for alleged collaboration with the Germans during WWI.

At the end of the day, tired but satisfied and with very wet boots, we squelch back to civilisation in the Railway Junction Bar. Mick the bearded barman pours us hot toddies and we join local Kerrymen watching a hurling match on TV. Then John drives us back to Tralee for hot showers and dinner. Excellent meals are part of the package and we enjoy the local salmon before slumping into our comfortable beds.

Next morning leprechauns arrive to ferry our luggage to a hotel by Smerwick Harbour, while we make a solid climb up the mountain above lovely Lake Annascaul. Along the way we hear John's rendition of the legend of the giant Cu Chulainn's battle on the towering cliffs and we learn that the rough circle on the hilltop is the ruin of a Celtic fort, thousands of years old.

That afternoon we have time to wander round Dingle village, buzzing with visitors. It's playing up its Irish charm to attract them, with brightly painted cafes and shops. Our traditional pub dinner in John Benny Moriarty's is followed by a fine session of the traditional Irish music for which Dingle is famous.

"Australian, are yeh?" someone asks me, "D'ye know Tadhg Kennelly?" I'm happy to say that although we're not close mates, I've watched him play some decent AFL games for the Sydney Swans. That's a good answer, apparently. I can bask in the reflected glory of a local Kerry hero.

We give our legs a midweek break and spend a day poking around the schoolhouse left over from the filming of Ryan's Daughter and visiting the Great Blasket Centre, a museum dedicated to Gaelic language and art. It looks out on Great Blasket Island, from which the last few residents of Ireland's most westerly point were evacuated in 1953. Most had already left for Springfield, Massachusetts. "Ireland was never a place people came to; it was a place people left," we're told.

They're trickling back now. Dingle hillsides are dotted with holiday homes but it's still far from crowded and not much is going on in little Clohane, where we spend our final evening. John tells us the Clohane policeman once made the Guinness Book of Records for going 30 years without bringing a single miscreant to court.

There's a piano in the corner of the pub, so we make our own fun, singing Irish and German songs and dusting off our party piece recitations. Accompanying impromptu dancing and my new Canadian friend David's tin whistle, even my scratchy fiddle-playing is accepted.

We may be disturbing the peace but the policeman leaves us alone. Dingle Peninsula welcomes colourful characters.

The writer was a guest of Utracks.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies from Sydney to Cork via London. Buses run hourly between Cork and Tralee. €30 ($37) return.

Walking there

Utracks offers eight-day walks on Dingle Peninsula including accommodation, meals and luggage transport from $1790 (guided) and $1190 (self-guided). 1300 303 368, utracks.com.

More information

dingleway.net; discoverireland.com/au.

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