THE GOLDEN KINGDOM OF THE WEST

Myra Keane looks back to treasured visits to the South-West of Ireland – golden days that live on in her memory.

Imagine a land of currachs, Fungie the friendly dolphin, “high nellie” bikes, good home cooking, never-ending unpolluted beaches, the smell of porter, the inky black of the night sky, foot-stomping chaos at a traditional Irish music session…

This is the Dingle Peninsula, or Corca Dhuibhne – the way life should be – in south-west Ireland.

I was an impressionable seventeen-year-old schoolgirl when I had my first introduction to the peninsula on a school trip.

We stayed at a hostel in Dun Chaoin, overlooking the Great Blasket Islands, uninhabited since 1953.

I had a great view of the surrounding landscape used in the production of “Ryan’s Daughter”, starring Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles, and “Far and Away”, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Earlier still, “The Playboy of the Western World” was also filmed here.

I loved especially the dirt road leading down to the nearby beach, and the way the wind whipped up the Atlantic waves to a frenzy. I knew just how Sarah Miles had felt, walking along Inch Strand to meet Robert Mitchum…

But a couple of centuries before that, you wanted to avoid the Strand altogether, in case the wreckers got your vessel!

A passion for the place had been sown in me on this first trip to West Kerry, and it would blossom over the years.

While attending University College Cork, established over 150 years ago by Queen Victoria, I was awarded a

together with five hills known as the Three Sisters and Two Cousins!

The most amazing thing about this climb, completed in under two hours, is the way in which the Atlantic Ocean meets the shore in a dazzling display of so many different shades of blue.

Depending on the weather, your eyes can be assailed by opaque, cobalt, sea and sky blue – and so many hues in between.

On a clear day, you can just make out the Island known as An Fear Marbh (the Dead Man) supposed to look like someone lying in state!

It was always the glorious sing-songs and Irish music sessions which made the scholarships for me. Whether they were held in a pub, on a beach, up a hill or on the side of a mountain, they had a way of unifying the whole group.

It would be very hard to beat these sessions for entertainment value. They were magical.

No scholarship was complete without a trip to the Blasket Islands. The sail over, usually by Currach, was always exciting and never more so than when the sea was stormy.

We spent a few precious hours on the island exploring the ruins, the only reminders of a people who struggled hard to survive. We could only imagine what life must have been like for them, especially when they were forced to flee their island home because it would no longer sustain them.

I loved sitting on the beach watching the shy seals at their play. In local lore, seals are reputed to be the souls of drowned fishermen.

Back on dry land, we often went into the pub for a refreshing drink before

succession of Irish language scholar-ships to this emerald jewel in Kerry’s crown.

These scholarships, given to 100 enthusiastic students, were the ticket to happiness, new friendships and fun.

For two wonderful weeks we lived with host families who were native Gaelic speakers. They treated us like their own. We eagerly looked forward to the delicious meals they prepared for us, while taking the chance to brush up our native tongue!

All the participants on the scholarship met each day at Carraig Church, not far from Feathanach village, to decide on the journey we’d make that particular afternoon.

That was where the old-fashioned high nellie bikes came in. At that pace it was easy to see why Kerry natives believe there are only two kingdoms that really matter; the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Kerry.

On warm, balmy September evenings, you could hardly hear a pin dropping along the road. The stillness and tranquillity of the is paradise has a tendency to exchange the place and its occupants.

Of course, this sound of silence was interrupted constantly by the chatter and laughter of our group.

A favourite ride of mine was to the majestic ruins of a Napoleonic look-out post, Ballydavid Tower. It’s not too high to climb, yet there’s a magnificent view of the land below, with its 40 shades of green. Ireland’s second highest mountain, Mount Brandon, can be seen, starting the journey home to our wonderful host families – and a welcome supper.

With the sun at our backs, we cycled blissfully at a steady pace, passing friendly farmers driving cows home for milking, sheep grazing by the roadside and children who always seemed to be laughing in this kingdom by the sea.

Fungie, the famous Dingle Dolphin, was first seen off the Kerry coast by two snorkellers in 1984. Over the years he became a solo tourist attraction, and loved to put on a show for the visitors – much like all the other friendly locals!

In West Kerry I always felt much closer to God’s presence, amid such achingly beautiful scenery. And the famed Celtic and Christian heritage of Ireland is here before you, around every corner.

The ruins of ancient churches, beehive huts, oratories shaped like upturned boards, fairy forts, ogham stones and old burial grounds all bear witness to this precious inheritance.

Looking back, there was a profound sense of fellowship among these groups, different from anything else I’ve ever experienced. At the time, we lived for these two terrific weeks of summer. The carefree existence and great craic we enjoyed back in West Kerry, the next parish to America is hard to replicate anywhere else.

I carry in my heart a legacy of friendship from that time, keeping in contact with the many friends I made there who now work in England, Scotland, the rest of Europe and America. Whenever we meet up, suddenly we’re students again and those golden moments are, for a brief time, back with us…