Christmas in Dingle is very special.
Dingle is a small harbor town in County Kerry known for its authentic pubs with traditional music and craic, as well as for the warmth of its people. It is an active fishing port surrounded by green hillside pastures typical of the Irish countryside – green even in winter.
I knew Dingle would be the perfect choice for a quiet Christmas in Ireland so I suggested my wife and two grown children go there for the holidays. We agreed that this would be our Christmas present to each other.
The Dingle Peninsula is a smart tourist’s itinerary during the warmer months of the year. It includes Sleigh Head Drive which winds around the nearby Ventry Peninsula to Ballyferriter and displays some of the world’s most spectacular shorelines. Its cliffs and raging seas form the westernmost tip of Europe. The famous Blasket Islands and their ‘Sleeping Giant’ are seen from the narrow road and the rest areas along the way.
Our winter experience of this beautiful road was reinforced by a violent and icy wind. Thank goodness for the little cafe on wheels and its owner parked at one of the stops. She was serving hot apple cider and home baked cookies that morning.
During the winter months, most of the tourists are gone and residents are left to enjoy a quiet holiday season. I guess my family and I might be considered tourists by some, but I like to think of myself as an occasional guest – you know, like a distant relative that comes by every now and then.
We rented a chalet owned by one of the old families on the peninsula. Griffith’s Cottage was a three bedroom, two bath with stunning views of the mountain slopes and the farmlands of the valley below. Flocks of sheep grazed on the trails for most of our stay. It was a white stone cottage with a red Dutch door just across Mount Brandon from Dingle. There was a fireplace in which we burned wood and peat bricks for extra warmth.
The Dingle Peninsula is predominantly rural and is home to a significant portion of the Gaelic speaking residents of County Kerry. Much of the signage and information is still in the traditional Irish language. One of the highlights of my time there was the conversation I had with a farmer who lived down the alley from our chalet. He was working in the front yard of his farm while I was walking around on a foggy morning.
The old gentleman greeted me in a friendly way, so I stopped to introduce myself and tell him why I was in the neighborhood. We had a great conversation – I think. It was very friendly, but I could only understand one sentence here and there. He spoke with a lyrical mix of English and traditional Irish.
After a day of shopping for small gifts and knickknacks (we agreed to limit our Christmas shopping to $ 20 each), dinner was one of the best in Dingle. Some of Ireland’s best food is served in its pubs. The Dingle is open during the holidays, except Christmas Day. The same welcoming atmosphere, traditional music, great food and drink are enjoyed by local customers all year round. This consistent service is what defines my use of the term authentic, and I am personally reassured to know that it is there, whether the tourists are there or not.
At the start of the week we enjoyed great meals and music at John Benny Moriarty and Murphy’s. Of course, the warm atmosphere of these pubs is accentuated by straining lights and roaring fires during winter holiday nights.
In Dingle, coming home at night is a reminder of the real reason for the season. It is a tradition there, as in other small towns in Ireland, to place a single white candle in each window to honor the birth of Christ. Candles were present in store windows and in the windows of almost every house we passed.
On a clear night after dinner, as I drove the road that steadily climbed up the hill to our cabin, I realized how much this tradition is being observed throughout the community. The seaside town sparkled in the night with candlelight in almost every house and window.
Fishermen have sought refuge from the many storms of life in St. Mary’s Catholic Church for over two hundred years. Located on Green Street halfway between the harbor and Main Street, it provides a sanctuary and garden respite in the center of town. To fully appreciate Irish culture, tradition and spirit, one must understand the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland, especially in its small towns. For centuries, he has effectively woven the Catholic liturgy and ritual with colored strands from ancient Celtic traditions.
To fully experience Christmas in Dingle, my wife suggested that we attend evening mass on Christmas Eve. Attending Christmas Eve services was part of his education in Ohio. For this vacationer, it turned out to be the most meaningful experience of our visit.
It was the scheduled start time at Saint Mary’s and parishioners were still arriving. Families have arrived with their children. Several came straight from the football (soccer) field with boys in shorts and team shirts under their winter coats. Two red-haired brothers wore their uniforms while singing in the children’s choir. The procession began and our senses filled with music, incense and traditional Christmas carols.
The service was held with readings alternating between English and Irish – what a great way to hear the Word of God. A sermon on the birth of Christ in Bethlehem was delivered by the priest directly to the children, who were periodically asked about the baby Jesus, the manger and what happened next. Responses were shouted in response with simplicity and a lovely Irish accent.
The service ended with a quiet song sung by candlelight. The stained glass windows glowed with a colorful presence thanks to the exterior lighting. The adults exchanged holiday vows and the children rushed for one last visit with friends, doing well to respect the respectful tone. My family came out of the nave, through the large wooden doors and into the cool night air.
It had started to snow. We joined the others as we walked up Green Street to their parked cars. Some had umbrellas. The snow just fell on our shoulders and our hair. Shops along the way had closed earlier in the evening, but their window decorations were still bright. White lights hung along the street above their heads, swaying from side to side.
I tightened my scarf a bit and pulled it all in. The snow didn’t bother me at all. Right now my family and I were part of the community, returning home to our cottage in Dingle for a peaceful Christmas.
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