We polished off our cheese, bread, and coffee, then headed back to the car for the latter half of the Slea head drive.
I gazed out the passenger window as the low rock wall sped by, looking out to the cliffs. Bits of land jutted out into the water beyond, tops tufted with grasses so richly colored that they were vibrant, even from afar. Farther beyond these, in the hazy distance, islands rose up from sea. One of them, known as the “Sleeping Giant”, is true to its name – it looked exactly like a giant on his back, his hands on top of his stomach, napping peacefully amongst the waves. To our right, the green patchwork of the mountain sloped upward, dotted with the occasional cottage or ruin. It was hard to know which way to look when surrounded by so much beauty.
We were heading toward the part of Slea head I was most excited about: Gallarus Oratory. Following Rick Steves’ directions, we found the “secret” free parking and walked up a pathway edged with lush, dense fuchsia.
And then, there it was. The driving tour describes Gallarus as “one of Ireland’s best-preserved early-Christian churches”, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s incredibly intact, considering it was built anywhere from 1000 to 1500 years ago. From the front, the corbel-vaulted stones slope up in a tall, rounded triangular shape. Ducking through the rectangular doorway into dimness, I found the interior was larger than the outside would ever have you believe. It was still cozy – no more than a dozen people could fit inside comfortably. Peeking out through the tiny-roundish window at the rear provides a narrow porthole to the outside world of stone walls and greenery.
Looking up, the marvel of its engineering is clear: it’s amazing to consider how much care and effort went into cutting the stones to fit together perfectly, placing them at just the right angle so that they slant downward to the outside (allowing water to run over them without leaking), and overlapping themjust soall the way up to the peaked roof.
From Gallarus Oratory we drove the short distance to Kilmalkedar – the sight along Slea head about which Jason was most excited. It spans 10 acres, but a majority of the structure is concentrated around the main buildings. While the monastery was founded in the 7th century, the main building itself wasn’t built until the 12th century. Like many of the monasteries we’ve seen in Ireland so far, it’s surrounded by tombs and headstones of varying ages.
The architecture is fabulous – a multi-room chapel with a caved-in roof, Romanesque doorways, and an intricate stone archway known as the Chancel arch. These details especially distinguished it from some of the monasteries we’d seen previously, such as Kilmacduagh. These, though no less impressive, had fewer intricate details (a mark of their pre-dating Kilmalkedar by several centuries). Both inside and out, Kilmalkedar is scattered with both Christian and pagan relics, including a sundial and two holy wells.
Outside the monastery is an Ogham,or alphabet, stone. Ogham is the oldest form of written language in Ireland, Like other alphabet stones in Ireland with this characteristic, this hole at the top has the more modern-day tradition of couples touching thumbs through the stone to renew their wedding vows. (This is derivative of another fairly contemporary tradition, wherein deals were sealed in this same fashion: the touching of thumbs through the hole being used to make binding agreements. A more civilized ritual than spitting into your palm before shaking someone’s hand, I think.)
A stone walkway leads between the tombstones directly up to one of the beautiful arched doorways. Inside, an alphabet stone dating back to the 6th century is inscribed with Ancient Latin (linguistics buffs might be interested to know that many relics in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are written in both Ogham and Ancient Latinor Old Norse.) As far as variety of relics is concerned, Kilmalkedar was outstanding. We definitely feel it’s worth a visit, and would even return again to explore it further.
A post-lunch slump was setting in, or perhaps we were just experiencing a withdrawal from all the delicious but undoubtedly caffeinated Barry’s tea we’d been drinking with breakfast. We were almost to the end of the drive, and so we made our way back to Dingle town and the B&B to relax in the sitting room, drink tea, nibble on shortbread, and take in the beautiful view in the downtime before dinner at one of the town’s preeminent seafood restaurants: Out of the Blue.