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From a table in the corner

March 9, 2015

Dingle-Skellig-Hotel-and-Peninsula-Spa-6b5f2833-9d5d-4b0d-ad57-ceda49e8629aFor most people, aside from seasoned business travellers, I expect hotels are pretty personal things. They are, or should be, home from home, stress busting venues, and repositories of family holiday history. They offer shelter and, hopefully, hospitality, but they also build dreams and memories.

It’s a tall order for fulfillment – and different hotels around the world attempt to meet expectations in different ways. There is exclusivity, opulence, size, location, staffing, and ‘themed house style’ as well as a variety of other marketing approaches. Perhaps one of the joys of holiday making is for the guest to seek a hotel which seems to meet expectations – in price, atmosphere, and welcome – and, having identified it, discovering it is all he hoped it would be.

Happy the traveller who finds his hopes fulfilled.

I first visited Dingle in west Kerry in 1971. It would be nice to report I was drawn westward – as far west as you can get in Europe – by my love of the Irish language in this Gaeltacht area, its history, its people, and its stunning views – but all that came later, the truth is more prosaic, and a lot more artificial.

As a teenager I holidayed in Kilkee, Co Clare – and when we arrived there in 1970, the town was still abuzz with the news of the previous winter: the hotels had remained open all though the close season – occupied by film crews from MGM who were making a film down in Kerry. A second unit had been sent to Kilkee – to film a ‘storm’, and had waited around for the best part of nine months to get the right shots. The film was being made by the famous David Lean, Trevor Howard and John Mills had been in town – and already it was rumoured there would be Oscars.

I had long fallen in love with the west Clare coast, often thought it should be a location for film making on a grand scale, and, without knowing anything about the film currently in production, was delighted that the area would be seen on the big screen, and filmed by that genius of film making, David Lean.

The other news was that, in typically grand style, Lean had built an entire village on a mountain top in west Kerry as part of the ‘set’ for his epic. We thought this sounded interesting and waited for the film to appear with huge anticipation.

When “Ryan’s Daughter” emerged, later in the year, it garnered a mixed reception from critics – who largely felt the epic nature of its landscape and cinematography overwhelmed the simple tale, based on “Madame Bovary” of a girl’s dreams leading to infidelity and disaster. Forty years later, in context, it is more valued – and certainly treasured by a large number of ‘old fashioned’ movie buffs. When I saw the film for the first time, I was more concerned with the locations. It was brilliant to recognise well loved areas of west Clare on the panoramic screen, but the scenes on the Dingle Peninsula were nothing short of dazzling. If any partnership could bring beauty to the (very) big screen, it was Lean and his cinematographer, Freddie Young – who rightfully won an Oscar for his work on this production.

Returning to Kilkee for my holidays, I noted the impact the production had made on the town and area – financially and in infrastructure. Muddy paths out on to the cliffs were now cobbled, a trip down to the nearby Bridges of Ross uncovered some of the props used in the storm – still being cast up on the rocks and in the inlets of Goleen.

Dunquin, on the Dingle Peninsula, where much of the production was based, would have to be visited.

We hassled local taxi man, PJ King, into taking us down to Dingle and set off with great hopes of what we would find. In those days it was a long and winding journey, but we eventually arrived in Dingle, made enquiries, and set off into Corca Dhuibhne. More directions led us up a steep lane, surprisingly well constructed for a mountain track., with a style of cobble recognisable from the paths constructed in Clare..

Eventually, after a hard climb, we came to the top of the mountain, Carhoo, on Ballynahow Commons. The sight that met us was a cobbled village street, surrounded by the remains of demolition. The village had gone, but the street was identifiably still there – a bizarre sight in such a remote location. Those who have seen the film will testify as to the beauty of the location. Those who love film will understand the satisfaction of matching film fantasy with geographic reality: a strange sensation.

I picked up a fibre glass slate from one of the cottages, and identified each bit of the street: Ryan’s pub, the RIC Barracks, the platform where Moureen Cassidy and her pals hung out. Amazing to think of a year’s filming in this purpose built location; bizarre by the standards of today’s CGI productions.

From the end of the street I first gained a view which still makes my heart leap whenever I see it: the Blasket islands, sitting hunched against the wild Atlantic waves.

PJ, our taxi driver, after checking the suspension of the car, headed back down the mountain and stopped again to ask directions. We parked, and headed up past a couple of houses, over a gate, and crested a hill. In front of us, a strangely familiar view of those islands, and immediately beside us, the Schoolhouse from the film – only this location was intact and exactly as it had been in the film – inside and out. To stand in the schoolroom, or in the rooms where Bob Mitchum and Sarah Miles silenced out their creaking relationship, was another confusing moment – what was real and what was make believe? Sets built in this way – and this was a perfect reproduction of a National School from the 1880s, even to the boys and girls entrances, the cobbled playground, and the mangle in the garden – – play games with your senses. And, from the road in front of the school, there were those islands – hypnotic, and claiming attention and thought.

That was my introduction to west Kerry, and, in time, I would come to learn that the arrival of MGM and Faraway Productions – ‘the last of the travelling circuses’ as Lean termed it, had a life changing effect on Dingle and the surrounding villages. Their isolation was broken, millions of pounds were injected into the local economy, and, in a kind of Faustian moment, some of its Gaeltacht ‘purity’ was lost, but many locals who would have emigrated were enabled to stay, and save Dingle, in particular, from a slow decline. Tourism numbers leapt, as folk like myself saw ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and wanted to visit its locations. Fishermen became motor mechanics, farmers became guest house hosts, the unemployed became construction workers. Life moved on in this western outpost.

Having been first attracted by the fantasy of film, I remained hooked by everything else that the real Corca Dhuibhne had to offer.

As a student, I visited as often as I could – a journey that started with a ferry from the UK and ended up with hitching out to the guest house in Dún Chaoin run by Kruger Kavanagh – an amazing local character. In his bar, surrounded by some of those who had left the Blasket in 1953, I started to learn Irish phrases, found out about the real locality as opposed to that created by David Lean, and, sometimes. I was served by another local who would become a legend, Paidí Ó Sé.

I discovered more of the film locations: Coumeenoule Strand, the rocky outcrop at Wayland – where still could be seen the rough track laid down to allow the bus to approach “Killins Cross” in the film, and then on to other pieces of scenic magic – Ventry Strand, Clogher Strand with its ever angry breakers, the impossible slope down to Cé Dhún Chaoin, and those trips out to the bewitching Blaskets with the echo of tradition in the tumbling stones of the village, and the near perfection of An Tra Ban. There was the spiritual calm of Gallarus’ Oratory and the experience of Mass in Irish at Ballyferriter – whose pubs were also welcoming – and another opportunity to acquire and practise some more Irish. As a teacher, I was inspired by the successful fight to save St Gobnait’s National School at Dunquin, and delighted to see how it prospers. Dingle itself – from Church to pubs to shops to quirky lanes and avenues was a delight, none more so than the place with a claim to be the best bookshop on earth: An Café Liteartha.

Soon, the road to Ceann Sléibhe became not only familiar but an integral part of my life, travelled regularly in my head when the world to the east proved challenging or stressful, the memory of waves crashing on Coumeenoule Strand, the uneven squares of green fields, carved out of rock, and running down to brown cliffs surrounded by turquoise breakers, providing an antidote to the worst that could be thrown at me in my ‘other world’.

As life progressed, job, family, and other responsibilities, limited my visits – though in my head and heart, I was never far away.

Eventually, it was time to go back, and to make the Corca Dhuibhne experience a family affair.

In the mid 1990s, with my wife and son, I booked for our first stay at the Dingle Skellig Hotel. I had known of it since I first came to these parts, and once, as a student, seeking a pint, had made my way as far as the car park before deciding it was a little too grand for the likes of me and retracing my steps to the town.

I suppose, like Rosy Ryan and the Major, in Lean’s epic, it was a case of love at first sight. The three of us felt immediately welcome, comfortable, and relaxed by all that the Skellig had to offer. From Reception, to Bar, to lounges, bedrooms, and leisure areas, there was an inescapable feeling of being in a ‘home from home’. If you were planning a hotel that you would want to keep returning to, year after year, this would be the one. Nothing is too much trouble for a staff who genuinely seem to wish you as good a stay as possible. Throughout the years, whenever we have returned – and it must be seven or eight visits now – we hear the conversations of staff welcoming back guests, enquiring about family members, pets, life events. Hospitality training and marketing can only go so far – the Skellig staff seem to have a genuine investment in making the hotel welcoming and suitable for all who choose to stay there. The hotel staff from Corca Dhuibhne are rightly proud of where they come from – they’ll give directions, share local knowledge, and greet you out in town. Staff from elsewhere show every sign of being aware of their good fortune in working in such a hotel in such an area.

None will pass without a greeting, nothing is too much trouble to arrange; days are enquired after, plans are supported, joys are shared.

A pint in front of the fire in the residents’ lounge, a meal in the bar, a session in the leisure centre or Spa, the entertainment for kids, or the social dancing for the older folk: all is arranged to engender the memories and inspiration that a hotel should strive to provide. You can sit quietly and reflect – or join in the craic with other residents or staff; you are given the space to shape your contentment.

The Skellig has succeeded through the years in pulling off that most difficult of balancing acts – to provide a top level hotel experience – in accommodation, customer service, and standards – whilst somehow embodying the innate and joyously informal hospitality of the area in which it operates. It’s like going through an open door to find an effusive and genuine welcome, a kettle on the boil, and a pot of stew ready to serve.

I love the Skellig and I love its staff. I used to think we were in a special and exclusive relationship – but, over the years, I’ve realised that there are people all over the world who, when they close their eyes and seek some port from the storms of daily life, are transported to the lounge or bar of the Skellig, or the winding road that heads for Slea Head.

Likewise, the efforts of David Lean, Freddie Young and Faraway productions have drawn thousands to this part of heaven, and still do – where Moureen Cassidy’s laugh echoes on Carhoo mountain, Fr Hugh’s hangover thunders on the rocks of Coumeenoule, the children shout in the Schoolhouse playground at Cill Gobnait, and poor Michael still blows into the horn of the phonograph in the gusting winds of Waymont at Graigue. These days I am quite content that the fantasy of film brought me to the serenity of nature.

One more point about the Skellig.

It first came to my notice when I learned that some of the crew and actors made the hotel their base during the extended, and not always harmonious, shooting schedule. Indeed, their long and high spending stay at the Skellig enabled the hotel to expand in all directions.

The Dining Room, or Coastguard Restaurant, boasts a view, on two sides, out into Dingle Bay – surely one of the finest views from any hotel dining room in the world. There is a corner table in the original dining room area with windows on two sides. This was known as “David Lean’s Table”. Though he had ’company’ for some of the time, he generally dined alone – not choosing to mix with cast or crew outside of working hours. With high end wines and carefully sourced haute cuisine, provided by local chef, John Moriarty, the great Director would sit and eat and think – looking out on that inspirational view, creating scenes for his epic, seeing nature with an editor’s photographic skills, translating emotions into pictures, reality into dreamland.

I love sitting at that table – prosaically, it must be said, for the best full Irish Breakfast available anywhere, but, in more poetic tones, because it is possible to share that same view, to imagine great visions, and be grateful that rather repressed, obsessive and idiosyncratic Englishman made the decisions – artistic, financial, and creative, that brought me to this piece of perfection. This is a table from which you can appreciate humanity and nature, life and art. And Breakfast!

Thank you, David Lean. Thank you Dingle Skellig.

I’ll be back! Beidh mé ais!

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