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Talking Location with author Penny Feeny – County Kerry

8th September 2019

#TalkingLocationWith… Penny Feeny, author of The Beach at Doonshean – County Kerry.

The southwest of Ireland has a particular kind of magic. It’s easier to get to nowadays as the roads have improved significantly, but it still has a wonderful sense of remoteness. You can’t help but be aware, as you follow the wild Atlantic Way, that for three thousand miles to the west there is nothing but ocean. A visit to Brandon, where St Brendan allegedly set off for paradise and discovered America, will bring this home. From Dingle you climb a narrow snaking road to the top of the Conor Pass (the highest in the country) with its breath-taking views, before descending to the harbour below. There’s a little pub on the quayside and a row of upturned coracles on the shore and the kind of timeless tranquil atmosphere that makes you feel, as St Brendan must have done, that you are at the end of the world.

Penny Feeny

County Kerry is justly famous for the glorious lakes that encircle Killarney and for its spectacular coastline. There are miles of golden beaches, backed by sheltering dunes, stretching into the Atlantic. Surfers ride the waves, children scavenge in the rock pools and the swimming can be idyllic, especially when the tide is coming in over sun-warmed sand. You can even catch the unforgettable sight of a shoal of dolphins leaping for their dinner. Derrynane and Ballinskelligs, both in the south of the county, have to be among the most beautiful beaches in the world. They ae close to the little town of Waterville, which was Charlie Chaplin’s chosen retreat. The hotel where he stayed most summers, The Butler Arms, has a very fine restaurant that bears his name and displays a stuffed salmon that he’s supposed to have caught.

Penny Feeny

In Ballybunion in north Kerry the beaches are named after the people who used them: the Men’s Strand, the Ladies’ Strand and the Nuns’ Strand – because the nuns had direct access from their convent. On the Ladies’ Strand at low tide there are impressive caves to explore; at high tide or in poor weather you can take a seaweed bath. This novelty is peculiarly Irish; they were at their most popular in Edwardian times but are now seeing a comeback. The seaweed releases its minerals in contact with hot water and devotees swear by the effects of its revitalising properties. It’s gathered daily from below the cliffs where above you, facing out to sea, is what remains of a ruined castle – ruins abound in Ireland, adding to the atmosphere.

Virgin Rock at Nuns’ Strand

We had many years of family holidays based in Ballybunion and often took trips south to the Dingle peninsula, much of it a Gaeltacht area where Irish is still spoken. At its westernmost tip is Slea Head, the beach that always excited our children the most for the drama of its waves. And on the way back from our day out we would often stop for a meal in Dingle itself, a pretty and colourful fishing village. Although increasingly sophisticated, it has lost none of its charm and is packed with excellent pubs and restaurants. All along the coast the fish – and particularly the seafood – is terrific; a local speciality is seafood chowder, where the contents will vary with the day’s catch but the soup gets its wonderful velvety texture from the use of carrageen moss – another kind of seaweed.

Seaweed bath

Dingle is where I chose to set my most recent novel, The Beach at Doonshean, which covers a period of ten days or so in the lives of two families, one English, one Irish. The story is set in April 2010 when volcanic eruption grounded planes for a week. Julia Wentworth, newly retired and facing a crossroads in her life, is caught up in the travel chaos and finds herself in Ireland. On impulse she returns to Dingle, where her first husband drowned saving the life of a local child, and learns that his sacrifice has not been forgotten. I wanted to explore the effects that such an act of heroism might have on those in its wake and what would happen if the families came into contact again. The beach of the title is close to the town but not well-known because it only exists when the tide is out; one end is also subject to dangerous currents. This was necessary for the purposes of my story, but don’t let it put you off exploring this fascinating coastline and enjoying the full warmth of Irish hospitality!

View from Connor Pass

All photos © Miranda Ryan

Thank you so much to Penny for sharing her thoughts on this truly idyllic part of the world. You can of course buy her novel through the TripFiction Database

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