A Texas connection in the Irish countryside

Updated Sept 10, 2016

The name really doesn’t do it justice. As I begin the hourlong bus ride into the Dingle Peninsula, one thought fills my head: This is the Ireland of my imagination. Within minutes, the bus is engulfed by green hills with rectangular fields perfectly cut out by stone walls. On the horizon, hundreds of sheep are huddled together, grazing; they look like white dots sprinkled on a lush landscape. The first signs of Dingle — the town — are the masts of boats and the glistening blue water.

I arrived with my mother — whose mother was Irish-Argentine — in early July as part of our countrywide trip to reconnect with our roots. At first glance, it looks nothing like my hometown of Austin, except for the rare blue skies that welcome us that first day. It’s not until I walk through the town, following the self-guided tour from Rick Steves’ travel book, that I begin to feel an atmosphere reminiscent of home: organic ice cream, friendly locals, live music on every corner – even on a Sunday night.

The Dingle Peninsula is located in the southwest coast of Ireland, perching on the westernmost tip of the country — and Europe. Its main town, by the same name, is made up of only a few blocks and roughly 1,300 residents. The narrow streets are lined with colorful buildings cozied up together like old friends, full of shops, bookstores and plenty of pubs — over 50 of them, to be exact. Historically dominated by fishing, the town runs mostly off of tourism now. Many locals are transplants who quickly made a home of Dingle: Our Airbnb host was from Slovenia, a woman at one of the pubs was from France, a young girl working at a boutique was from Slovakia. But the least likely resident was a 30-something dolphin named Fungie who has lived in the Dingle port since a young age and has become a tourist attraction.

Dingle is part of the Gaeltacht, a region where the government subsidizes the survival of the Irish language and culture. And it doesn’t go unnoticed. Signs are in both English and Irish, kids learn Irish in school and locals speak to each other primarily in Irish. (Although they call it Irish, it’s really just Gaelic.)

“It’s not that hard once you pick it up,” says Aoife White, 10, who speaks both languages fluently. “We learned it in school when we were little.”

She teaches me how to say the typical Irish greetings: “dia duit” and “dia is muire duit” — literally “May God be with you” and “May God and Mary be with you.” If that’s hard to read, it’s even harder to pronounce; it sounds nothing like it’s written. As I attempt the phrases, she corrects my pronunciation and, after a couple of times, decides my accent will do for now.

I met White and her mother on my second day in Dingle at a pub serving Texas barbecue for Fourth of July. The O’Sullivan Courthouse Pub, owned by Houston-native Saundra O’Sullivan and her Irish husband, Tommy O’Sullivan, is a haven for American travelers, especially those who find themselves far from home on Independence Day. True to her roots, O’Sullivan brings out her smoker for American holidays or every time an American tour group comes through. She makes homemade salsa and cooks Texas specials like brisket, smoked sausages and pulled pork.

“I introduced everyone to brisket here and now they love it,” O’Sullivan says. “Their idea of a barbecue is throwing a hot dog on a grill kind of a thing. They don’t really know what barbecue is, from our standpoint.”

She doesn’t stop at just barbecues. Every Thanksgiving, O’Sullivan hosts a big potluck-style feast with the must-have items: turkey, gravy and stuffing. Everyone is welcome, locals and visitors alike.

“Dingle is like you’re in a little bubble; it’s like a make-believe world in a way,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s a real sense of community, things that happen here would never happen somewhere else. It’s a very small town.”

O’Sullivan and her husband, a professional musician, met while he was on tour in Texas. The couple has a strong network of musicians from all over the world who come by their pub and play all styles of music.

“We’ve even said, with all the live music here, that Dingle should be Austin’s sister city,” says O’Sullivan. “The friendliness of the people here, for the most part, they try to be very caring for their neighbors. And that’s one thing that I always think about Texas.”

There’s an abundance of live music in Dingle on any given night. The streets, which feel safe at all times of the day and night, are lined with pubs advertising traditional Irish music. It’s important to get there early enough to order a locally brewed beer and grab a good seat. We visited three different pubs all three nights we spent in Dingle and saw an array of instruments: the Irish pipes, flutes of all shapes and sizes, banjos, guitars. Outside the Dingle Music Shop, a middle-aged couple from Seattle make another connection between Dingle and Austin’s live music scene.

But whether you come to Dingle for its traditional music, the pubs themselves are worth a visit. Dingle has several historic pubs, a few of which are over 200 years old and have kept their original interiors. When we peaked our heads into Ó Curráin Bar, curious of its inside but not planning to order drinks, the bartender welcomed us in. Instantly we felt the stare of a handful of locals: We were clearly the tourists in this situation. But the bartender showed us around and, in true Irish fashion, was full of wit and full of stories.

“The bar has been kept the same over hundreds of years. I’ve been here most of that time,” he jokes.

Historically, pubs in Dingle served a dual purpose. Many of them were once pub-groceries or pub-bakeries. But as with other Irish traditions, some of the pubs in Dingle have kept up this dual identity. Dick Mack’s Pub has a small leather shop on its premises, Ó Curráin always has outdoor clothing for sale and Foxy John’s is a hardware store, bicycle rental place and pub all in one.

Most travel guides recommend only one or two nights in Dingle. It’s a small town, and it’s possible to see everything in just a couple of days. But that’s if you want to experience it at the surface level, to hit up the most important spots and head out. The real charm of the town lies in its hidden gems: a community garden at the back of a monastery, a memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Irish War of Independence, the people who create an atmosphere of inclusiveness. The peninsula itself, a loop of about 30 miles, has plenty of archaeological sites and breathtaking scenery. The Blasket Islands, just west of the peninsula, are worth a visit on calm days where the sea isn’t too choppy. One could spend a few days, a few weeks, even a few months and continue to learn new things. But it only takes a short amount of time to feel like a local.