When you’ve gone about as far west as you can on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, you’ll find a small stone pathway leading to the sea. This picturesque spot is another of Ireland’s Gems of the Dingle Peninsula, Dunquin Harbour.
Gems of Ireland
Ireland is heavy with history; laden with ancient sacred sites, Medieval castles and abbeys, and Celt and Viking origins. The island is also rich in natural beauty, from the famous Cliffs of Moher and Giants Causeway, to the rolling hills and valleys of the Boyne River Valley. Weaved among the history and beauty is Ireland’s renowned culture. These are the gems of Ireland, and we will highlight some of the them in this ongoing series.
Dún Chaoin and Dunquin Harbour
It’s hard to say when or how Dunquin got its start, but it’s rooted firmly in ancient history. The Irish name, Dhún Chaoin, means “Chaoin’s stronghold.” Try as we might, we never learned who Chaoin might have been, but it’s easy to see why he built a stronghold here: arable land protected by mountains and sea cliffs in a stunningly beautiful landscape.
The village of Dunquin is the most westerly settlement in Ireland. Together with the nearby Blasket Islands, it’s known as the Last Parish Before America. Consisting of homes, farms, inns, and pubs, the township has one of the best views in the country, overlooking the Blasket Islands just off shore.
Even if you’ve never set foot in Ireland, you might recognize Dunquin. Many scenes from the 1970 Robert Mitchum classic Ryan’s Daughter were filmed here. Decades later, the tiny harbor received its 15 minutes of internet fame – more about that later. The hamlet is more rightly famous in literary circles as the birthplace of Irish language author, storyteller, and historian (called a seanchaí) Peig Sayers, who wrote of the life and culture of the Blasket Islands.
The coastline here is rugged, with dramatic cliffs overlooking the roaring Atlantic. In a country with beautiful views, we think this western end of the Dingle Peninsula is one of the most photogenic. A small cove near the village gives a bit of shelter where boats can come ashore among the cliffs. While barely more than a few square meters, this is Dunquin Harbour. It’s been the lifeline between the Blasket and the Irish mainland for as long as the islands have been settled. Regular shipments of supplies shipped out from the tiny dock, along with passengers, including visiting priests and doctors.
The Sheep Highway
An enduring image of Ireland is of a narrow country road filled with sheep. Dunquin Harbour is one place where you might see that, with the added bonus of an incredible backdrop.
The last inhabitants of the Blasket were evacuated in 1953, leaving only buildings and sheep behind. Evacuees were given cottages and land in Dunquin, and so the ferrying of sheep began. Occasional boat loads of sheep arrive at the pier, to be run up to the green pastures surrounding Dunquin, giving the road up from the pier the nickname “The Sheep Highway.” It’s important to know that it’s only a highway for sheep, though.
Several years ago, Dunquin found internet fame when a photo of an SUV stuck on the narrow road went viral. Apparently, a visiting Irishman had planned on camping at the pier to catch the first ferry the following morning. Instead, he had to be rescued by a tow truck. The episode caused the ferry to cancel trips for the day, and about 200 tourists missed an opportunity to visit the Blasket. No word on whether the driver ever caught the ferry.
Getting to Dunquin
Every Irish guide book worth having will suggest Slea Head Drive (aka: R559) as one of the country’s “Must Do” road trips. With good reason; the road rings the western half the Dingle Peninsula, sticking mostly to the coastal slopes below Mount Eagle.
Driving the R559 from Dingle town, you’ll approach Dunquin village from either the north or south. You’ll likely be mesmerized by the beautiful coastal views, but keep an eye out for the sign to the harbor. Bear in mind, this is a Gaeltacht; the signs are in Irish. Instead of a familiar brown sign pointing to Dunquin Harbour, you’ll see one for Cé Dhún Chaoin, and also for the Blasket Ferry. Depending on the time of year, you’re more likely to notice the large colorful signs for habour tours. Turn there.
There may or may not be a sign for your next turn; it’s a right just after the house. If you reach the dead end beyond the cemetery – some sort of cruel pun? – you missed the turn and need to backtrack. Once you’ve made the turn, you’ll come to a number of cars along the road around what looks like a driveway to nowhere. Find a spot and pull in (No car parks out here!), then follow the road down to the harbor.
Along with a walk down to the harbor, this local road is worth following into Dunquin. The views are phenomenal, and it rejoins R559 at Krugers Bar & Guesthouse.
Side note: If you’re exploring Ireland by bus, Krugers is the local bus stop. You’ll just have to walk about 1.5km south. Given the photo opportunities along the way, allow a few hours.
When You Go
- If you’re using a GPS from Dingle town, check your route. If you’re driving south on Slea Head Drive (R559), many directions give you a shortcut over Eagle Mountain. It is a beautiful drive, but you will miss the drive around the Slea Head, with stops at the Famine Cottages and the Slea Head Viewpoint. The shortcut leaves R559 at Páidí Ó Sé’s Pub, turning right toward’s the mountains. While you miss the drive around Slea Head, you are treated – eventually – to a picture-postcard view of Dunquin and the Blasket Islands. If it’s cloudy, stick to R559.
- Dunquin Harbour is about 20 km from Dingle town on Slea Head Drive R559; slightly longer going north versus south. (Remember, Slea Head Drive is a loop here.) The shortcut over Eagle Mountain saves about 5km, but may take longer as the road is more primitive.
- If you’re a hiker, the Dingle Way passes by Dunquin Harbour and village on its 180km route. The gentle but picturesque terrain is home to many trails, detailed in Dingle Peninsula: A Walking Guide.
- The area is dotted with inns and Bed & Breakfasts. It’s a great area to “get away from it all,” and a good base if you’d like to spend a few days exploring the region.
- If you’re visiting Dunquin on a day trip around the Dingle Peninsula, you’re likely to arrive around lunch time. While sites like TripAdvisor list a few cafes and restaurants in the area, we noticed there are many more than shown.
- There are no services along most of the Slea Head Drive – including in Dunquin. Be sure to fill up your gas tank in Dingle town, or before your tour of the Peninsula.
- Ferries to the Blasket Islands leave the harbour hourly from 1030 to 1430, April through September, weather permitting. Their Facebook page is regularly updated. More ferry options are available at Ventry, near Dingle town.
Also worth visiting in the area (map):
- Dunquin Pottery and Café on Slea Head Drive, said to have the best fruitcake ever.
- The Blasket Centre explores the heritage and culture of the Blasket Islands.
- Louis Mulcahy Pottery offers workshop tours and an open workshop experience, along with a café and a showroom of exquisite Irish porcelain and stonewear.
- Kruger’s Pub, mentioned earlier, is the birthplace of CAMRA, the now international Campaign for Real Ale. You should stop for a pint to show your support!
Have You Been?
While the harbor is beautiful and definitely makes you think of simpler times, we found the entire western half of the Slea Head Drive made us feel like time slowed down. There is no hustle-bustle here. It is green and quiet, with the smell of grass and ocean. The pictures you’ll take will be beautiful, but what we wanted most to capture was the atmosphere of the Dingle Peninsula.
If you’ve been to Dunquin Harbour, we would love to hear your thoughts about it. If you haven’t visited, have we inspired you to include this stop on the Dingle Peninsula? Either way, please let us know your thoughts in the comments! Feel free to ask any questions; if we don’t know the answer, we can find it!
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