Considered one of Ireland’s best scenic routes, Slea Head Drive circles the western edge of the Dingle Peninsula. It is not as well known as the neighboring Ring of Kerry, but it is filled with beauty and history all its own. In the west, where Ireland’s literary history is rooted and richly celebrated, it’s Irish first. To the north and south are centuries-old ruins. Sprinkled among them are beautiful beaches, rolling hills, and dramatic cliffs. Slea Head Drive is a diamond among the gems of the Dingle Peninsula.
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.
Note: The Western portion of the Dingle Peninsula is a Gaeltacht, a traditional area where signage is primarily, if not only, in Irish. (In particular, Munster Irish). We’ve tried to include both English and Gaelic spellings, where we could find them. Pronunciation, on the other hand, is up to you. Good luck with that. 😉
Meet the Slea Head Drive
Start just west of Dingle Town, Slea Head Drive is a 47-kilometer loop (about 30 miles), that takes you to the very edge of Ireland. The route is well marked – both as part of R559 and as Slea Head Drive – and prominently featured on area maps. It’s an easy, enjoyable drive that will occupy the better part of a day.
If you’re including Slea Head Drive as part of a longer drive around the Dingle Peninsula, starting in the early afternoon will still allow plenty of time. More time is always better, but since traffic is lighter on Dingle than the neighboring Ring of Kerry, you can move around the loop quickly if you have to. If you’re lucky enough to spend a couple of days in the area, there is plenty to explore and enjoy on the Slea Head Drive, so let’s get started!
Leaving Dingle Town
The Slea Head Drive begins and ends in Dingle Town. You will want to explore this charming harbor village, and we devote some time to that in this article. If you have more than a day to spend on the Dingle Peninsula, it’s a good place to overnight. Right now, though, we are leaving town for an epic drive.
Technically, Slea Head Drive is just west of town. Starting at the roundabout in Dingle, you can’t miss the signs for the Wild Atlantic Way and Slea Head Drive. Follow R559 westward; this street is known locally as The Tracks. Bear left at Murphy’s Pub on Strand Street, and you are semi-officially on the Slea Head Drive! “Semi” because this section is also considered Strand Street.
At the next roundabout, follow the signs (turn left) to stay on R559. You’ll see the Dingle Distillery on your right, just past the River Milltown as it flows into Dingle Bay. Less than a kilometer later, the road forks and R559 continues in two directions: roughly north and west.
For the best views, you’ll want to follow the sign and drive the circular route in a clockwise fashion, heading southwest first, then up the west coast before driving inland back to Dingle. If you want to skip the gorgeous Slea Head and go straight to the equally beautiful Wine Strand or historic Gallarus Oratory, head to the right. None of the tourist busses go that way, and for good reason.
And now you are “officially” on the Slea Head Drive!
Standing Stones, Ventry and Carhoo
During the first part of the drive, you’ll pass inviting Bed & Breakfasts, bucolic fields dotted with grazing sheep and occasional views of the coast. About 500 meters from the Dingle Distillery, you’ll also see a great example of the mysterious monuments, markers, and ruins you’ll find scattered throughout the Dingle Peninsula.
There is an ancient Standing Stone at the Milestone House B&B. Standing Stones are thought to have been either a grave marker, or a boundary marker from tribal times; about 2000 to 1400 BC. There are more than 2,000 similar sites in the area, most of which are unmarked and seemingly unremarkable. They date from the Neolithic Age, 4,000 or more years ago, through the early-Christian era.
Driving on, the road comes closer to the sea as you near Ventry. If you are taking your time, look for a road sign pointing to Cé Cheann Trá. It’s very easy to miss, and points to an otherwise unmarked road on the left, which leads to a small pier. This small diversion gives you a great view of Ventry Beach to your right, and back up towards Dingle on the left. You can drive right onto the pier, where you’re likely to spot locals catching their dinner. Don’t worry if you miss the turn; another viewpoint with parking is just ahead, opposite Penny’s Pottery & Café in Ventry. And that view goes great with a latte to go! If you’d like to enjoy Carhoo Bay Beach, there are signs for beach access and parking as you continue on Slea Head Drive.
The Fahan Clochán
About 5 kilometers from Penny’s Pottery, as you drive around the base of Mount Eagle, you’ll come to the Fahan clochán, a collection of stonework buildings, monuments, and cave dwellings. The grouping is said to be the most remarkable collection of sites in Ireland, with more than 400 stone huts being identified. Archeologists believe most of the structures were built in the 12th century, though some could be as much as 6,000 years old.
The first such structure you’ll come to is An Dún Beag, or Dunbeg Fort. The stone building sits on a rocky promontory overlooking Dingle Bay. Archaeologist are not certain when it was first built but, over the years, much of it has been claimed by the sea. A visitor center at the site includes information and, while not a historic building, the Stonehouse Restaurant across the street is an impressive stone building in the tradition of the area’s huts and forts. Over the next few kilometers, there are several more public and private sites with beehive huts and forts. Unfortunately, erosion from Hurricane Ophelia in 2017 forced some of the sites to be at least partially off limits.
Next to the Stonehouse Restaurant is another historical and culturally important site, the Kavanaugh Famine Cottage. Here you can learn about the hard life of Irish farmers in the Famine era. There is also a working farm here where you can pet some friendly sheep, and see sheep dog demonstrations. However, the Famine Cottages are only open April to October, and sheep dog performances are by appointment only.
Along with several stops to see the ancient stonework buildings, this section of Slea Head Drive has plenty of pull-outs where you can stop for pictures and gaze out across Dingle Bay. On a clear day, you can see the Kerry Peninsula on the other side.
Slea Head and Dunquin
Slea Head Drive gets its name from the Slea Head promontory, the southernmost point on the Dingle Peninsula. There is a monument here, the Slea Head Crucifix. As remarkable as the Crucifixion scene is, we couldn’t find any explanation for it. Sometimes, all that’s really needed is to see and appreciate something.
Something else you’ll appreciate is the Slea Head Viewing Point. Not long after rounding the tip of the peninsula, you’ll see a sign that says Dún Chaoin, Míle Fáilte (essentially “Welcome to Dunquin”), and a smallish parking lot. Pull over, grab your camera, and get out of the car for stunning panoramic views of Slea Head Beach, Dunmore Head, and the Blasket Islands. This is one iconic vista! Dunmore Head is physically the westernmost point of the Irish mainland. Just offshore are the Blasket Islands, which locals like to say is the last parish before America.
The beach you see, alternately known as Slea Head Beach or Coumeenoole Beach for the nearby village, is where those iconic beach scenes of Ryan’s Daughter were filmed. You can reach the beach by taking the next left after leaving the lookout.
Slea Head Drive continues into Dunquin. (Remember, it’s Irish only in this area, so many signs will say Dún Chaoin instead of Dunquin.) Two highlights in the area are the Blasket Centre, and charming Dunquin Harbour, also known as the Sheep Highway.
Life on this end of the Dingle Peninsula is greatly influenced by the offshore islands. One of the few ways to reach them is on boat tours that leave from Dunquin Harbour from April through October. Any time of year, though, you can learn more about the harsh life and rich heritage on the islands at the Blasket Centre. The area is also known for producing extraordinary pottery, with several studios in Dunquin.
Ballyferriter and the Wine Strand
The shame of the Slea Head Drive is that, after Dunquin, the road turns inland and leaves the Dingle Peninsula’s northeastern corner unexplored. There are more charming villages, beaches, and golf links for those with time to explore. If you happen to be an archaeology buff, then you definitely need to head north to Ferriter’s Cove. Researchers have found tools and remains there from the Mesolithic era – that’s more than 10,000 years ago!
Instead, we’ll follow the R559 as it makes its way to Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter) and more Irish history. The Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne, or West Kerry Museum is here, in the old schoolhouse, built in 1875. The name, Chorca Dhuibhne, is derived from a local tribe that lived here in Medieval times, and translates as “children of the Goddess.” In the museum, you can learn about the geology, archaeology, heritage and history of the area. Unfortunately, it’s open by appointment only, and even then, only during summers. Contact information to make an appointment is available on their website.
About two kilometers past the museum is a fork in the road. Should you decide to leave Slea Head Drive, you’ll be rewarded with the lovely beach views of the Wine Strand! Can’t decide if you should go? Hold on, because there’s another beach opportunity just ahead.
Gallarus Oratory plus a Beach Break!
After another two kilometers, yet another fork in the road. What makes this confusing is that all three directions are the Slea Head Drive. Take our advice and turn left, then follow the signs to the Gallarus Oratory.
The Oratory itself is something of a mystery, and is not to be missed. Researchers can’t agree on just what the small stone hut’s purpose was. Some think it was a chapel, others a home. Still others believe it was a shelter for pilgrims trekking to Mount Brandon. What is known is that the simple stone hut has stood here for more than a thousand years. There is a small visitor’s center with bathrooms and a cafe, open from March to October.
Plan about an hour for this stop, a little longer if you walk down to Gallarus Castle (no actual relation). When you’re ready to go, turn right out of the driveway and continue on R559 to Ballinraggin Beach. Depending on when you began your tour of Slea Head Drive, it should be a good time for a beach picnic by this point! Ballinraggin is at the eastern edge of the Wine Strand mentioned earlier. Slea Head Drive comes right alongside the beach, and there’s a parking area just at the end of the An Ghaeltacht GAA Grounds. (If there’s a GAA match going on, by all means, attend it. Irish football matches are legendary!)
Wrapping Up: Kilmalkedar and the Drive to Dingle
After some beach time, and perhaps exploring the hamlet of Murreagh, it’s back on Slea Head Drive to start heading back to Dingle. The last stop on our loop is Kilmalkedar Church. You’ll notice the cemetery first, and can park there to explore the area. You could also walk to the ruins of St. Brendan’s House, but it is on private property with a “No Trespassing” sign.
Although ruins are all that’s left of the 12th-century Irish-Romanesque church, it was once the center of worship for the western side of the Dingle Peninsula. In the graveyard in front of the church is an Irish Cross, now half buried, and a much older Ogham Stone, indicating that this was a religious center some 900 years before Christianity.
After Kilmalkedar Church, Slea Head Drive heads right back to Dingle. Along the way, you’ll be treated to vistas of Ireland’s rolling hills and pastures, with Dingle Bay in the distance. This last leg is only about 7 kilometers, but may take 20 minutes or longer, depending entirely on how often you pull over to take a picture.
An Historical Diversion
St. Brendan the Navigator was born around 484 in northern County Kerry. He is said to have sailed from Ireland, starting from what is now known as Brandon Creek, to find the Isle of the Blessed. Some say he discovered North America before Columbus or the Vikings. He is the Patron Saint of County Kerry, one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland, and the namesake of Mt. Brandon, Brandon Bay, and the village of Brandon.
Although we didn’t have time on our drive around the Dingle Peninsula, fans of Irish history and folklore might consider adding a trip to Brandon Creek. The Slea Head Drive passes fairly close, but you should allow at least an hour for the return trip. It is more easily accessible, though, as a separate drive from Dingle.
The road to Brandon Creek leaves Shea Head Drive at Murreagh. Look for the road sign to Baile Na nGall (L5006) at the Pet Farm. You’ll stay on this road for 4.5 kilometers, when you’ll come to a sign for Brandon Creek. Follow the signs, and you’ll be at Brandon Creek in another 4.5 kilometers. The single-track road dead-ends at Brandon Pier, without much else to see. And by “pier,” we mean a small concrete pad with a few row boats. Historical, perhaps, and certainly a pilgrimage for believers, but not something on most tourist’s To Do list.
Tips for Your Slea Head Drive
Being one of the top scenic routes in Ireland made Slea Head Drive something of a Must Do for us. If you decide to include a day on the Dingle Peninsula in your Irish Itinerary, here are a few tips for the Slea Head Drive:
- Although you can drive the entire route in about 30 minutes, don’t plan on it. Instead, plan about half a day, allowing time to stop for photos, visit attractions and, of course, enjoy a few well deserved coffee breaks!
- Before embarking on the Slea Head Drive, you may need to visit “the Jacks.” There is a public restroom at the corner of The Tracks and Strand Street/Slea Head Drive, opposite Murphy’s Pub in Dingle. There are also maps posted here with local points of interest and businesses on the Dingle Peninsula.
- Drive the route clockwise, as we suggested. Since you drive on the left in Ireland, this puts you in position for the best views along the coast. You’ll also have views towards Dingle bay in front of you on the last leg, rather than starting with them in your rearview mirror.
- We said that the Slea Head Drive had fewer tourist busses than the Ring of Kerry, but that does not mean there are none. Starting your trip early in the day will help you keep ahead of them.
- Slea Head Drive is a major road, and is well kept. Driving conditions are generally good, and you needn’t worry about weather, except that it may reduce visibility at the lookouts.
- Services (ie: gasoline) are few and far between on the Dingle Peninsula. If you’re running low, fill up in Dingle before starting out. If you forgot to get gas in town, there is an Inver station just past the Dingle Distillery, which also has a deli and restrooms.
- There are several cafes and pubs along Slea Head Drive, but you might want to get some picnic items in Dingle to take along and enjoy a picnic on the beach! Top choices include Slea Head Beach, where “Ryan’s Daughter” filmed, and the beaches in the Wine Strand region.
We thought the Slea Head Drive was the best part of our drive around the Dingle Peninsula, and one of our best days in Ireland. It’s a beautiful area, with a variety of scenery, from rolling hills to broad beaches. But we want to know what you think! If you’ve taken the Slea Head Drive, let us know how you liked it. If you haven’t, have we convinced you to include this drive to the western edge of Ireland in your itinerary?
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