Children of the Shore
Growing up in Dingle in the 1950s and 1960s
John O’Connor’s description of growing up Dingle, Co Kerry, presents a town quite unlike the thriving tourist mecca it is today. John grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when poverty was rife in an Ireland that the Catholic Church ruled with an iron fist.
Hardship was evident in many households in the town where several families in want scraped a livelihood against the backdrop of the uncertainty of the times. Yet, despite the hardship of these years, the experiences that left the greatest imprint on the author are those of the camaraderie he shared with his nine siblings in their home on the shore of Dingle Bay, and the friendships he found among his peers as they nourished their impoverished lives with their rich imaginations.
The reader can’t but be captivated by the sheer energy and sense of adventure with which O’Connor, his siblings and friends faced each day. The harshness of their physical life honed their survival skills and the strong friendships they formed sustained them, as did the outstanding natural beauty of the west Kerry town that O’Connor has always been proud to call ‘home’.
While Children of the Shore opens the reader’s eyes to a vastly different Dingle to the one which thousands of visitors encounter these days, it does not obscure the ethereal beauty of the place and the vital importance of being among good people in challenging times.
Children of the Shore will be on the shelves in Dingle book outlets on Dec. 2020.
Children of the Shore is also available for download as an E-book from Amazon.com
CHILDREN OF THE SHORE
Dingle as I describe it here is no more. No inhabited place can be expected to stay the same after the passing of half a century. Cities and small towns the world over are vastly different places from what they were in the mid-20th century. Physical change is inevitable, but every city and small town has a character, a root that binds its inhabitant to it that can last a lifetime. Is the character of Dingle the same as it was when I was young? In the main, yes. People and community give a town its character, not buildings or enterprise, or trappings of popularity and fame.
In looking back, there is, naturally, an inclination by the chronicler to be influenced by nostalgia. And while the descriptions of events, places and things described here are from my lens, as it were, I am sure these descriptions will bring back memories of the time for many. There are bound to be differences in perspective; perspective, in such instances, encompasses not only visual absorption of the time in question, but state of mind as well. For example, a hungry and cold person will be distracted from the finer points of scenery and will disengage from the wonders of the place in which they live.
Dingle has, more than most towns, enjoyed success as a tourist destination, and has become quite cosmopolitan. Tourism began in earnest after the release of the West Kerry-made Ryan’s Daughter in 1969. Though lame in plot, the film portrayed the magnificent scenery of the peninsula. The town was awash with famous actors ‒ Mitchum, Mills, Miles, et al. But the cast of the David Lean-directed film were not the first Hollywood luminaries to visit the area; in 1968, Hollywood legend Gregory Peck and his family visited his Ashe cousins in Dingle, giving the small town in the back of beyond a connection with Hollywood. Nowadays, the place boasts visits from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Kingsley, Julia Roberts and a raft of others. We, locals, hardly give them a second glance but in the midst of such high-profile goings-on it would be hard for any town to remain unchanged.
There are now two principal seasons in Dingle: the tourist season and the other, with the former extending from its traditional three-month period to half the year. The tourist business is, as they say, ‘good for the town’. The omnipresent tourist dollar is now king and the attendant reverence administered to the visitor is evident and understandable. Yet, in spite of this acquired status as a town that draws profitable footfall, there remains, though in some cases hidden, a flavour of the town’s true character which is still recognised by many families who have emigrated and return from time to time.
In looking back, nostalgia will always be a factor as we long for the things that have gone, and any assessment we make, from today’s viewpoint, will be influenced by our romanticizing of the past. Yet, the times we lived in are only accurately assessed from a distant viewpoint. While in the throes of being reared in testing times and trying to make a living, there is little inclination for analyzing one’s surroundings and the meaning of life – that is a luxury for idle minds and for people who know where their next meal is coming from.
Several of our stomping grounds have vanished down through the years. The gas shed at the head of the pier where fishermen whiled away the bad days as they waited for the weather to change gave way recently to a tourist office – an apt example of the new priorities of the Quay area and the town. The indigenous fishing industry in Dingle is negligible. The pier has now, in the main, become a landing place for foreign fishing boats whose produce is trucked out of town. The port in general accrues much of its income from the leisure industry – tourist ferry boats and visiting yachtsmen. Dingle Boatyard, which was turning out fine fishing boats for more than forty years, is long gone. The site is now a vacant lot and awaits development. The skills of the men who crafted the vessels lie dormant and, in another generation, will be gone forever.
The old Dingle Hospital, in whose walls much of the town’s history is steeped, is boarded up; the replacement facility is a very welcome addition to the town. Dingle Technical School was demolished following a restructuring of second-level education in the area and has been replaced by Dingle Oceanworld, a successful tourism enterprise. The Christian Brothers School has found a new use as an international off-campus facility for an American college. While we have lost a lot since the days of our youth, there have been gains. These stemmed mainly from the making of the aforementioned Ryan’s Daughter and the arrival of the Dingle Dolphin, Fungie, in the early 1980s. But back as far as 1936, Dingle’s potential as a tourist destination had been spotted. That year, the Irish Tourist Association produced a filmed travelogue, entitled The Irish Riviera, which featured the southwest coast of Ireland. The Dingle Peninsula was included, with scenes of Dingle, Ballydavid and Dunquin showcasing the area at the time.
We now live in a popular tourist town and enjoy the benefits that go with that. However, whereas the quality of life has improved for many, for others it has deteriorated. Due to the influx of large numbers of people during the visitor season, the simple, everyday act of walking the streets has become an onerous navigational chore rather than the heretofore leisurely saunter. Locals are scarce on the cluttered paths, waiting to emerge again when a respite from the heavy footfall comes around in the months with an ‘r’ in them. Green fields have disappeared and hillsides are dotted with holiday homes. Some of our traditional local celebrations, such as that on New Year’s Eve, have been appropriated by strangers for their amusement. We are beset by the double-edged sword of fame.
People say, ‘You knew everybody in town in the old days.’ Perhaps this is so; perhaps it is a meaningless, throwaway remark, or an expression of a desire for kinship. No doubt, a sense of belonging is important within family and community. People don’t want to be left out. To that end, Dingle people, especially those with roots in the town, should feel comfortable with the new direction of their town and feel that they, by dint of their heritage, are still valued.
Nobody, from a poor family at any rate, wants to go back to the 1950s and 1960s and experience again the hard times that were endured. It is a fact of life that adversity engenders invention and a will to rise above and do better. A dose of hardship (though ours was prolonged and became a way of life) will do more to form character and instill drive than serene living.
This book has at its root a family growing up in hard times in the Dingle of the 1950s and 1960s; a family that were not alone in their struggle in a town that had several poor neighbourhoods. Dingle, being largely dependent on the fishing industry as an employer, had several fisherman families and, due to the inconsistency of the industry, many families were in want for long periods and lived in the barest of accommodation. However, families struggled on, scrimping and providing as best they could. In those decades, the expectations of, and opportunities for, families on the poverty line for moving forward were negligible. It was a period that dragged out for what seemed like forever before possibilities for the future finally started to emerge.