Ancient Stones Of The Emerald Isle

After squishing through miles of bog--a mixture of water, peat, plants, and sheep droppings--we seemed to be making little progress. That morning, we had set out for Cuch lainn's House, a prehistoric burial site on a desolate ridge overlooking Ireland's Dingle peninsula. Four hours later, the site was nowhere to be seen. Our conviction was growing that no pile of rocks, however ancient, could match the pleasure of sipping Guinness in a warm pub.

The funny thing is, we had paid for this chance to be led through the muck. We signed on for a three-day Celtic Natural History Holiday, organized by an Irish-American couple, Michael and Becky O'Connor. For $355 a person, we were led on daily rambles, averaging seven miles, to visit some of the 1,600 archaeological sites that dot the area.

The peninsula is one of the wildest spots in Europe. Michael, an amateur archaeologist with a PhD in geology and a former professor, led the hikes. Becky was in charge of logistics, dropping us off and picking us up. The holiday included three nights in the O'Connors' renovated 1864 farmhouse and all but one meal.

CLODHOPPING. The third day was the toughest. And it was mostly our own fault, since we had been warned we would need waterproof boots. I borrowed rubber "wellies" from Becky. But my husband, Charlie, was wearing only porous leather hiking boots. To avoid the muck, he displayed considerable clodhopping skills, jumping from one patch of grass to another. After a few comical misses, he simply gave up--sloshing through the bog along with Michael and me. None of us escaped the damp entirely. One moment, we would be soaked by showers. The next, a fast-rolling fog would overtake us.

Finally, we reached a trail of 16 ancient stones planted along the backbone of the ridge. At the end stood a massive rock pile, known as a cairn, dating from as early as 6,000 B.C. Michael said the site, visible for miles around, had probably been used for burial. A depression in the cairn's center may have been caused by the collapse of the burial chamber. We scrambled to the top, hoping to spot bones or artifacts. Instead, tucked beneath a rock, we found a bottle of Paddy whiskey. A sheep farmer, it seems, found this a useful hiding place.

Despite the bog-slogging, much of our trek was glorious. It had begun that day in a glacial valley carved into a perfect U-shaped bowl. After avoiding puddles filled with thousands of frog eggs, we rested in a remote village, now deserted, which predated the 1848 potato famine. The last inhabitants were two old women who lived in the primitive stone houses--no plumbing or electricity--until the 1950s.

We wouldn't have gone on this hike without a guide. The area is remote--and can be treacherous, with sudden and disorienting fogs. Trails were scanty, requiring us to bushwhack our way over much of the terrain. It's not a holiday for people who enjoy bus tours.

The O'Connors try to tailor tours to individual interests. During peak summer months, they offer a more leisurely option: the Celtic Nature Sailing Holiday, a three-day journey along the coast on their 41-foot cutter. The first three nights are spent on board in private cabins. The last night is spent at O'Connor's Old Stone House B&B (011-353-66-59882).

Our vacation ended there, with a peat fire burning. During our stay, we happily browsed through the O'Connors' books on the history and archaeology of this Irish-speaking region. Suppers were family-style, shared with the hosts. The O'Connors will guide you to the Thursday folk-dancing sessions in Dingle that begin in earnest at midnight. Another highlight is stopping in at a few of the town's 52 or so pubs, where locals were happy to chat with us over a pint. Aside from the soft weather and occasional clodhopping, our Celtic holiday was a good way to get beyond the well-trodden tourist trails.

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