The white van was seen one morning to draw up in the little car park overlooking Clogher beach, a stormy inlet of the Dingle peninsula in south-west Ireland. Four men in black suits climbed out, edged down the slippery concrete steps and lined up on the beach. Then, as if responding to an invisible signal, they raised their arms in salute over the ocean, and shouted into the wind in a strange tongue.
With each telling the story changes; but according to the locals, these men were Ukrainians who had, at some distant time in some obscure drinking den in Kharkov, perhaps, or Kiev, Odessa or Lvov, pledged to celebrate the emancipation of their country from Soviet rule by travelling to the furthermost western point in Europe.
The Dingle peninsula is indeed the last stop in Europe. Here, where the rollers come foaming in past the Blasket Islands from the Atlantic, you stand as close to America as it is possible to stand without getting your feet wet.
People who come here have answered the call of the West, the lure which has shaped the history of our hemisphere by wave after wave of migrations and invasions since the agricultural revolution that crept in from Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago. Many are Gaelic speakers, in thrall to the famous Irish myth of a heavenly land across the water –Tir na nOg, the Land of Eternal Youth, or Land of the Happy Dead – whose ramparts, towers and mountains may be glimpsed of an evening in the clouds on the horizon, back-lit by a fiery setting sun.
The peninsula’s population reflects that edge-of-the-world feeling. Many of the local families were forced by poverty to leave decades ago. Their places have been taken by the ‘blow-ins’, immigrants from England and further afield: not only retirees, but young people out of tune with a culture of competition who have settled here to scratch a living as craft-workers, artists, musicians, builders and writers.
Among those settlers are my sister and her h
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