Killarney and the Ring of Kerry

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Killarney and the Ring of Kerry

Killarney  Killarney is a delight to visit. The town is unashamedly touristic, having no other visible means of support. There are many good hotels, endless shops of touristic interest and countless pubs, often with live music. The atmosphere is unfailingly friendly, the surroundings are splendid and there is plenty to do. Several of the shops keep slightly longer hours than usual, e.g., the Blarney Woollen Mills. Everybody loves Killarney. This will be your starting point for the Ring of Kerry.

If you have a few minutes to spare before your arrival in Killarney and as long as you or your driver know the way, it is worth making the short 5 minute detour to Aghadoe Heights. You can park at the top by the luxury hotel and cross the field for a wonderful view, spectacular if you hit the sunset right, down on to the three lakes of the Killarney National Park against the backdrop of MacGillycuddy's Reeks.

Free time in Killarney  During the day you may have little or no free time in Killarney. The Ring of Kerry drive takes all day. The following, however, presumes that you do have time. The obvious option is shopping which is all concentrated on the charming High Street and New Street. There is little to attract the historian except for Pugin's C19 neo-Gothic St. Mary's Cathedral, slightly outside the centre of town. The tree in the churchyard was planted in memory of the victims of the famine. Muckross House is the other local historic landmark, a C19 country house in which Queen Victoria once stayed. The inside is attractive (there is a small entrance charge) but the real pleasure of the place is its gardens, for which there is no charge. For golfers, Killarney is a little paradise, boasting three golf courses, one of which has served on several occasions as the venue for the Irish Open. The best way to reach Muckross House and gardens is by Jaunting Car. These make for an enjoyable little optional lasting about an hour from Killarney town down to Muckross lake. There is something in it for you. Jaunting cars were small town Ireland's taxis in the days before cars. They are horse and buggy rides, taking a maximum of four people. The rides are not exactly comfortable but they are pleasantly authentic in their bumpiness. The drivers give a little commentary, much of it appealing nonsense, some of it interesting introductions to the flora and fauna of the Killarney National Park. The gardens of Muckross House and the views on to the lake make it all worth while. If the weather is good the same people who organise the jaunting cars operate boat cruises on the lake. They can always be found at the intersection by St. Mary's Church and the Three Lakes Hotel.

(Incidentally, the gardens of Muckross House can easily be incorporated in the Ring of Kerry drive, either at the beginning or at the end, so you have no reason to miss out on them.)

In the evening you should have no trouble finding a pub with live music or dancing.

The Ring of Kerry  Among Americans this is much the best known of Ireland's beautiful drives. The route starts in Killarney in the morning and follows the Iveragh peninsula round anti-clockwise to finish up back in Killarney in the late afternoon. You are totally dependent on the weather for the success or otherwise of this day. If the sun is shining and the skies are clear it will probably prove the highlight of the entire trip. If it's pouring rain and fog blocks every view it can just feel like a waste of time. You may even be better off staying in town or spending some time at Muckross House rather than sitting on a bus in the middle of nowhere unable to see further than your nose.

Killarney - Killorglin - Rossbeigh - Caherciveen - Waterville - Sneem - Moll's Gap - Killarney

Where you stop and what you do on this day is entirely up to you. The following is an attempt to cover all possibilities. Make sure you have a good supply of Irish music.

The first stretch of this drive is not particularly atrractive with slightly messy scenery in your immediate surrounds but with the splendid outline of the mountains to your left. The mountains of MacGillycuddy's Reeks are the highest in Ireland. The highest of them is Carrantouhill at 3,414 ft. You cannot see it from here.

Ogham Stones  NB. These are only accessible if you have a minibus. Check that the driver knows where you mean. The stones are not signposted and it's easy to get lost. Leave the road at the sign for Beaufort village. The stones are 5 minutes' drive away. If you reach the Gap of Dunloe you've gone too far. They sit by the side of the road. Ogham stones are individual standing stones - there are five of them here - dating from the C4 to the C7 with inscriptions in the early Celtic alphabet. (Ogmios was the Celtic god of eloquence.) There are 20 characters in the alphabet consisting of up to 5 parallel lines incised diagonally, horizontally or vertically on the stone.

Killorglin  This is a pretty little town on both sides of the river. Immediately after the bridge but before crossing it, stop at the salmon fishery. Again there is something in it for you. People can buy fresh Irish salmon caught in the local river. It lasts at least up to a couple of weeks. If you prompt him, the fishmonger will tell you all you could wish to know about salmon.

Killorglin town lies mostly across the bridge. It is best known for the bizarre annual Puck Fair which takes place from August 10-12. A billy goat from the area is captured, crowned and enthroned on a chair in the town square. He presides over a festival lasting three days and nights. Shops and pubs remain open all through the night. Horses, sheep and cattle are traded. It is the largest gathering of tinkers or knackers in Ireland. The origin of this festival is uncertain but probably has something to do with the old Celtic god Lugh.

Bog Village  Next stop is the reconstructed Bog village near the Red Fox Inn. There is a small entrance fee. Again there is something in it for you. Among all the houses you can see a small herd of bog ponies, recently reintroduced to the area after approaching extinction. For details about peat, see introductory pages. The adjacent Red Fox Inn is a good loo stop which always has coffee and Irish coffee on hand. You won't be the only bus stopping here.

Shortly after the Red Fox Inn you may see a broken down old van attended by a broken down old man. Your driver will know. He is selling illegally-made poítín, the infamous Irish firewater made from barley. Stop if you want some.

Up to here the countryside has been all bogland, fascinating to see but not exactly breathtaking. The road now comes to join the sea at Dingle Bay and the beautiful scenery begins. Occasional views of the bay and on to the Dingle peninsula appear before the view opens out down on to Glenbeigh Sands. The hills to your left are dotted with sheep, Dingle Bay extends out to the right.

This is the place to tell the story of Naimh and Oísín and the land called Tir Na nÓg. (Ask your bus driver if you're unsure of the pronunciation.) Oísín was the son of the great Finn MacCool, leader of the Fianna. Here on Glenbeigh Sands he met Niamh, the beautiful princess of Tir Na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth. They fell in love and she persuaded him to return with her on her white horse to her homeland across the ocean. He did so and stayed with her for 300 years. Eventually Oísín became homesick and asked to return home to see his friends and family. Niamh warned him that if he went home he should be sure never to leave his horse and set foot on the ground. On his arrival at Glenbeigh, however, Oísín, bowed down with exhaustion from his long journey, fell from his horse. When he awoke he was an old man. He could never return to Tir Na nÓg. (Some people have identified the mythical land of Tir Na nÓg with America.)

The road continues through magnificent scenery of mountains, moorland and sea for another 17 miles to Cahirciveen. Sheep dominate your impressions. After a while you come to the remains of the old railway to Valentia Island, at the western tip of the peninsula, now disused. On the left just after the railway bridge another pub, run-down and grotty, is the hangout of one of the Ring's greatest attractions (mid-April to September, but you can generally call him the day before all year round). He is the Sheep Man whose demonstrations of shepherding with his dogs are worth every penny of the couple of pounds each he charges. It takes about half an hour and is gripping.

The land flattens as you approach Cahirciveen, and in front of you, you can see the outline of Valentia Island. Look out on your right for a modern sculpture of St. Brendan the Navigator in his coracle or curragh, the little boat in which supposedly the C6 saint travelled to America many centuries before Columbus. (In 1978 Tim Severin built a replica curragh called the Brendan in which he retraced this voyage, proving that it could have been done.) On the left in the same area you can see the ruins of Carhan House where Daniel O'Connell was born in 1775. There is a bust of the great man next to the ruins.

Cahirciveen itself is a pleasant enough C19 town of no particular interest. The O'Connell Memorial Church on the main street is the building that stands out. Its cornerstone was sent from the catacombs in Rome in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII.

After Cahirciveen, you will turn inland for 11 miles to Waterville. You don't have time to visit Valentia Island or the Skellig rocks. Waterville is a pretty resort, famous for golf and fishing, and an ideal stop for lunch. At the Butler's Arms, Charlie Chaplin was a frequent visitor, as was Richard Nixon. The Huntsman is a good lunch possibility. There are gorgeous views from here on to the bay and the various little islands that dot it. According to one story, Waterville is where Noah's son and granddaughter landed after being expelled from the ark.

Soon after Waterville the road begins to climb steeply. You are now heading south. At the top of the Coomakesta pass the views are magnificent over the Kenmare river, Ballinskelligs Bay and the mountains behind you. There is a large parking area by a cross at the top of the pass. As you descend, more and more views open up on to the wide Kenmare river and the Beara peninsula. There is another possible stop at the hotel/pub announcing "the loveliest view in all Ireland."

Looking down you'll see signs to Derrynane National Historic Park at Caherdaniel. This is the ancestral home of Daniel O'Connell's family. You can't really see it but it's still worth a mention.

Staigue Fort  A few miles along the Kenmare river stretch you come to a turn off to the left for Staigue Fort. (It's not well signposted. You need to keep your eyes peeled.) NB. The road to the fort is only suitable for minibuses. A full-sized coach won't make it.) Follow the track for a couple of miles to the parking. You are now right out in the middle of nowhere. Your only companions are lonely sheep on the mountain side. It's a 2 minute walk to Staigue Fort, one of the finest examples of a dry-stone fort in Ireland. Little is known about it. It is somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. It is circular, about 90 feet in diameter, with walls 13 feet thick at the base and tapering to about half that at the top. The walls are about 18 feet high. There are steps inside the walls leading to platforms on which the fort's defenders would have stood. The fort is surrounded by a bank and a ditch. If you can do it, the detour is well worth it.

As you continue towards Sneem the flora is magnificent, varying from palm trees, yucca and bamboo to rhododendrons, wild fuchsia and yellow gorse.

Sneem is a quaint, perfectly-kept village with brightly-painted houses, an old bridge over its fast-flowing river, and a C18 church with a salmon on the weather-vane. You should stop for the loos, shops and a quick drink on its main square. Curiously, Sneem specialises in modern sculptures, among them a white panda erected in 1986 as a symbol of friendship between Ireland and China. Leaving Sneem, you have a choice: to continue by the coast road towards Kenmare or to head inland towards Moll's Gap and Killarney. Both roads are beautiful. The first is necessary if you are not returning to Killarney but continuing to Cork. These notes take the second option.

Turn left out of Sneem's main square. The road seems to leave the world of human habitation as it opens out on to wide moorland valleys descending from MacGillycuddy's Reeks. The peak of Carrantouhill is now visible. The route climbs up the valley, passing nothing, until finally you reach the scenic stop known as Moll's Gap. You are now 863 ft up, the highest point on this route. There's a car park and, in summer, an outlet of Avoca Handweavers (commission and loos). Looking north, you have a fine view of the mountain gorge known as the Gap of Dunloe; to the south, walk 100 yards up the road: an expansive view opens out on to the Kenmare river.

Soon you re-enter the Killarney National Park as the lakes come into sight. There's a small car park at the spot known as Ladies' View. You can see the three Killarney lakes — upper, middle and lower — and the sinuous Long Range that connects them. The place takes its name from Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting who came here when the Queen was staying at Muckross House to delight in the scenery. From here you follow the lakes down for another 30 minutes or so until you finally return to Killarney.


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