Ireland’s remote south-west corner is unlikely ever to be described as tranquil, gentle or sedate. Rather, it’s a wild and rugged land with a rich and turbulent history that spans millennia. Over those years, often in the face of adversity and always at the mercy of the weather, the residents have honed a certain character. Put simply, they see the funny side in everything. It’s a survival instinct.
Lying at the far western edge of European civilisation, County Kerry has long attracted those who seek escape or fortune. Marauding Vikings, Iron Age druids, Christian martyrs, English royalty and American presidents are among the legion of visitors. Modern-day travellers still arrive in droves and, while they come for the dramatic landscape, it’s the dry-witted hospitality of the locals that lingers longest in their memories.
Jaunty Start to the Day
The majestic forests, windswept loughs and rolling fields of Killarney National Park are a short stroll from the town’s historic centre. But walking is a waste. Better to take one of the renowned horse-drawn carriages. The experience is all the more authentic with a dose of Irish humour from one of the wily drivers.
Our man Timmy wastes no time with the gags. “I’ve been talking the same old crap for 35 years”, he tells us. As we enter the lush green parklands, he introduces the dutiful mare who pulls us along. “Sally’s a faithful old girl. Better than my wife.”
To the cry of “rock-n-roll it”, we sweep along the sides of Lough Leane. The scenery would be familiar to fans of the classic 1970’s film Ryan’s Daughter, which was shot here. Along the pathways, earnest wildlife photographers wait patiently to capture precious footage of wild red deer stags brawling in the fields. With their one-metre long antlers pointed forward, they charge, jostle and brawl with much gusto. Eventually one emerges triumphant and marches towards the watchful females, to claim his prize: them.
Along a route of natural wonders – both flora and fauna – manmade monuments to religion and royalty punctuate the view. Oldest of all, the remains of Innisfallen Abbey date from the 10th century (although the original building was 300 years older still). It sits spookily on an island in the middle of the lough. Ross Castle lies imperiously on the near water’s edge and was built as a home for a 15th century warring Irish chieftain. He certainly chose a picturesque setting.
Ring Out the Old
West of Killarney, in fact west of most of Europe, the 180km long Ring of Kerry is a ‘must drive’ for visitors to this corner of Ireland. Bountiful rain – on average 270 days a year – and the warm North Atlantic Drift ocean current make for a verdant and diverse landscape. Sub-tropical plants thrive here, thousands of miles from their origin. There is no debate which way to go: with perilously narrow roads, most drive anti-clockwise around the Iveragh peninsula, to avoid head-on clashes.
From the windows of our spacious coach, an array of local wildlife is pointed out. Mountain goats careen the rolling hills of heather. Giant sea eagles scan the babbling streams for wild salmon on which to swoop. Sea-lions bob their noses up over the teal-blue choppy sea. Bog ponies hang their heads, as
they hug the dry stone walls for shelter. Our tour guide extraordinaire and master of ‘the craic’, Big Mick, teases the women onboard. “Now ladies, look out for white horses”, he says. “If you see seven in a day, not six nor eight, between daybreak and dusk, you’ll be married with a child in less than a year”. It’s unclear if this a promise or a threat.
Myths and legends abound on this roadway. In the fishing towns en-route, coracle boats are still used that resemble those which allegedly sailed to the Americas, centuries before Columbus arrived. Near the village of Caherciveen is the birthplace of Irish political hero Daniel O’Connell. There is a church which bears his name, the only one in Ireland named after a layperson. Standing stone circles, relics of the druids, dot the skyline.
As you head back into town, the final scenic stop is Ladies View with its glorious panorama over the lakes of Killarney.
It was named in honour of the ladies-in-waiting of Queen Victoria, who took special fancy to the spot. No-one knows how many white horses they saw.
Mingle on the Dingle
Less commonly visited, and all the better for it, the Dingle Peninsula offers an alternative Atlantic outlook. Sheltered on its southern side from the ocean’s fury, the waters are a remarkably tranquil turquoise blue. Waves gently lap the sands; not quite golden, but at least a light khaki brown. There are even surf schools and dolphin tours. The latter promise an introduction to local bottlenose legend Fungie. Although it’s unsure if this is really the son, grandson or the original.
As in many remote corners of Ireland, members of the traveller community – gypsies in old parlance – dot the roadsides. Some entertain with tin whistles, others sell bric-a-brac and souvenirs. Most come equipped with a combination of cats, dogs, goats and donkeys. Usually stacked on one another. They earn more from photos of their menageries than from sales of their wares.
At the end of the peninsula, past the scattered beehive huts that centuries ago housed solitary monks, lies Slea Head. From here, the most westerly point in Ireland, the view out to Blasket Islands is stunning. Contemplate the countless ships that have perished in these torrid waters, as you tuck into a gourmet flapjack and hot chocolate from a handily placed stand. Owner Kirsty might be from the USA, but she deserves native status for her canny entrepreneurialism.
Back in the calm of Dingle fishing village, with its charming multi-coloured houses and shop fronts, it’s time for lunch. Seafood is the order of the day and Harrington’s Family Restaurant is the place to be. Wash down battered haddock, chips and mushy peas with a perfectly poured glass of Guinness. A match made in (Irish) heaven.
After a day of fresh ocean air and bracing coastal strolls, a night of hearty Irish fare is required. At the 19th Green Guest House, just outside Killarney, they offer cooking demonstrations so you can learn as you dine. Head chef and owner John Sheehan is as accomplished in the ‘blarney’ as he is in the kitchen. While demonstrating how to cook locally caught river trout, he instructs, “oh, if I’m speaking too quickly it’s fine, just listen a little faster.”
Dinner with the Sheehans is a family affair, with mum, dad and three sons all lending a hand. Besides the trout, served in a cream and mushroom sauce, classics like lamb broth and Irish stew are on the menu. Any danger of going hungry is removed with a dollop of unpleasant looking, yet delicious boxty, a fry-up of potato, caramelised apple and black pudding. Vegetarians are not top of mind.
Dessert is an indulgent Bailey’s cheesecake. However, the shrewdest diners go easy, as a night in County Kerry should end with a refreshing drop in one of Killarney’s numerous pubs. On most nights, especially weekends, the town attracts locals and tourists from near and far. On my visit, it’s hen night season and gangs of ‘angels’ – as Big Mick calls womenfolk of every kind – roam the streets in exotic garb.
For a raucous taste of Irish culture of every age, The Grand Pub on the main street is the place to be. Teens, pensioners and everyone in between mingle happily here, as they listen to live Irish folk music and dance the Irish jig. Stand too close and you’ll be dragged into the chaotic mix. To be sure, to be sure… •
Photography by Simon Boucher-Harris (Insight Vacations) and Rob Grant
Insight Vacations offer an eight-day Irish Elegance tour, beginning and ending in Dublin and including two nights in County Kerry, with departures throughout 2016.
Signature Experiences include admiring the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin, meeting a local stallholder at the English Market in Cork for a tasting of farmhouse cheese, hiking with a local in Killarney, kissing the Stone of Eloquence in Blarney and staying in five-star Ashford Castle on the shores of Lough Corrib. Insight Vacations: 1300-301-672; insightvacations.com
When To Go
Late spring (May) and early autumn (September) both offer stunning seasonal colours and pleasant, mild climates.
Where To Stay
• Central location: Killarney Plaza Hotel & Spa. Kenmare Place; killarneyplaza.com
• Lake access: Loch Lein Country House. Fossa; lochlein.com
• Scenic views: Aghadoe Heights Hotel & Spa. Lakes of Killarney; aghadoeheights.com
Where To Eat & Drink
• Harrington’s Family Restaurant. Strand Street, Dingle.
• 19th Green Guest House. Ring of Kerry Road, Killarney.
• The Grand Pub. 17 Main Street, Killarney.