Away from the tourist hub that is Killarney, discover an exciting area of County Kerry in Ireland that’s rebranding itself and screaming out for independent travellers to explore its rich history and dramatic landscapes.
The Ring of Kerry is a circular road from Killarney that traverses the stunning lakes and mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula. It is a beautiful drive – as long you don’t mind staring at the back of the bus in front of you, a likely sight along this tourist coach-congested road. As the one of the most visited places in Ireland, tourism is the main game in this part of the county. But to the frustration of the locals, there’s one incredible part of the peninsula that most people miss out.
On a turning just off of the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig Ring – a shorter and far steeper route, inaccessible to large vehicles – begins, providing access to an area brimming with history, Irish tradition and gorgeous natural beauty.
An area most famous for the sixth century monastery that sits on the rocky island of Skellig Michael (now being used to film scenes for the new Star Wars film), the Skellig Ring encompasses Valentia Island, the quaint village of Portmagee, and beautiful Ballinskelligs Bay, all of which sit in an area now being rebranded by a few proud and determined residents as “Skellig Kerry”.
According to Cormac Dineen, one of the few local residents who are taking tourism development into their own hands by raising funds to make the area more accessible, “it’s just a name of a region that allows this place to be distinctive.”
Cormac – like many others along the Skellig Ring – has grown up on the Iveragh Peninsula but had to move away to find work and support his family. Now he’s back, and with the help of a few other keen locals, he’s crusading for Skellig Kerry to become the place where independent travellers can discover what he calls the “real Ireland” with thousands of years’ worth of history and traditions intact.
“There is an untamed – and untamable – wildness about the Kerry landscape, from our long coastline to our rugged mountains,” he explains.
“The fact that Kerry is one of the most rural counties in Ireland, even today, and it was so far away from the influence of large urban centres until around 30 years ago, means that our traditions, our culture and our accent is still very distinctive and very much a part of our everyday lives here.”
It is this distinct culture that often goes unnoticed by travellers passing by on the Ring of Kerry, or through the peninsula on their way to the Skellig Islands. It can be found all across the Skellig Ring route, from the wooden Siene fishing boat races held along the coastline where rowdy crowds cheer on their local teams, to the live Guinness-fuelled Irish music nights where revellers dance until the early hours in the many pubs on Cahersiveen’s colourful high street.
There’s a thriving cultural scene too. The Cill Rialaig Arts Centre is an artists’ retreat and a hub for local painters, photographers and sculptors to showcase and sell their work, much of which is inspired by the natural beauty of the dramatic coastline that surrounds them; painted sweeping landscapes adorn the walls of the shop, and small ceramic puffins teeter on shelves. At the Old Oratory in Cahersiveen, a prime music venue for local and national celebrities to perform (see the likes of Declan O’Rourke or renowned accordion player Michael O’Brien), there’s a quaint café by day and some wild, bring-your-own-booze gigs by night.
Thanks to Skellig Kerry’s unfruitful land and humble population, much of the region’s history has remained intact. “One of the advantages of poor agricultural land,” explains Cormac, “is that it didn't make any sense to clear fields of ancient structures as the land was far too wet to support agriculture anyway, with or without the stones, so they just lay where they were for centuries and often millennia.”
In addition to the sixth century monastery on Skellig Michael, there are an astounding number of historic sites across the area. The tall ruined sixteenth century Ballycarbery Castle sits casually unguarded on the coastline just three kilometres from Cahersiveen, open to all for climbing and exploring within its battered walls.
A track of dinosaur footprints on Valentia Island, which are thought to belong to an amphibious reptile that dates back as far as 350 million years, and the 4000 year old fossilised forest that was recently discovered on Reenroe beach in Ballinskelligs are prime examples of the kind of accessible history along the Skellig Ring.
But it’s not all about looking back in time here. Cormac and his band of Skellig Kerry supporters are planning to make a difference in the future too.
“We have paid for and marked out an ancient pilgrim trail on Cnoc na dTobar, [a mountain] famous for its “Stations of the Cross” path leading up to the 690-metre-high summit, and have been invited to add it to the national Pilgrim Paths project.”
The team are organising a walking festival for 2015 to include many of the stunning trails and paths that pass over the undulating hills and across the coastline, and they are determined to bring back the ancient Pagan celebration of Lughnasa (pronounced Loo-nessa) – a harvest festival usually held on high ground – by hosting an annual trek up one of the three holy mountains in the region.
This kind of passion and dedication to a cause is admirable, and when I ask what’s in it for them, Cormac simply responds:
“Giving back to this place, the people and culture of Skellig Kerry.”
He says: “There has always been a history of people from Kerry helping each other out, so now we can use our contacts and expertise to engage with the wider world with the aim of keeping young families at home so that Skellig Kerry is a thriving, attractive and still untamed place to live and visit.”
With so much natural beauty and a culturally aware populous, there is little doubt that more and more people will discover Skellig Kerry’s infectious charms.
Watch this space for more updates and information on Skellig Kerry. Explore more of Ireland with the Rough Guide to Ireland. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.