Kerry has been making visitors’ romantic dreams of Ireland come true since the eighteenth century, when the grandeur of the lakes and mountains around Killarney first came to widespread attention. Encompassing the highest range in the country, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, the landscape here is, of course, still magnificent, and the Killarney area shelters some fine, underrated architectural sights too, while the town itself has plenty of amenities and entertainment, though little soul. Most of the one million tourists who come to Kerry every year, however, stick rigidly to Killarney and the Ring of Kerry, the scenic drive around the neighbouring Iveragh Peninsula, so it’s pretty easy to avoid the crowds.
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The Iveragh itself measures around sixty by thirty kilometres, with plenty of tracks across its vast, rugged hinterland and coastal branch roads such as the Ring of Skellig to explore by car, bike or on foot. The small-scale but intriguing attractions of Valentia Island and Caherdaniel, perched on a scenic hillside above a great beach, should be enough to tempt you off the Ring of Kerry to spend at least a night out here. The island of Skellig Michael off the end of the peninsula, one of the most remarkable hermitages in the world and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains the ultimate place to get away from it all. At the southeastern corner of the peninsula, Kenmare contrasts well with Killarney, providing some excellent accommodation, restaurants and nightlife in a trim, picturesque setting, as well as access to further scenic delights on Kerry’s part of the Beara Peninsula.
Kerry’s other peninsula, Dingle, experienced its own minor visitor boom on the release of David Lean’s film, Ryan’s Daughter, in 1970, which pumped as much as £3 million into the local economy during a long and troubled location shoot here (including the near-drowning of star Robert Mitchum off Dunquin and the building of an entirely new village, Kirrary, on the remote slopes above). It’s still nothing like as touristed as the Ring, and offers a jagged landscape of stark mountains and spectacular beaches, an especially rich heritage of early Christian sites, and a fine, all-round base in the main settlement, Dingle town.
Despite the centuries of tourist traffic, Kerry has maintained a strong sense of independence, though perhaps doesn’t shout about it as much as its neighbour, Cork. It’s one of the least urbanized counties in Ireland, with a sweet, country lilt to the accent. Distinctive H-shaped goalposts are everywhere, not just on village GAA fields but on most farms, evidence of the county’s obsession with Gaelic football. The self-styled “Brazil” of the sport have won the All-Ireland County Championship far more than anyone else – 36 times and counting – and produced the finest team ever between 1975 and 1986, winning the championship eight times in those eleven years. The Dingle Peninsula, one of Ireland’s strongest Gaeltacht areas, has nurtured not only great footballers, but also a fine community of musicians and the extraordinary writers of the wild Blasket Islands, who put their rich oral tradition of Irish-language storytelling to paper in the early twentieth century. The county’s other most obvious concentration of literary talent has been in the flatlands of North Kerry, as celebrated in the genial market town of Listowel.
The Blasket Islands
Just off Slea Head lie the Blaskets (Na Blascaodaí), dramatic island mountains with steep, gashed sides. Despite their inhospitableness, the largest island, Great Blasket (An Blascaod Mór), was inhabited by up to two hundred people for at least three centuries until 1953, when, with no school, shop, priest or doctor, it was finally abandoned. Because of their isolation, however, the islanders maintained a rich oral tradition in the Irish language, which in the early twentieth century, encouraged by visiting scholars, evolved into a remarkable body of written literature. Works such as An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Peig by Peig Sayers (an oral account written down by her son) give a vivid insight into the hardships of island life.
The island’s story is told with great imagination at the Great Blasket heritage centre, Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir, on the mainland opposite, at the north end of Dunquin. Though the building doesn’t look like much as you approach, inside is a beautiful museum space. There are excerpts from the island writers, and a moving section on Great Blasket’s abandonment in 1953 and the migration of many islanders to Springfield, Massachusetts – where they still receive the Kerryman newspaper from Tralee every week. Every October, the centre hosts a commemorative festival, featuring lectures, stage productions and other events (wwww.ceiliuradh.com).There’s a bookshop run by An Café Liteartha, and the café is a good spot for lunch, with fine views of the islands.
Once on Great Blasket, you can wander the white-sand beach, Trá Bán, at its eastern end and the grassy footpaths that cross its six-kilometre length, passing the ghosts of the old village. Accompanied by seals, puffins, storm petrels and shearwaters, you can contemplate the 3000km that separates you, here on Europe’s most westerly islands, from North America where most of the islanders ended up, and the treacherous 2km of Blasket Sound which made living on the island untenable.
The beautiful Gallarus Oratory is Dingle’s most compelling historic monument, dating from somewhere between the seventh and twelfth centuries. Built entirely of dry gritstone in the shape of an upturned boat, the church sits proudly in its field at the very western edge of Europe like a Platonic ideal of architectural purity, still quite intact and unadorned. Its stones, carefully selected and smoothed off inside and out, and gracefully corbelled to form the roof, are now weathered to soft tones of green, brown, purple and orange. It’s lit by a single window opposite the doorway, while the only features inside are two large, pierced stones above the lintel which probably served for the attachment of a flap-like door. Access to the oratory, which is in state care, is absolutely free, so there’s no need at all to pay €3 at the privately run visitor centre, which comprises a gift shop, café and fifteen-minute audiovisual, sitting between the most obvious car park and the church; instead, continue a short way along the hedgerowed lane to a tiny car park which gives direct access to the oratory.
North Kerry, flat, rich farming land that runs as far as the Shannon estuary, feels quite different from the rest of the county – and they’ve even been known to play hurling rather than Gaelic football up here. Instead of the remote, spectacularly set coastal villages of the peninsulas, you’ll find – or avoid – the traditional, kiss-me-quick resorts of Ballyheigue and Ballybunion, while the county town of Tralee seems quite anodyne if you’ve just come up from Dingle, for example. It is worth making time, however, for Listowel, a characterful small town that’s a hotbed of literary activity.
The train station, where buses also stop and which has left-luggage facilities, is just a few minutes’ walk northeast of the centre of town. The friendly and helpful tourist office (Jan & Feb Mon–Fri 9.15am–1pm & 2–5pm; March, Nov & Dec Mon–Sat 9.15am–1pm & 2–5pm; April & Oct Mon–Sat 9.15am–5pm; May, June & Sept Mon–Sat 9.15am–6pm; July & Aug Mon–Sat 9am–6pm, Sun 10am–6pm; t 066/712 1288), in the Ashe Memorial Hall underneath the Kerry County Museum, has maps of town and details of local traditional sessions. You can rent bikes from Tralee Gas Supplies in Strand Street on the west side of town (t 066/712 2018) and access the internet at Antech, northwest of the tourist office at 40 Bridge St, next to Sean Óg’s pub.
Denny Street, part of the town centre’s roughly clockwise one-way system, shelters a couple of good accommodation options among its lovely Georgian buildings. The Grand (t 066/712 1499, w www.grandhoteltralee.com; €121–150/£81–100) is a traditional county-town hotel whose rooms, most of which are set back from the busy street, have had a colourful, modern makeover with wi-fi installed. Further down the street, Finnegan’s (t 066/712 7610, www.finnegans.hostel.com; IHH) is a well-appointed hostel and B&B, with en-suite dorms (€20), doubles and twins (€60/£40 and under), a bar-restaurant, a large kitchen, internet access and laundry facilities. There’s also a well-equipped campsite at Woodlands Park, Dan Spring Road (t 066/712 1235, w www.kingdomcamping.com; mid-March to Sept, plus Oct bank-holiday weekend), ten minutes’ walk south of the centre of town.
Your best bet for somewhere to eat is Val’s on Bridge Street, home to a sleek lounge bar downstairs and an informal restaurant upstairs, with a Mediterranean feel and an open kitchen, offering reasonably priced bistro dishes such as pork loin with apple and mustard purée (t 066/712 1559; winter Wed–Sun only). Nearly a dozen of Tralee’s lively pubs boast regular traditional music, notably Seán Og’s opposite Val’s on Bridge Street (summer most nights, winter Thurs–Sun).
Next to the tourist office is the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, Siamsa Tíre (t 066/712 3055, w www.siamsatire.com), which fulfils its remit with excellent Irish shows in the summer, as well as hosting a varied international programme of drama, music, dance and literary events during the rest of the year. Towards the end of August, the five-day Rose of Tralee International Festival (w www.roseoftralee.ie) takes over the town. It’s a slightly questionable but generally good-natured beauty and talent contest, accompanied by much merry-making, which is open to women of Irish birth or ancestry. There’s also a family arts festival at Easter, Samhlaíocht, including puppet shows, exhibitions, music and street entertainment (w www.samhlaiocht.com), an eight-day film festival (w www.kerryfilmfestival.com) in early November, held in the town and around the county, and a three-day circus festival later in the month (w www.traleecircusfestival.com).
LISTOWEL is a congenial market town in a leafy setting on the north bank of the River Feale. It’s best known for its literary associations, boasting an annual five-day festival of literary workshops and events, called, with due poetic licence, Writers’ Week and taking place over the bank-holiday weekend at the beginning of June (wwww.writersweek.ie). Listowel’s most celebrated literary figure is probably the late John B. Keane, author of plays such as The Field, a dramatization of a shocking murder that took place in this region in the 1950s.