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.
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.