Sitting at the head of the Kenmare River – actually a long, narrow sea inlet – KENMARE is an excellent base for exploring not only the Ring of Kerry, but also the Beara Peninsula, part of which, including the contrasting scenic beauties of Gleninchaquin valley and Derreen Gardens, lies in County Kerry. The cosmopolitan town is neat and attractive in itself, with a fine array of restaurants and accommodation and a lively, sociable nightlife.
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Kenmare was established after the 1652 Act of Settlement, which followed Cromwell’s brutal campaign in Ireland and forced Irish landowners to give up their estates to English settlers. Sir William Petty, who mapped and allocated these forfeited lands, managed to get hold of a quarter of Kerry for himself, and in 1670 established Nedeen (or An Neidín, “the little nest”) here, a colony of English and Welsh Protestants to work in his lead mines, pilchard fisheries and ironworks. His descendant, the first Marquis of Lansdowne, rebuilt the town on its current X-shape in 1775, with the pretty, tree-shaded Fair Green (which still belongs to the Lansdownes) at its fulcrum, and rechristened it Kenmare – mistranslating Neidín as “nest of thieves”, he adapted an earlier Irish name, Ceann Mara (head of the sea inlet), with which he was also able to honour his good friend, Lord Kenmare. The town’s colourful history is carefully detailed in the heritage centre at the back of the tourist office.
The Beara Peninsula
To the south of Kenmare lies the Beara Peninsula, most of which is in County Cork. At first the countryside here is green and thickly wooded, but head west on the R571 towards the end of the peninsula, or uphill on the scenic N71 towards Glengarriff, and the terrain soon becomes more windswept and lonely. The main sights include Uragh Stone Circle, Gleninchaquin Park, where easy-to-follow walks have been laid out around the head of the beautiful valley, and Bonane Heritage Park, where a large, grassed-over ringfort, a stone circle and other ancient remains have been linked by a circular, two-kilometre, gravel trail, with fine views of the lush Sheen valley and the bare, wrinkly Caha Mountains behind.
The Dingle Peninsula
One wonders, in this place, why anyone is left in Dublin, or London, or Paris, when it would be better one would think, to live in a tent, or a hut, with this magnificent sea and sky, and to breathe this wonderful air, which is like wine in one’s teeth.
- J.M. Synge, In West Kerry
The last of southwestern Ireland’s five great peninsulas, Dingle (w www.dingle-peninsula.ie) is perhaps the most distinctive of them all. Arrowing westwards for over 50km, its heavily glaciated topography is especially irregular, with an L-shaped ridge of mountains that peaks at its north end at Mount Brandon, the highest summit in Ireland outside of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. Five-hundred-metre Mount Eagle at the very tip of the peninsula sets up a truly spectacular drive, cycle or walk around Slea Head. On the coasts, the long, exposed sandbars at Castlegregory and Inch draw surfers and windsurfers, while the deeply recessed, sandy beaches at Ventry and Smerwick Harbour encourage gentle swimming.
Dingle has an unusually rich heritage, including over five hundred Celtic clocháns (corbelled, dry-stone beehive huts), among which the most compelling is Dún Beag, dramatically perched along the Slea Head Loop. Further round the loop is the early Christian Gallarus Oratory, with its stunningly simple dry-stone construction. The peninsula is also one of the strongest Irish-speaking districts in the country, known as Corca Dhuibhne (meaning “the followers of Davinia”, a Celtic goddess); courses in Irish language and culture can be arranged at Feileastram Teo, An Portán, Dunquin, and through the museum in Ballyferriter. As the main settlement at the heart of this thriving Gaeltacht (which officially begins just west of Anascaul and Castlegregory), Dingle town (An Daingean) feels like a capital. It supports some top-notch restaurants and places to stay, complemented by a vibrant traditional-music scene, and is perfectly located for varied day-trips. One of the best of these is the boat trip to the abandoned Blasket Islands just off Slea Head, which were responsible for an astonishing body of Irish-language writing in the early twentieth century.
The Dingle Way
Probably the best way to soak up the Dingle Peninsula’s dramatic, shifting landscapes is to walk all or part of the waymarked, 180-kilometre Dingle Way, which begins in Tralee, heads west to Camp, then loops round the rest of the peninsula, via long, sandy beaches, the steep north face of Mount Brandon and most of Dingle’s major sites and villages. The whole thing can be done in seven or eight days, catching a bus out towards Camp on the first day to avoid repeating the stretch between there and Tralee. An excellent website, wwww.dingleway.com, provides trail descriptions, maps and full details of walker-friendly accommodation, offering services such as luggage transfer, evening meals and packed lunches, along the route. OS 1:50,000 map no. 70 covers most of the route, with the eastern end of the peninsula on no. 71.
Dingle town (An Daingean)
Sheltered from the ravages of the Atlantic by its impressive natural harbour, DINGLE is an excellent base, not only for exploring the western end of the peninsula (“back west” as it’s known locally), but also for a variety of water-borne activities. Even if the weather gets the better of you, there are plenty of welcoming cafés, restaurants and pubs, which host some excellent traditional music, to retreat to. Tourism is far from the only industry here: in medieval times, Dingle was Kerry’s leading port, protected by town walls, and it’s still a major fishing harbour. From the extensive quays, narrow streets of stone houses, colourfully painted and appealingly substantial, run up the slope to the bustling main street. Besides music festivals, the principal events on Dingle’s calendar are a four-day film festival in March (wwww.dinglefilmfestival.com), Feile na Bealtaine (wwww.feilenabealtaine.ie), a week-long multidisciplinary festival of arts and politics in early May, the riotous Dingle Races at Ballintaggart Racecourse on the east side of town over three days in early August, the Dingle Regatta for traditional currachs later in the month and a food festival over a weekend in early October (wwww.dinglefood.com).