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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
KILLARNEY was developed as a resort on the doorstep of Ireland’s finest lakeland scenery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and has steadily grown as a tourist town since, busy, lively and easily accessible, with hundreds of places to stay in all price ranges. Backpackers are particularly well catered for, with an appealing selection of hostels and all manner of land- and water-borne tours available for those without their own transport. The town’s kiss-me-quick hedonism and souvenir shops are not to everyone’s taste, but the attraction of the place is still the same as three hundred years ago: beginning in the very heart of town, Killarney National Park encompasses three beautiful lakes, beyond which rise the splendid Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s highest mountain range. The only building of architectural interest in the town is Pugin’s elegant cathedral, but the national park shelters three diverse and very well preserved monuments, Ross Castle, Muckross Friary and Muckross House.
Killarney National Park now protects the glaciated limestone valleys around the three lakes, Leane (or Lower), Muckross (or Middle) and Upper. The lakeshores are covered with virgin forest that features oak, yew and such Mediterranean plants as the arbutus, or strawberry tree – so termed because of its red, but non-edible, fruit. Among the park’s notable mammals are red deer, otter, pine marten, red squirrels and Irish hare, while its 140 bird species include the peregrine falcon and the hen harrier. Running roughly parallel to the park’s western border is the dramatic glacial breach known as the Gap of Dunloe. The National Park Visitor Centre at Muckross House provides information about all aspects of the park, including a twenty-minute audiovisual on the landscape, flora and fauna. It stocks a useful free map of the park, while the Ordnance Survey of Ireland produces a more detailed (1:25,000) map.
Separated from the mainland by a long, narrow channel that’s now bridged, VALENTIA barely feels like an island. For such a small, remote spot, it boasts a surprising number of claims to fame: as well as being known from the radio shipping forecasts and for Valentia slate, which was used for the Houses of Parliament in London and the Paris Opera House, it was from here that the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866. To add to the island’s repute, the oldest fossilized footprints in the northern hemisphere, the so-called Tetrapod Trackway, were discovered here in 1992 by a Swiss geology student. Most of the island’s amenities are in or around Knightstown at the northeastern tip, which provides dramatic views of the Iveragh Mountains, as well as a seasonal ferry link to the mainland.