Moving to West Cork you eventually start behaving like a tourist as we head into the height of the tourist season. So at the weekend it was over the border, not without some apprehension, into the Kingdom of Kerry! Starting in always lively and engaging Kenmare we went on the Ring of Kerry but took the suicide route on the N70 road, the wrong way around going clockwise from Kenmare with the coaches, RVs and convoys of Hog motorcycles coming towards us!
The Ring of Kerry is a scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland’s County Kerry. Its 179km-long, circular route takes in rugged and verdant coastal landscapes and rural seaside villages. Skellig Michael, a rocky island with an abandoned 7th-century Christian monastery, is a major destination point, with boats from Portmagee making the 12km crossing during the warmer months. It is a major attraction on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
Despite being touristy it is still a stunning route with the beauty of the landscape and the vistas of mountains and sea speaking for themselves. Sneem-les- Deux-Églises is still a haven and not the place you would have expected Charles de Gaulle to have spent an extended stay when he stood down as President of France.
On 28 April 1969, the then-78-year-old, often cited as the most powerful head of state in France since Napoleon III, decided to step down from politics after losing a referendum on reform of the Senate. Less than two weeks later, on 10 May, the couple landed in Ireland. They travelled the country for more than a month, staying until mid-June. They visited Kerry, Connemara and Down staying for the longest time in Sneem which acquired its French moniker from De Gaulle’s home base, Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. The visit is remembered with some affection locally as De Gaulle was expected to return each year but sadly died in 1970.
The setting of the old railway hotel at Parknasilla is still wonderful in its own little private kingdom. In its modern reincarnation as Parknasilla resort it is a lot fancier than it was as the Great Southern Railways destination hotel for the hoi polloi in the days when you took a train to Kenmare and a jaunting car or charabanc on to Parknasilla. Because of its relative isolation this was always a self contained resort with its own harbour and golf course. It is good to see it still being appreciated and upgraded to secure its future.
For me the highlight of the trip was seeing the restored Derrynane House outside Caherdaniel, the home of Daniel O’Connell “The Liberator” and a hugely important figure in Irish history. Derrynane House is the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, lawyer, politician and statesman. Situated on 120 hectares of parklands on the scenic Kerry coast, the House displays many relics of O’Connell s life and career. I was also impressed that unlike many attractions here there is universal access for visitors with disabilities.
Many relics of O’Connell’s life and career are preserved in Derrynane House, but the house is more than just a museum. Derrynane was one of the great influences on Daniel O’Connell’s life as he himself was always ready to admit. For several generations, it had been the ancestral home of the O’Connell’s. It had been his own childhood home and, throughout his career, it was his country residence. He and his family spent most summers at Derrynane. It was here that he was host to many guests in the surroundings that he loved and here he indulged his passion for beagling. Many books have been written about O’Connell but one can perhaps gain a greater insight into his character by visiting his home at Derrynane and experiencing the surroundings familiar to him during his life.
It is set on a lovely strand and the gardens have been beautifully restored hosting a naturalistic coastal setting many exotic semi-tropical and tender plants, ferns and rhododendrons. For mee the stroll over the low ridge protecting the house onto the strand with its wonderful marine and mountain views is a must. Along with good loos and a very well run cafe this visitor attraction is a must. The staff go out of their way to be helpful and with the film showing of a documentary of O’Connell’s life it is well worth a visit. Some of the exhibits may seem strange including the bed on which he died in Genoa on 15 May 1847 and the extravagant and somewhat camp chariot on which he was borne through Dublin when he was released from Richmond Prison on 7th September 1844. O’Connell left the prison aboard a special triumphal chariot drawn by six grey horses. His grandchildren, dressed in green velvet costumes and white-feathered caps, sat on the bottom level of the chariot with a harpist above them playing Irish songs. O’Connell and his chaplain, Rev. Dr John Miley, rode on the top level and waved to the crowds.
Roughly 200,000 people lined the streets to cheer O’Connell. The procession did not go straight to his home on Merrion Square. Instead it deliberately passed by the Four Courts where O’Connell had been on trial and then travelled on to the gates of Dublin Castle, the seat of British government in Ireland. O’Connell also stopped and pointed at the old Parliament House on College Green, showing the crowd that his campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union would continue. Despite this large demonstration of popular support, it was to be his last great political triumph.
The house was the anchor of Daniel O’Connell’s life and he said: “This is the wildest and most stupendous scenery of nature – and I enjoy residence here with the most exquisite relish… I am in truth fascinated by this spot: and did not my duty call me elsewhere, I should bury myself alive here.”
– Daniel O’Connell, 22 October 1829
An idea of how isolated this area was before the advent of railways can be gained from the fact it took O’Connell six days to travel to Dublin. For me it is still a special place greatly enhanced by the Office of Public Work’s stewardship.
The lushness continues as you go through Waterville where Charlie Chaplin spent holidays and is home to a world class golf links and a number of upmarket hotels. We headed down to Port Magee from where boats depart to Skellig Michael which is having a Star Wars effect having featured in the final three minutes of the last movie as Luke Skywalker’s retreat.
— Pat Carroll (@PatCarrollTouch) December 19, 2015
Stunned by the remote County Kerry islands, which feature in the last scene of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker, said “It’s just indescribably beautiful.” Daisy Ridley, the actress who plays Rey, said, “It was unbelievable” and the movie’s director JJ Abrams said, “It’s sort of a miracle this place…we could not be more honoured to be here.”
Then on across the bridge which since 1970 has connected Port Magee to a place important in world history, Valentia Island. This is an island of great beauty and contrast. It is joined to the mainland by bridge via the Portmagee Channel and also by a seasonal ferry from Cahirciveen. The western part of the island is dominated by the barren, dramatic cliffs of Bray Head which command spectacular views of the Kerry coastline while the mild effect of the Gulf Stream results in Valentia’s balmy climate and lush, colourful vegetation.
Valentia was the eastern terminus of the first commercially viable transatlantic telegraph cable. This vast endeavour resulted in commercially viable transatlantic telegraph communications from Foilhommerum Bay to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland in 1866. Transatlantic telegraph cables operated from Valentia Island for one hundred years.
The island’s main village, Knightstown, associated with the Norman Fitzgerald family, is reminiscent of an Anglo-Irish Village with its many stately buildings and refined ambience. The island’s historical lineage, however, goes back much further than that. Tetra pod footprints were found on the northern part of the island. These magnificent imprints of history are thought to date from Devonian times between some 350 to 370 million years ago.
On the way back to Killorglin and Killarney through the wonderful scenery of the northern Iveragh Peninsula our route followed the old disused railway line from Farranfore to Valentia Island Harbour. This rail line was one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world, the western most in Europe and an attraction that Ireland can only dream of now. The scenic views of Dingle Bay, Inch and Rossbeigh Beaches and The Blasket Islands on the Mountain Stage section of the line near Glenbeigh must have been out of this world. This railway line, 40 miles in length and opened in September 1893, completely changed south Kerry and the rural way of life both socially and economically. Whereas many branch lines were built cheaply this was a standard gauge line expensively engineered which connected with the main line at Farranfore.
In February 1960, just over 50 years ago, these potential tourist gems were closed due to decreasing rural populations, emigration, alternative modes of transport like the car and the lack of tourism, that we take for granted today. The terminus at Renard also served a short railway line on Valentia Island itself which connected the world famous Slate Quarry and Knightstown Village (The Foot) and allowed Valentia Slate to be exported all over the world. Here, unlike on the West Cork and many other closed Irish railways the line of route has been preserved and it is intended to convert this wonderfully engineered line into a “Greenway” for cyclists and walkers – it will be a spectacular addition to the Wild Atlantic Way if it goes ahead.
Killorglin itself claims to have Ireland’s oldest fair – The Puck Fair held each year in early August. Puck Fair is one of Ireland’s oldest festivals, celebrating almost 400 years of documented evidence. Where else but in Ireland would a wild mountain goat be crowned King and reign over a town for three days? Killorglin – where a goat is King and people act the goat! The first day of Puck Fair is called The Gathering Day which makes Puck Fair the original and oldest Gathering Festival in Ireland. You can experience the unique coronation ceremony & parade and you can enjoy free day & night concerts, storytelling, traditional music session & dancers, music & dance workshops, midnight madness fireworks & the horse fair, as part of the 36 hours of free family entertainment. The carnival atmosphere includes street traders, street artists, craft fair, buskers, face painting, pet show, bonny babies, puppet theatre, music sessions, and Ireland’s premier funfair – Euroshow! See you there. Killorglin is situated on a fine site on the estuary of the River Laune, which drains the fabled lakes of Killarney, where the wide slow river turns to flow into the sea.
By coincidence we happened to be there again the next day visiting friends connected with Killorglin Golf Club, about a mile out of town on the Tralee road. As we enjoyed a rather excellent lunch in the clubhouse (bar and restaurant is open to the public) we took in the vista and understood why it was described in a guidebook as: “From the clubhouse is one of the most stunning views in all of Irish Golf” The course, on the one hand, is overshadowed by the majestic Macgillicuddy Reeks Mountain Range (including Carrauntouhill, Ireland’s highest mountain) and on the other it enjoys magnificent panoramic views of Dingle Bay and the Slieve Mish Range beyond. I am not a golfer but this lovely course is certainly worth a visit and the green fees are very reasonable for such superb views and quality, only €25.
The Ring of Kerry 179km circuit of the Iveragh peninsula is certainly touristy and in high summer busy but it is justly famous for a reason – it is just stunningly beautiful. The road winds past pristine beaches, medieval ruins, mountains and loughs (lakes), with ever-changing views of the island-dotted Atlantic. Even locals stop their cars to gawk at the rugged coastline – particularly between Waterville and Caherdaniel in the southwest of the peninsula where the beauty stops you in its tracks – this is not necessarily an exaggeration so drive carefully!