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Ireland’s most scenic road trip – the Ring of Kerry

The glorious Ring of Kerry.

TWO Irish locations have made it into National Geographic’s prestigious list of the world’s Top 101 most scenic drives.

The first is no great surprise, the Ring of Kerry, ranked 57th best scenic drive in the world. (Number 1 is the Cape Breton drive in Canada.)

Not quite so well known is the NG’s other Irish choice – the scenic drive through the Sperrins on the Tyrone-Derry borders, which comes in at 88th Most Scenic Drive in the world.

More Travel:

We covered the Sperrins drive recently, so this week we turn our attention to one of the glories of Ireland.

Tourism Ireland waxes lyrical about the Ring of Kerry, naturally enough: “Kerry’s exceptional coastline is a series of peninsulas that open out into larger bays and give a totally unique feeling to the county, with craggy hills that tumble down into the choppy ocean below, and a remote, untouched aspect to the land,” it says.

Continuing, they add: “A drive around the Ring of Kerry or the Ring of Beara, which crosses the border into Cork, is an unforgettable way to experience the best that this awe-inspiring landscape has to offer. But if all that feels like too much hard work, then head to one of the utterly lovely villages like Sneem, Kenmare or Dingle and while your afternoons away eating fresh seafood, drinking creamy pints and listening to some authentic traditional music.”

It’s not a bad summing up of this startling landscape clinging to the edge of Europe. Of course as you and me know (both of us being seasoned travelers) there are a few negatives, which obviously Tourism Ireland doesn’t address.

Paddywhackeray is not in short supply throughout the area – there are shops here selling tat so tasteless they’d make a garden-gnome salesman blush.

Traffic can also be heavy, especially during high season. Expect to thread your way past German tour buses and Dutch motor-homes – handy hint: tour buses by convention now go anti-clockwise round the Ring, so you’d be well advised to head in a clockwise direction.

A study by Fáilte Ireland recently found that 84 per cent of tourists surveyed had visited a tourism office in Kerry. And on a fine day on the Ring of Kerry you might imagine all of them have decided to descend on this rocky peninsula at the same time.

Kerry is not a cheap destination, either, although a dip in tourist numbers has brought down the cost of accommodation, but has had little noticeable affect on restaurant and café prices.

Bungalow spoliation is another downside. The boreens, bleeding with fuchsia and lined with that wandering gypsy of a plant, the orange montbretia, thread through this lovely landscape. But they are now assailed on all sides by that predictable product of the now departed Celtic Tiger economy – houses designed along the lines of South Fork ranch-mansions or Mexican villas.

But there is plenty to crow about in Kerry too. West Kerry in particular is the home of Irish tourism – they’ve been entertaining visitors here for more than 250 years, and they’re pretty good at it.

Then, of course, there are the natural assets.

The county has a surfeit of natural blessings – the Beara Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry are majestic; the Lakes of Killarney awe-inspiring; and Fungi the Dolphin (current address Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry), is undoubtedly Ireland’s best known marine resident.

Probably the only animal in the world to have founded his own multi-million pound industry, this particular bottle-nosed dolphin has shown up for business in Dingle Bay every day since 1984.

He was probably even consulted during the controversy over whether the town should officially be called Dingle or An Daingean Uí Chúis.

But it is the Ring which is our destination.

So remember, if you’re driving – it’s clockwise.

The Route

The Ring of Kerry covers the 110 miles (180 km) circular road around the Iveragh Peninsula, passing through Kenmare, Sneem, Waterville, Cahersiveen and Killorglin. Highlights en route include:

Muckross House

Muckross House, an elegant Victorian country mansion in the Neo-Tudor style. Tours of the house allow you to check out how the Ascendancy – the Raj in the Rain – lived in the 19th century.

The extensive gardens benefit richly from the mild climate and sheltered aspect of the grounds – everything from strawberry trees to giant sequoias grow here.

Muckross Abbey

The Killarney Golf and Fishing Club on the shores of Lough Lein, is one of the finest golf establishments in the world. Three courses will test all your shots, and you’ll be wowed by the scenery at the Lakes of Killarney and the MacGillycuddy Reeks.

Nearby is Muckross Abbey which, founded in 1448 as a Franciscan Friary, boasts as violent a history as you might expect from any religious institution earning its living in Ireland over the last 500 years. Today the remains of the Abbey are generally well preserved.

Disused monasteries, ancient castles, atmospheric ruins and evocative scenery abound in West Kerry, so no surprise to find that Dracula creator Bram Stoker visited the area in the late 19th century. The Dublin man was seen frequenting the ruins castles late at night. Spooky.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the abbey became the burial place for the prominent Co. Kerry poets, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Aogán Ó Rathaille. The latter wrote the famous lines addressed to Valentine Browne, Lord Kenmare.

O Rathaille felt that ‘Valentine Browne’ was the kind of ludicrous name which an arriviste might call himself – someone inappropriately installed in a demesne of the great McCarthy family, now dead or dispersed. He wrote in Irish, but these lines were later translated by Frank O’Connor:

“That my old bitter heart was pierced in this back doom

That foreign devils have made our land a tomb

That the sun that was Munster’s glory has gone down

Has made me a beggar before you Valentine Browne.”

And in case you’re wondering, no, they don’t have these words pinned up in the golf club.

The Skelligs

Off the westerly reaches of The Ring of Kerry lies one of Ireland’s three World Heritage sites, the Skelligs.

Rising some 700 feet out of the ocean, the huge precipitous mass of slate rock a dozen or so miles in the Atlantic was at one time home to a community of monks. Obviously just some zealous guys. The monastery plied its business of praying for the people of Ireland for 600 years from 588 AD.

In its heyday, the faithful on the mainland of Ireland would kneel in the direction of Skellig Michael at mass-times. They couldn’t hear the monks – some eight miles distant across the choppy Atlantic waves – but they could share in their fellowship. Stand and look in awe.

Crafty Kerry people

The Ring of Kerry is well supplied with small galleries and artists’ studios, including the impressive Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Ballinskelligs in a Gaeltacht area. Cill Rialaig was the birthplace of one of Ireland’s most revered folklorists and story tellers Seán O’Connall (1853 – 1931), and it is now a retreat for artists from all over the world. Sean would have been delighted – he probably would have made up another story all about it.

Tastefully designed in the manner of the clochans and ancient stone forts, the gallery hosts exhibitions of sculpture and paintings throughout the year. The centre also runs children’s art classes during the summer, and boasts a first-class café.

The Liberator’s monument

The main church in Cahirciveen was erected in 1888 to the memory of Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, one of the towering figures of European history. It remains the only church in Ireland named after a layperson. On the outskirts of the town, on the Ring of Kerry, is the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Park. This quiet, well-maintained park is a contemplative tribute to the first Catholic ever to be elected to the British House of Commons.

Valentia Island

Unlike on Skellig Michael, on Valentia Island there’s a lot of gracious living – at times it almost seems more like Dalkey-on-the-Atlantic, and craic levels reach levels which must be dangerously close to exceeding limits laid down by the Geneva Convention. Rightly do they say that pagan abandon allied to a Christian soul lie at the roots of Irish culture.

About 700 souls live on this green morsel of land lying half a mile off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula. Idyllic it sounds, if somewhat at the end of the line. Once you get to Valentia, there are only a few yards of the Old World left.

The character actors of geography – that’s what they call islands – and Valentia doesn’t disappoint. It’s only seven miles by two, but somehow seems much larger, packing an inconceivable number of historical sites, curios and views into one small place. Almost a microcosm of Ireland itself, which always seems inconceivably tiny to contain its clamorous history.

Valentia is a well-populated island, so every scrap of land has been utilized. Mostly rolling farmland, the fields are divided by slate walls – the same slate that has been used to roof the House of Commons. The island is the first part of Europe that the Gulf Stream comes into contact with, and certainly the climate seems tame, and the vegetation abundant – a surfeit of palm trees sometimes seem incongruous when it’s a fine soft day absolutely bucketing down.

Valentia Island Heritage Centre and Museum.

Commonsense is what tells us that the earth is flat. But of course we know the world isn’t flat. Fortunately for us – explorers, adventurers and astronomers didn’t go with that gut feeling and worked out long ago that if you sail beyond the Blasket Islands you don’t fall off the edge of the world. The headline “Flat Earth Society ship feared missing” evokes humour, not tragedy, as it once might.

The early pioneers in the field of telecommunications likewise didn’t believe in common sense, and in an engineering feat which conquered almost unbelievable odds, the first trans-Atlantic cable became fully functional in 1866. For many years after that, Valentia had better communications with New York than with Dublin. You can find out more about the men who wired up Ireland at the old schoolhouse in Glenleam, which now serves as the Valentia Island Heritage Centre and Museum.

Commonsense also dictates that Tir na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth, doesn’t exist. But the VIPs (Valentia Island People) know it does. Because this part of Kerry is where the legends of the Fianna are set. Their leader Finn MacCumhaill – pronounced ‘McCool’ as a general rumhaill – would gallop out to sea, sometimes riding on the magical wave Tonn Toime, to visit those other fugitives from Irish mythology, Oisin and Niamh.

And don’t even start me on the oldest footprints found in the Northern Hemisphere, the 385 million year old traces left by an early Kerry resident, probably some sort of lizard…


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