Kerry is known as the kingdom by its dwellers. For those visiting this county it has a mythical feel, so perhaps the moniker fits.
For myself Kerry has always had a place in my heart. It was the location of umpteen childhood holidays, as the birthplace of my mum and the home of my grandparents. However since they passed in 1991, the years also passed, life never bringing me in this direction. So with over a quarter of a century now expired since my last visit we set out on a three-day trip to evoke long-lost memories and to make new ones.
It’s plain sailing on the motorway from Dublin to Limerick. Growing up in Longford, the drive to my grandparents house was an arduous 149 miles (240km), through a succession of back roads, much of it spent behind trucks or tractors. Much of Ireland’s road network has improved but pretty much as soon as you leave Limerick those familiar roads from my childhood returned. Traffic into the historical village of Adare was and always has been backlogged.
Adare is a village which is awash with history and is probably one of the most beautiful in Ireland. From the recently renovated and super luxurious 5-star Adare Manor Hotel (chateau-like family house of the Earl of Dunraven and constructed in the mid 19th century), to the ruins of the Desmond Castle (a 13th century Norman Castle, and house of the Earls of Desmond), and a number of priories and abbeys, there is much past here.
But Adare’s village is known for its impossibly cute thatched houses. They were built as part of the Dunraven Estate and now host a number of restaurants and craft shops. The village is a joy to walk through with Adare Park located off one side of the main street , and a heritage centre and the Trinitarian Abbey on the other. The Abbey was formed in 1230 and is decidedly medieval albeit with gothic revival elements and the stain-glass windows are excellent.
We couldn’t pass on the opportunity to have lunch in one of the wonderfully quaint houses, so we picked the Good Room Bistro. It was good by name and good by nature. My superfood salad was amazing, quite fruity and probably the best I ever had. Beatas cod was equally delicious and the coffees well roasted.
The Road often taken
The sluggish road continued past Newcastle-West, with its intriguing Desmond Castle (how many castles did they have) before the road became very familiar as we approached the holiday town of my childhood, Castleisland. I remembered the turn off onto the back roads that lead up the mountain roads (if Ireland has those) as clear as day, and then the horrendous hairpin that always drove my mum mad. And finally that seemingly immeasurably long and steep road, bordered by boglands where my grandparents lonely house stood. It’s funny how I didn’t remember the mountains that lined the horizon. Driving into the houses long drive, the thoughts of hours spent playing in the rough lands there were crisp. The large mound we once used to wrestle on was no more however. A car was parked in the drive but I couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door. It would have been too weird and I was nowhere near extrovert enough to push myself. I was content with my little dose of nostalgia.
The final 30 minutes of our journey took us to Killarney. Killarney’s fame as a tourist town became quickly obvious, it is clearly the biggest industry and every second house it seemed operated as a b&b. And the town has a healthy population. We had booked our hotel online on booking.com as per usual, and our choice this time was the Killarney Randles Hotel. It was slightly outside of the town centre but within easy walking distance. The building, the interior, and the bedrooms were all fantastic. The building is a 1906 rectory before been converted to a manor hotel and is classical in style, completely in keeping but maintained to a very high standard. I asked the reception if it was 5 star, she replied 4 star+. I’ve never heard of that to be honest (ps I’m a hotel operations manager) but it was a fairly accurate description. As this was high season rooms were at a premium and we paid €200. But the high standard justified it.
After settling in we decided to give our legs a good stretch and walk into the town. It was less than five minutes to the amusingly named central square The Hahah. This is where one can find a jaunting car, the traditional horse-drawn carriages that are a trademark of Killarney. The drivers are known here as jarveys, and a variety of tours into the Killarney National Park are available. The most alluring of these is probably the tour through the Gap of Dunloe, and by boat back to Ross Castle, but only if you have ample time. The town centre is attractive, colourful and bustling with people. American accents in particular filled the air, so many coming to find their lost heritage. Our walk took us past St Marys Church of Ireland, which was basking in the strong sunlight. The temperature was soaring into the mid to high twenties, certainly not the norm in Ireland. We stopped into the Underground Cafe for a few cakes on our stroll around. We can never help ourselves when away.
Returning to the Hahah we indulged in that most Killarney of things, a tour on a jaunting car. We picked the tour to Ross Castle: it cost €15, and our jarveys name was John. He was a friendly fella, and give us a bit of info about the town as we passed by St Marys Cathedral and into Killarney National Park. First impressions of the park were beautiful all luscious and green and vast. The horse took us down through a marked road and after fifteen minutes we arrived at Ross Castle.
The castle has a magnificent location on Lough Leane, and the waters glistened in the afternoon sun. Ducks swam up to the rocky shore and this peaceful inlet on the lake provides a small harbour. I guess this motivated the building of the castle in the 15th century by the O’ Donoghue’s, a ruling clan at the time. The castle is a tower keep, strategically built to use the water as an extra defence. The castle had a legend attached to it, that it couldn’t be sacked unless it was by water, which no ship at the time could do, due to the shallow water. Enter Oliver Cromwell and his army, who after a land siege, built special ships in Kinsale. The sight of the ships spooked the castle dwellers and it soon fell. We didn’t really have time to visit the castle, as our man John the Jarvey was waiting on us, so we just strolled around the grounds for a while, in awe of the beauty of the lake and the setting.
Gap of Dunloe
After returning to the to the town with our jaunting car, we went back to the hotel and to our more conventional car. It was a 20 minute drive around to the Gap of Dunloe. The gap was formed by glacial flows between the McGilycuddy Reeks and Purple Mountain and takes its name from the river Loe which now flows through it. The start of the gap is noted as Kate Kearneys Cottage, where bikes can be rented or refreshments got. The gap then winds through the valley for 11km. The road is particulary narrow and its a good drive past a series of lakes with steep sides on the glacial valley. Don’t expect to meet many other cars but there are quite a few horses and bikes using the route. It is recommended not to use a car, but if you are comfortable with narrow country roads then its fine. Highlights along the way include the photogenic wishing bridge and the fine views into the Black Valley at the Head of the Gap.
With 350 kilometres spent at the wheel we gave the car a rest for the evening. It was a glorious evening so we wandered into the town. After traversing up and down the streets a few times looking for somewhere to eat we finally settled on The Porterhouse, where some live music provided a nice background to our dinner of ribs and lamb shank. The music ended somewhat prematurely so after our meal we found Scruffy’s pub, which was just the tonic. Several pints and numerous folk songs later we staggered back to the hotel, for a nightcap of cocktails on the hotel terrace.