Irish spurge – or bainne caoine as gaeilge – grows in profusion in these westerly parts. One squirt in the eye from spurge sap and you’re blind. But the ‘milk’ can have a practical application too – it’s a favourite for poachers who spew it into pools. The stunned salmon float gently to the surface, ready for the pan.
But salmon poaching is a side interest in any walk through the heather-clad mountainside that makes up Killarney National Park –over 25,000 acres of forest, moor and lakeland. The old red sandstone uplands support large areas of blanket bog, where Ireland’s sole remaining wild herd of native red deer roam. On lower mountain slopes, stands of ancient oak are a magnificent reminder of the woodland that once covered much of Ireland.
It’s ideal hiking and climbing terrain. After leaving Lord Brandon’s Cottage – he doesn’t live there anymore – on the edge of the Park, an easterly bearing takes you into the very heart of the park. In summer dragonflies flit amongst the orchids here – but the peat hags seem to be full of oil pollution. Don’t worry – it’s not as bad as it seems. Plants in these damper reaches are absolutely paranoid about drought; when water levels drop they extrude an oily substance over the surface to prevent evaporation. It’s a cunning plan used by one of our favourite carnivorous plants, the sundew. Moisture guaranteed, the plant then gets on with its main business, devouring insects.
But its autumn now, and most of the bogland flora is taking a break. What we can best hope for a “lazy wind”, one which goes round you, but not through you, according to the locals.
Killarney National Park is a tourist destination for walkers, sightseers, anglers, botanists – and those wanting to see a real stag party – the red deer rutting their stuff.
The area has also seen less welcome guests. On a huge slab of rock on the hillside is a piece of graffiti, announcing ‘John O’Neill, Tippy Regiment, 1875’.
What the British Army was doing up this path we’ll probably never know – but it’s unlikely to have been admiring the botanical specimens.
West Kerry is the home of Irish tourism – they’ve been entertaining visitors here for more than 250 years, and they’re pretty much nailed it. True, places like Killarney can score high on the paddywhackeray scale – there are shops here selling tat so tasteless they’d make a garden-gnome salesman blush. But the towns do have real charm, and the landscape is amongst the most glorious you’ll find anywhere.
Just outside Killarney, Ross Castle (Caisleán an Rois) is the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan, on the edge of Lough Lein. Built in the late 1400s by the local ruling clan, it was amongst the last to surrender to Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the Confederate Wars.
According to our old friend legend, once the artillery moved in O’Donoghue himself leaped out of the window of the grand chamber at the top of the castle and disappeared into the waters of the lake – taking with him his horse, his furniture and his library. It is said that the Bould O’Donoghue now lives in a great palace at the bottom of the lake where he keeps a close eye on everything that he sees. So what with the Land of Eternal Youth being down there too, it must get pretty crowded.
A drive south of Killarney will reward you with some of Ireland’s iconic beauty spots – the Lower Lake, Torc Waterfall and the Gap of Dunloe.
The Muckross Estate, just two miles south of Killarney forms the core of the National Park. At the heart is 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, 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 quite 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 1800s. The Dublin man was seen frequenting the ruins of Ross and Flesk castles late at night. Spooky.
On the dramatic edge of western Europe, washed by a tempestuous coastline, the south-west counts Dingle Peninsula, the Iveragh Peninsula and the Beara Peninsula amongst its treasures. It’s here that Ireland’s highest mountains sweep down to the Atlantic, to be greeted by swells rolling across 3,000 miles of deep blue ocean.
Being such a des res by the sea has inevitably brought the modern world to Kerry. The boreens which thread through this peaceful landscape are now surrounded by bungalows designed on the lines of Mexican haciendas. But they can’t detract from the unique, wild beauty of this place. And, when all’s said and done, people do have a right to comfortable homes, whatever the tourists might think.
One of the most striking features of the south west is the abundance of fuchsia, which grows with crimson passion everywhere. Laneway, boreen and byway is festooned with delicate pink flowers, called round these parts ‘God’s tears’. But although the flowers appear fragile, the hedges provide an effective wind-break in this land where ‘a fine soft day’ might mean that the gale force wind has dropped to a more manageable stiff breeze of 40 mph.
West Kerry has a surfeit of natural blessings – the Ring of Kerry is majestic, the Lakes of Killarney are awe-inspiring, and Fungi the Dolphin (current address Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry), is Ireland’s best known marine resident. At the other end of the animal scale, west Kerry boasts its own mollusc, the Kerry Slug, which is pleased to call itself on formal occasions the Greater Spotted Slug or Geomalacus maculosus.
No wonder our ancestors believed this land was blessed. Ancient Christian sites such as The Skelligs and the Gallarus Oratory are witness to the fact that Christianity arrived here very early doors. Some 1400 years ago the fledgling religion took a hold, and Ireland was soon to emerge as a land of saints and scholars with implications for Christians throughout Europe.
Kerry is a stunningly beautiful place. But it’s superfluous to even bother saying that. Everybody knows it is – as Brendan Behan put it most succinctly: “To praise the Lakes of Killarney,” he said “is a piece of impertinence.” You know it’s breathtaking, you’ve heard the songs about it, you’ve seen it on the telly – all you have to do is pack your bag and go there.
Where to stay
Top of the range is the five star Killarney Park Hotel in the town centre. This is where the likes of Pierce Brosnan or Bill Clinton fetch up when they’re in town. Until the end of March the hotel is offering two nights B&B plus one dinner for euro 280 per person sharing from October. Which ain’t too bad for a hotel that was recently voted no 7 in “Top 100 Luxury Hotels in the World” by Trip Advisor. www.killarneyparkhotel.ie tel 00 353 64 35555
This autumn the Killarney Park is offering two nights B&B plus one dinner for €280 pps.
The Malton may be more familiar to you as the old Great Southern Hotel. It’s now a four star deluxe establishment with spa, gym, swimming pool, jacuzzi.
Tel: 00 353 64 38000, www.themalton.com
During the autumn the Malton is offering two nights B&B plus one evening meal from €139 pps.
The Aghadoe Heights Hotel & Spa few miles out of town, enjoys stunning views of the lakes and the mountains beyond and also overlooks Killarney’s two 18-hole championship golf courses. It’s stylish, and might be described as being aimed at city folk caught socially between the night club and the golf club. Luxurious too. www.aghadoeheights.com
B&B from €85 per night, plus a fantastic autumn offer of B&B plus three course dinner for €99 per person.
Tel: 00 353 64 6631766, www.aghadoeheights.com
Where to eat
Lord Kenmare’s Restaurant in College Street, Killarney, just above Murphy’s Bar and Squire’s Pub. Barbary duck is their signature dish, but seafood also stars in this busy, buzzy, friendly restaurant.
Tel 00 353 64 37245
Around €40 per person including wine.
Where to Drink
There are reputedly 52 pubs in Killarney alone, so if you decide to stay the whole year, you could have a different place to drink every week. Recommended for traditional music and ballad singing are The Laurels, Tatler Jack (perfect at this time of the year when the tourist count is lower) and the Danny Mann. The Crypt is basically for Killarney’s up-for-it young people, while Mustang Sally’s supplies very loud rock music direct to your lugholes.